Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Cornell Wilson

Cornell Wilson

Candidate for City Council, 2nd Ward

Cornell Wilson

Candidate for City Council, 2nd Ward

Portrait of Cornell Wilson

Education: Florida A&M University (Degree in Business Administration) Northwestern University School of Law (JD)

Occupation: Attorney; Marine Corps Officer

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


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.

'Scoop and Toss' is not a sound government accounting practice, and the City Budget Office's nod to extenuating circumstances does little to make it palatable. Ultimately, using taxable bonds to cover principal payments on prior debts doesn't address the eventual need to reduce other expenditures. We're at a financial chasm, and we must make tough decisions and changes to a culture of avoidance that has brought us to this point. I would argue primarily for reductions in spending focused on operating efficiency and waste. Together with the newly created Office of Financial Analysis – which needs to be properly staffed - we will need to identify areas where reductions can be made, including possible cuts in unnecessary assets and their maintenance and administrative personnel. To ensure Chicago citizens are not left in the dark as these tough decisions are made, the City needs to be forthright and transparent in explaining to the public – through open hearings in diverse neighborhoods - the depth of the financial crisis and the range of possible solutions. I would work together with the Office of Economic Development and the Cook County Land Bank to continue to make productive use of the City's vacant properties a priority. I would investigate providing New Market Tax Credits and incentives to develop vacant properties and expand our tax base within the ward and city. It is important to recognize that higher levels of taxation can impede economic recovery. While we must be careful to fund education properly and not threaten core services, the increased borrowing volume eventually results in higher service costs on the debt, leaving less money available for necessities like schools and police protection.

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.

Chicago will face a substantial increase in contributions to its police and fire pension funds in 2016, which it deferred for a year in order to omit it from the upcoming year's $300 million budget shortfall. Complicating an already acute crisis, the full set of pension reform options before lawmakers has been left is in doubt with recent questions on the constitutionality of reducing pension liabilities. I would urge City Council to move quickly to begin the long process of stabilizing the two remaining funds with the cooperation of representatives from the Police and Firemen's funds. Liaisons from both unions have said that they are willing to talk. This should happen sooner rather than later as a signal to taxpayers of our resolve to move beyond the slipshod accounting that has hamstrung the City for decades and towards smart, long-range planning. When considering future pension changes, everything within the bounds of the Illinois Constitution should be on the table. This includes an increase in the employee contributions share. Adjustments to the other side of the calculus—smart changes in asset allocation and management to improve investment rate of return—should also be taken by the City Treasurer. The reduction in compounded cost-of-living adjustments that were struck down by a lower court do not apply to either fund and are not part of a calculated way out. At day's end, straight talk about prudent spending and alternate revenue is necessary. As Alderman, I am reluctant to place the burden on taxpayers through the increased property taxes offered by Mayor Emmanuel in this year's budget, or on the proposed Commuter or Transaction taxes which have been proposed as a way of putting the tax burden elsewhere. Both have the unintended potential to further sap the tax base and future revenue by dissuading investment in the City. Likewise, any political push for further bonds servicing places an added liability obligation on the City with the same core dilemma: the uncertainty of revenue to pay it down. With special attention paid to the severity of circumstance, I would propose investigating the use of TIFs as a short-term investment in pension payment to begin increasing funding levels. As of writing, the City has approximately 1.7 billion dollars in TIF funds. Some of these are allocated for shovel-in-ground projects, but much of it is eligible for surplus declaration. These are already levied property taxes, and their re-routing to pension obligations would be more in line with the general fund obligations property taxes are intended to be used for. This would be a more prudent use of this revenue stream and ultimately a better long-term investment that would do its own part to stimulate business and improve the City's credit rating.

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.

TIFs can be an effective tool to spur economic development and in many cases they have been used effectively by Aldermen and City Hall to provide incentive for private investment by setting aside a portion of the property tax levy. When they are used unscrupulously, however, they undermine the efficiency of the program as a whole and mar public perception of the potential benefits that do exist. Tax Increment Financing in Chicago would benefit from a culture that prioritizes long-range, formal planning over political expediency. While the County Clerk and City Hall have implemented several transparency measures, a substantial part of the needed burden of requests falls to the local ward level. The inclination of Aldermen and Mayor to play fast and loose with the statutory definition of "blighted" areas, and the overused practice of porting—transferring—locally raised development dollars from district to district akin to a shell game are both issues that need to be both locally and systematically addressed. Of similar concern is the routine use of TIF money to plug holes in the City's general fund. This may be a necessary step at this juncture—and it should be investigated for what is a necessary investment in pension reform—but in the long-term we will need to wean ourselves off of TIFs as operating revenue. Alderman must first be cognizant that these are issues and plan for them rather than erring on the side of overabundant promises. This mode of thinking has left us in a quagmire in regards to bonds, pensions, as well as TIFs. I am receptive to TIF expansion but with the recognition that all effort should first be made at extension of existing TIF districts where possible. We should fully utilize the development potential of areas already set aside to be developed. The sprawling, piecemeal landscape of the over 160 TIFs created over the past 20 plus years is sufficient evidence in itself of a rush to pave a funding highway for projects that may not have merited it or fit within a larger development scheme. Too often the cart is put before the horse and established districts sit dormant, idly collecting property tax increments without sustained development. I believe Marriot's proposal fits necessary criteria, and I support it with a good faith effort from Marriot in putting up sufficient capital for land acquisition. Marriot has the potential to complement the McCormick convention site and increase tourism. I am unsure, however, about the wisdom of the proposed TIF project for a new DePaul Stadium, and would ask tough questions on what taxpayers' return on investment will be. Deviation from the intended purpose of TIFs should be pursued only in exceptional circumstances. As mentioned, 1.7 billion dollars currently reside in TIF funds, many of them not earmarked for current projects. These funds can be released to help ease the pension crunch. In practice, a good portion of TIF funds are already being used for general fund obligations, including capital projects for schools.

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 Please tell us which ideas you would champion. We invite you to offer additional ideas for dealing with Chicago's challenges.

There a number of good ideas for improving different aspects of city life in the Tribune's "12 Ways to Heal a City" and "On the Table," offers. All of these ideas should be considered! Some of these are recurring problems/ideas that we have been struggling to find an actionable framework for. The editorial board's series begins a tangible, ongoing discussion to do just that. I believe strongly in community empowerment and that local, neighborhood agency is necessary along with direction from City Hall to make sustainable gains in education, business, health, and overall quality of life. Innovation Houses, a variant of Makers' spaces that have begun to trend in some areas, are a wonderful and inexpensive idea with a myriad of uses, as are the idea of transforming closed schools into community centers. Chicago is awash in vacant and underutilized properties that are not moving on the market and rack up maintenance costs while providing no tangible benefit. As the Editorial Board points out, the presence of an already used and visited network of buildings is an enticing prospect in itself. GED Programs, in need of physical space and central location, could also be folded into either of these designs. 'Sister Neighborhoods' expands community development beyond the neighborhood and perhaps city level. In scope, I believe this is particularly novel—and essential. The City of Chicago and the metropolitan area is fragmented, and many residents in our city have never actually been to some of its neighborhoods, much less understand their unique challenges. Holism, of community, people, and policy, is an elusive reality. As articulated 'sister neighborhoods' would be one of the first programmatic ways of fostering this in an equitable, person-to-person manner where individuals forge real bonds and understanding of the challenges facing each other and the 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.

The City Council should fully fund and vest a single inspector general with the authority to investigate city council members as well as the administration. The Legislative Inspector General's office is duplicative and I believe was intended to dilute the powers of single, consolidated authority. Regardless of one's views on Legislative Inspector General Khan and his approach, it should be obvious to all that he has had procedural, jurisdictional and funding hurdles placed in his way by some in city government. I have greatly admired the work of former Inspector General David Hoffman, particularly in blowing the whistle on the parking meter deal. Hoffman showed us that an Inspector General with 'teeth' and the willingness to use them can be a good, last line of defense for taxpayers. A current structural challenge we face is that the Inspector General's office is by nature reactive. As Aldermen and as a city we should be proactive in establishing higher ethical standards—not just expecting a strong Inspector General to deter us into compliance. In 2005, the City Council put mandatory ethics programs in place for all Aldermen and full-time city employees. I would propose reframing this program as a collaborative annual review or symposium, to make what can be a passive process a more active part of forging an ethical workplace culture. Private businesses often spend considerable resources in fostering a conducive, appropriate work environment. City government can work on this model towards more substantive, culture-changing practices. Reward innovative ideas, and create a discussion within city offices about ethical behavior and its importance. Transparency and outreach with constituents should be part of this dialogue. I believe that participatory budgeting by Aldermen is a step in the right direction as it solicits input on critical funding questions and shines light on decisions Aldermen make.

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?

The academic and financial performance of the schools and city are closely interlinked. Education scholars have increasingly pointed to poverty related factors such as mobility—a student's movement between schools in a given year(s)—and out of and in-school violence as significant indicators of educational attainment. The performance of many of our Chicago schools, and their improvement is contingent on the wellbeing of families and communities. Ultimately, improved educational outcomes correspond with local development, jobs, higher wages, more secure households and cohesive families, and decreased violence. With mind given to how policies in and out of CPS's direct control interact, we must as a City focus on how we can best meet the challenges of the urban environment we teach and learn in. More broadly, this means innovation in education. We need to be sophisticated in our use and development of pedagogy (teaching philosophy), curriculum, educational institution types—technical and specialized training, including work in trades—and integration of technology. Longer, more standard school days—while no panacea, of course—are a positive step in increasing exposure to learning in the classroom. I support the current number of charter schools – with strong safeguards to protect taxpayers from unscrupulous actors – as one method to foster innovation that can provide empowering options for families. I would be happy to consider an elected school board. However, I think we must do the research to ensure that it does not become an agency divided by politics. Having an executive appoint heads of agencies leaves no doubt as to who is responsible for their performance. Accountability remains a pressing issue in educational administration as it does government. I am also keenly aware that Chicago residents, many of whom were not here during the challenging times in which the switch to the appointed board was made, are growing frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of voice in school policy. Since a successful schools policy depends on parent and community involvement, it is important that the public not feel disconnected from the schools. That is why I would first and foremost support a hybrid school board with Mayoral appointees and elected officials. The ability to place both responsibility and redress for failed policies with the Mayor's Office will continue to be important under a hybrid system but we must remember that self-determination is a cornerstone of agency. Ward residents should be allowed to match their choice of school attendance with more direct choice in its direction. Financially, CPS's one-time swap in accrual method—allowing them to balance the budget by recognizing added revenue—is not a fix. CPS will need to make significant structural changes to increase operating efficiency and reduce unnecessary expenses. This can be done by reducing its real estate footprint, either through rehabilitation, sale, or repurposing. Contracts and Charters can play an added role in enhancing efficiency with proper safeguards. We must work in a collaborative fashion with education stakeholders to reduce administrative / non-classroom costs.

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?

Restaurants are the backbone of the economy in the new 2nd ward. They employ thousands of residents and make our neighborhoods vibrant, attractive places to live, work and socialize. Encouraging restaurants and other businesses to open or stay in ward through a hospitable business climate is important to the ward's continued vitality. It's also a challenge that requires a multifaceted approach. To begin this process, my team and I developed over 20 policy proposals specific to the restaurant industry after researching 'best practices' in states and municipalities across the nation and interviewing individual restaurant owners and stakeholders. In this policy paper which we are happy to share with the Tribune, we have also highlighted incentives programs that can encourage an array of businesses to relocate or invest in the ward. I believe modification of how Chicago interacts with the restaurant industry that will make the 2nd Ward and Chicago more conducive to growth. These include making inspection criteria more clearly accessible and communicating with owners and proprietors new city policies that would impact them. We should also take steps to modernize and streamline processes and regulations, like updating the permitting process to be digital rather than on-paper / in-person and accounting for new technologies like automated ordering and check payment options. We should also explore new ideas like bartender license portability and developing a citywide wi-fi network that would reduce the duplicative and unnecessary costs (passed on to customers) of thousands of Chicago restaurants paying for individual wi-fi connections / networks. There is also room for innovative changes in how we incentivize development in general. I would like to explore further the expanded use of the Small Business Investment Fund Program within active TIF districts. As of 2012 they constituted a fraction of grants offered to businesses through TIF funds and came with burdensome restrictions. In already established TIF districts, allowing smaller establishments to use TIFs like larger businesses do—with startup capital and project specific allocations rather than the $100,000 grant cap—could help diversify our tax base in terms of establishment size, stimulate parity in competition, and support business that are more likely to be locally based and oriented. To further encourage locally based developments, a priority lottery process for SBIF and TIF funds can be implemented for projects and employers that hire locally. This could be extended to other incentives or fee waivers to businesses that assign positive hiring criteria to local candidates. The benefits of supporting small, local businesses are many. Not only are they a large percentage of businesses in the ward, but they also keep investment and hiring local—an important barometer of business climate. It is important for both workers and employers that the ward cultivate an educated, competent workforce. In a skills-based economy where continuing education is emphasized by employers, we must place a high value on workforce development, technological incubation, and programs aimed at continuing secondary or post-secondary educational opportunities.

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 have always supported a minimum wage that kept pace with inflation and enabled working people to stay out of poverty and dependency. I also understand that it is important to work cooperatively with businesses and trade associations to address their concerns about higher costs. Some governments have worked to help small businesses absorb the costs of increased minimum wages through tax credits or other incentives - adopting 'agreed bills' where the process and the outcome is neither adversarial nor one-sided. With a Republican Governor and a Democratic legislature in Springfield – and a Democratic President and Republican Congress in Washington, policymakers at all levels should think outside the box about non-partisan "win-win" solutions (such as those proposed in my restaurant policy document) that can earn labor and business support. Ultimately we need the stability of both workers with money to spend and job-supplying businesses to maintain the vitality of the ward, keep establishments open and allow working families to have a decent living. I am hopeful the staggered increased minimum wage in Chicago will broaden the City's tax base and increase revenue for the City while reducing the need for taxpayer funded government programs for certain low-wage workers. Now that the increase has been passed, it is time to work collaboratively to ensure that implementation benefits the economy as a whole. It is unfortunate that the diminished real value of the minimum wage over the past several decades placed an added burden on low-income families. However, I also understand that many business owners have had to keep pace with other increased non-labor costs – such as fuel / delivery / transportation, insurance and a variety of taxes – that can make the costs of running a business seem overwhelming to them. I would have preferred that the Mayor, City Council, Governor and Legislature were able to develop agreement on a uniform, staggered, statewide minimum wage increase. The economic success of the City and the suburbs is interconnected. I am concerned about some disincentives and relocations in border neighborhoods which could have unintended consequences for workers, consumers and business alike. I believe our elected officials should work to ensure these types of debates are conducted in a more thoughtful, deliberative manner with an eye towards long-term shared economic prosperity.

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

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is a great opportunity for Chicago, but the planning and historical significance of Burnham's Chicago plan should be respected. The Lakefront is a singular asset to the City, and, once again, popular opinion and will has repeatedly—and historically—rejected ceding it to development. The broader rationale behind the museum's placement on the lake and legal arguments skirting the Lakefront Protection Ordinance are thin. The prevailing argument has been that the museum will relocate if not offered prime real estate. This reasoning, usually a last line of defense in such an incentive debate, does more to expose the lack of a positive argument for upending generations of tradition than it does assert it.

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?

Public safety and reducing crime and gun violence require complex policymaking that connects different agencies, non-profits and law enforcement. Policing should be considered jointly with public health when possible, as well as initiatives developed by the Office of Economic Development to address underlying stressors of poverty and unemployment. Within the department, I am committed to working with the 12th, 14th, and 18th District Commanders and Superintendent McCarthy to promote effective reviews of procedures. I support a pro-active police force and broad re-definition of community policing that moves departmental definitions and actions away from a strict reliance on long-used statistics and metrics. These data frame our debate on crime in a reactive manner, and do not address root problems in a meaningful way. In the wake of events in Ferguson, we should look to restore personal relationships and trust to the communities we serve. With this in mind, front- line responders tasked with enforcement—and not just community relations staff— should be trained on the sociology of poverty and crime as public health. It may benefit programs addressing continuum of care, from poverty, food security, to youth and after-school programs, to have Chicago Police liaisons that will bolster their presence and community engagement in a non-confrontational, community-building capacity. Schools and non-profits form another strata of addressing and engendering community safety. The University of Chicago has identified specific ages in childhood development as particularly critical in the development of chronic, violent behaviors. A study conducted by the Northwestern Juvenile Project has also indicated that a majority of juvenile inmates suffer from concurrent psychiatric illnesses. Addressing student psychology reliably and systemically in school contexts at ages when they can be most impactful would be extremely beneficial to outcomes. As of right now, the Chicago Public Schools are severely underserved in terms of staffed psychologists, school counselors, and social workers. We should fill these staff positions with the knowledge it constitutes an enduring investment in reducing future criminal activity and enhancing social productivity. I also support steps to create economic empowerment and employment that can alleviate social stressors that contribute to crime. There has been much discussion about the lack of open-front street shops in many impoverished neighborhoods where community members can gather. One particular idea I found intriguing in the Tribune's ongoing 'Chicago Plan' editorial series was the notion of guaranteed security commercial areas, where community-focused developments would be safe-guarded 24/7 in hopes of encouraging foot-traffic and business viability. If successful, these areas could inject a commercial and social vitality into neighborhoods, raise standards of living, and have a significant impact on overall crime.

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

The City's Red Light Program has been criticized by a number of civic advocacy groups and more recently there have been more in-depth investigative reports from the Tribune and others that have corroborated public concerns. With this in mind, I would support a full, formal review of the program that results in some sort of modification, and/or concrete transparency. Ticketing spikes and fluctuations in criteria for ticketing and yellow-to-red length are unacceptable technical glitches. Costs for improvement should be passed on to the contractor and are comparatively a pittance when it comes to restoring the public's trust.

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

I am generally supportive of this initiative and believe that it provides a good litmus test for the newly created Office of Financial Analysis. There is considerable precedent for a reduction in size in comparable, peer cities. Chicago's City Council members represent about 57,000 residents per capita. Meanwhile, New York City's council is approximately the same size, and their City Council members represent almost triple that number—157,000. District apportionment for the top ten most populous cities in America falls in this more typical 125,000-200,000 range. Tellingly, City Council members in most of these jurisdictions make roughly the same amount in salaries—and many less. According to the Better Government Association, potential cost savings would exceed one million dollars. If a reduction is achieved, a chief priority would be to ensure that city services and representation do not suffer as a result, with the understanding that Chicago is unique in its diversity and challenges. Let's see what the Office of Financial Analysis concludes.

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

My highest priority for improving the ward is working with each community group/area and developing a long term development plan. I believe that each neighborhood should work on a plan to give their section of the ward an identity and goal for future development. Creating a plan for development will be key in ensuring that we support growth that is in-line with the desires and needs of the community. The greatest concern that I am hearing from residents of the ward is that they do not have a voice on the City council for their issues. When the remap occurred the process was badly abused, resulting in a ward map that covers multiple, different and disparate communities. Ward residents feel their community has been seemingly divided along arbitrary lines. The process has resulted in a lack of consistent services and ward residents being unaware of which alderman represents them. I look forward to providing consistent reliable services to each and every one of our 2nd Ward residents. They will be able to contact me or my office and rest assured that we will manage concerns in a timely and efficient manner.

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

I've had the experience of working and team-building with diverse groups of people from different communities—and even countries—on logistics, project management and communication. These are skills that are very relevant to the work of an Alderman. I also rise early every morning for work – something that will be necessary to tackle Chicago's many challenges. Although I'm accustomed to a chain of command, I'm not keen on political bosses and I will not say "sir, yes sir" to other politicians who propose ideas not in the best interests of my ward or my city. Despite the military background, I'm a nerd at heart – both in terms of policy and in my free time. I love science fiction and fantasy. Star Trek is my favorite sci-fi series. I'm looking forward to the final Hobbit movie. But I will never read the Hobbit because the book is actually pretty awful. I'm sure the hate mail will flow in 3... 2... 1...