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FOIA Fest for journalists, activists

How much does CPS spend on standardized testing?  How is the CHA spending federal subsidies it’s getting for housing units that it’s failed to occupy?  What’s happened to the clients of mental health clinics that were closed?  Which schools are losing students to urban violence?

With journalistic resources increasingly strapped, there’s “a lot of untapped potential” among community groups and activists to get information using the Freedom of Information Act, according to Steve Franklin, president of the Headline Club (and director of the Ethnic News Project at Community Media Workshop).

Along with journalists, organizations and individuals challenging cutbacks in education, housing and human services, and those working on violence and criminal justice and many other issues, are among the potential audience for the Headline Club’s FOIA Fest, a series of evening programs taking place this Monday through Wednesday, Franklin said.

Monday, March 11, 6 to 8 p.m., Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association will speak at an opening reception at Columbia’s journalism department, 33 E. Congress, second floor.  Along with its own investigations, BGA regularly holds FOIA clinics as well as trainings for “citizen watchdogs” and “education watchdogs.”

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Water and privatization

While Chicago suburbs served by a private water company face steep rate hikes – and several communities band together to buy out the company’s pipeline – organizing around water privatization steps up in Chicago, and legislation promotion transparency in privatization deals is proposed in the City Council and state legislature.

A community forum on water privatization (Monday, April 19, 7 p.m., at Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division) features Ald. Scott Waguespack along with two national experts on the subject, Jon Keesecker of Food and Water Watch and Phineas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG, who co-authored a report on privatization in Chicago issued last October by Illinois PIRG.  The event is free.

Food and Water Watch will be releasing an economic analysis of water privatization in Chicago.  The group, which assists local groups battling for public control of water around the world, recently opened a Chicago office.

FWW maintains water privatization leads to constant rate hikes and declining water quality.  It’s also a bad economic deal for cities, said Emily Carroll, FWW’s new Chicago organizer.

“Governments get a big lump sump up front – that’s the appeal of these deals,” she said.  “But in the long term, private companies do not give taxpayers what the asset is worth – that’s how they make money.  And these are really long-term leases.”

Groups weigh in

Since the parking meter controversy last year – and a Newstips report in October, which revealed the city’s consideration of water privatization – other local groups have weighed in on the general issue of privatization.

In February, Dennis Gannon of the Chicago Federation of Labor and Jerry Roper of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce wrote an op-ed calling parking meter privatization “a great success for Chicago’s businesses and the public” and urging renewed efforts to privatize Midway Airport.

The CFL’s major concern in protections for incumbent workers, said spokesperson Nick Kaleba.

Though it has criticized the excessive use of proceeds to cover operating budget deficits, the Civic Federation continues to advocate consideration of privatization as a means of reducing the city’s operating expenses and increasing efficiency, said Lawrence Msall.  He reiterated the guidelines proposed in a 2006 issue brief – deals should require competitive bidding and involve non-core services, and proceeds should be used to reduce long-term obligations, not operating costs.

Is water a core service for the city?  Msall thinks not, pointing out that many municipalities are served by private utilities.  “I don’t know that the citizens of Chicago care very much who is providing their water as long as it’s of high quality and safe,” he said.

The Better Government Association has urged greater transparency in privatization deals.  The problem with parking meter privatization was not the concept but the process, said Andy Shaw.  “The problem is when things are done in the dark of night,” he said.  “Give us transparency and information — and time for public input.”

Legislative protections

Two groups are backing legislative efforts to increase transparency in privatization deals —  though one hopes to restrain the process and the other to spur it.

Illinois PIRG is organizing support for an ordinance introduced last fall by Waguespack which would require the city to inform aldermen when a consultant is hired to consider a privatization deal; mandate a public hearing 30 days before a City Council vote on a deal; and limit leases of assets over $1 million to 30 years.

While some privatization deals may be appropriate, much more transparency and taxpayer protection is needed – and the city’s water system should be kept public, said Brian Imus of Illinois PIRG.

The Metropolitan Planning Council is backing SB 3482, sponsored by State Senator Heather Steans (D-7th), which would provide authority to the state’s transportation department, tollway authority, and municipal airports to enter public-private agreements to finance new transportation projects and lease existing infrastructure.

The bill would require prior authorization of deals by the General Assembly and independent review by the state’s government accountability commission, and it would require that proceeds go to a transportation fund.

“As a tool privatization can be good, though our experience in this region raises a lot of concerns,” said MPC vice president Peter Skosey.  With the state hard-pressed for cash, public-private partnerships could raise funds for high-speed rail, bus rapid transit in Chicago, or a new road providing western access to O’Hare, he said.

Privatization of water systems should be considered, he said, though any money generated should be reinvested in the water system.  Long-term sustainability of the region’s water supply is a major concern for MPC (the group issued a report on the subject last year, and is sponsoring a forum next month), and Chicago’s aging water infrastructure – over 4,000 miles of pipes, much of it dating to 1890 – is a significant source of water loss.

In addition, private utilities are required to include the full cost of providing water in their rates, while public utilities can tap other public funds.  Higher rates reflecting the true cost of water would discourage waste by consumers, Skosey said.

“There are towns in the region that lack the resources to upgrade and repair their water infrastructure,” he said.  And “some towns are very happy” with private water service, he said.

Another rate hike

That wouldn’t seem to include towns served by Illinois American Water Company, the largest private water utility in the state and a subsidiary of American Water Company, the largest private water utility in the nation.

On April 13, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved a $40 million rate hike for IAW’s 317,000 customers; about 37,000 customers in Chicago’s suburbs will see rates go up by 26.4 percent.  IAW had requested $61 million.

An IAW request for a 5 percent statewide increase to fund infrastructure improvements is still pending.  IAW’s last rate hike was August 2008.

The ICC expressed “serious disappointment” with IAW’s refusal to comply with the commission’s request for more support documentation.  “IAW can’t view Illinois ratepayers as an open checkbook,” warned ICC chair Manuel Flores.

Opponents of the rate hike included State Representative Renee Kosel (R-81st), the assistant minority leader.  She’s teamed up with Attorney General Lisa Madigan to sponsor an expert review of IAW’s operations which found the company was overcharging for management fees (paid to another American Water subsidiary) and cited problems with billing, metering, customer service, and fire protection. Kosel and Madigan argued IAW should decrease, not increase, their rates.

Citing “serious and pervasive” errors in the company’s record keeping, making it impossible to track water purchases and sales, in 2006 Madigan called for a comprehensive audit of the company.  “If the company can’t keep accurate records, we need to question everything about the fairness of their rates,” Madigan said.

Municipalities have also opposed IAW’s rate hikes over the years – one official said the relationship with the utility has been “adversarial most of the time” —  and the village of Homer Glen filed several complaints with the ICC.  In 2007 the ICC upheld complaints regarding inadequate inspections – including no records concerning fire hydrants – and billing irregularities.

In recent weeks village boards in Homer Glen, Bolingbrook, Woodridge, Romeoville, and Lemont have approved a Northern Will County Intergovermental Agreement to pursue acquisition of the 18-mile pipeline owned by another American Water subsidiary that brings water from Lake Michigan to the communities.  Individual communities are studying acquisition of distribution systems.

“The only solution to these outrageous rate increases is to buy the system,” Homer Glen Mayor Jim Daley told the Homer Horizon.

Broken hydrants

In addition to high rates there are issues of service and water quality, said Bolingbrook village attorney James Boan.  “The biggest thing is that a private company’s drive is for one thing – profit for its shareholders,” he said.  “A municipality’s drive is to provide a public service.”

He said a feasibility study recently completed by the communities found they could take over and operate the water at current rates – “and that was before this rate hike.”

A bill by Kosel to make municipal takeovers easier has attracted bipartisan support (and backing by the Illinois Municipal League).  HB 5485 would remove water infrastructure built by developers (and paid for by homebuyers) from the value of a water system in eminent domain appraisals.

IAW called the bill “an alarming attack on the value of private property,” the Horizon reported.

The notion that conservation is promoted by laws that let private utilities charge for all water costs – including water lost in leaks and unmetered construction sites – doesn’t make sense to IAW customers.  The company “has no incentive to conserve water because whatever it loses due to leaks in its pipelines, it makes up for in its charges to customers,” Kosel told Phil Kadner of the Southtown Star.

Boan recalls a water main which burst on a Saturday in Bolingbrook.  “They let it go all weekend, because we paid for the lost water and it was cheaper to bring in a crew on a Monday and avoid paying overtime,” he said.

In another example of the profit motive undermining the public interest, he cites a 2007 investigation by CBS2 which found that numerous fire hydrants operated by IAW were out of order, including hydrants outside schools in Lisle and Mount Prospect and a nursing home in Bolingbrook.  A subsequent inspection in Mount Prospect found that 50 percent of hydrants had problems.

Fire departments reported finding inadequate and conflicting records regarding hydrant repairs.  Lisle Fire Chief Tom Freeman said that because a private company owns the hydrants, the fire department has no authority to order them fixed.

American Water Company was bought by RWE, a huge European utility corporation, in 2001.  Four years later RWE announced it was selling off the company; by late last year RWE had reduced its holdings in AWC to 2 percent.

Minutes of an RWE board meeting leaked to US News and World Report by FWW showed the Europeans’ hopes of high growth were dashed “due to political resistance to water privatization in the U.S.,” in the words of CEO Harry Roels.  In addition, regulators were creating problems by demanding reductions in contamination by arsenic and lead in AWC pipes.

Roels estimated the company was losing 19 percent of its water value through leaking pipes – and that at the current rates of investment, it would take 200 years to replace all the distribution lines that need it.

In California, the Public Utility Commission’s ratepayers advocate opposed RWE’s sale of American Water, fearing the financial burden would be shifted to customers (pdf).



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