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.
The FAA announced Friday it was planning to sanction the City of Chicago following its investigation prompted by a formal AOPA complaint (see " FAA to fine Chicago for destroying Meigs Field airport"). 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 rip out 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 concerns.
AOPA led a lobbying and public relations charge to reopen the airport. Faced with pressure from the Illinois legislature, Daley reopened the airport on February 11, 1997. Nobody even breathed the word security then, either.
Then 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.
And we should point out that the Transportation Security Administration has stated that it doesn't consider general aviation airplanes and airports like Meigs to be security threats in and of themselves.
And let's not forget that Meigs' 3,900-foot runway couldn't even have handled the largest business jets, much less an aircraft the size of the Boeing 757. It wasn't small general aviation aircraft that did so much damage three years ago.
And while we're talking about airport "security," we would point out (since Daley never has) that Chicago Midway (MDW) airport is almost as close to the heart of the city as Meigs was, and MDW's Runways 4L and 4R are pointed almost directly at the Sears Tower. Needless to say, the mayor hasn't ordered bulldozers to carve up those runways.
So much for Daley's "security" canard.
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. 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 condition.
That's 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 naiveté about Chicago power politics. And not to put too fine a point on it, but 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 has 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.
(For more information, see " A proud history - the AOPA battle to save Meigs Field.")
October 6, 2004