Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Could a corrupt political system be a legitimate defense when a city sues a contractor for winning a contract through bribery?

An anonymous contributor alerted me to this Bloomberg Businesswek article, published yesterday, "Stop bribery by legalizing it." So this article is being republished with a new time.

Chicago is known for its "pay-to-play" culture, capricious and arbitrary land development approval system (Chicago Tribune article on aldermanic privilege, "Neighborhoods for sale"), various examples of misuse of funds for private benefit (e.g., the "Hired Truck" scandal), and poor decision-making concerning contracting such as the long term lease deals of their parking meter system and city-owned public parking structures, where the city left at least $1 billion on the table in the favor of the lessees ("Chicago's ongoing debacles: parking and governance" and "A lesson to cities that they need to be very careful when leasing assets to public private "partnerships"").

In one particular case, where a commercial property owner sued for not being able to develop because they refused to pay off an alderman, the court ruled that clearly this system was in fact legal because it is ensconced in how the city operates concerning land use.

Anyway, the City of Chicago is one of the plaintiffs suing a red light camera firm--since fired--which got the contract to operate in the city because of bribes.  See the Chicago Tribune article "Chicago sues red light camera firm for $300 million."

The city is suing for the amount they paid out to the company, about $134 million, and are seeking punitive damages, which increases the total amount they are seeking.

Granted the contract was let during the Daley Administration, but I think the defendants could argue that while what they did was wrong, that's the way things work in Chicago.

Which of course is not a legal defense likely to win.

But in any case, it doesn't seem "fair" for companies forced to be corrupt to participate in a political system being penalized by the creators and maintainers of the corrupt system for doing what was expeccted of them.

-- "The system of corruption: when you don't understand "systems", of corruption or anything else, you don't understand outcomes"
-- "The travelogue of the world's Corrupt Cities includes DC, what does that say about us?"

From the description of the book Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention:
Corrupt Cities is a practical guide to assist in the diagnosis, investigation and prevention of various kinds of corruption. Bringing together both a conceptual and practical framework, the publication is designed for citizens and public officials, especially at the municipal level. The approach presented discourages more controls, more laws and more bureaucracy, while focusing on systematic corruption and its preventive measures. It encourages consideration of the economic costs of corruption, rather than moral or ethical factors, as the driving force behind anti-corruption efforts. It also emphasizes that "fighting corruption should not be considered an end in itself, but an orienting principle for reforming urban administration."
The arguments put forth are supported by examples of anti-corruption strategies, particularly from Hong Kong and La Paz. The publication also includes practical tips to adapt these strategies to difficult scenarios, for example, in cities/communities characterized by political indifference, bureaucratic inertia, and where citizen support may exist but is yet to be mobilized.
Ironically, coming back on the plane I was talking with a college student sitting next to me. She is studying business, at a university in Michigan. I opined that there is something to be said for "competition" in government, given how the oligopolistic "Democratic" control of municipal government in DC leads to terrible behaviors and actions. I didn't even know about this most recent example that decisively proves my point.

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At 11:35 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

A great reminder, when we are bashing on WMATA, that at least it isn't corrupt.

And neither is DC water? I can't say for certain.

After reading about the highly corrupt machinations on 965 Florida and the sale price, I can see why you didn't write about it!

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Because of a project that I am working on, I am in the position of not being able to write many critical articles about the city's elected officials.

... but wrt those projects in Ward 1 and "WMATA" there is no question that ex-CM Graham was acting unethically.

... and that gets to the point about cities needing to have more transparent and fair processes for land disposition.

In my idealized belief about having an open and transparent "capital improvements planning and budgeting process" I would actually make this a broader "capital assets" planning and budgeting process so it would include not only construction projects but in addition (1) alley closings, (2) land disposition agreements, and (3) eminent domain actions (which the city does very very rarely).

I know you get on my case about proposals I make where professionals/planners would be "more in charge" than the elected officials, and while there are definitely problems, one of the reasons why there are fewer problems with development and graft in DC is because the Home Rule Charter separates zoning from both the Executive and Legislative branches.

Compare that to say Prince George's County or even Baltimore County (where I did a bit of observation), or places like Chicago.

I think our system is better, even if we still have a long way to go in various ways.

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have thought a lot lately about this book and wish that the authors would do an update, although I guess with a little effort, one could follow Transparency International and come to similar conclusions:

"one of the reasons why there are fewer problems with development and graft in DC is because the Home Rule Charter separates zoning from both the Executive and Legislative branches..."

WTF??? It may not be outright cash bribes but pay-to-play (with "pay" being the fungible aspect of the deal), is alive and well in DC.

Am currently reading Neil deMause's excellent book, "Field of Schemes"... great up-to-date blog on these issues Many of his thoughts could apply equally to economic development issues (and all of the aforementioned self-dealing) across the spectrum.

And lastly, thought this might interest your inner activist:


At 2:32 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt WTF, I know, I know, but it would be a lot worse and a lot more arbitrary and capricious if it were done the other way.

will check out the Atlantic piece. Of course, "Field of Schemes" is a great resource and a good example of "Growth Machine"/"Urban Regime" actions.

At 3:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hm-m-m. I'm not familiar with "the other way" of which you speak, just my 15 years of experience with the penny-ante self-dealing that is built in to our current political system, resulting in world class mediocrity.

@Charlie: From a New York friend on this morning's NYC rush hour:


At 10:26 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

@EE; systems vs goals!

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

a good question is why the "mediocrity" is the routine outcome from most city actions?

cf. "The Vision Thing" by Sisters of Mercy.

At 3:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@RL on the "Vision Thing"

Like many other terms in our current "Age of Semantics," "vision" and its related offshoots have become hackneyed memes. The local low point, IMHO, is the cringe-inducing "Vision Zero"...


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