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Wednesday, December 6

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Chicago Thu Feb 18 2010

A Riddle: Central Planning in the Carother's Case

Ike Carothers pled guilty to accepting a bribe to fix a zoning case for a developer, Calvin Boender. According to Ben Joravsky at the Reader, Boender sought the relief in order to develop a more profitable use (commercial and residential) despite the city's official position that the desired use for that property be industrial. A TIF was created with stipulations that the funding should only go to fund the creation of an industrial use. When previous owners tried to secure a rezoning, the city refused, citing their finding that the property should remain industrial. Eventually, Boender prevailed on Carothers ("prevailed on" in this case means "paid a bribe to") to back the subdividing of the property and its rezoning half of it to the more lucrative use. Carothers' attorney has stated that while his client admits to the bribe, the outcome was essentially a good one for the community (there's that process-versus-distributive justice thing cropping up again).

There are arguably two "process" abuses here: on the one end, the administration not going through an objective hearing processes to consider the rezoning to commercial/residential, and on the other end an Alderman taking a bribe to make that change regardless of that process. It's pretty easy to come to a libertarian interpretation and see that the problem is the government's ability to control the use of the land in the first place. The rule creates the corruption.

The years of corruption and waste at the City have widened a strain in the city's liberal left that views all exercises of power as essentially corrupt; that the solution is to take the power away from government to make sure it isn't being exploited by the connected. So long as the City has the power, they reason, it can be used for bad ends, crushing the little guy. This is at odds with the activist government desired by working class families and the professional class that want smart design and sound policy to make things just.

However, most of us don't want to take that power out of the City's hands, if we really think about it. Smart development relies on some level of centralized planning. Elements like a strong zoning ordinance with comprehensive standards, a controlling Comprehensive Plan, etc., are critical to developing sustainable communities [pdf]. We may not want the rules enforced by Mayoral fiat, but we want the City to have the ability to enforce these rules. It's how we encourage walkability, affordable housing, energy efficiency, and density.

But so long as the government has this authority, will might make right? Will powerful interests bend the rules for their benefit (or, viewed another way, will those in authority use the rules to extract personal gain)? Can the public act together in a way that encourages outcomes for the general good that doesn't also encourage (in fact, institutionalize) corruption of the process for personal benefit?

In other words, can we have the rules we like without philosopher-kings to enforce them? Can we have activist government whose activity isn't at least occasionally guided by greed?

We can infer one thing, I think: the most powerful interests are happy to have it either way. Either there are no rules and those with the most wealth or power can do as they please, or there are rules that only those with wealth or power can afford to use or avoid, giving them a leg up on everybody else.

So what's the answer?

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