City Colleges chided on secret stimulus action

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • March 06, 2009 @ 8:00 AM

While the City Colleges of Chicago won't say what it plans to do with its share of federal stimulus money, it has pre-approved spending up to $85 million spread among 12 contractors to build its “shovel-ready” projects.

The Board of Trustees voted unanimously this morning and without discussion to award the funding; contracts with the 12 companies would be capped at $10 million each.

“We think it is a prudent move to be prepared,” board chairman Jim Tyree says.

The district did not employ a competitive bidding process to select the contractors. Instead it relied on long-term contracts those companies already have with other local governments, such as the Chicago Park District and the city’s Department of General Services.

“What we want to do is be ready,” Tyree says. “There have been no commitments.”

In other words, the district isn’t locked into hiring any of the companies to perform construction work.

Nine of the companies on the district's list of contractors have made political contributions totaling almost $750,000 over the last nine years, according to the state's campaign contribution database. That includes contributions five companies made to the Democratic organizations in 11 wards that totaled $50,000 over the last three years.

Good-government advocates say the board's contracting move is unusual because it selects companies to perform work that hasn't yet been identified.

“It seems illogical that you would be picking contractors if you’re not able to identify the work that they would be doing,”  says Laurence Msall, the president of the nonpartisan Civic Federation, a government watchdog group.

The City Colleges has repeatedly refused to say what it would do with federal stimulus money, speaking in general terms about adding workforce development courses and renovating some buildings.

When the Daily News submitted a records request for details on the projects the City Colleges planned to fund with stimulus money, the district replied by saying the list was still in draft form and therefore did not have to be released to the public.

That’s unacceptable to open government advocates like Msall, who says the district is obligated to be transparent because it is funded by taxpayers.

“The City Colleges is an independent unit of government,” Msall says. “They need to come forward with their own plan.”

But he says one aspect of the board's action -- taking advantage of another government's contractor review process -- makes sense.

Dave Lundy, the spokesman for the Better Government Association, credited the City Colleges with working to line up contractors.

“I wouldn’t judge somebody harshly for being prepared in doing their job,” Lundy says. “I just want to know, what exactly are you doing and why are you keeping it secret?”

In a document detailing the need for the contracts, the district said its normal process for picking companies would be too slow to satisfy the timelines for spending the stimulus money. The federal government requires that construction projects funded with the money start within 90 days, but the district could take longer than that to pick contractors if it had to start from scratch, the document said.

“We will contract with these companies and monitor them as any other City colleges vendor,” says Diane Minor, an associate vice chancellor.


Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18