Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Michele Smith

Michele Smith

Candidate for City Council, 43rd Ward

Michele Smith

Candidate for City Council, 43rd Ward

Portrait of Michele Smith

Education: J.D., University of Chicago 1979 B.A, Political Science magna cum laude SUNY Buffalo 1976

Occupation: Full time alderman

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


Candidates running for City Council, 43rd Ward

Responses to the Chicago Tribune's questionnaire

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

The Tribunes investigation into the financing of our city was a welcome one. The current state of affairs was the result of a decade or more of unrivaled borrowing. As stated by the Tribune, the Daley administration increased its borrowing by over $10 billion over 13 years, with no new sources of revenue. This borrowing spree only exacerbated the precarious financial situation created by spending down the reserves from the parking meter deal. It is not a long-term strategy to use borrowed funds to pay for things like operating costs and court judgments. First and foremost, the city must tackle its pension costs. These costs pose an immediate threat to the solvency of our city and our tax base. The borrowing problem can only be solved by a systematic effort to control costs, further reduce the structural deficit, and lower pension obligations. I support steps the city has taken to avoid the riskiest transactions, such as swaps. Moreover, I applaud the unglamorous work done by City departments to reduce costs on such items as worker's compensation and long-term disability. For example, CDOT has reduced its duty disability costs 48% since 2011, resulting in $5 million in savings. The City must streamline spending before discussing any new revenue. I support zero sum budgeting, which builds a departmental budget from the bottom up to eliminate inefficiencies and wasteful spending, and make department heads more accountable. I believe that zero sum budgeting will create substantial cost savings to the City. Each of the programs for which funds were borrowed should be audited and evaluated. If poor investments were made with these bond programs, we should cut back on those programs to stop the bleeding. We must also continue to find efficient ways to lower costs. Better management of our legal liabilities and our compliance responsibilities can dramatically lower costs due to judgments. The Tribune's investigation also highlights the need for additional information for City Council on these sophisticated financial transactions. That's why I co-authored the ordinance to create a City Council Office of Financial Analysis, modeled on successful programs in San Diego and New York City. The ordinance tasks the office with identifying cost savings measures, analyzing the city budget and reviewing significant transactions, like public-private partnerships. The office will • Perform a financial analysis of the Mayor's proposed annual budget; • Create an annual budget options report of potential cost saving measures; • Create a summary and analysis of the City's annual audit; • Review proposed public-private partnerships, and asset leases; • Analyze rating agency actions; and • Perform other analyses upon the request of the Chairman of the Committee on the Budget and Government Operations. In addition, we should seek reports on the use of proceeds for bonds, in the manner developed by the Tribune in its report. More of this data should be put online in the City's data portal so that it can be analyzed by both good government groups and City Council.

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.

There is no doubt that the current level of pension underfunding is completely unsustainable. Funding the current level of pensions at actuarial levels would require a 60% increase in property taxes – and that would be a catastrophic event for our city. The clearly unacceptable alternative would be to cut virtually every city service except police and fire. I have written extensively about the pension crisis beginning in 2012, calling for hearings. Surprisingly, at those hearings, many of the trustees admitted that the funds were dramatically underfunded, but had no plan to deal with the impact of funds running out of money, or more importantly, had not informed their membership of the funding status. Since those hearings, I also led community meetings, explaining in a presentation that unilateral actions ranging from raising property taxes 60% to defaulting on obligations could be potential outcomes of the crisis, and calling instead for a collaborative solution. Fortunately, the unions involved in the Municipal Employees and Laborers Pension Fund did collaborate with the city, resulting in a deal reducing the overall liability for that fund by $3 Billion. I expressed strong support for the deal, calling on Governor Quinn in the press to sign the bill. That transaction relied heavily on reductions to the Cost of Living Adjustments that balloon the liability and yet do not affect the core benefits on which the retirees rely, as well as modest increases in employee contributions, plus increases in the City's portion to bring it up to actuarially-sound amounts. Since changes to pensions cannot be unilaterally imposed, but must be the outcome of negotiations, I would support a combination of changes to pensions and new sources of revenue that would result in a total pension liability to the City that is sustainable for the taxpayers, results in a restoration of a good credit rating, and provides retirement security to the retirees.

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 current 43rd Ward does not contain any TIF districts and I do not support the creation of any new TIF districts in the 43rd Ward. I believe that the City Council and the public should play a larger role in how the money is spent. In particular, TIF money should be considered alongside all other city spending. I co-sponsored the TIF Accountability ordinance, which placed the information about TIF spending in a searchable database. I voted to support the TIF expenditures in the expansion of McCormick Place, as did the Alderman who represents that ward.

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.

The suggestion to develop a "Sister Neighborhoods" program is one which captures my imagination. In part, the foundation for such a program already exist in my ward. The 43rd Ward has many active communities of faith. There are over 30 communities of faith in the 43rd Ward, and I have spoken with many of them about the possibilities of interfaith action. This program could provide a context through which to do a sister neighborhood program. Our community already has some experience in that area. Several of our local churches and synagogues have adopted particular public schools and provide many forms of assistance to those schools. It has been a beneficial program for our neighborhood that I would like to see expanded throughout the City. And of course, the ward has a deep commitment to non-profit ventures city-wide. In addition, the piece entitled "Now how do we keep them?" is particularly relevant to my ward. Young, educated professionals move to Chicago to work in fields such as finance, law, medicine, journalism, business, and others. A disproportionate number of these individuals are my constituents. Chicago needs the tax revenue and economic activity created by these young professionals to fund cash-strapped schools, thinly-stretched police patrols, and vital infrastructure projects. However, as the Tribune's piece points out, we need to keep these young professionals in the City well past their 20s. In many ways, the 43rd Ward is a model for how the City can retain these economic drivers. Quality public schools are the key to ensuring that these families don't trade a City apartment or condominium for a suburban subdivision. Years ago, I saw that troublesome pattern in Lincoln Park: when a young couple had children, they would put their home on the market and look towards the suburbs. Due to the incredible success of our neighborhood schools, such as Lincoln Elementary School, Alcott School, and others, we are seeing fewer and fewer young families leaving Lincoln Park. In fact, Lincoln Park bucks the overall demographic trend. The latest census shows an increase of 28% in the number of children under 5 in my ward's zip code, and a 38% increase in children 5-9. The data clearly shows that we have had success in keeping young professionals in the City. We will continue to make our schools more effective so that these families these young families will continue to be economic drivers for the City of Chicago well into the future.

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

I co-sponsored an ordinance transferring the LIG's powers to the Inspector General and expanding its investigatory powers to allow self-initiation of investigations by the Inspector General. This ordinance will significantly strengthen oversight of City Council, as it will subject aldermen, their staffs and committees to the same investigative powers and standards as every other City employee. It also provides the OIG the necessary budget, personnel and legal powers to investigate claims of wrongdoing by public employees. Importantly, this ordinance rectifies the problems from the 2010 legislation that created the separate Office of the Legislative Inspector General (LIG), which established different investigative standards for aldermen and lacked sufficient funding to be effective. Under this ordinance, the work product of the current LIG will be transferred seamlessly to the Office of the Inspector General. As a former federal prosecutor, I understand the need for strong enforcement of laws pertaining to public officials. Allowing the Inspector General to pursue investigations against aldermen, as well as all other City elected officials, will result in better, more transparent government. I also believe the IG should have concurrent authority with the state Board of Elections (which has jurisdiction) to investigate claims of campaign finance abuse.

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?

I can't speak for every school in the City, but Lincoln Park schools are thriving. Every school in the ward is rated 1 or 1+. Lincoln Park High School has recently become all-IB facility and an annex is being built to expand Lincoln Elementary School, one of the City's finest elementary schools, to house a booming population. The latest census showed an increase of 28% in the number of children under 5 in my ward's zip code, and a 38% increase in children 5-9. These results are the outcome of decades of work by committed principals, teachers, and parents, who constantly fought for quality education, often by organizing for educational support. I believe that fine schools are critical to keeping and attracting corporate headquarters and keeping young families from moving to the suburbs. But these advances need to be replicated city-wide. While significant progress has been made, we must continue to stress excellent principals, and teachers and continue to promote parental involvement in the schools. And we must take our commitment to education to the pre-school level, as studies (and common sense) demonstrate that early learning contributes mightily to academic, and adult, success. I believe that the school board should continue to be appointed by the Mayor of Chicago. I don't think that one strategy will improve all CPS schools: each is located in a different neighborhood with different strengths and weaknesses. Each school need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and have its issues dealt with individually. While the 43rd ward does not have any charter schools, all forms of education should be tried to bring all children educational success. I support the longer school day and year. CPS is also facing a financial crisis. First and foremost, CPS must renegotiate its pension obligations with its teachers whose pension plan, like every other City plan, was contained over-promised benefits and underfunded balances for decades and decades. While blame for pension "holidays" and overpromised benefits can be laid at the feet of prior administrations, right now we must renegotiate the level of the liability to an amount that CPS, and Chicago taxpayers, can afford. Once that hurdle is overcome, then work can begin to lobby in Springfield for a greater share of educational funding, as well as identify possible new revenues.

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?

The 43rd Ward's largest employers are DePaul University, and then the cultural, culinary, and hospitality industry. As the home to Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, the Lincoln Park Zoo, History Museum, and many other such attractions, the 43rd Ward is the second-largest site of cultural attractions outside downtown. However, Lincoln Park is not a designated cultural hub in the City's Cultural Plan. I have been in contact with our arts organizations, nonprofits such as Choose Chicago, and the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce to address this problem. I will be rolling out a draft economic development plan later in 2015 to be studied by my ward. Since I have been Alderman, I have worked to promote our in-line shopping districts of Halsted/Armitage, Clark Street, and Lincoln Avenue. I had an Italian trade mission visit Armitage, which was reported on as a vibrant and exciting destination in an Italian magazine. I also have actively promoted local shopping through my on-line newsletter, which has a circulation of 12,000 people. I have also taken aggressive action against landlords who have kept their storefronts vacant, resulting in many of these shops being rented. Today, there are far fewer vacancies in the 43rd ward than there were four years ago. Finally, I have approved the development at Children's Memorial Hospital, which will address the negative impact that the closure of CMH had on our business community.

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 voted against this proposal because I believe it is too much for small businesses to bear. I supported increasing the minimum wage to $11 per hour, but the business owners in my ward made it clear that $13 per hour was more than they could afford. At a time when local retailers and small businesses are struggling to emerge from the economic downturn, a $13 per hour minimum wage represents nearly a 58% increase from the current level. Small businesses, including many in our ward with whom I have spoken, simply cannot shoulder this increase. Moreover, Chicago has never, in its history, had a minimum wage that differed from that of the rest of the state. I support a practical, uniform minimum wage increase that would not put Chicago at a competitive disadvantage with suburban communities or bordering states. I believe that the plight of those in Chicago who struggle to pull themselves out of poverty should be addressed through multi-pronged efforts, including earned income credits, food stamps, and affordable housing reform. This burden cannot be placed solely on private employers, just as these challenges cannot be solved overnight.

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

There are many good alternative sites for the Lucas museum that should be considered. If the benefactors of the museum are committed to that particular lakefront site, then the matter will be resolved by the courts. However, as to my own record regarding public space, Lincoln Park is the front yard of my ward, and I carefully steward the uses of Lincoln Park to keep it open to the public and not privatized. I opposed the privatization push supported by my predecessor. We also used open space impact fees to create the "Field of Dreams" at Alcott School.

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?

The 43rd Ward is one of the city's safest neighborhoods, and I have enjoyed excellent working relationships with the 18th and 19th District police which are responsible for my ward. However, there is much that neighborhoods can do in crime prevention. In the 43rd Ward, the single largest type of crime is theft from open garages, open doors, followed by forcible entry. These findings led me to conduct a "Lock Your Door" campaign in 2013. This campaign called on residents to lock their doors, and install a good deadbolt. We demonstrated several quality locks at our seminar and posted information about them on our website. CPD estimated simple compliance with this campaign could reduce home burglaries in half. I have also engaged in an aggressive court advocacy program. As a result of our program, we have successfully obtained tougher sentences for people engaged in crime. This program is designed to send the signal that criminals are simply not welcome in our community. As a direct result of our advocacy, a judge sentenced a repeat offender to 8 years in prison, in one example. Shortly after taking office, I met with the Commander of the 18th District to address the issues then occurring at North Avenue Beach and asked for a plan to reduce crime on the beach. The 18th District increased bike patrols, added an ATV patrol, and placed the mounted unit at the foot of Lincoln Park. The 18th District also placed cadets at the beach entrances to do searches for illegal liquor. As a result of these actions, there have been no major incidents on our beaches from North Avenue to Diversey since 2011. In addition to participating in multiple roll calls and crime walks in my ward, I have worked with the 19th District to support the creation of a program to ameliorate problems that stem from homelessness. However, more can be done in our CAPS program. Specifically, I think that CPD should explore using more social networking to allow individuals in communities to communicate, bearing in mind that it is important to make sure such communication is responsible.

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

I voted in favor of the speed camera program after soliciting input from my constituents.

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

While of course we have to consider all cost-savings measures, our current form of government depends on the alderman to be accountable for the delivery of all city services, and it depends on the alderman to vet zoning matters. Accordingly, a reduction in the number of aldermen could only be considered in conjunction with major changes in how our government is organized. Certain things, like routine applications for signs, could be handled administratively. In addition, certain City Council committees could be combined, but I believe we must allocate money for oversight.

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

An alderman's job is to provide excellent constituent service, make informed legislative decisions and guide good development. Our greatest request from residents involves the drive for continued school excellence by focusing on making Lincoln Park High School an excellent choice for all of our residents. We want to continue the improvements to ward infrastructure which were neglected prior to my term, including upgrades to lighting and required new renovations in Lincoln Park.

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

I admit it – beneath my serious and committed exterior, I am a Star Trek fan.