Chicago's Daley Tries To Explain Away FAA Fines For Meigs
Faced with a $33,100 fine and the
possibility of another $4.5 million in penalties for illegally
closing Meigs Field airport and misusing restricted airport funds,
Mayor Richard Daley and the City of Chicago predictably went into
"spin" mode this weekend, according to the AOPA.
Friday, the FAA announced it was planning to sanction the City
of Chicago following its investigation prompted by a formal AOPA
complaint. The agency concluded that the city failed to provide
proper notification to the FAA when it snuck in the middle of the
night to carve Xs in the runway. And the FAA said the city may have
misspent some $1.49 million in federal grants and airline passenger
tax revenues intended for Chicago O'Hare airport, instead using the
money to pay contractors to destroy Meigs' runway.
That "irked" Daley, reported the Chicago Tribune Sunday. Daley
said he closed Meigs because of security concerns following the
September 11, 2001, terror attacks, adding, "I don't think small
planes should be flying whatsoever in the metropolitan area,
especially in the city of Chicago."
But Daley's claim about security holds little water when you
examine the facts and the history of Meigs Field.
Actually, Daley announced his intention to close the airport in
1994, long before the September 11 attacks. And there was nary a
mention of security, just Daley's assertion that the "people"
wanted a park rather than an airport on Northerly Island. The city
did close the airport in 1996, but there was no mention of security
Faced with pressure from the Illinois legislature, Daley
reopened the airport on February 11, 1997. Nobody even breathed the
word security then, either, according to the AOPA, which was
heavily involved in applying that pressure.
Then, says the GA advocacy group, came the most telling "deal."
In December 2001, Daley and Illinois Gov. George Ryan reached an
agreement to keep Meigs open for another 25 years as part of a
larger deal to expand O'Hare airport and build a new regional
airport. That was a scant two months after the September 11
attacks, and again security wasn't an important issue.
But the O'Hare deal fell apart, and in the dead of night on
March 31, 2003, Daley and his bulldozers ripped up the runway at
Meigs. And while Daley is now claiming everything he did was legal
and security-related, his actions certainly beg the questions: Why
no notice to the FAA as required by federal regulations? Why was
the deed done in secrecy and in the middle of the night? Why did
the city blind the Adler Planetarium Internet camera trained on
Meigs Field so that no one could see what was happening? Why was
the news media barred from entry onto a public airfield as
bulldozers began ripping up the runway? Why the need for secrecy if
there was nothing to hide?
Daley claimed then, and now, that he was saving the citizens of
Chicago from the "terrorist threat" posed by the little lakeside
airport. But the citizens didn't believe it; media polls showed
that more than 70 percent didn't think the airport represented a
threat to downtown Chicago. And some two thirds disapproved of
Daley's destruction of Meigs Field.
Just one month after Daley destroyed the airport, the Chicago
Sun-Times carried the headline "Daley's Meigs alibi crumbles." The
article reported that "Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge blew
Mayor Daley's cover story on Meigs Field on Tuesday. Around the
same time, in Chicago, the mayor confessed he bulldozed the airport
to make it a park and not because of security."
Ridge said that his agency had never been consulted about Meigs
Field airport and that he was personally disappointed that the
airport had been destroyed.
Daley is also attempting to justify the city's possible misuse
of $1.49 million in federal grants and passenger facility charges
to tear up Meigs, according to the AOPA. The mayor claimed that the
city, which leased the land for Meigs Field from the Chicago Park
District, "lost its lease" and had no choice but to close the
airport. And because the city could no longer use the land as an
airport, it was obligated to restore the property to its original
The AOPA calls that another of the partial truths propagated by
city spokespeople. While the Park District is nominally independent
of the City of Chicago, the mayor appoints the seven-member board
of park commissioners. To think that the Park District doesn't do
exactly what the mayor wants would demonstrate a certain naivete
about Chicago power politics. AOPA also claims the man who
ramrodded Meigs' destruction from the mayor's office is now the
superintendent of the parks district.
So what about using federal money to "restore" the property? The
FAA says that federal airport monies must be used for improving and
enhancing airports. Period. Daley claims that federal money was
used to dismantle the old Denver Stapleton airport. The mayor again
appears to have made selective use of the facts. Stapleton was
replaced by Denver International Airport. The federal government
does sometimes allow the closure of a grant-obligated airport, if
it is being replaced by a better facility.
But there's another little legal nicety that the City of Chicago
may have forgotten. The expenditure of federal funds has to be
approved before the fact. Federal funds aren't part of one big
slush fund for local politicians to spend anyway they want —
not even for the mayor of Chicago.