Chicago will pay a $33,000 fine for illegally tearing up Meigs Field airport without proper notification. And the city will have to repay $1 million of airport funds that Mayor Richard M. Daley illegally diverted from O'Hare and Midway airports to give to the destruction contractors.
And with the more than $550,000 the city has already spent attempting to fight the fine and repayment, hapless Chicago taxpayers are out close to $1.6 million, and they've lost a world-class airport that generated $57 million a year in economic activity for the city.
The FAA announced the final settlement with the city Monday. The city admitted no wrongdoing.
"But this $1 million payment and $33,000 fine sends a clear signal to other cities that the FAA is serious about upholding its regulations and that AOPA is serious about holding everyone's feet to the fire when it comes to protecting airports," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. AOPA filed the original complaints that resulted in the fine and fund repayment.
"Many of us always thought that the civil penalty of $1,100 per day was 'chump change' to a city with the budget of Chicago," said Boyer. "But whether he admits it or not, it shows that Daley violated FAA regulations and could have put aircraft at risk."
And for the future, it won't be chump change. That's because after Meigs, AOPA successfully lobbied Congress to increase the fine to $10,000 per day, to make it much more painful for another city to attempt a midnight airport raid. Notice of the proposed closure must also be published in the Federal Register, so it can't be done in the dark of night again.
The fine was because the city didn't provide the FAA with proper notice that it was closing the airport. The regulations required 30 days' notice, unless it were an emergency.
Daley claimed it was, because the little lakeside airport was an immediate 'security threat' to Chicago. The FAA, along with the citizens of Chicago, saw right through that bogus claim.
The $1 million repayment must be made from the city's general revenue, not airport funds. The FAA agreed with AOPA that Chicago had illegally diverted airport revenue dedicated to airport improvements for airport destruction.
"One million dollars won't break Daley's budget," said Boyer, "but it is a significant number, particularly coupled with the more than half-a-million dollars in city legal fees.
"Diverting airport revenue for nonairport purposes is a serious breach of the contract between the city and the federal government and, ultimately, the taxpayers," said Boyer. "The taxpayers have paid this money to build a national airport system, and this slap down of Chicago shows that we take that contract seriously."
Boyer had strong praise for the FAA for taking this principled, and politically difficult, stand against a powerful city and mayor.
"While AOPA is often on the other side of the fence relative to many FAA issues, their airports division has truly shown a backbone in recent years," Boyer said. "They have stood firm in enforcing the terms of the federal grant process that has given our nation the best network of both commercial service and general aviation airports in the world."
Mayor Daley had tried to close Meigs Field for years to turn it into city park No. 552. AOPA had successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature and brokered a number of deals that held off Daley for at least five years.
Then, under the cover of darkness on March 30, 2003, Daley ordered heavy equipment through the airport fence to carve huge trenches in the runway. The city even blinded a Web camera aimed at the airport so the world couldn't see what was happening.
That's what led to the fine and repayment announced Monday.
And while it cost the nation an airport, it also led to AOPA's creation of the Airport Support Network to protect other airports and AOPA lobbying for the "Meigs Legacy" amendment, which increased substantially the penalties against any future mayor or airport sponsor that might be tempted to "pull a Daley."
For more on the history of Meigs and AOPA's efforts to save it, see " Meigs Field - one year later."
September 19, 2006