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The Death of a Scapegoat

The 1992 Loop flood cost John LaPlante his job. The COVID-19 crisis cost him his life.

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Photo: Michael Zajakowski

As the city’s first transportation commissioner, John LaPlante was known for keeping his head down, operating independently, and making innovative improvements to Chicago’s roads and walkways, like straightening Lake Shore Drive’s S curve to make it safer. But in April 1992, when a tunnel breach flooded the Loop, leading to an estimated $2 billion in damages, Mayor Richard M. Daley needed a fall guy, and LaPlante was it. His firing wasn’t entirely warranted, as Dennis Rodkin pointed out in his July 1992 Chicago article “The Scapegoat.”

The story of the unplugged leak and the firing of LaPlante tells a more complex tale about the Daley administration and the way the city works. Interviews with people in and around city government suggest that while LaPlante was not blameless, he was working hard to resolve the problem given what he knew and what he was able to do. The lines of authority were confused. A Daley reorganization last year had left the tunnels in a kind of limbo — perhaps equally the responsibility of Ben Reyes, the politically well positioned commissioner of general services, who has not been disciplined.

LaPlante took the high road: “It’s part of the job,” he told Rodkin. “When the team is losing, you fire the manager.” At 52, he was forced to restart his career. He began a long tenure as a traffic engineer at T.Y. Lin International, advocating for improved bike lanes and pedestrian safety, before retiring in 2012. Then, on March 21, LaPlante fell victim to another crisis, one far more tragic: He became one of the first Chicagoans to die from COVID-19. He was 80.

Read the full story below.

 

The Scapegoat

When the Great Flood rushed into the Loop, Mayor Daley moved swiftly to save his political neck. After 32 years with the city, transportation chief John LaPlante took the first fall.

In 1955, A Democratic lawyer named Albert H. LaPlante ran for alderman in the Republican-controlled Ninth Ward on Chicago’s Far South Side. It was his party’s idea. “I didn’t want to be alderman,” he recalled a few years later. “They said not to worry.” The race was a long shot, and LaPlante lost to the incumbent on the same day that another South Side Democrat, Richard J. Daley, won nomination to his first of six mayoral terms. But Daley recognized LaPlante’s good showing and the next year rewarded the party loyalist by finding him a spot as a traffic-court judge. LaPlante stayed on the bench until retiring in 1982 at 81.

Last April 13th, as the Great Chicago Flood poured through tunnels and basements under the Loop, Mayor Richard M. Daley cast about for someone to blame. He quickly found acting transportation commissioner John LaPlante, 52, a smart, dedicated traffic engineer who had worked for the city since 1960. Though LaPlante was one of the last players in the drama to learn of the fatal leak, the Mayor decided that the commissioner had been slow about starting emergency repairs. The next day, Richard J. Daley’s son gave Albert H. LaPlante’s son the boot.

Competence, hard work, family ties, and even blameworthiness don’t count for much when a political career is on the line, and as the Chicago River rushed through a hole in a forgotten underground freight tunnel, Daley no doubt worried that his own political future could be sucked into the hole, too. In that, he may have been right. Though the early damage estimates now appear inflated, losses are expected to total between $350 million and $400 million. Ten weeks after the water poured in, the cleanup is still going on. And, worse, the crisis hit at a time when the Loop was struggling to re-establish itself as a thriving retail center. The example of Mayor Michael Bilandic, voted out of office in 1979 after the city was slow cleaning up a snowstorm, couldn’t have been far from the current Mayor’s mind.

Daley seems to have avoided the Bilandic curse. He’s been widely congratulated for his decisive handling of the flood — a style exemplified by his vigor in singling out LaPlante. A poll commissioned by the Southtown Economist and Channel 2 found that 60 percent of Chicagoans thought Daley had done a good job of managing the cleanup and that 75 percent thought City Hall bureaucrats should have foreseen and averted the flood. Apparently, the hasty dismissal of John LaPlante served the Mayor’s purpose well.

But the story of the unplugged leak and the firing of LaPlante tells a more complex tale about the Daley administration and the way the city works. Interviews with people in and around city government suggest that while LaPlante was not blameless, he was working hard to resolve the problem given what he knew and what he was able to do. The lines of authority were confused. A Daley reorganization last year had left the tunnels in a kind of limbo — perhaps equally the responsibility of Ben Reyes, the politically well positioned commissioner of general services, who has not been disciplined.

Overall, the leak seems to have been less a crisis of bureaucrats than of bureaucracy — the layers of management that diffuse authority and weaken communications. As some people see it, Daley himself is isolated behind his chief aides. Others argue that City Hall stifles initiative. “Mayor Daley’s repeated calls for improved efficiency in city government criticize city employees without also holding responsible a system that largely ignores individual contributions and encourages complacency,” said a report last year from the Illinois Commission on the Future of Public Service.

Now, some critics of the Daley administration worry that the firing of John LaPlante will make city government even more ossified. “The example [Mayor Daley gave] was of a person who was active, who did take responsibility,” says Alderman Helen Shiller (46th Ward), who has worked closely with LaPlante in her five years on the City Council. “John’s firing will in fact have the opposite effect from what was apparently intended: People in city government are going to be more hesitant rather than more self-reliant. They’ll write even more memos to back themselves up.”

In short, by wielding a swift ax, Daley may have saved his own neck, but he also wounded his record as a reformer, something he tries very hard to cultivate. He clearly played politics in meting out punishment. He probably has inhibited initiative by city managers. And he has lost John LaPlante, who, while perhaps not the ideal commissioner, nevertheless was innovative, hardworking, nonpolitical — exactly the profile of a valuable civil servant.

 

As LaPlante now recalls it, he suspected he’d be fired after Daley appeared at a 10 p.m. news conference on Monday, the first day of the flood, and promised he’d deliver the heads of any city employees linked to the trouble. LaPlante had spent much of the day at the city’s command post near the Kinzie Street Bridge, the site of the leak, finally getting home to his Lincoln Square neighborhood, on the Northwest Side, about one in the morning. After a few hours of sleep, he headed back to City Hall for a 6 a.m. meeting.

At about 11:30 that morning, David Mosena, the Mayor’s chief of staff, summoned LaPlante to his office and told him that the Mayor wanted his resignation. LaPlante accepted his fate and quietly returned to his office to type a resignation letter. “It goes with the territory,” he says now. “The Mayor could ask me to leave just because he doesn’t like the color of shoes I wear.” By the time he finished the letter at about 12:15, his departure had already been announced at the Mayor’s noon press conference. “The problem was brought to his attention,” Daley told the assembled reporters, “but he failed to act.” LaPlante cleaned out his office and went home.

He says the full impact didn’t really hit him until the following Sunday at church, when the minister listed him with other members of the congregation who could use some friendly support. Most of the other people mentioned by the minister had been hospitalized or lost a family member. LaPlante got a standing ovation.

“I’m not comfortable being depicted as a sacrificial lamb,” he says, recalling his unhappy brush with fame. He’s dressed in a lumberjack shirt and worn jeans, sitting in the living room of the converted two-flat he shares with his wife, Linda, a church administrator, and their younger daughter (their other daughter is grown and lives in Arizona). “It’s part of the job,” LaPlante says. “When the team is losing, you fire the manager.”

LaPlante grew up in the Roseland neighborhood, the only child of Albert and Effie LaPlante, a librarian. He rebelled against his father’s career path by picking engineering over law, but he still ended up in the family business — public service. While studying civil engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1960, he landed a summer job at a drafting table in the city’s engineering department. In 1962, he picked up a master’s degree in transportation engineering from Northwestern University, then started working full-time for City Hall. Except for a tour of duty in the air force, he stayed a city employee straight through until the flood.

Along the way, he operated with little or no clout. Although his father’s connections had eased the way into City Hall, LaPlante established himself as an independent thinker. Acquaintances call him analytical, precise, even judicial — qualities that describe an engineer, one whose mind is attuned to tests and measurements, not to favors and influence. “He knows how to say yes to aldermen and how to say no to them and have them like it,” says David Williams, LaPlante’s predecessor as commissioner. During election seasons, LaPlante worked for both the Democratic Party and the fiercely unaffiliated Independent Voters of Illinois–Independent Precinct Organization. One former colleague remembers that after Harold Washington beat Mayor Jane Byrne in the 1983 primary, LaPlante was one of the first city employees to wear a Washington button into City Hall, though the building was still Byrne’s turf and it wasn’t yet clear Washington would win in the general election. He quit any overt politicking in the early 1980s, after he’d moved higher up in the city bureaucracy.

For most of his career, LaPlante was a traffic engineer who noodled around with traffic flow patterns and street signs, signals, and markings. He loved the work. “I had a feeling that I was doing something that made this city safer and prettier to drive in,” he says. As part of various teams of engineers and planners, LaPlante has had his hand in several large-scale projects that improved city life: the introduction of the city’s first Walk/Don’t Walk symbol signs in the mid-seventies; the elimination of the Lake Shore Drive “S” curve in the mid-eighties; and last year’s rehabilitation of the Drive from the Chicago River north. Plans to remap the Drive near Soldier Field and the Field Museum also carry the LaPlante stamp.

At least two other LaPlante projects, though innovative, foundered. He was a strategist behind the State Street Mall, the project to lure shoppers by banning cars on the street and widening the sidewalks. Though the mall is still there, nobody today has a good word for it. “I’m not sure a complete mall was ever a good idea for that wide a street,” LaPlante says. “I didn’t know that at the time.”

His other big flop — establishing Loop bus lanes that ran against traffic — was more his own idea. Its failure taught him that politics moves faster than engineering — a lesson that was repeated vividly during the flood. The lanes, set up in 1980, were designed to shoot buses east and west through the Loop on a regular schedule. Before the counter-flow lanes were installed, buses took up to 30 minutes to run between Michigan Avenue and the South Branch of the Chicago River. Under LaPlante, then the city’s chief traffic engineer, counterflow lanes cleared a path free of parked and double-parked vehicles and set travel time at a steady 15 minutes.

The trouble was, those wide-open lanes invited pedestrians to stride out into the street before checking for traffic. “People were used to stepping out between parked cars without looking,” LaPlante says. “So they just walked three or four feet into the street without noticing.” He found a solution in London: low fences that discouraged walkers from crossing anywhere but at corners. The first set was on order when a band of aldermen jumped onto the issue, citing several accidents. In 1985 the counterflow lanes were turned around so buses again ran with traffic. Buses still cross the Loop faster than before, but not quite as fast as they did from 1980 to 1985.

Over time, LaPlante moved up in the government and found himself doing more managing and less engineering. In September 1991, when David Williams left as public works commissioner, LaPlante, the first deputy, moved into the slot — but only as acting commissioner (the department was renamed Transportation in January under a Daley-driven reorganization).

By some accounts, the promotion took LaPlante above his natural peak. Chicago’s city government is a federation 38 departments, each headed by comissioner whose job it is to keep at least one aspect the city — housing, streets and sanitation, budget — from collapsing under the complex pressures of modern urban life. A commissioner’s job is to resolve as many problems as possible and forward to the Mayor and his inner circle those that demand higher thought.

Naturally, each commissioner believes his or her slice of the city is the one most in need of the Mayor’s attention. “There are numerous memos every month saying, ‘We’re gonna have a huge problem on our hands if my project isn’t taken care of,” says Elizabeth Hollander, formerly the city’s commissioner of planning and now executive director of the Government Assistance Project of the Chicago Community Trust. “It’s a way to get money. The question is, which ones are real? That’s the awful problem of the crumbling infrastructure of a city.” Clearly the commissioners who can shout the loudest are likely to get the most action.

John LaPlante was not one to shout. He’s committed, smart, helpful — but not aggressive. Some City Hall watchers weren’t surprised that he never got a full commissionership. Daley associates say LaPlante is a thinker and a tester, not a risk taker, and the chief of the department that shores up an old city’s infrastructure has to take risks.

LaPlante also had little access to Daley. Critics have often complained that the Mayor is insulated from his troops by a close ring of advisers: Tim Degnan, the director of the Mayor’s office of intergovernmental affairs; Ed Bedore, the chief financial adviser; Frank Kreusi, the policy chief; and Billy Daley, the Mayor’s brother, a lawyer who’s president of Amalgamated Bank and Trust. Some say the four cut off access to the Mayor by anyone without a personal route. “These guys are supposed to handle things so the Mayor can fly at a level of policy and vision,” says one Daley supporter. “That’s OK if they give you access to the Mayor when necessary, but these guys want to be the access.”

LaPlante hadn’t met privately with the Mayor since before Daley was inaugurated, and he wasn’t aggressive enough to force his way past the inner circle. (By contrast, consider the tactics used by chief of staff David Mosena. A Mosena associate relates that while Mosena was commissioner of planning, he detected Daley’s pattern of walking to events in the Loop. So whenever he knew of a scheduled appearance within walking distance, he would wait outside the Mayor’s office and offer to walk over with him. Daley came to appreciate Mosena’s intelligence and commitment — and made him chief of staff last June.)

LaPlante’s final shortcoming was a simple lack of clout. Daley has stitched together his power base from a range of constituencies, and thus he values City Hall players who can help provide support — for example, general services commissioner Ben Reyes, one of the highest-ranking Hispanics in the administration. LaPlante couldn’t bring any political group to the table except perhaps the bicyclists grateful for his advocacy of bike paths.

Even without the flood, LaPlante would have been replaced by early May — as the Mayor’s office acknowledged after the disaster in a statement to Chicago magazine. (On May 20th, Daley named Joseph Boyle the transportation commissioner. Like Robert Belcaster, Daley’s recent choice to run the Chicago Transit Authority, Boyle is a developer.)

 

Last October 15th, during a budget speech, Mayor Daley announced a government reorganization — he would eliminate the Department of Public Works, folding much of it into a new Department of Transportation and eliminating 267 jobs. John LaPlante, the acting commissioner in Public Works since September, would continue as acting commissioner of transportation. “Public Works is too spread out — doing too many things,” Daley said. “Lines of authority are unclear. . . . Most importantly, they will be no more finger-pointing.”

The finger-pointing was only beginning. The transfer of personnel led to considerable confusion. Alderman Shiller says she spoke to city employees in December who knew they’d still have jobs in January because they hadn’t been pink-slipped, “but they didn’t have any idea who they’d be working for.” She blames the Mayor for failing to plot the reorganization adequately. “You can’t pick up a big-city department and throw it to the wind,” she says. “If you want to reorganize something so large and important, you have to think it through so you know exactly where everything will go and what everyone will do.”

One example of the confusion is particularly acute: In January a cable-company worker made a startling videotape of the breach in the tunnel. He tried to call James McTigue, the city employee who knew the tunnels best, but — because of the reorganization — a City Hall telephone operator couldn’t find McTigue’s new number, and the cable worker gave up.

LaPlante spent much of the fall managing the switch. The Department of Public Works, with 1,150 staffers, was to emerge a leaner 850-person Transportation Department. Some Public Works employees would shift to the Water, Aviation, or General Services department on January first. The handful of workers shifted to Water and Aviation transferred smoothly, but a Transportation Department source says the overlap with General Services was rough. The source says commissioner Ben Reyes repeatedly declined to participate in meetings about the change. (Reyes would not comment.)

There was a question about which department should oversee the city’s vast underground tunnel system, created early in this century for coal and mail delivery to Loop buildings and closed in 1959. The city maintained the tunnels regularly until 1987, when aides to Mayor Washington eliminated the job of freight tunnel inspector. Last November, LaPlante sent Reyes two memos telling him that responsibility for keeping track of the tunnels would fall under General Services as of January.

LaPlante was glad to see that part of his department go; he was a traffic guy and knew next to nothing about underground structures. According to LaPlante, Reyes never responded to the memos. After the flood, the Mayor’s press secretary said officials were checking to see if LaPlante’s memos had been superseded by conversations to the contrary. LaPlante says no such conversations occurred.

Even before the bureaucracy began adjusting to the reshuffling, the clock started ticking on the leak. The details of the events leading to the flood are by now familiar: In late 1990, Great Lakes Dock & Dredge, an Oak Brook firm, returned the lowest bid on a Department of Public Works project to replace pilings at five sites along the Chicago River, including at the Kinzie Street Bridge. According to a preliminary investigation by corporation counsel Kelly Welsh, in September 1991 the contractor got verbal permission to shift the location of the pilings; it’s now believed that the new pilings damaged or punctured the branch of the freight tunnel running under the river. In mid-January, when the cable crew video-taped the tunnel, three wooden pilings were visible through a breach in the wall.

James McTigue, who worked in the General Services Department, was in the tunnels on March 13th and recorded in a project diary that the tunnel had collapsed. He noted in the diary that he told a General Services supervising engineer, Al Mourillon. Later, Mourillon told Welsh’s investigators that he mentioned the problem “in passing” to his boss, Ben Reyes, telling him that he would “take care of it.” But Reyes told investigators that he didn’t recall the conversation.

On March 17th McTigue alerted chief soils engineer Ted Maynard — the first Transportation Department employee to be told. The next day McTigue, along with a Maynard subordinate, photographed the damage. McTigue took the film to a Northwest Side Osco store, and picked it up seven days later. (He later maintained that a snowstorm had stalled the return of the film.) On March 25th, photos in hand, McTigue discussed the tunnel breach with three other city engineers; they then alerted the two bridge-pilings project engineers. On April first, six city employees gathered for a meeting. They decided city workers could brick up the broken wall at a cost chief engineer Lou Koncza estimated at $10,000. (The plan to use city workers was quickly dropped because of the scope of the job).

Either that day or the next, Koncza told his boss, John LaPlante — the first LaPlante had heard of the problem. Now LaPlante says that although he thought the tunnels were under the purview of General Services, he decided not to shunt the job back to Reyes’s department. “Since we had already gone down and looked at it, I wanted to get the job done,” LaPlante says. “So I accepted the responsibility — perhaps more responsibility than I should have — because I wanted to make sure things got done right.”

LaPlante asked for a memo; Koncza told Dennis Sadowski, the resident engineer on the original pilings project. Sadowski wrote a memo dated April second, a Thursday, and it reached LaPlante on Friday. In a memo dated Sunday, April fifth, LaPlante responded, telling Koncza to plug the hole as soon as possible. The Mayor later said sending a memo wasn’t enough, but LaPlante says he had told Koncza in their first discussion to start getting cost estimates right away; the memo, he says, was for documentation in case they needed to request emergency funds. (Koncza did not return phone calls.)

Over the following days, the Transportation Department got three bids on the repair job from private companies, all of them around $75,000, far more than Koncza had estimated. LaPlante told his people to get more estimates. Two bidders planned to tour the damaged area again on April 14th. The flood hit April 13th.

 

The next day, when Mayor Daley announced in City Hall’s press room that LaPlante’s head would be the first to roll, he said the acting commissioner had “failed to act.” Later, in announcing disciplinary action against seven other city workers, the Mayor repeated that LaPlante had failed “to act, to take responsibility. He should have made a decision and acted immediately on it.”

Given the circumstances, that would have taken considerable foresight. As it worked its way up the chain of command to LaPlante, news of the tunnel breach seems never to have taken on any overt signs of urgency. The cable employee who had videotaped evidence gave up calling McTigue after one frustrated effort. Asked by Welsh’s investigators why he hadn’t pushed for emergency repairs, Koncza said that he knew the tunnel had already leaked for six months; he couldn’t imagine it wouldn’t hold for another few weeks. Nobody could say for sure that the tunnel breach was anything more than another busted chunk of the city in need of repair.

“I was not getting from anybody the feeling. that this couldn’t wait seven or ten days,” LaPlante says. “The people who were down in those tunnels, who had seen it, didn’t believe it was going to let go. Or if they did, they didn’t act that way. No one told me I had an emergency down there. I can’t know about that, sitting up in City Hall running a department of 850 people.” Everything’s labeled “urgent” in a city government snarled in complex urban problems; the key is figuring out what’s superurgent.

Had he worked in the same building as his staff, somebody might have stuck McTigue’s photographs under his nose. But LaPlante’s office was three blocks from most of his staff, who work in a city building at 320 North Clark Street, north of the river. LaPlante was scheduled to move there in May.

David Williams thinks LaPlante was doing all he could when the walls burst. There were really two options, Williams says: Find a contractor already working nearby for the city and add the tunnel repairs to the contractor’s existing agreement, or do the more time-consuming thing and ask for estimates. “Technically, [the first] is illegal, because you’re changing the scope of a contract. If he did that, and they plugged it up, then the Better Government Association or some civic-minded group is going to say you gave this contractor more work than he was contracted to do. The other option is to get quotes — not the full bid — from contractors. You need a document saying this contract is best as evidence that you’re not showing favoritism. And that’s what he was doing when the dam broke.”

In its report last year, the Illinois Commission on the Future of Public Service argued that the bureaucracy was “a system that gives managers responsibility but no authority to complete their tasks. . . . [Management-level employees] fear that city government often will not support their decisions. Consequently, they are reluctant to take action and assume responsibility.”

LaPlante maintains that if he had been fully informed on the damaged tunnel, he would have skirted the paperwork and hired a contractor immediately. Without the key details, he assumed he wasn’t looking at a “superurgent” project but at a routine “urgent” one calling for quick, but not emergency, action.

David Williams, for one, says that LaPlante had to leave. “If something like that happens on your watch, then you have to go. If it had happened nine months ago, I would have been that person. John simply happened to be in the seat at the time.”

 

Eight days after demanding LaPlante’s resignation, Mayor Daley held a press conference to announce that seven other city employees were being disciplined. By this time, Kelly Welsh had completed his investigation, which showed that the seven had known of the tunnel breach before LaPlante. The group included McTigue, whom the Mayor is trying to fire, and Koncza, who promptly resigned. (McTigue has denied he was at fault and is challenging his dismissal.) Daley also announced that Ben Reyes had tendered his resignation, but that it had not been accepted.

If LaPlante, why not Reyes? McTigue worked in General Services, and Al Mourillon, who had retired from that department two weeks before the flood, told Welsh’s investigators that he relayed the information to Reyes between March 13th and March 30th, as much as two and a half weeks before LaPlante heard of it. If, as Reyes says, he never got the news, his department seems to have a communications problem. Perhaps Reyes suffers from the same isolation from the troops that’s said to plague Daley.

Of course, there’s a perfectly good explanation for Reyes’s invulnerability: politics. Reyes represents one of Daley’s strongest links to the Hispanic community, a key ingredient in the Mayor’s patchwork of constituencies. Punishing Reyes might risk losing Hispanic support.

In the end, despite Mayor Daley’s incantations about improving government efficiency, the whole affair has an obvious moral: For a bureaucrat, the less known, the better.

 

These days, John LaPlante is hanging around his house considering a number of job offers. He’s concerned enough about the risk of liability that he’s hired a lawyer to guide him through the coming months. For the first few weeks after the flood, the letters of support from old friends and acquaintances poured in as quickly as memos once had. But now LaPlante has to worry about making a new start at 52, after, essentially, holding one job for his entire career. [?] he’s worried, though, he’s got his late father as a bolstering example. Albert LaPlante started his new career in public service at 54.

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