Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Michael S. Diaz

Michael S. Diaz

Candidate for City Council, 45th Ward

Michael S. Diaz

Candidate for City Council, 45th Ward

Portrait of Michael S. Diaz

Education: B.A. and Ed.M – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Juris Doctor – Loyola Chicago School of Law

Occupation: Attorney at the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, Division of Banking

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered

Candidates running for City Council, 45th Ward


Responses to the Chicago Tribune's questionnaire

Q: Last year, the Chicago Tribune's investigative series "Broken Bonds" reported that, since 2000, Chicago had issued long-term bonds to spend nearly $10 billion, much of it for short-term operating expenses. Hundreds of millions of dollars went to delay bond payments by refinancing old debts, a tactic known as "scoop and toss" that extends payments far into the future. Was this borrowing justified? Going forward, how should City Hall change its finances to pay down existing debts and provide services? Will you argue primarily for cuts in spending or for tax increases? Please be specific.

The City of Chicago is only beginning to rebound from the financial collapse that began in 2007. To determine whether the borrowing was justified we must appreciate the importance of context and ask whether the bond deals were justified at the point of time they were entered. I would want to know whether projections conducted then took into account a savings analysis, debt servicing and worst-case scenarios as part of due diligence. It's far too easy to compare interest rates then with those we have now and make ill informed conclusions regarding feasibility. As the Deputy General Counsel for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, Division of Banking I have reviewed many foreclosure cases and have asked similar questions. That is, was lending to a homebuyer in 2004 justified considering that the home bought is now in foreclosure and the borrower no longer is employed. Absent fraud, I have found that such lending was in fact justified at the point of initiation, but the question is instructive as it relates to bonds. Going forward bond issuances should be limited by ordinance and sought only to finance long-term infrastructure projects and investments such as schools, roads, sewer and water systems, and other public projects. Furthermore, we must limit the duration the bond will be outstanding and payable. We must be responsible and not leverage the future of the city on contracted debt. For this reason, we should consider an ordinance that will prohibit any bond deal that cannot be serviced with today's revenues, as opposed to projected revenues, within 15 years or less. For those bond deals already on the books, we should conduct a comprehensive legal and fiscal analysis and determine two things. First, whether we can legally opt-out of the bond deal. Second, whether opting out of a bond deal will provide savings; and whether we have fiscal tools in place to facilitate the opting out of bad bond deals. If we have the legal ability, we should look to either retire the bond debt or restructure it in such a way that we realize true savings. There will be associated costs, but they should never fully diminish our savings or increase taxpayer liability. Generally and broadly speaking, in order to address the fiscal downward pressure we must demand the legislature in Springfield pass fair share legislation. The City of Chicago is the economic engine of the state. Yet, the state has failed to provide the city the resources we need to adequately fund our public schools and infrastructure. In fact, the city is paying more than its fair share to the state and is largely responsible for paying the pensions of teachers beyond the city limits. We also need to fight for the addition of a progressive tax to our constitution. The working poor and the middle class are the drivers of our economy. If we continue to weigh them down with excessive taxation the upward mobility of our residents and economy will be stifled.


Q: Chicago will face a substantial increase in contributions to its police and fire pension funds in 2016. Chicago's unfunded pension liability amounts to about $7,000 for each resident of the city. How should the city solve its pension crisis? Please be specific about pension changes, spending cuts or revenue increases you would support.

I oppose any measure that will unilaterally cut the pension of retirees. If we are going to ask them to sacrifice for years of politicians and institutions failing to adequately fund their retirement, then we must require that everyone step in and balance this system. For current city employees we cannot ignore that the current system will undoubtedly leave them without a pension if things do not change. For this reason, I will support a comprehensive solution that fixes the problem and shares sacrifices evenly. I envision any solution being limited in duration – once the problem is solved the shared sacrifices end – and holding our elected officials accountable is as key. To this end, I would propose a balanced budget ordinance that penalizes lawmakers for failing to adequately fund our pension funds. If they don't do their job and adopt budgets that pay the bills, then they should not get paid until they've done their job. We must also rethink how to restructure benefit packages for newly-hired city workers. To this end, I propose establishing a working committee that will be dedicated to researching best practices in the area of employee benefits. If we want to retain the best workers to service our residents then we must incentivize them to stay whether the incentive is in the form of a comprehensive benefit package or higher pay. More importantly, we owe it to our retirees and current city workers to find a solution for them first.


Q: What changes should be made in the city's use of tax increment financing? Would you support expansion or extension of TIF districts in your ward? How should excess TIF funds be spent? Do you support the $55 million allotment of TIF funds to buy land for a Marriott Hotel and DePaul basketball arena? Please explain.

TIF's should be used to accomplish the dual goals of economic growth and stability in economically depressed areas and the areas they impact. Once goals are met, TIF districts should be eliminated. To provide clarity on when goals are achieved, we must pass rules or regulations outlining what factors must be met in order for a TIF to be eliminated. To date, I am not aware of any guidance that will help decision makers' responsibly eliminate or expand a TIF. Until such guidance is in place I will not move quickly in supporting the expansion or extension of any TIF district within the 45th Ward without overwhelming community support. However, I am supportive of the allotment to support the creation of the DePaul basketball arena. The construction of the arena will create jobs for all residents in the city, but particularly Southside residents where certain areas have been riddled with crime over the recent years. Study after study suggests that next to adequate policing, robust employment opportunities is the best way to decrease crime, increase social mobility and expand the tax base. Additionally, the arena will boost our tourism industry as the City of Chicago will be able to host sports tournaments and once again be called the convention capital of the world.


Q: The Tribune Editorial Board recently offered "12 ways to heal a city" — the best ideas among more than 1,000 suggestions from readers on how to craft "A new Plan of Chicago." These proposals are available at chicagotribune.com/plan. Please tell us which ideas you would champion. We invite you to offer additional ideas for dealing with Chicago's challenges.

I would champion Mutual of Chicago, Schools as Tools, and Hubs and STEMS as essential to solving our fiscal challenges and preparing the city for the economy of tomorrow. The three plans in combination are a great fit for the 45th Ward and add to our local economy. More importantly, a recent National Bureau of Economic Research publication reported that over 60% of 18 to 24 year old are unemployed. Although the reasons for this phenomenon vary, most studies suggest that we are not adequately preparing students, unemployed adults and our aging population for the opportunities that are present today. By engaging our neighborhood schools and community colleges to focus on job ready sectors, such as technology and light manufacturing, we can grow our economy and decrease unemployment realities for new workers.


Q: Should the City Council keep or abolish the office of legislative inspector general? Should the city inspector general be given the authority to investigate aldermen and their staff members? Do you have other ideas to improve government ethics in Chicago? Please explain.

I do not support any initiative that would abolish the office of legislative inspector general and I support expanding the powers of the legislative inspector general. I would oppose any attempt to repeal or otherwise diminish the inspector's investigatory powers and I believe it should have the power to investigate wrongdoing in aldermanic offices. That said, I would strive for an expanded ordinance that respects the balance between the legislature and the executive.


Q: The Chicago Public Schools system has seen significant improvements in freshmen on track and high school graduation rates. CPS has also closed dozens of schools, used fiscal 2016 revenue to balance its 2015 budget and faces a roughly $700 million pension payment in 2016. Please give us your assessment of the academic and financial performance of the city's public schools. What is the key to improving public education in the city? Should members of the Board of Education be elected by the public or continue to be appointed by the mayor? Do you support the longer school day and year? Should CPS expand or reduce the number of charter schools? How should CPS close its significant budget gap?

For the first time in my life the trajectory of CPS outcomes meet or exceed national benchmarks for graduation rates, and out pace other urban centers in the country. As Alderman, I will continue to champion innovation in education to assure that our students are well prepared for the academic and real world challenges they will confront. I am also a proponent of experiential learning. We must constantly engage our students and allow them to make decisions within a controlled environment that have real world consequences. I would dedicate 20% of all ward discretionary funds to schools in the ward to support education so that students can learn how to invest in projects that positively impact their school and community. In this way, students will learn the value of being engaged in their communities, expand core competencies, and learn lessons in budget preparedness. On an elected school board, although I generally believe the Mayor should appoint the board, I think having an elected school board is an idea worth looking into. To that end, I would work with council members and establish a committee to study the issue. I have fundamental questions that I think must be answered before I can form a qualified opinion on the matter. First, I would want to know how board members will be chosen, and whether a background in education should be a requirement. Second, I would want to know how many wards each member will represent and whether they would have control over the purse strings. Last, I would want to be assured that the role of politics would be minimized in the board. At the end of the day we need to know who will be accountable when challenges arise, and we must be able to move swiftly when the times require action. On the budget gap and longer school day, I support a longer school day for all CPS students. We no longer live in an agrarian society where students must rush home to farm land and accomplish other chores. I am also an advocate and supporter of block scheduling. Time on task is essential to learning and the development of substantive pedagogy. Going from 45 minutes of math to 2 hours an 45 minutes of block math, scheduling for example, will allows teachers the opportunity to develop innovative curriculum and students the time to work with and comprehend new ideas and models. The budget challenges that face CPS has been discussed in my answer to question 1 and I adopt that answer herein by reference.


Q: How would you attract more employers to your ward? How would you encourage employers to hire local residents? What have you done to promote economic development in your ward?

I adopt my answer to question 4 herein by reference. In addition, we have to utilize Small Business Administration Programs and TIF dollars to incentivize employers to expand their operations within or to the ward. We must also create job-training clusters throughout the city utilizing our neighborhood schools and city colleges. These clusters should be welcoming centers for displaced workers and offer them an opportunity to retrain, learn new skills, and obtain advanced certifications for the jobs that exist today. Second, we should establish a choice employer program. Employers that invest in worker training initiatives and pay a fair wage should be provided targeted investments to expand their operations or hire additional employees.


Q: Do you support or oppose the City Council vote to increase the minimum wage in several steps to $13 an hour by 2019? Please explain.

I support the City Council's vote to increase the minimum wage to $13 by 2019. I believe that raising the minimum wage was the right thing to do because it sends a very real message to corporations such as Wal-Mart who have taken advantage of social service programs and taxpayer subsidies, in lieu of providing workers adequate wages and needed benefits such as health care, that we will not sit idly by while they enjoy windfall profits at taxpayers expense. The incremental increase over time is also advantageous. We want to minimize any adverse impact a worker may face due to an increase in the minimum wage. A February 2014 study by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that some low wage earners may lose their jobs due to the increase. By slowly implementing the full impact of the increase we can manage the adverse impact in real time. This will be especially true if we can engage our educational institutions to help workers transition during times of unemployment, and help them learn new skills to take advantage of the unfilled jobs in our manufacturing sector.


Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.

Whenever city assets undergo transformation residents should be consulted and allowed to voice their support and opposition. The lakefront is an asset that is world renowned for its history and greenscape. Over the past few decades the city has invested a sum to improve upon the lakefronts appearance and user experience. I am quite satisfied with what the city has done to date. As it relates to the Lucas Museum, I would like to look into the matter further and learn about what the courts have to say about how the space should be used. Obviously, if the courts determine there were missteps in designating the space, reconsiderations are appropriate.


Q: How can the city improve public safety? Please address the role and performance of the Chicago Police Department and the role of neighborhood residents in crime prevention. What have you done to improve public safety in your community?

First and foremost, we need to become less dependent on overtime in order to fill voids in the force. A recent report indicated that payments for overtime exceeding $100 million in 2013, and has been in excess of budgetary projections the past three years. We need to be honest with residents and admit we have to hire additional personnel. Although I do not support investing every overtime dollar in new personnel, we should consider a hybrid approach that dictates hiring of new personnel when overtime expenditures exceed 100% of budgetary forecasts. Our budget should be accurate and stable.


Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.

I am supportive of measures designed to slow traffic around parks and busy thoroughfares. Although I do not like the big brotheresque feel of the traffic light camera program, I do appreciate the opportunity to cross a busy street without having to dodge oncoming traffic traveling at speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour and I like that drivers are more aware of their surrounding as they approach intersections.


Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?

No.


Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?

The greatest concern from residents of the ward is that there seems to be two 45th Wards – one that is seeking to become the next Wicker Park and the other that is supportive of families and a community that maintains a certain quality of life. We must address development in a way that we do not lose the character of the ward by adopting a one size fits all mentality. We can accommodate divergent views and development ideas within the ward without losing its underlying character. My priorities for improving the ward would be as follows: A. Jobs – We must work to attract light or micro manufacturing into the ward. In addition, we must strive to revitalize our commercial district and the Milwaukee corridor. There is no reason why our local economy cannot rival that of Michigan Ave or Little Village (26th Street). B. Education – a large percentage of the students enrolled in our schools are low-income and achieving at or above state averages. We have to invest further in these students by creating an additional gifted or magnet school in our ward. We must also invest in our seasoned worker population who are willing and ready to work, but need adequate training. Education must be viewed as an ongoing requirement and need, rather than something that is done to simply meet state mandates. C. Infrastructure/Investment – As a former small business owner I understand the importance of foot traffic to a thriving commercial district. When people drive through the 45th ward I want them to slow down, look around, stop and shop – we have to rethink how people travel through our ward and adopt a plan to enhance the consumer experience. In additions, our residents should not have to travel to Niles, Norridge or Skokie to get the commercial goods they require. I hope to engage residents and develop a plan that will account for the needs of the entire 45th ward. Our ward is diverse, and a one size fits all philosophy will simply fail.


Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.

I was part of an improvisational comedy group called Sketchnicity that performed at one of the off stages at Second City.