(MCT) — Last year, Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel separately pledged to protect taxpayers by turning around the public agency that owns and operates U.S. Cellular Field.
But if there was agreement on the need to reform the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, it unraveled over the question of who should lead such efforts as executive director. The two men sparred for more than a month, and on Thursday — with neither side backing down — Quinn prevailed quickly and unexpectedly.
The agency's board of directors, including a new member appointed by Quinn the day before, selected the governor's chief spokeswoman, Kelly Kraft, despite objections about her qualifications.
The governor dumped one of his board members, Manny Sanchez — without telling him beforehand — to pave the way for a 4-3 vote in favor of Kraft for the $175,900-a-year post.
Quinn's replacement for Sanchez, longtime ally and renowned physician Quentin Young, joined the governor's three other appointees in supporting Kraft. The mayor's appointees voted against her.
Kraft was a TV reporter for about a decade before joining state government in 2009, the same year she filed for personal bankruptcy. She was selected over Diana Ferguson, a Yale graduate who served as chief financial officer at Sara Lee Corp. and Chicago Public Schools.
Prior to the vote, the board interviewed Ferguson during a closed-door meeting. During the public part of the meeting, board members argued heatedly over who would fill the position.
"The qualifications between these two candidates for this position are not even remotely close," said Jim Reynolds, an Emanuel appointee who is chairman and CEO of Loop Capital. "For us not to choose (Ferguson) is just an inappropriate abuse of the authority."
Reynolds was joined by Richard Price, chairman of Mesirow Financial Holdings, and Norm Bobins, a longtime banker, who said Kraft was the "wrong" candidate.
"We interviewed another candidate, and I think she's better qualified," Bobins said.
Board Chairman Emil Jones — who cut off Reynolds to expedite the vote — defended Kraft's experience and said it was enough for the job.
"We have a staff of five. We don't have a multibillion-dollar agency here," Jones said. "Kelly Kraft has the skills we need to do an excellent job."
Public boards and commissions are supposed to operate autonomously, but Quinn's maneuvering shows that is not the case, said David Morrison, assistant director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
"This is one of those moments that lay bare the naked politics of how these agencies operate," Morrison said. "Now we have Quinn inserting himself in the process and in a prominent way. ... At least it's transparent."
The executive director oversees the authority's approximately $40 million budget and maintenance and operation of the stadium, and is responsible for carrying out the management agreement with the White Sox. The official job description requires "prior exposure to construction, contracts, human resources, supervisory functions, strategic planning, and debt financings."
Emanuel was immediately critical after Kraft's September interview — he was not informed that she was a nominee beforehand — and said he preferred someone with experience overseeing organizations. He later called for the board to start the process anew.
The Tribune reported last month that Kraft filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009 over $100,000 in debt, most of it linked to credit cards. The governor's office has said the bankruptcy arose from a personal matter that has since been resolved. And Quinn stood by his choice.
Kraft starts Nov. 8.
"As with any job I've ever held, I will give 110 percent and work very hard to maximize potential revenue for the state and protect taxpayers from insider deals," she said in a statement to the Tribune.
Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said it was "unfortunate" that board members who chose Kraft did not consider Ferguson, a candidate "with extensive financial and management experience to lead (the authority) and ensure Chicago's taxpayers are protected."
Hamilton noted that taxpayers are "on the hook for" potential financial shortfalls that the city, not the state, is required to cover related to the agency.
Quinn appointed longtime ally Young on Wednesday. But Sanchez said he didn't learn that Quinn had replaced him until after he had arrived for Thursday's meeting. "I learned about it 10 minutes ago," he said while leaving the authority's offices. He later called the decision to replace him "unbelievable."
Ferguson, he said, was more qualified. Was that why he was replaced? "That's a logical inference," he said. "I made it clear I would vote for the more qualified person."
Sanchez, a Chicago lawyer, had been appointed by Quinn, and his term expired over the summer. He expected to be reappointed.
Asked about replacing Sanchez, a Quinn spokeswoman said, "The governor decided to go in a new direction."
Another Quinn appointee, former Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon, is also serving a term that expired over the summer.
Young, 89, a former president of the Chicago Board of Health, was not present at Kraft's interview. He said after the vote that he spoke to her several days ago.
Chris Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, was surprised that Quinn didn't find a compromise over filling the position.
"Why would you want to go to war over something like this?" Mooney asked. "What happens when they start dealing with pensions and casinos?"
The agency has come under fire in the past year for its financial operations and levels of transparency, and critics have described the lease with the White Sox as too generous. Last year, a Tribune/WGN-TV investigation revealed that the authority spent about $7 million for a restaurant outside U.S. Cellular Field in which the White Sox retain all profits. The team has since said it also invested nearly $1 million.
The authority was created in 1987 as part of then-Gov. Jim Thompson's deal to build a new stadium to keep the White Sox from moving to Florida. It still operates U.S. Cellular Field but has expanded its duties, issuing bonds to finance much of the renovation of Soldier Field. It has been mentioned as a possible funding mechanism for renovating Wrigley Field.
That Wrigley debate is partly what has divided Quinn and Emanuel. Quinn opposes using the authority to support the Cubs' renovations and has said he's concerned that the mayor will cut "backroom deals" that may involve the authority, said the governor's press secretary, Brooke Anderson.
Emanuel has said the authority is not an option to renovate Wrigley Field. "That's never been discussed. It's ridiculous. ... It's not even been on the table," he said last month.
However, a PowerPoint presentation from the Cubs in May 2011 included a slide describing nine "potential funding options" for renovations, one of which was the authority's revenues from 2032 to 2046, ranging from $300 million to $375 million, according to documents obtained by the Tribune. Most income for the agency comes from hotel tax revenue, and 2032 is when the agency is set to complete paying off the bonds to renovate Soldier Field.
Anderson said that presentation is one example of why the governor needed someone like Kraft leading the agency.
"The PowerPoint makes it very clear that such a plan existed, and that ISFA was in fact on the table," she said.
Asked about the mayor's comment that the option was "never discussed," Emanuel spokeswoman Hamilton replied: "It was rejected the minute it was presented. ... It wasn't discussed. It was rejected."
Cubs spokesman Julian Green described the reaction similarly. "It was flatly rejected by the city," he said. "That PowerPoint was to say, 'Here are some options.'"
After the vote, Jones unsuccessfully moved for the board to make the appointment unanimous. Emanuel's appointees refused, and Jones accused them of preferring to try to not "work together."