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4/1/03 Sun-Times Editorial

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Meigs maneuvers land Daley where critics want him

Chicago Sun-Times Editorial

April 1, 2003

When Mayor Daley was re-elected Feb. 25 with 78.5 percent of the vote, we praised his "record of effort and accomplishment'' that had "earned the trust of a broad spectrum of this city.'' That record was tarnished and that trust broken late Sunday as, without any advance notice or public discussion, the city vandalized its lakefront jewel, Meigs Field.

The mayor has long opposed the small airport at Meigs. He would like to put a park there. Others--ourselves included--argued that the city had miles of underutilized lakefront park, and that a new park at Meigs would be superfluous and out-of-the-way. Making this issue more complex was that Meigs became a point of longtime dispute between Daley and whatever Republican governor was in Springfield, though just over a year ago it seemed that Daley struck a deal with then-Gov. George Ryan--25 more years of Meigs in return for his support for federal action pushing through expansion at O'Hare Airport. The issue seemed settled, and the new governor, Rod Blagojevich, supported it. Just two weeks ago, the mayor was claiming that the future of Meigs was up to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Then, late Sunday, the years of debate and compromise were mocked when the city sent backhoes to rip up the runway at Meigs while police kept the media away. Even though there was no specific threat, Daley claimed public safety demanded this rash action. That is ludicrous. Closing Meigs does not prevent a terrorist from commandeering a plane and crashing it into a building. What it does is send more private aircraft to already crowded Midway and O'Hare airports while eliminating a unique feature of downtown Chicago.

Worse than the loss of Meigs is the appalling manner in which the deed was done--so quickly that 16 private planes were stranded there, and might have to be removed at city expense. This dead-of-night destruction happened for one reason: To catch opponents off guard and rob them of legal recourse. Daley insisted that a lack of congressional action voided his deal with the governor--his word is good only if Congress endorses it?--and claimed that making his plans public would have been "needlessly contentious.''

"Needless'' to him, perhaps. But not needless to those on both sides of the issue who want our city government to operate in the light, not in the dark. We see an absolute need for the contention that comes with an open government and a free society. Look, even if Daley is right and we're wrong about the security issue and our other reasons for keeping Meigs open, democratic debate over the issue has been abandoned--by him. This is something that should shock even those who are happy to see Meigs dismantled.

If the mayor wanted to immediately keep planes from taking off as a war-time security measure, he could have parked a few city salt trucks on the runway. There was no need for this act, which will only delight Daley opponents--providing a concrete illustration of the arrogance of entrenched power they have long complained about--while leaving his supporters saddened and puzzled. Why would the mayor squander his strong mandate on such a tertiary issue as Meigs? Why would he so blatantly use national security as a smokescreen to indulge his private obsession? It is a dark day with the loss of an institution that has graced Chicago for nearly half a century, and darker still for the exercise of naked power that harkens back to memories of the most reprehensible excesses of his father's rule.

Many during the last election lamented the lack of a real opponent in the mayoral race. If this reckless demolition of Meigs is any indication of how the mayor is going to conduct himself over the next four years, we anticipate a much higher caliber of opponent next time around. The mayor has miscalculated, badly, and given Chicagoans not reassurance for their safety, but real concern about their mayor's judgment.

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