Emanuel's infrastructure board asks for freebies, as oversight debate resurfaces

August 2, 2012

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The message out of the first meeting of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's "infrastructure trust" board: We're new here.

Everything about the trust is relatively new, from its idea (using private financing to more directly finance big public construction projects) to its logo (which board chair James Bell said he picked late at night) to the still-unpassed bylaws.

Craigslist, anyone? Anyone?

Among the early deliberations Thursday was how to post a job description for an executive director of the soon-to-be-formalized, quasi-governmental non-profit. Board members decided to try to get an executive search firm to do the legwork for free, or at a very discounted rate.

Same goes for an independent financial advisor to review all deals before the board approves them.

"We’ve asked one firm to do it pro bono. I think they told us, ‘No,'" said Bell, a retired Boeing executive. "We’ll ask some more. I’m not ashamed of asking for free work. I mean, since they make their living in this city, some of them should feel some conscience of helping us do this."

The trust was initially funded by a more than $2 million city grant.

Dogged by the watchdog debate

Thursday's meeting brought a return to one issue that dogged Emanuel in the run-up to a 41 to 7 city council approval of the infrastructure trust. There's been debate over how much, if any, jurisdiction the city's inspector general has over the non-profit.

A former city inspector general, David Hoffman, is among the five board members, all appointed by Emanuel. Hoffman, who is now an attorney in private practice, said he wants the watchdog to have free rein to investigate the trust - and not just its projects.

Emanuel refused to specifically extend that power to the IG when pushing his plan through city council, but Hoffman said there's another way.

"Certainly it’s within [the board's] discretion to say, as a practical matter, we are going to be completely open to the IG," Hoffman told reporters.

It’s unclear if Hoffman’s fellow board members will back him up on that. He would not say if the issue is sticky enough that he’d resign over it.

"Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I actually don’t think this is going to be controversial within the board," he said.

Emanuel aides sought to portray the fight over the inspector general's reach as a non-issue that was settled months ago.

“The Mayor has said from the start that he expects the Trust to act to the highest ethical standards and believes the IG already has oversight of Trust projects because of the City funding being used," said Kathleen Strand, an Emanuel spokesperson, in an email. "He’s glad to see the board implementing that vision.”

First up?

Emanuel has said the infrastructure board’s first project will be to help finance energy retrofits at city buildings. An outline of the project was unveiled at Thursday's meeting.

But in creating this non-profit, Emanuel is giving up at least the appearance of total control. Hoffman noted that no project had been approved, and the board hasn’t made a decision on what the first project will be.

And Bell insisted there's a lot of work to be done before any financing details are worked out: like hiring a staff.