Candidate for City Council, 33rd Ward
Education: Bachelors from Miami University, Master in Arts in Russian and East European Studies from Indiana University, and Master in Public Affairs from Indiana University, Organizational Development Certificate from DePaul University.
Occupation: Independent Consultant – non-profit management, cross-cultural training
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.
Financing short-term operating expenses with risky refinancing deals – such as those outlined in the "Broken Bonds" series – was negligent and just one in a long line of examples of irresponsible budget and financial decisions that have been made in our city's government. Our City Council has forgotten that as the legislative branch, an important part of their job is oversight of the executive branch. With only a few exceptions, our aldermen sign off on whatever the Mayor suggests. As a result, the taxpayers have been left holding the bag on such poorly thought-out deals such as the parking meter privatization, the mismanaged red-light camera contracts, and "scoop and toss" refinancing deals. As alderman, I will advocate for the development of a more responsible budget that reflects the values of our residents. I will do this by examining public service delivery for ways to make operations more efficient, which will result in savings to taxpayers. In addition, I will fight for a more equitable tax code that does not unduly burden lower and middle-income families. Both individuals and corporations utilize city services so both groups need to pay a fair share. There are three main areas City Council should address to improve efficiencies and bring more money into the general city funds: • Reform Tax Increment Financing (TIF): Evaluate TIF districts to determine which are still necessary and if funds have been invested effectively. Pass the TIF Surplus Ordinance so unallocated funds are annually returned to the general account. • Stop Irresponsible Privatization: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. City Council should pass the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance to require a complete analysis of any privatization program. All aldermen should also be able to request legislative analysis through the Office of Financial Analysis (COFA) – and COFA should be staffed and operational as soon as possible. • Streamline Government: Evaluate the need for Chicago agencies that duplicate other levels of government. Move the municipal elections to coincide with the general elections. Introduce instant run-off voting. Reduce the size of the City Council. City Council also needs to identify sustainable revenue sources, instead of relying on increasing taxes and fees for individuals, who are already overburdened. My ideas for new revenue sources include a congestion tax for the Loop, which would also have a positive impact on traffic and the environment. I will explore a luxury tax for high-end, nonessential goods and services. We also need an analysis of how many city fines, especially environmental fines, go uncollected and what it would cost to start collecting these fines. Finally, as city leaders, the aldermen should lobby Springfield for a constitutional amendment to allow for a progressive income tax to ease the tax burden on many city residents.
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.
In order to identify the money necessary to properly fund our pensions, we need to (1) examine all possible avenues of revenue generation, and (2) streamline government processes. One of the most important steps government leaders in both the city and Springfield need to take in order to regain public trust is to address some key areas about pensions that the public perceives as "unfair." Based on my discussions with voters, the public wants to see the pensions fully funded for "regular" civil servants, but are frustrated by those they see as "taking advantage" of taxpayers by receiving multiple government-funded pensions, receiving a larger pension payment than their retirement salary, or receiving a pension while in prison. Although these abusers of the system are the exceptions rather than the rule, until these situations are addressed, it will be difficult to have a constructive public debate on what the "least-worst" path forward should be. Although grammatically questionable, "least-worst" is the only way to describe any proposed solutions to our pension crisis. In addition, we need more honesty and less rhetoric from our leaders about the current state of this crisis. There will likely need to be a change to the Illinois Constitution to clarify what "cannot be diminished" means in the pension clause. Based on my conversations with voters, everyone seems to agree that once retired, benefits – including health care – should not be changed, but there is no consensus on what to do with someone in their 30s, who still has time "to make it up," or how to address mid-career employees. In order to dig ourselves out of this financial mess, we need to accept that everyone – individuals and corporations, unions and government – are going to have to sacrifice a little. As alderman, I will continue to be an honest voice about the pension situation and to fight to ensure that taxpayers will not be left to pick up the entire financial burden for this situation. Finally, my priorities for cutting spending are outlined in detail in the question on refinancing (above) but can be quickly summarized as TIF reform, a moratorium on privatization until the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance is passed, and streamlining government services. In addition, I will support changes (1) to our tax code so there are fewer regressive taxes imposed on our lower and middle-income families and (2) to ensure both individuals and corporations are paying their fair share of taxes. Finally, we need lawmakers to promise there will be no more "pension holidays" and we will start paying back into the system – even if it's not the full $7,000/individual that is required.
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.
Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Reform is a cornerstone of my platform to advocate for more responsible budget decisions in our city. Other cities successfully implement TIF programs as a revitalization and development tool, but the Chicago method of identifying TIF districts and distributing money needs to be reformed. As alderman, I will work to ensure our TIF dollars are being used responsibly and spent in a way that reflects our priorities. I will oppose the creation of new TIF districts, including those in my ward, until recommendations from the Mayor's 2011 TIF Reform Panel are implemented. A priority recommendation from the Reform Panel is to evaluate the impact that each TIF district has had on the area it serves. With my background in community development, I am uniquely positioned to undertake this evaluation for the TIF districts in my ward. Upon completion, I will advocate for the process to be replicated around the city. We also need to come up with a common definition of "blight" and close those TIF districts that are not in blighted areas or, based on evaluation, have not been effective drivers of community revitalization. Although officially closing these TIF districts will require action from Springfield, the City Council could pass a moratorium on any new activity in these TIF districts. If combined with passing the TIF Surplus Ordinance that was introduced in 2013, these two pieces of legislation would return money to the general budget to be used to pay for schools, pension obligations, and other public services. Another key area of the TIF program that needs to be reviewed is the Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF) program. Some TIFs have this option and some do not. For TIF districts that have been deemed effective, we need to expand this program so that more local business owners can take advantage of SBIF. Finally, we need to reform our policies on porting TIF funds to reduce (or eliminate) the amount of money collected in one area of the city but spent in another. I am opposed to the $55 million allotment of TIF funds for the Marriott Hotel and DePaul basketball arena as this project epitomizes all the aspects of the TIF program that need to be reformed. The TIF district in question is no longer in a "blighted" area; therefore, the entire existence of the TIF district is dubious. In addition, money was ported from other TIF districts to fund this project. Finally, it is unclear whether DePaul has the draw to fill the arena once the stadium is built, so the effectiveness of the proposal is in question.
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 have enjoyed following the "New Plan of Chicago" closely and even submitted a proposal on short and long-term approaches to combatting violence. When "12 ways to heal a city" was published, I was pleased to see two ideas that are similar to those I champion as part of my platform – the "oases in the job desert" and "schools and tools." In addition, I am drawn to the "sister neighborhoods" proposal. The "oases in the job desert" proposes that TIF money be awarded to small businesses located in struggling neighborhoods and hire local labor. Key elements of my plan to draw businesses to my ward is to expand the SBIF program, reward businesses that hire local labor, and support corporate social responsibility efforts of local businesses. The "schools and tools" proposal is to revive the recently closed schools as community centers for both after school programs and adult education programs. The 33rd Ward did not experience any closings, but I will work to promote neighborhood schools as community centers. Since both of these proposals mirror key elements of my platform, I will champion them as alderman. Finally, the "sister neighborhood" proposal is compelling because I would like to see greater public debate on policy issues. Pairing neighborhoods up will promote policy discussions between wards where we can learn from each other's successes. Sharing experiences throughout the city will generate even more ideas on how to make our neighborhoods great for our city.
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.
Although I would prefer to see two independent Offices of Inspector Generals – one for city offices and one for the Council – it is more important to ensure that the Inspectors General (IG) have the political autonomy, legal authority, and financing necessary to execute their duties. Recent personality conflicts between the Legislative IG and City Council members have distracted the public from the important issue at hand, which is that neither of our IGs have the power they need to fully and independently conduct investigations. There are several ordinances that have been stuck in the City Council's Rules Committee since May 2013, ordinances that would empower the City IG to perform its duties. These include ordinances that would give the IG the ability to enforce subpoenas and would ensure city employee cooperation during investigations. If passed, these ordinances would allow the City IG to be better positioned to conduct thorough investigations on behalf of taxpayers. Then, the conversation on combining the two powers of the two IGs can be considered again.
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?
Just as a city's budget outlines its current values and priorities, a city's approach to education describes its vision for its future. Since education is under complete control of the executive office, the Mayor has prioritized the formation of selective enrollment and charter schools, which has resulted in a system in which a majority of students are relegated to struggling, under-funded, traditional neighborhood schools. Chicago needs to develop a more equitable education system; in order to do this, we need to have elected representatives on the school board, increased public oversight of the CPS budget, and a moratorium on new charter schools. Public support for an elected school board is increasing and will be an advisory referendum on the ballot in 38 wards in February 2015. Aldermanic and mayoral candidates should use this election cycle to generate public discussion on the issues and educate the public on the pros and cons of an elected school board – and in greater detail than the sound-bytes we are currently hearing. I believe the best approach is a hybrid model, in which some members are appointed based on professional credentials, and others are elected from the pool of current Local School Council members, in order to protect the interests of the geographic area they represent. I believe a hybrid model will also allow for increased transparency into the CPS budget, which currently is confusing to even the most eager policy wonks. Lack of transparency has led to a lack of understanding among the general public about how public education is funded in our city. For example, we were told the school closings would save money, but then we were told the closings did not save money because of unanticipated moving and utility costs. We have also been told that charter schools are more cost effective, but then we were told that charter schools get more money per student than most neighborhood schools – which is counterintuitive. We need a moratorium on opening any additional charter schools until these questions are answered and investigations into charter school operators are resolved. All of these actions are aimed at increasing transparency in the CPS budget and will allow for better decision-making on how to close the current CPS funding gap. Finally, the impact that charter schools have had on public safety has not been discussed enough during the discussion about funding neighborhood schools. Sending students to schools outside of our communities threatens public safety; when neighborhoods send their children away to school, parents are less likely to know their children's friends and parents. Strengthening neighborhood schools means that fewer students will travel for school and more neighborhood children will study and play together. Strong neighborhood schools increase interaction among neighbors and, as a result, can reduce the influence of gangs in a community. Finally, as alderman, I will take the promotion of neighborhood schools one step further by encouraging their use as community centers by offering more after-school and adult programs.
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 alderman, I will create a revitalization plan for the ward by gathering input from citizens and stakeholders on their ideas about how to develop the ward without pricing hard-working families out of their homes. As part of this plan, I will organize community groups and nonprofits to improve unused spaces in the ward to increase local recreation options. As more people spend time in the ward, they spend more money in the ward, which also attracts more local businesses. In addition, I will market the ward to draw in new businesses, jobs, non-profits, and social enterprises, and I will advocate for expansion of the Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF) program. I will also work with nonprofits to encourage apprenticeship and job training programs and will advocate for increased funding for neighborhood schools; both of these efforts will make hiring local residents more attractive to employers. Finally, I will use my knowledge of corporate social responsibility principles to promote local businesses that reinvest in the ward and hire locally. If necessary, I will provide training to businesses who want to improve their corporate social responsibility efforts. I currently am an active participant in the Special Service Area (SSA) meetings in the 33rd Ward. Most recently, I worked with the SSA to develop an evaluation system so their façade improvement grants program can be awarded in an open and transparent fashion. In addition, I am a constant voice advocating that the SSA distribute materials in multiple languages so they are accessible to all the small business owners in the diverse 33rd 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.
The recent vote to increase the minimum wage is a first good step to addressing poverty issues in our city. Additional public education on how this minimum wage increase will be rolled out and impact small businesses in the city needs to be undertaken because local business owners are concerned about the impact it will have on their bottom line. Furthermore, as community leaders, the aldermen need to step up their efforts to lobby for an increase in the minimum wage at the state and federal levels.
Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.
Although I would like to see the Lucas Museum in Chicago, the current deal is bad for taxpayers. The lakefront is one of the greatest natural resources the city. I have mixed feelings about whether a private museum should be allowed in this space, but I am firm in my convictions that a private museum paying only $1/year rent for such premium land is not in the best interests of Chicago taxpayers.
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?
CAPS meetings are a great place for residents to discuss their concerns about public safety with their local police officers. Unfortunately, these meetings are not always conveniently timed/located to maximize attendance. As alderman, I will work with the district commanders and their teams to foster more interactions between the CPD and the community. Possibilities include holding regular positive loitering events and facilitating police participation in other community meetings, such as at parent nights at local schools, at neighborhood groups meetings, or at other community social events. Although not traditionally discussed as a public safety issue, as alderman, I will work to adequately fund neighborhood schools. Sending students to charter schools outside of our communities threatens public safety because if neighbors are not in the same schools, parents are less likely to know their children's friends and parents. Strengthening neighborhood schools means increased interaction among neighbors and builds a stronger, safer community. Finally, we must stop relying on our officers to commit to overtime in order to provide the policing we need. For two consecutive years, this has resulted in overruns in our overtime budget – but more importantly, this policy leads to burnout in our police force. At a minimum, this leads to high turn-over in the force, but in the worst case scenario, it can lead to poor on-the-job decision making due to fatigue, which in this profession could have deadly consequences. We need to hire and train a larger police force – even if this is more expensive than the overtime option – it is the more responsible decision. As a community member, I have already worked to promote safety in the ward. I am an active participant in my CAPS beat and attend neighboring beat meetings as well. I also work with local neighborhood and business groups and provide input on implementing community development programs that have a demonstrated positive impact on public safety, such as designing façade improvement programs, organizing neighborhood cleanups, and facilitating the transformation of underutilized public spaces into areas where the community can gather.
Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.
One of the reasons I am running for City Council is to fight the waste of taxpayers' money through the irresponsible privatization of public assets. As representatives of the taxpayers, aldermen need to be vigilant in identifying both ill-conceived contracts, such as the parking meter fiasco, and the mismanagement of contracts, such those in place for the red-light camera program. In a recent report, the Inspector General (IG) found that mismanagement of these contracts has resulted in inconsistent ticketing, possibly affected public safety and definitely decreased public trust. Unfortunately, the IG's review was limited and questions still remain. Was anyone held accountable for the mismanagement of the Redflex contract? Why was the city not transparent about the change in the timing on the yellow-light violation? How much money did it cost taxpayers for another firm to review individual tickets? Has the city revised its policies for contract oversight or are other government contracts still costing the taxpayers money because of gross mismanagement? We still need to see a more comprehensive IG audit and/or a public hearing on the red-light camera program. This will be a step in the right direction by promoting increased oversight of city contractors, greater accountability for our tax dollars, and as a result, improved public services and increased trust in city government. Until such an audit or public hearing takes place, the red-light camera program must be labeled "irresponsible privatization" and mismanagement of our public assets – which I am firmly against.
Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?
Yes. Reducing the size of city council is necessary to save our city money, as well as make service provision more effective. The ratio of aldermen to residents in Chicago is 1:55,000, while the ratio for in LA is 1:162,000 and in NYC it is 1:255,000. We need to examine whether Chicago's high number of alderman is efficient in modern times. There was a time, before we had the technology to track potholes and garbage collection, that Chicago's ratio might have been necessary, but this is no longer the case. We should reduce the size of the City Council, which Ald. Burke has estimated would save $10 million a year. In addition to reducing the size of the council, we should reform our electoral code to move the municipal elections to coincide with the November general elections. This would save money by not having to hold separate elections and could increase turnout, as turnout is usually higher in November than in February. Finally, we should reform the electoral code to introduce instant run-off voting, which would eliminate the need for separate run-off elections during the municipal cycle – another cost savings to tax payers.
Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?
The biggest concerns I hear from ward residents revolve around irresponsible budget decisions that are made on the taxpayers' behalf, which has resulted in higher taxes/fees for individuals and decreased services in our ward – whether for schools, infrastructure, or public safety. In addition, there is a deep frustration with the role that nepotism played in the appointment of our alderman in 2013. As a result of these issues, public trust in elected officials is on the decline. To increase public trust, we need more aldermen who recognize that we make better decisions when we make them together. As alderman, I will hold public discussions on the important issues that face our city, such as the annual budget, TIF reform, strengthening neighborhood schools, and addressing our pension obligations. It is also important to have public discussions on ward-level issues. As alderman, I will lead residents in public discussions to develop a revitalization plan to promote development - without pricing hard-working families out of our diverse ward. We need to work as a community to make decisions on zoning, economic development, and developing opportunities for recreation in the ward. By providing more opportunities for citizens to have input into the process, we will generate more ideas on how to address important policy issues and increase public trust in our elected officials.
Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.
I think I am the only Peace Corps volunteer who has also participated in counter-insurgency leadership training with the military.