Daley draws fire for being 'autocratic' in airport flap

Chicago mayor bulldozes Meigs Field in a midnight move to prevent terrorism, but critics decry his tactics.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Under cover of darkness, a construction crew armed with backhoes and trucks - and a police escort - rolled through downtown Chicago toward Lake Michigan recently and onto a small airport called Meigs Field.

The next morning residents awoke to a bizarre and unexpected sight: At the request of Mayor Richard M. Daley, six dark Xs, each 150 feet wide, had been etched into the airport's single runway, rendering it useless. Except for the absence of a few Os, the airstrip looked like a partially played game of tic-tac-toe.

In fact, the incident has become the latest in that other entertaining game - Chicago politics.

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The mayor says he wanted to close the picturesque airstrip to protect the city against a 9/11-type terrorist attack. But critics decry the way he did it - in a midnight coup de destruction. As a result, it has revived an enduring debate over whether Mr. Daley has become too autocratic - just six weeks after he won a celebratory fifth term.

"It was heavy-handed and didn't allow for due process.... Dictatorial decisionmaking almost inevitably leads to very bad decisions," says former alderman Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois here.

Reaction to the stealthy maneuver - the governor of Illinois, the Chicago City Council, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security officials were also taken by surprise - was immediate and negative. On local TV, pictures of the airfield momentarily displaced kryptonite-green nightscope images from Iraq. For the first time in weeks, something besides war shared headlines on Chicago's front pages.

The uproar wasn't because Windy City residents were particularly fond of the airport. Rather, critics say that, by dismantling Meigs in the dark and bypassing formal debate, Mayor Daley arrogantly circumvented the democratic process, setting a dangerous precedent for decision-making in the future.

The mayor's office, not surprisingly, sees it differently. Even though federal authorities had approved temporary flight restrictions over the downtown area, at local officials' request, while the nation is on a heightened state of emergency, Daley didn't think that was enough. He worried that, with a sudden turn, airplanes headed for Meigs "could cause a terrible tragedy downtown or in our crowded parks."

He was shutting Meigs in the name of security - never mind that Midway and O'Hare Airports are just a few minutes flight time from downtown, and planes landing at Meigs are tiny compared to the ones that wreaked havoc on 9/11. About 85 percent of the 60 to 100 daily flights out of the airfield are business-related. "To do this any other way would have been needlessly contentious," the mayor said at a press conference last week.

As with anything political in Chicago, the story's more complicated. For years, Daley has wanted to turn Meigs, which sits on a small peninsula on Lake Michigan, into a park. In January 1997, former Gov. Jim Edgar and Daley agreed that Meigs would remain open for five years, then turned into a park. In December 2001, Daley and then Gov. George Ryan made another deal. If Mr. Ryan supported a major expansion of O'Hare Airport, the mayor would keep Meigs open until at least 2006 and support a new airport in downstate Peotone, Ill.

But Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) of Illinois, who shows no sign of bending, has blocked Daley's O'Hare expansion in Congress. Because the expansion wasn't going to happen, said Daley last week, the deal was no longer valid.

Both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times condemned the actions of Daley, who in February was elected to his fifth term with nearly 80 percent of the vote - and both paper's endorsements.

Said the Sun-Times: "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."

It reminds many of the recent Soldier Field debacle. Hearings were held and opinions gathered on rehabbing the Chicago Bears' stadium. But the city ignored nearly universal criticism of the design and immediately after the Bears last home game, construction crews started tearing the stadium apart.

Not everyone opposed the Meigs move. Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), through a spokeswoman, said "keeping Meigs open presented public security and safety concerns."

Many pilots affected by the nocturnal backhoes, though, do. "We live in a free society and, yes, it's a scary time and we need to balance freedom with security," says Steve Whitney, a private pilot and board member of the advocacy group Friends of Meigs Field. "But we don't throw away millions of dollars in transportation aspects with no good reason.... This is an act of vandalism, not an act of government."

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