Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Robert Murphy

Robert Murphy

Candidate for City Council, 39th Ward

Robert Murphy

Candidate for City Council, 39th Ward

Portrait of Robert Murphy

Education: Antioch College, BA History University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, MArch '92

Occupation: Architect, President Robert Murphy Photography

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


Candidates running for City Council, 39th 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.

No, this borrowing was not justified. There needs to be a commitment to paying at least some of the City's principal now, perhaps 10-20% going forward, while trying to make sure that the fragile economic development continues and starts growing stronger. New forms of revenue, better tied to intrinsic Chicago assets and processes that can't be removed or avoided easily, and that are also equitably distributed, is the path that City leaders need to start investigating. I want to be part of that change. In preparing for my run for this office, my supporters and I have tried to use publicly available numbers and statistics to provide reasonable answers to questions like the ones you ask, but I have found recent promises of City budget transparency to be seriously overstated. I think that the Tribune's experience in researching "Broken Bonds" is but one example of that lack of transparency. Obviously, there has been a concerted effort to hide or diminish the need for the tax hikes and service cuts needed to move toward the truly balanced budget that I, as a responsible steward of city plan to become, but, determining the exact percentages of revenue vs. spending cuts at this point, as an outsider, without the information that even an average alderman (or a major metropolitan newspaper, with a phalanx of lawyers) can obtain seems to be a fools errand. But, I would argue, that returning an alderman who has voted 100% with the last administration in creating the problem, and 100% with this administration in perpetuating the problem, with no apparent critical or independent thinking; that continuing the status quo is not the solution. I hope the Tribune and the voters of the 39th Ward agree.

Q: Chicago will face a substantial increase in contributions to its police and fire pension funds in 2016. Chicago's unfunded pension liability amounts to about $7,000 for each resident of the city. How should the city solve its pension crisis? Please be specific about pension changes, spending cuts or revenue increases you would support.

I think that comparisons of government workings to business processes are misguided ones, because of the different natures of each entity; but, as with any good distressed business workout, buy in by all of the parties, especially city workers and educated taxpayers is the only solution that's going to work long term. I think that possible solutions like raising the age for eligibility for full pension benefits, with allowances for first responders, and for employees not retiring in the near future; and new revenue sources, favoring progressive taxes and true user fees, instead of the more regressive property tax sources will need to be tapped quickly, since previous administrations, with the support of my incumbent alderman, have kicked the can down the road so far over the last 20 years that addressing the issue immediately and transparently is my first job as a new alderman. I think that TIF reform, including sunsetting TIFs that have already mostly achieved their goals, and others that are piles of money with no immediate plans for proper use need to be returned to the general taxing bodies. I think that sales of City assets at fire sale prices, like the parking meter deal voted for twice by my alderman, at a potential cost to the city of billions of dollars, needs to stop, and potentially, perhaps, have part or all of their revenue streams be pledged to filling these pension holes. Refinancing GO bonds into revenue bonds is perhaps one way to avoid a lot of the problems you highlighted in your "Broken Bonds" series. But it needs to be done through negotiation with the city workers who have kept their parts of the agreements they made with the city, paid their parts of the pension payments to the city funds, and have basically been lied to by the city. And it needs honesty with the citizens and businesses of Chicago about how bad of a situation we're in. Calling this latest budget, that does nothing to address these unfunded liabilities and lack of significant new revenue sources to help fill the holes in our city pension funds "A good budget, a happy budget", like my incumbent Alderman did in the press, is more of the same dissembling that's put us in this situation, and that will change when I'm Alderman.

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 support sunsetting TIFs that have measurably achieved most or all of their goals initially stated in their enacting documents, and not porting their funds to other TIFs, except under extremely rare circumstances. I support David Orr and others in their efforts to add much needed sunshine to current TIF workings, plans and goals, and I support a comprehensive audit of all 151 districts in the city, including those in my own ward. I support possibly limiting the percentage of taxes the TIFs take to 60%, perhaps less. The almost 15% of TIFs in the city who take in over 90% of all the taxes in the district seems excessive. I would want a complete audit of the TIFs in my ward before supporting expansion or extension, but I do know of terrible abuses that have happened in my ward, like the over $1,000,000 given to a private entity for the conversion of an old police house to a community center and restaurant, that has yet to open over two years later, and the lack of information on all of the projects in the current TIFs, calls out for audits before proceeding with extensions or expansions. There is an intense need for development in the ward, despite the very favorable demographics, and the 39th Ward could use the jump start kind of investments that TIFs are supposed to provide, but I suspect that, properly applied, most would not need 23 years to come to the kind of fruition that would argue for their closing, and it's only because they are being used for improper purposes by the current Alderman that they are not showing better results. I believe excess TIF funds should be returned to the taxing bodies. I oppose the use of TIF funds for the Marriott Hotel and DePaul basketball arena, as I believe that taking taxable land that is in process of being developed already by private entities and porting it to a non-taxable entity for a limited, non-public use is the definition of what TIFs should not be used for. And I point to my current Alderman's use of a parliamentary maneuver to shut down debate on this issue, in her role as Pro Tem, as one of the reasons she should not be returned as Alderman in February.

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.

Directly in line with the Tribune's event "On the Table" I seek to increase and harness community and resident input on how resources are used and development proceeds in the 39th Ward. As alderman I would institute Participatory Budgeting to allow for community input in how Ward monies are used. PB is an initiative in a few wards currently, but the city as a whole would benefit if this expanded to a much wider area. I would also establish a Zoning Advisory Committee to solicit and capture community, business, chamber and taxpayer input in how development decisions are made in the Ward. I will be an active alderman seeking new business investment and resident feedback on moving the Ward forward. Of the 12 initiatives I think the hold the greatest potential for improving and expanding job opportunities in Chicago are: Sister Neighborhoods, SAFE Children, Schools as Tools, Innovation Houses, City in a Garden, and the idea of ward-by-ward tax incentives for attracting new businesses that locate and hire within the ward. There is real potential in those areas where the ground work has already been laid in cases such as SAFE Children and Innovation Houses working with the Cook County Land Bank. These initiatives are most successful where they grow organically and an elected official's highest calling is to support, promote and advocate for the needs and desires of their residents, especially those most in need.

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 have proposed strengthening and funding the Legislator IG's office and adding subpoena power to his ability to investigate members of the Council, but I realize that the current atmosphere in the City Council is one where that's not likely to happen. I think without question the City Council as well as the Mayor and executive branch need oversight and accountability. Whether this happens through the current IG office or the City Inspector General is not as important as that the oversight body has subpoena power and an independent budget to investigate and pursue those who violate the code of ethics. So, barring this logjam being resolved, I would support the current City IG being given the authority to investigate alderman and their staff members, with an independent funding source, so that he not be beholden to those he investigates for his office funding. I also believe that City Department Heads who refuse to answer IG questions, like the recent situation with the Commissioner of Streets and Sanitation, who walked out of a session, rather than answer questions about the performance of the new grid street cleaning efficacy, be required to come before a specially convened Council committee, and, if the Department Head doesn't answer the questions sufficiently, that every alderman be required to vote on censure of that Department Head, or justify why they did not.

Q: The Chicago Public Schools system has seen significant improvements in freshmen on track and high school graduation rates. CPS has also closed dozens of schools, used fiscal 2016 revenue to balance its 2015 budget and faces a roughly $700 million pension payment in 2016. Please give us your assessment of the academic and financial performance of the city's public schools. What is the key to improving public education in the city? Should members of the Board of Education be elected by the public or continue to be appointed by the mayor? Do you support the longer school day and year? Should CPS expand or reduce the number of charter schools? How should CPS close its significant budget gap?

CPS is a two-tier system. According to a recent analysis, 4 of the top 5 High Schools in the state are CPSchools, but many of the worst performing schools are also CPSchools. Our current funding problems in the City, and the State's limited ability to meet it's legal requirements to fund half of each districts' requirements will severely limit the City's ability to provide what most educators know is statistically the biggest predictor of positive outcomes: Money. We also know that family income, parental education levels attained and neighborhood support are most of the other factors in positive educational outcomes, and these are difficult problems to overcome. Although my ward is a microcosm of the city as a whole, the challenges in my ward are mostly those of overcrowding. I have proposed a whole new Elementary and High school in my ward, and will seek to work with my Northwest Side neighbors to bring those schools to my ward. I would support more realistic demographic assessments of other areas of the city, but believe most of the recent school closings were political, and opposed them, due to the lack of proper planning and chaos that caused. I believe that working in concert with a committed CTU is the only way to bring positive change, and I support an elected school board, to more closely align the wishes of city residents with the program and funding needs of CPS. I support a longer school day and year, but only if properly funded. I think that the original purpose of charter schools, as an incubator for school improvements, has been turned in to a way to break the union and privatize the school system, and I oppose that use. I would support a return to the incubator model, but in the mean time, I call for a pause in authorization of new charter schools, until a thorough review of expenses and educational outcomes is done, and oppose new diversions of city resources in to unregulated private entities. Recapturing excess TIF monies, and diversions to underperforming charters, and, after justification and proof that each tax dollar is being used correctly and efficiently, allowing CPS to increase it's real estate tax portion properly would be improvements I support.

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?

There are essentially two types of employers in the 39th Ward, with different needs and requirements. The 39th Ward is essentially a bedroom community, that includes a fairly wealthy demographic, as well as a light industrial strip that runs down our center. I seek to increase and harness community and resident input on what types of retail and service businesses are desired and seek to have local businesses incubated to help join the chain businesses in our several local shopping districts. I would use TIF funds, as I've described elsewhere, to encourage development in the walkable shopping districts like Bryn Mawr in the east, Devon in the north, and Lawrence in the south to increase local foot traffic, and stop local retail funds from traveling to places like Lincolnwood and Niles, where they head now. I would do that by establishing a local Zoning Advisory Committee to solicit and capture community, business, chamber and taxpayer input in how development decisions are made in the Ward. This is not done now, and despite the ward's demographics, lack of local retailers has been one of the biggest complaints I've heard from local residents, and lack of help developing businesses is one of the complaints I've heard from local business owners. In the light industrial part of the ward, I propose partnering with the City Colleges to help provide pre-trained employees with the exact job skills required by these light industrial companies, and add contingency requirements on the city funds already used supporting this industrial area, and other incentives an Alderman should bring to increase hiring of local talent. I will be an active alderman seeking new business investment and resident feedback on moving the Ward forward. I will expand the notion of what it means to partner with businesses by working to protect them from the worst effects of large city and utility project by working with agencies to ensure that these months-long projects are staged to have the smallest possible impact on their operations. Small businesses are the ones most effected by site-specific projects and loss of income from making streets impassable or removing parking for months on end can and do put them out of business.

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 support the increase in the minimum wage, but think it doesn't go far enough, fast enough. I am a strong supporter of a Living Wage, and think that no person older than 18, working over 35 hours a week should be earning a wage at or less than a poverty wage. I think that studies have shown that increases in the minimum wage generate more business activity, rather than less, and also that passing the social service burden on to local entities is not a good way to spur local development. I think that the recent referendums show that there is strong support for that position everywhere in the city and state. I am sensitive to retailers who claim that wide differences in wage requirements at borderlines create unfair situations, and urge county, state and federal officials to recognize that and eliminate those inequalities, but think that waiting for every other government entity to get around to doing the right thing is an abdication of my responsibilities as an elected official, and therefore, should it come up when I'm office, I'll support efforts to, at least keep the minimum wage from being eroded by inflation to one that again falls below poverty wages.

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

The strength, power and longevity of the Burnham Plan which has guided development along the Lakefront is predicated on keeping park lands open. Open lands, especially along the Lakefront are a major asset not only to residents but to tourists as well, and is so taken for granted that many do not realize how unique this situation is. (For instance, if you travel to Toronto you will not be able to find any open land along the Lake Ontario anywhere near its downtown.) All this is to say that I take a very cautious view of developing on public land, particularly this land. In general I oppose large obtrusive new buildings in the protected lake front area. I think that the lack of community input in the placement of the museum is the major reason for the current objections to the placement and design. I continue to find that plans which are not fully and transparently vetted to be plans that will fail in the future. The objections raised are valid and need immediate addressing and I urge everyone to go back to the drawing board and work out a solution that works better for all parties involved. I want to see the museum end up in Chicago, but doing it behind closed doors and over the objections of citizens is not the way to proceed. I hope the Force is with those negotiating, because I would love to be in line on Opening Day.

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?

I believe the City has let it's fiscal problems impact one of it's basic functions, that of making sure it's citizens are safe. I believe that the sworn force has been allowed to dip to a number where citizens are being negatively affected, officers on the street have been forced to work too much overtime, and even safe areas of the city, like my ward, are being cannibalized to help those parts of the city in great need of police coverage. I believe the city needs at least 1000 new officers over the next couple of years, to cover attrition, and as the City IG has recommended, movement of around 260 sworn officers from desk duty to street duty. I have been actively involved in CAPS Beat 1621 in my community and as the head of my neighborhood association have increased crime awareness by working closely with our CAPS representative, putting a representative from Forest Glen on the 16th District's District Advisory Council (DAC), and by using our eNewsletter to disseminate Community Alert's from the District to our large email list. In fact, our community association has communicated more via e-mails with our neighbors than the Alderman's office has with the whole ward. I have advocated for more coordination between the 16th and 17th Districts that divide the 39th Ward almost in two so that alerts from Alerts from one district immediately get sent to the other for the benefit of residents. The current ward office has so far taken no action on this.

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

I think that, unfortunately, the people that take advantage of our stretched too thin police force, and run red lights and speed on our neighborhood streets have forced a more automated response to the fact that they create more dangerous intersections and streets then our citizens should have to put up with. But I think that recent investigations by media outlets and admissions by the administration have shown that the program has started to be driven by its revenue generation, more than its safety aspect, and I think the balance should be returned. Fair yellow light times, placement of cameras driven by local elected officials attention to safety, rather than revenue generation and perhaps removing the adjudication process from an administrative one where there is a conflict of interest to rule in the city's favor, to one that's more balanced might help with the slippery slope the program seems to be headed down.

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

As far as cutting the number of alderman in half I oppose this for two very fundamental reasons: access and fiscal responsibility. I think the very limited monetary savings that reducing the amount of Aldermen and women would yield (per taxpayer, it's around two dollars a year, if you reduce the council by half), coupled with fact that a large part of their staffs would likely be retained to properly service the constituents. With very little gained financially for the City's budget, all that is left is the reduction in service and access to their elected official that a properly run Aldermanic service office provides. Because we are supposed to have a system where there are checks and balances fewer and larger wards would make it much harder for a truly independent candidate to compete and give the neighborhood a choice for a different way to address their local issues. It also means that, at least in my opinion, much more money would be involved thus making it harder to elect and maintain a truly independent City Council or having a truly responsive elected official.

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

My highest priorities for the Ward are development and giving communities a voice. When knocking on doors or attending community meetings I hear over and over how people are frustrated that there are not businesses or restaurants in their neighborhood that they can walk to and patronize. The ward has suffered under stagnant growth and expensive pet projects that have not benefited the ward as a whole or driven development. There needs to be a planning process that includes local residents, local businesses and local chambers in establishing a direction and goal for ward wide development. I have also heard again and again from residents that their requests for assistance from the ward office have gone unheeded and often are not even responded to. One resident witnessed the humiliation of a fire chief who was trying to ensure that a residential area had the necessary fire hydrants; another was told that her neighborhood did not "have enough votes" for the office to worry about her pothole problems. Many have said that it feels impossible to even get an appointment to see the alderman. One community submitted a petition of 200 signatures asking for a meeting and were met with silence. There is currently no ward night in the 39th Ward where the alderman is actually present. I want to change that.

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

Myself along with six other people from Forest Glen and Jefferson Park started the Jefferson Park Sunday Market in the spring of 2012 in less than two months. Coming together on the social media platform Everyblock we met up, researched, worked with our local alderman, with local media, found a host location, found vendors, developed graphics and an advertising strategy and had a full summer season for the Market in 2012. It has been going strong ever since. I don't know if that surprises you, but, I'm very proud of it.