It isn't clear why Mayor Daley apparently sought additional contracting powers for the head of a city department earlier this summer. But with privatization worries at an all-time high, public service workers are trying to figure it out.
Legislation that would have given a department commissioner more power to contract out city services was averted at Chicago's City Hall this morning.
The Chicago City Council Committee on Health signed off on an ordinance allowing the commissioner of the Department of Public Health to strike contracts with a variety of organizations that provide midwife and pulmonary services through January 1, 2017.
In its current form, this was a pretty narrow ordinance. An attorney representing the department told aldermen at a hearing that the legislation essentially combined two existing bills into one and made a slight change in the city's municipal code to ensure those services -- conducted by outside operators -- would continue uninterrupted for mothers and tuberculosis patients, respectively.
What remains unclear is why the Daley Administration apparently sought broader contracting powers for the department when the mayor initially introduced the legislation on July 28.
As originally drafted, the ordinance would have given the public health commissioner authority to negotiate contracts for clinical health care services, defined as what "the commissioner deems necessary and appropriate for the promotion or protection of the public health, including by way of example and not limitation, nurse midwifery, dentistry, podiatry, ophthalmology and optometry."
That language, in particular the line that the professions in the bill were listed "by way of example and not limitation," sparked fears that the bill could open the door to wider privatizations in the Department of Public Health.
Adrienne Alexander, a policy and legislative specialist with AFSCME Council 31 -- which represents city health care employees -- argued the original draft of the bill would have given the department free reign to contract out a variety of health services.
"It raised a lot of flags because it was giving such broad authority," added Brian Imus, state director of Illinois PIRG, discussing the original bill.
Not only was the "not limitation" phrase in the mayor's initial draft new, but the original bill notably excluded other provisions that were all but standard in older laws governing how public health department contracts were established.
Gone were sunset dates for the contracts, dollar caps on their amount, and language about the funds being subject to appropriation and availability.
In 2004, for example, an ordinance (PDF) that passed the full city council allowed the public health commissioner no more than $6 million per year (subject to appropriation and availability of the funds) to contract out for pregnancy-related services like midwifery through December 31, 2010.
The following year, legislation did give the public health commissioner (PDF) power to enter into contracts for a range of clinical health services, from dentistry to "any other health care services as the Commissioner deems necessary and appropriate." But the 2005 bill included an annual cap of $2 million per year, subject to appropriation and availability of the funds. And the agreements couldn't extend beyond December 31, 2011.
Several city council members, including health committee chair Ald. Ed Smith (28th Ward), said today they didn't know why the first bill was originally written the way it was. At the hearing, Smith reiterated that the revised bill "doesn't touch any existing city positions." Neither the Department of Public Health or the Mayor's Press Office returned calls by the time of publication.
The worries about the public health contracting language suggests that following the much-maligned 75-year lease of the parking meter system, privatization of city services will be political tricky for the Daley Administration going forward. And yet privatization appears to be one of the mayor's primary strategies for closing a $655 million budget deficit. Daley confirmed recently that his administration will consider outsourcing, according to news reports, management of lakefront festivals and the Taste of Chicago; the city's still-born recycling program; maintenance of the city's vehicle fleet; and the city pound.
"It seems like the agenda is going toward privatizing services," said Council 31's Alexander.
"I can rest easy today," she added just prior to when the health committee passed the narrower bill on contracting out this morning, "but I don't think this is the end of it."
It's worth noting that some city council members and watchdogs are pushing for a more transparent process for privatization in Chicago. Much of the focus remains on large assets, such as the parking meter system or the Skyway. Last year, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) introduced a bill that would limit the length of long-term asset leases and increase scrutiny on them. Among its provisions:
- 30 days before the council even agrees to go out to bid on consulting work (for the any asset worth $1 million, or more) the council would have to hold a public hearing;
- Assets worth more than $100 million, or with a lease that exceeds 10 years, would be subject another hearing, up to two months before a council vote;
- Then, 30 days prior to voting on any final deal, the proposed lease, documents demonstrating how the city settled on a price tag, and a full accounting of all anticipated proceeds would have to be posted online 30 days before council vote.
PIRG organizers are currently circulating among aldermen a "Pledge to ensure transparency and accountability." The group isn't asking members to take a position on privatization in the pledge but it does ask them to "not vote for any future ordinances that lease public assets or services unless at a minimum there is proper public discourse and protections to ensure taxpayers receive fair value."
The document calls for more sunshine, including having a third party examine if an asset is worth more to the public if it remains in public hands; complete transparency in vetting privatization proposals; and a clear statement of how money gained in privatizations will be spent. Last month, the Sun-Times editorial page encouraged city council members to sign PIRG's petition.