April 9, 2003
Publication: Chicago Sun-Times
WASHINGTON--Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge blew Mayor Daley's cover story on Meigs Field on Tuesday.
Around the same time, in Chicago, the mayor confessed he bulldozed the airport to make it a park and not because of security fears.
Ridge said his agency was never consulted over whether the lakefront airport presented a security threat to the city and was personally "disappointed" to see Meigs closed.
Daley invoked homeland security to explain why, under cover of darkness and without any prior public notice, he ordered a series of giant X's and slash marks carved in Meigs' sole runway on March 30.
The mayor's initial explanation was met with skepticism because for years he has wanted to close Meigs and convert it to a park.
On Tuesday, the mayor changed his tune. Daley dropped all pretenses about fears of a private plane flying into a Chicago skyscraper and acknowledged his real motive was to create more open space as envisioned by planner Daniel Burnham and others some 100 years ago.
"That's what makes Chicago unique from the rest of the world: that we have protected this wonderful lakefront. That's the greatest asset we have here," Daley said. From the Calumet River on the south to the Evanston border on the north, "we want to eventually fill in all the way ... for parks and open space," the mayor said.
Daley's number may have been up anyway when Ridge said he was under the impression that Daley's decision to shutter Meigs had nothing to do with terrorist threats.
"I know that the decision to close the field was made prior to Sept. 11, at least that's what was communicated to me," Ridge said.
"I am not about to second guess any mayor or any governor for making an executive decision to do or not to do something they feel will have or have not an impact on their community," Ridge said.
Ridge was asked about Meigs during a session with reporters to announce that Chicago and six other cities were targeted to share $100 million to guard against or respond to terrorism.
Chicago must submit and win approval for a plan to use its $10.97 million allocation. Chicago, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Houston were judged to be high-risk potential terrorist targets by the FBI, CIA and Ridge's department.
Users of private planes have been the most vocal opponents of Meigs' closing, though some have raised concerns that the airport is needed by "first responders" in an emergency.
Asked if Chicagoans were now safer, Ridge said, "from the mayor's point of view, they are." And from Ridge's point of view?
"Well, from my point of view, that is a local decision and we can't micromanage those kinds of decisions," Ridge said.
The mayor's action will be discussed at a House aviation subcommittee hearing today. Steve Hansen, spokesman for subcommittee chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), said his boss was not pleased with the closing.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) called the closing an "act of arrogant recklessness" and hinted the consequence may be a loss of federal transportation funds for the city.
Daley brushed off suggestions that the heavy-handed maneuver would cost the city state and federal money.
Ridge `disappointed' at Daley's closing of Meigs Field
[Chicago Final Edition]
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Tuesday took issue with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's decision to close Meigs Field, saying he regretted the move and suggesting that the mayor's action stemmed from concerns that predated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.
In a meeting with reporters, Ridge refused to be drawn into the issue of whether the closing constituted a security issue for the city, but he pointedly added that he always enjoyed flying into the airport.
"I'm disappointed they closed it," Ridge said of the decision, which Daley has portrayed as intended to increase security for Chicago's downtown against suicide attacks by terrorists in small aircraft.
"As [Pennsylvania] governor I occasionally used it. It's a beautiful short runway along the lake," Ridge added.
The mayor's office declined to comment on Ridge's statements, saying only that Daley maintains the closing of Meigs was necessary to protect downtown residents and workers from attack.
But Ridge acknowledged the mayor's action, which took place in the middle of the night, underscores the challenges his new department faces in crafting a coherent national security strategy along with municipal governments.
Asked repeatedly if the people of Chicago were safer because of the Meigs' closure, Ridge never said yes. "From the mayor's point of view, they are," he finally said.
Though Ridge clearly didn't want to openly question Daley's motives, he said he was aware the mayor had long wanted Meigs shut. The mayor has said in the past he wanted to turn the airport into a lakefront park.
"That decision to close that field, that impetus was prior to 9/ 11, at least to my recollection, they were planning on closing that thing even before Sept. 11," Ridge said.
"Right now," Ridge said, "I am certainly not in a position to say to a mayor of one of the largest, greatest cities in the world, your assessment in regard to a threat [that] general aviation had to your city, because of the proximity to the airport, is inaccurate and we can overrule you. We certainly are not there."
Daley's action, something Ridge, the nation's top domestic- security official, never sought and was sorry to learn of, underscored a problem Ridge has encountered in his first few weeks as secretary.
"You can't tell mayors what to do," said Ridge, whose department opened officially last month. "We don't have the authority to do that. That's the challenge in trying to develop a national homeland security strategy" at the federal level.
The problem is reminiscent of what Ridge faced before his job was elevated to a Cabinet position, when he had been homeland security director with an office in the White House.
Because the office lacked Cabinet status, experts said he didn't wield enough power to force other federal officials to follow his strategy.
Ridge's power limited
But moves by Daley as well as other local and state officials show that even as a Cabinet secretary, Ridge's power on the local and state level is limited.
Asked if the mayor told him beforehand that the city was going to close the airport, Ridge said: "No."
Another homeland security official said department officials received notice about the airport's closing just five minutes before the mayor made his public announcement.
Advocates for Meigs Field have called the mayor's security arguments bogus ever since he announced the closing of the 55-year- old airstrip.
"Meigs Field presents no more threat to homeland security than any airport of its type," said Steve Whitney, a leader for Friends of Meigs Field. "It's also a huge asset for countering threats."
Whitney said the flight time difference between Meigs and Midway Airport is only a matter of minutes, so any terrorist targeting downtown could just as easily use the Southwest Side airport.
Whitney said small planes will continue to fly near downtown because the lakefront is a popular flight zone for pilots.
He said Chicago also is less prepared for a disaster with Meigs closed.
The sense that Ridge didn't share Daley's stated concerns about Meigs was reinforced when the secretary indicated he wasn't afraid to ask mayors to close certain facilities or locations when he thought it imperative.
Ridge, for instance, recently asked his friend, Philadelphia Mayor John Street, to keep closed a street adjacent to Independence Hall, a major tourist attraction and the site where the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776. The national park also contains the Liberty Bell.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton asked Ridge to call Street because her department feared the casualties and damage a vehicle bomb could do.
"The mayor said no," Ridge recounted, noting that Street cited possible disruption to the community and traffic issues. Still, Ridge said his agency will look for other ways to protect the area.
In the meeting with reporters, Ridge also said his department would directly provide nearly $100 million to seven cities to cover security improvements.
Chicago would receive nearly $11 million as part of a federal urban area security initiative.
The money was in response to recent complaints by mayors that the high terrorist threat level the department put in place at the start of the Iraq war has cost them millions in additional dollars.
What's more, mayors have blamed the federal government's practice of sending money first to the states to then distribute to cities as unnecessarily delaying when the money reached localities.
Distribution of funds
New York will receive the most, about $25 million, followed by Washington at $18 million. Los Angeles will receive about $12 million. San Francisco and Seattle will get about $11 million each, and Houston nearly $9 million.
Cities were chosen based on a combination of factors, including population density, critical infrastructure and assessments of their vulnerability to attack, administration officials said.
"There are a lot of potentially deserving communities," Ridge said.
"But we could spread this money around so that everybody got a little bit and none of it would make a difference. ... We wanted to make sure that significant dollars were distributed so that significant investments could be made."
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