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Chicago Mayor and Newspaper Stoke Animosity

Disputes over City Hall fines of Tribune Co. over Wrigley Field repairs lead to claims and counterclaims by Daley and journalists.

August 19, 2004|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — It all started when a chunk of concrete fell from the top of Wrigley Field, nearly hitting a child.

When city officials looked into the matter, they discovered that Tribune Co.-- which owns the field and publishes the city's largest newspaper -- didn't have proper permits when it made previous repairs to the 90-year-old ballpark.

The corporate misstep led Mayor Richard M. Daley, a longtime critic of local media, to take swipes at the Chicago Tribune. He also chided Tribune Co. and the baseball team it owns, the Chicago Cubs.

The paper's columnists and editorial writers responded by criticizing Daley in print. The newspaper also sought access to City Hall maintenance records.

The spat exploded between Daley and the Tribune, whose parent company owns the Los Angeles Times. The sniping continues as city officials tally the fine Tribune Co. will have to pay for not obtaining permits.

"It's the clash of the giants," said Ron Yates, a former Tribune journalist who is the dean of the communications college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There's always been a tense relationship between these two, but this is ridiculous."

The dispute has now grown to include a Tribune-owned television station. The city recently received an anonymous tip that WGN-TV had failed to obtain permits for replacing some broadcast equipment. Building inspectors looked into the matter and stopped the work. The station has applied for the proper permit. "My job is to enforce the codes," said Stan Kaderbek, commissioner of the city's Department of Buildings. "I don't care who owns the buildings."

The brouhaha started in late July, when a family of three from Plainfield, Ill., was leaving a game at Wrigley and a chunk of concrete fell from a tier above them. The 6-by-3-inch piece of concrete nearly hit the family's 5-year-old boy. News reports later revealed that other bits of the stadium had plummeted at least two other times.

The city learned that Tribune Co. had made $1.9 million in repairs over a three-year period, in part to reinforce decaying sections of the park. The company is still trying to figure out why pieces are falling and has put up netting to protect the public. Company officials declined to comment Wednesday on why it failed to obtain permits.

Daley, who grew up in a neighborhood adjacent to old Comiskey Park, where the White Sox played, has acknowledged that he favors the Sox over the Cubs. He mentioned the crumbling concrete at one of his regular news conferences. The mayor said he would force Tribune Co. to close sections -- or possibly all -- of Wrigley Field if fans were in danger.

"If one section could be dangerous, you would want us to [show] caution on the side of the fan," Daley said.

Then the mayor sniped at the newspaper: "If something fell off a building and the owner knew about it and no one said anything, you would write editorials about it."

The Tribune, like other local media outlets, has run more than a dozen stories in the weeks after the concrete fell. But no one, including the Tribune, has clarified why Tribune Co. did not have the appropriate permits before making the repairs. Cubs officials said they didn't know permits were needed for the work.

"The Tribune's done a lot of building work in the past," Kaderbek said. "They know they've got to pull permits when work is being done. It's surprising."

The relationship between the paper and City Hall got testier Aug. 5, when the Tribune filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get City Hall's building maintenance records.

Daley said the FOIA request was filed in revenge. Not so, countered Tribune Managing Editor James O'Shea. "Someone observing the mayor's criticism of Wrigley Field told us, 'You should look into maintenance at City Hall,' " O'Shea said.

Filing FOIAs are "something we do routinely, dozens of times a year," O'Shea said. "It would have been irresponsible of us not to do that. I know how it looks, but it was purely a coincidence."

The Tribune defended itself on its editorial pages this month. Under the headline, "Here's your editorial, Mayor," the paper wrote that "because the fortunes of the city seem to rise and fall with Mayor Richard Daley's blood pressure, we're going to accommodate the mayor today."

Daley's accusations of revenge, the editorial said, were a ploy to avoid talking about "City Hall cronyism."

"No one in town has the temerity to question in public how he runs the city," the editorial said. "Except some members of the press, including this newspaper. And that seems to drive him to distraction."

The Department of Buildings released the requested records to the Tribune last week. The reports concluded that City Hall is in safe condition, officials said Wednesday.

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