Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of John Arena

John Arena

Candidate for City Council, 45th Ward

John Arena

Candidate for City Council, 45th Ward

Portrait of John Arena

Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts from Northern Illinois University

Occupation: Alderman

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.

This borrowing was not justified. I voted against the $1.9 billion "scoop and toss" bond issue, because we must not pay less today in exchange for paying more tomorrow. City Hall should not use private financing when we can issue government bonds at lower interest rates. I will work to find sensible spending cuts and new revenues. One thing we can do right away to save money is to stop spending public money on private ventures like the new DePaul arena. I would also look at fees or taxes that are assessed to a user for the services they consume, for example, a commuter tax for suburbanites who use Chicago roads and services.

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.

Four years ago I proposed a system of tiered benefits for workers not yet vested in the pension system. Recent court rulings have shown that such a system is not legal, that the current contracts with pensioners are constitutionally protected and that we cannot take benefits from existing retirees and employees. The city can solve its pension crisis through a slow ramp-up of spending on pensions until we reach sufficient funding levels. We must not take any additional pension holidays or shift funds around in financial shell games. The city made a deal with these workers and we must keep up our end of the deal. A small tax on financial transactions can help the city fund our pension obligations. This would generate revenue without reducing the spending power of Chicago's consumers.

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.

I will continue to fight for greater transparency in TIF creation and the spending of TIF funds. I will also push for a higher bar for creation and use of funds. There is no reason that the bustling River North neighborhood should have a TIF district. There should be clear criteria for the creation of a TIF district, clear goals for the TIF funds from a specific district, and sunset provisions so that once the goals are reached, the TIF district reverts back to normal taxation and spending. Excess TIF funds should be diverted back to their original source and used to pay for public schools and other services the entire city benefits from. I do not support the use of public money for private companies, so I cannot support the use of $55 million in TIF funds to buy land for Marriott and DePaul. I voted against those funds, and I will continue to support our public tax dollars being used only on public services.

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.

Investing in quality public education is the best way to fix Chicago's problems over the long term. Every dollar invested in education represents several dollars that do not have to be spent down the road on things like crime prevention. Good public schools make the city more livable for residents, and a well-educated populace makes it easier to attract employers. This is why I would support the education-focused ideas from the Tribune's suggestions for a new Plan of Chicago: "Schools as Tools," "GED Chicago," "Kids and Careers" and "Hubs and STEMS." "It Takes a City" is another example of early intervention that can help improve the city and save on long-term expenses. When looking at the city's budget, I will always go with any option that will enable us to realize long-term savings and improve the quality of life for the city's residents.

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.

City Council should replace the office of legislative inspector general with a well-funded office that can investigate both the legislative and executive branches of city government. The IG's office should have freedom to investigate without oversight from the body it is investigating – it should be truly independent. I co-sponsored an ordinance that would give the IG a budget floor, limited police powers, oversight over City Council and subpoena powers for both the City Council and the Mayor's office. Attorney-client privilege is often abused to frustrate investigations. For example, if an elected official holds a meeting that he or she does not want the IG to investigate, an attorney will attend – even if the meeting is not legal in nature – and the official will later claim attorney-client privilege. The IG should at least look into reforming this practice.

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 city's schools are improving academically, but there is still much work to be done. Financially, the system continues to suffer from funding disparities between Chicago and the rest of the state, and from under-funding that could be fixed in part by reducing the removal of TIF funds from property tax revenues. Members of the school board should be elected so that the system is more responsive to voters. Last year's school closings were unpopular and made no financial sense, but happened in the face of overwhelming voter opposition because the school board is appointed. I support the longer school day and year, but the extra time spent in school must be quality and spent on learning, so that the longer school day and year produces results and is not just a Mayoral talking point. It does not work if the only thing longer is recess. CPS should not expand the number of charter schools. It is not yet clear that charter schools produce better educational outcomes than traditional public schools. Every taxpayer dollar diverted toward a privately operated school is a dollar taken away from our underfunded public school system. Additionally, the voting public has less control over charter schools than over traditional public schools, leading to decreased accountability. Returning unused or unneeded TIF dollars back to the public school system will help CPS start to close its budget gap.

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 have successfully attracted employers to the 45th Ward since I was elected in 2011. This involved a layered approach, because there is no silver bullet to creating jobs and sustainable economic development. I worked to bring cultural attractions to the ward to make the area more attractive to both residents and potential employers. I focused on infrastructure improvements so that employers' workers are able to get to work and so that businesses are able to receive the city services they need to operate. I also supported reasonable density developments close to shopping districts and public transportation. Finally, I reached out to potential employers. My office invites businesses to see the area, invites potential employers to come to dinner at a new restaurant in the area, tour the neighborhood – all in an effort to highlight the positive changes in the 45th Ward since my predecessor left office. Marketing new attractions and developments to potential new businesses has resulted in a snowball effect. The 45th Ward is on track to open 22 new businesses just in the Six Corners area, and more than 30 along the Milwaukee Ave. corridor. New businesses attract residents and shoppers, which attract new businesses, and so forth in a virtuous cycle that benefits residents and the city's finances alike. I will continue to use these approaches to promote economic development throughout the 45th Ward, and I would like to see this approach replicated in other parts of the city.

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 helped lead the charge to increase the minimum wage in Chicago. It will lead to $800 million in increased spending power and economic activity for the city, allowing consumers to buy things and create jobs. It will also result in $80 million in additional sales tax revenue. One of the biggest reasons I fought for a minimum wage increase is that we were long overdue for a shift so that wages keep pace with the cost of living. The new ordinance includes future cost-of-living adjustments as well, which will reduce the need to revisit the issue on a regular basis.

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

No. First, the museum violates the principal of keeping the lakefront forever open and clear for the city's residents. Second, the museum campus is already a popular tourist destination. We should locate new tourist attractions in different neighborhoods to spread cultural attractions and their attendant economic benefits throughout the city. This concept is supported in the Chicago Cultural Plan.

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 needs to hire more police officers to improve public safety. The city is hiring 500 new officers and needs to hire 1,000 more to keep up with recent attrition. CPD resources should be devoted to neighborhood police officers walking or driving a beat and developing relationships in their communities. Addressing crime in a reactionary fashion through mobile saturation teams is less effective than investing in officers who work consistently in an area and know the people who live there. The $100 million per year the city spends on police officer overtime would be better invested in hiring and training new officers. Overtime can lead to overworked police, burnout, and poor reactions and decision-making abilities. An understaffed, overworked police force also tends to increase settlements that result from bad decisions.

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

I support a traffic light camera program to the extent that it improves public safety, but in its current iteration, this program is another example of what I stand against: a bad idea rushed through City Council without sufficient review or oversight. It is an example of classic Chicago corruption, and there is such corruption and such a lack of transparency around the traffic light cameras that the public does not trust that they are here to improve safety. Coupled with the outsourcing and privatization of the program, traffic light cameras look like just another way for the city to generate revenue.

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

Maybe, but it depends on the motivation behind cutting the number of Aldermen and the way in which that shift would be implemented. Reducing the size of City Council to 25, for example, does not necessarily save money – each Alderman would still have to provide services to twice as many constituents with limited staff and resources. The Progressive Reform Caucus mapped out a 35-Ward map that would result in each Alderman representing about 72,000 people. Politically, this would increase the power of the legislature and improve City Council's ability to act as a check and balance against the executive branch and push back against bad ideas from the Mayor's office. If we were to reduce the number of Aldermen, I would push to keep neighborhoods together within a Ward in the process, using natural and common-sense boundaries instead of arbitrarily drawn lines driven by politics.

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 is continuing the work I have begun with economic development in the ward, which means attracting more businesses and continuing sustainable infrastructure development. My constituents' greatest concern is Chicago's fiscal situation and the city's ability to continue providing the services residents want.

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

I have five siblings: four brothers and a sister. Together, we split Bears tickets in the nosebleeds, section 352. We go tailgating with our families as often as we can. We all chipped in to buy a used 1985 RV, and I hired a local artist to paint the outside with Bears graphics, names and famous numbers. We call it "Da Motor Coach," and it stops at every home game. I enjoy the combination of family, Chicago football and supporting arts and culture.