Candidate for City Council, 11th Ward
Education: J.D., The John Marshall Law School B.A., St. Mary's University of Minnesota St. Ignatius College Prep High School Nativity of Our Lord Grade School
Occupation: Commissioner, Cook County Water Reclamation District and Partner at the law firm of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C.
Age: Not answered
Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered
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.
Refinancing the City's debt is not a new concept nor is that necessarily a bad strategy. However if the City is using bonds to pay operating expenses, that is problematic because there is just not enough revenue to pay our day-to-day obligations. Residents rightfully demand quality services delivered in a timely and efficient manner. At the same time, our tax base demands that government be sensitive to the burden taxpayers must bear. The challenge is meeting the daily demands of taxpayers while also working every day to manage the City's long-term financial health. The City needs to pay down its debt and demonstrate discipline in its spending. I have a proven record of fiscal responsibility at MWRD, which has received recent praise from the Civic Federation for its ability to manage its finances in a responsible and forward-looking manner. In a December 10, 2014 letter to MWRD's executive director, regarding its FY2015 budget, Civic Federation president Lawrence Msall wrote, "The Civic Federation continues to view the MWRD as a model for long-term financial planning and we acknowledge that the District faces significant challenges in funding its pensions and other costs." It is also incumbent upon City leaders to identify new revenue sources in order to satisfy our fiscal and operational obligations. I am proud of the work we have done at the MWRD to create a program that allows us to resell resources like gray water, phosphorus, methane gas and biosolids that are extracted during our water treatment processes. This program also received praise from the Civic Federation, citing MWRD's "commendable long-term planning."
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 understand that the City has significant obligations that it must meet in the near future. If elected by the voters, I will draw upon my experience as Commissioner at the MWRD, where we have been leaders on pension reform by adopting a disciplined approach to meeting these obligations without adversely impacting our operational mission. The MWRD approved a pension reform package in 2011, one that I supported, and we have voted every year since to meet our obligation. In the ongoing discussion of how to best reform our pension system, everything needs to be on the table. We need to find new streams of revenue that would be strictly dedicated to funding pensions for retirees. I will also be watching closely as the Illinois Supreme Court considers the lawsuit brought on challenging the pension bill that was enacted one year ago. It is my hope that the Supreme Court provides ample guidance on how we can proceed in a way that delivers on our obligation to retirees while also putting the state on sound financial footing going forward.
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.
The law that created Tax Increment Financing is a conservation statute designed to spark redevelopment in neighborhoods that need it most. While City policy requires that no more than 20 percent of a project can be financed for a private development, taxpayers need to understand that private developers fund the remaining 80 percent. If elected alderman, I would not be opposed to using this tool to serve as a catalyst for development in several blighted areas throughout the 11th Ward if they bring jobs and economic opportunities to the community. That said, we must evaluate each project on its merits and its potential to deliver the expected economic return on the investment that we would make. Regarding the Marriott Hotel and DePaul arena, we need to keep in mind that each project has its own set of circumstances. This project, like many others, would have sat idle on the drawing board were it not for TIF funds. So, jobs, (both temporary construction jobs and full-time jobs) and economic benefits simply would not have been realized if the project did not proceed. It is my understanding that the $55 million in TIF funds represent just one fifth of the total project cost, which means that the project also generated $220 million in private investment.
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.
Each of the 12 ways to heal a city is a worthy pursuit and the Chicago Tribune deserves our praise for reaching out to all Chicagoans and encouraging them to think outside the box to make Chicago a more livable, viable City. Clearly, as a MWRD Commissioner, I would support Commissioner Debra Shore's plan to create an industrial park surrounding the Calumet Treatment Plant while also finding ways to implement a similar plan at the other facilities. And, as someone who has also considered a way to sell City-owned vacant land in my ward to bolster economic development, I am intrigued by the idea to donate or sell City-owned land that can be re-purposed in a way to educate children, help the non-profit sector and spur economic development.
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.
Clearly, there is more we can and should be doing to engender confidence among taxpayers that city employees, by and large, play by the rules and put in an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. The vast majority of public servants do just that. We do know, however, that there will always be employees, be it in the public or private sector, who use their position or their authority to game the system for personal gain. We need to ensure that any public employee is held to a high standard of conduct. When anyone falls short of that standard, they should be held accountable. I believe in empowering one inspector general who is given the authority to investigate all city employees and elected officials for potential work rule violations, improper use of City resources and/or taxpayer dollars, residency issues, etc. If the inspector general's office, in the course of its work uncovers potential criminal activity, it should immediately bring proper law enforcement agencies into the fold. The discussion about the proper structure for an inspector general is really about holding all city employees accountable, including elected officials. One inspector general's office that is given enough resources to perform its job is more than adequate. We must also hold the inspector general accountable. The office is a part of the City government and should work with the Administration and the Council to make City government work better for the people of Chicago.
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?
CPS has made great progress since the school board came under the Mayor's purview. There is still much work to be done on behalf of children and families. I believe we need to be proactive in the reinvestment of our schools. We need to invest in facilities to foster a safe and productive environment where students can thrive. We need to do a better job identifying underperforming schools and getting them the resources needed to get back on the right track. One such program that has had a successful start doing just that is the OS4 program. This program shifts the way we support high needs schools by providing intensive professional support for teachers and administrators that is tailored to the school's specific needs and enhances opportunities for success. Clearly, children need to be spending more time in the classroom, not less. I support a longer school day and an extended school year. A longer school day and year allows schools to offer more instruction time covering subjects beyond the basics. We need to ensure that students are exposed to core and other subject areas such as art, music and physical education. I support a mayorally-appointed school board because it gives the mayor the best opportunity to forward his/her vision for how to make our schools better. I also fully support community-elected local school councils in order to give residents and parents a continued voice on local matters concerning schools.
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?
As a member of the South Loop Chamber of Commerce, I have worked with existing businesses to help them expand and worked with other businesses looking to locate in the area. My experience on zoning and planning matters positions me well to work with businesses to create an environment that encourages business growth. If elected, I would start an ongoing conversation with local business owners to better understand their needs and find ways that the City can support their growth and expansion. I would explore whether marketing unused, City-owned land is a viable means to attract news businesses while putting more land on the property tax rolls. I would host local job fairs to encourage local businesses to hire locally. And, as part of my vision for improving commerce and retail in the 11th Ward, I will explore how we can create a well-planned, vibrant retail and entertainment district along Halsted Street, which runs throughout the Ward. Developing a walkable, attractive retail environment will encourage residents to shop locally while also drawing Chicagoans from other neighborhoods to visit great communities in the 11th Ward.
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.
Hard working families represent the backbone of the Ward that I seek to represent. They deserve wages that will support their efforts to raise a family and pursue the American dream. We need to create good paying jobs for middle class families. I support the City's recent ordinance to increase the minimum wage to assist with working families to achieve a better lifestyle. Working families throughout our state and our country deserve a fair minimum wage as well. Moving this issue from conversation to action on a statewide and national level is a worthwhile effort whose time has come.
Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.
Because the law firm where I practice represents the Chicago Park District, it would be improper for me to weigh in on this matter. If elected alderman, I will represent the people of the 11th Ward first and foremost and pledge recuse myself from matters before City Council that involve the work of my firm.
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?
Chicago Police officers have a very difficult job and they do it very well. My grandfather was a Chicago Police sergeant. The police cannot make our neighborhoods safer without the support from residents, block clubs, CAPS organizations, business groups and elected officials. We need more residents to get involved just as we also need more police officers on the job in order to ensure that every neighborhood has more than its fair share of officers, beat cars and community outreach resources. Since CAPS was implemented in the early 90s, the City has seen a consistent decrease in major crimes. There are often several reasons behind any decreases or increases in crime. But it is no coincidence that the drop in crime came at a time when the Chicago Police Department made a commitment to develop strong, lasting relationships with the communities it serves. We want our officers to be tough on crime while working everyday with residents in every community, to build a mutually beneficial partnership. For 19 years, I have served on the board of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, a leading advocate for sensible measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. In that role, I have come to understand that while efforts to reduce gun and gang-related violence have been successful over the long-term, there is still much work to be done before we can make every community in Chicago safe. I know that one of the contributing factors to violent crime in Chicago is the easy access to firearms. I support the Chicago Police Department's tireless efforts to get illegal guns off the street. We need to support law enforcement initiatives with legislation to make it more difficult for criminals to access firearms.
Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.
I am supportive of the traffic light camera program because it improves traffic safety and can potentially save lives. The program needs to be administered with public safety as the priority. However, in continuing the initiative, we need to make sure it is being done for the right reasons. Recent news media reports that the City may have been altering timing of lights in order to increase revenue undermine the program's core purpose, which is to make our busiest intersections safer.
Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?
Chicaogans deserve representatives in City Council that know their concerns well. 11th Ward residents want their Alderman to know the Ward down to every alley, storefront and playground. While some would argue that fewer Aldermen would generate cost savings, I believe that the savings would come at the expense of good, solid, personal representation. If we have fewer Alderman representing larger swaths of the City, I would be concerned that the connection between an Alderman and the community he/she serves would be diminished significantly. If we have an Alderman serving thousands more residents and households, I would be concerned that their voice in local affairs would be muted and an Alderman's ability to develop meaningful relationships with the people he/she serves would be hampered.
Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?
I grew up in this Ward and chose to raise my family here because it is a tightly-knit, diverse community that will give my children all that city life has to offer. In the 40-plus years I have lived here, I have come to learn that job one for any Alderman is making sure basic city services are being delivered effectively and efficiently. If I am elected Alderman, I will make customer service a priority by being responsive to all residents, being accessible, encouraging two-way communication and not just reacting to resident needs and concerns, but anticipating them. My experience as a property manager of commercial real estate was good preparation for coordinating and responding to constituent service requests. Making sure the streets are plowed and the trash is collected just scratches the surface. 11th Ward residents want to be sure that their families and their homes are safe. They want quality schools for their children. They want to improve our roads, viaducts and infrastructure. They want ample retail, recreational and entertainment opportunities in their communities. We have an opportunity to develop a vibrant, walkable retail district on Halsted Street. I hear from residents all the time that they would love to see more retail activity on Halsted. They would like more opportunities to shop locally. I couldn't agree more. People should be able to walk throughout our community to get their errands done, do some shopping in boutiques and have a nice meal, all within a well-planned space that serves as a catalyst for local commerce, jobs and economic development.
Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.
I played a lot of ice hockey growing up and still do even at the ripe old age of 45. I play in an over-30 adult league comprised mostly of attorneys and count Congressman Mike Quigley as a teammate.