Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Roderick T. Sawyer

Roderick T. Sawyer

Candidate for City Council, 6th Ward

Roderick T. Sawyer

Candidate for City Council, 6th Ward

Portrait of Roderick T. Sawyer

Education: BA Depaul University, JD, Chicago Kent College of Law, 1990

Occupation: Alderman, 6th ward

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


Candidates running for City Council, 6th 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.

Using long term bonds for short term operating expenses was an irresponsible policy. The current challenge is that Chicago revenue has not produced enough additional revenue growth to be able to meet all current obligations while stabilizing services around the city. After four years of reducing the structural deficit through the city budget, it is clear that the budget cuts and raising fees policy is not going to be sufficient to correct Chicago's fiscal shift. It is time that the next Mayor and City Council have a full discussion about the level of service and neighborhood investment that is expected, and a way to revamp our taxing structure to create additional revenue but to also spur growth. The City needs to do a review of the effect of the latest round of budget cuts and evaluate how much money has actually been saved. Sadly, the issue with privatization cost savings in that they often disappear after the first contract when the city cannot afford to restart a city department. Further, we maintain no penalties for these companies when the future years remove all the cost savings. We need to examine the success of our previous attempts at spending cuts and have a public discussion about the level of services the people of Chicago expect before committing to irresponsible further reductions. The fact remains that there does need to be an additional discussion about revenue. I would like to support tax increases along with a reduction in punitive fines. From my vantage point, it is clear that Chicago will never generate enough revenue relying exclusively on the downtown area, which means that Chicago needs to trade on some of its natural advantages to extend and grow the tax base. Focusing on a transit oriented development plan around CTA and Metra stops which includes parking options and amenities helps increase home values as centrally located neighborhoods become a feasible option for downtown employees. Further, the rich historical qualities of many communities in Chicago should be added to the city's tourism map. Investment in those basics sorts of modernizations help expand the traditional sources of revenue coming into the city each year. The fact is that there has been a decrease in funding from State and Federal sources so the idea that the city can cut its way out of a deficit and irresponsible decisions is not realistic.

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.

The issue of how we address our pensions will have far reaching consequences for the city of Chicago. In my evaluation we must remember that we made a promise to these workers who kept their end of the bargain, and to violate contracts is morally irresponsible. Moving forward, adjustments need to be made in the ever expanding COLA formula because it does not make sense that a pension can nearly double in 20 years. However, people are living longer but most entities are not expanding the demand for seniors in the workforce; therefore the city must find a way to ensure that retirees are able to live with dignity and stay in their homes. If we fail to do this, communities like mine that had many government workers become hard hit because the senior populations won't have the income to maintain their communities. It is never in the best interest of the city to balance their own books while increasing hardships on those that are the most vulnerable. For future plans we must accept that there is not a legitimate way to dramatically reduce benefits without increasing pay. The benefits along with the salary is part of the compensation package that the city of Chicago offers. As we continue to demand high quality service we must be competitive in terms of what we offer as compensation packages.

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 city needs a different way to fund capital projects. Currently almost any public works or large development project in the city is being funded exclusively with TIF funds. This is problematic because TIF are an unequal system and the communities that have experienced success with TIF gain additional resources while locations with newer districts are left to weather the effects of the housing crisis. The problem remains that in low income areas there really is not a viable way to finance new construction without a guaranteed twenty year tenant, which leads to begging big blocks stores to locate while giving away the farm with other tax incentives to produce a small amount of low paying jobs. For those reasons I do not support the $55 million for a Mariott Hotel and basketball arena. This project does not meet my standards of producing enough economic investment to be worth the investment of city tax money. There are far too many other pressing needs in this economic environment.

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.

4. Residents have many good ideas for how to improve Chicago. Some, I have serious reservations about, like the rush to hand over too much land on the south side to urban agriculture, however I fully support efforts to remove the "job desserts" from our communities. I support removing some of the red tape and providing capital to small businesses, however we must ensure that we have protections for the community from predatory businesses. In the end, as much as can be accomplished, the goal must be to have our children prepared to take these jobs and to start careers. This means we must do a serious amount of investment in human capital. We must acknowledge that the situation in struggling communities is an example of ongoing trauma. The experience for children in many communities on the south side is different than anything we can remember or what children in other communities experience but we don't deal with it systematically as a city. Evidence shows that there are spikes in violent crime in a few communities but we don't think about what this does to the mindstate of children who live in those communities. Simultaneously, there has been a reduction of mental health clinics and wrap around services in our schools to help the students adjust. Adding to this, in our schools there are less field trips, reductions in art, music and vocational training which narrows the opportunities for our children. I believe in being a champion for ideas that provide all of Chicago's children with the opportunity to compete. Removing the stigma and actually pushing for not just mental health services but removing the stigma from behavioral health services to be a support to help our children become constructive citizens able to compete and succeed in Chicago.

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.

5. City Council should abolish the Office of the Legislative Inspector General and transition the authority to investigate Aldermen and Staff to the Inspector General's Office. At a larger level it is time that we had a realistic discussion about ethics in Chicago government. Ethics laws needs to reflect the reality of working in a ward office and the history of how the residents engage with their Alderman's Offices. Most ward staff do not work regular office hours, and have responsibilities to attend community meetings and weekend events. Further, with the strong political history residents consistently come into ward offices to ask political questions leaving workers tongue tied. We need to remember what was at the heart of the ethics rules. The idea that no one was denied city services as payback for not directly enriching a government official or for not supporting a political agenda. But while doing this we must honor the work that happens. Aldermen, and often their staffs work well beyond 40 hours a week, many go above and beyond in helping constituents, the good will that one creates by working hard for your community should not be destroyed because a worker has to turn away a thank you gift or call the board of ethics before they know it is ok. In the end, that has never been the sort of corruption that haunted our city. In the end, transparency on economic decisions is the best solution. As elected representatives we all have to make choices and set priorities, and as such we can defend them when they are challenged. The more these decisions are left to public review, not public approval, the process can be clean.

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?

6. Chicago Public Schools is in the midst of another one of the cycles that it always has. For the past 20 years, everytime we launch a system wide reform, there are years of stories and statistics about how schools are improving, yet after the installation of new leadership we learn that the advancements are not as promoted. I believe that the system is missing a uniform conversation about education, not just about curriculum and assessments, but in terms of the actual goals of the system. The idea of 100 percent college ready is a good slogan, but I am aware that it will require more than standardized testing ability. Our schools need to create stable, intellectually curious young people that will be ready to address the challenges of this city for the next 50 years. This means we must look at education policy as more than a few bullet points of the longer school day, or the number of charter schools and examine the best way to provide a full educational experience for every student in the system. Educators get this. I have been in conversations where I see that there is much common ground between CPS CEO Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett and CTU President Karen Lewis on what the children need. What we need now is the political will to get this done for our kids. I believe that the Elected Representative School Board is a necessary but not sufficient step in this process. We need to get our parents more engaged in what decisions are being made, and make the members of the school board make the case that this is the best way forward. The increased buy in will be better for all of our children. The budget of CPS is another issue, the school facilities are in need of serious infrastructure investment and modernization. We need to push for a new funding formula from the state. The changes being pushed through the state legislature is a good start in terms of re-thinking how we do per pupil funding, but we need to do more. Illinois is at the bottom when it comes to funding public education, we have to stop asking our children to succeed with less and we in government need to do more.

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?

7. In general, the 6th ward is a bedroom community so there is not room for many large scale developments, but professional services and small business retail and hospitality have a large opportunity for growth. However, we have an infrastructure problem as do many communities on the south side of the city. We are currently in the process of having modern internet technology brought to our neighborhoods but as recently as the last election, services such at U-Verse was not readily available in the community. A step beyond that I have had to work with Com-Ed and some of my older buildings to get modern phase 3 electricity in place so that a business can expand. Historic neighborhoods need an infusion of capital to update themselves and lower the start up costs for businesses to move it. If the cost of locating in a neighborhood is that you must update the technical and electronic infrastructure just to do business, you have depleted funds that would be better used for reserves, or spent on marketing, or any other factors that would increase the odds of success. I have worked with our local chambers of commerce and delegate agencies to try to bring many of my historic businesses into the modern era. When I was first elected many of my businesses did not even possess email addresses, we have supported organizations that helped get these business online, with wifi and registering on the internet as a start. Secondly, I try to use my local businesses as much as possible. From hosting meetings, to catering, to services it is the goal of my office to support 6th Ward businesses. Third, my businesses are a major reason I supported the increased minimum wage. More disposable income means more support for local businesses and services. Lastly I have supported making life easier for small business by supporting consolidated licenses, easing regulations and reducing the red tape that would always hinder my clients when I practiced law.

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.

8. I support increasing the minimum wage. I was one of the lead sponsors of the plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. There is no reason that a person working full time should have to live in poverty. It is common to argue that minimum wage jobs are "starting" jobs but what the current market has shown us is that they are not. However, these jobs are not even working as starter jobs because for many they are in a worse financial condition than being on public assistance. These low wages have a dragging effect on minority communities as well. The more that working people are struggling the less they are able to keep up their properties and support local business. Further, low minimum wages keep other wages low. The sad truth is that most starting salaries for people with college degrees fall below what we propose raising the minimum wage to and are much less than the cost of a year of education. However since it is substantially higher than the the minimum wage it is justified as a good place to start. Creating debt holes for a generation is not a sustainable path towards building a stronger city. Further the increase in income becomes an increase in income tax revenue as well as a reduction of citizens who need public assistance which helps government budgets with their long term outlooks.

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

9. I am split. I understand the passion of activists who are against this plan but a part of me strongly believes that this museum belongs on the museum campus. Particularly by the planetarium so that we can bridge the gap between the movies that make us dream and the science that we can achieve. I remember how many things that we use today that were inspired by science fiction movies. I believe in promoting the creativity that has fueld the innovation of our society for years. I think at the core I wish that the commitment to Burnham's vision was more holistic. We may have an unencumbered lakefront but as we have placed meters at all of the lots we have restricted access. In theory you can bike the lakefront but if you park at Rainbow beach your meter will expire and you will get a ticket long before you get back. I think there is a balance between full accessibility as well as allowing complimentary expansion.

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?

10. Public safety in the long term will require investment. When a community has a lack of jobs, services and opportunity crime is a predictable result. We need to expand wrap around services in high crime areas. A fact is that crime has reduced in the majority of the city but it has intensified in some communities, this means that we end up depending on emotional maturity from a group that has suffered a tremendous amount of trauma in their lifetimes. While many are doing amazing jobs and being productive it is the ones who fall through the gaps which feed the violence problem. We need to incease the accessibility to mental health services in a more community based manor that reduces the stigma, we need job training programs that are tailored to the jobs that exist to get people on the path to careers. I support raising wages because people need to see that investing in themselves will bring stability and dignity. Once the opportunity gap is reduced we can make the common sense decisions of adding more police and investing in neighborhood infrastructure. At its root, challenges to public safety are the expression of a group of people that want to be heard. The more we create buy in and opportunity, along with meeting full staffing levels for police and fire, I believe that we can dramatically reduce incidents of violence.

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

11. I introduced an ordinance to phase these cameras out in 3 years to begin the conversation. If these camera's goals are to change habits and not merely to create revenue then it's purpose has a shelf life. Instead I believe that we have been placed in a situation where the cameras are guaranteed to generate a certain amount of revenue and if they fall short they will be made to do more. The simple truth is that in communities with speed cameras people slow down or avoid those streets. There is some controversy as to whether the red light cameras reduce or cause more accidents at intersections. What is clear is that these devices change habits which means at the least it is not a reliable revenue source and as behaviors are modified the injustices that do occur through this system become amplified. I fully believe that these instruments must have a sunset provision once the stated goals have been achieved.

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

12. I don't believe that reducing the number of Aldermen in the city council is productive. The primary reason this will be ineffective is a lack of explanation. People contact their Alderman's office for a myriad of issues, often with a mistaken belief than an Alderman has power that he does not have. Each round of ethics reform has made the job of Alderman more difficult as people call the office with an understanding of how things use to work but do not anymore. As officials we try the best we can to solve every city service problem without possessing actual authority to get it done. While this concept has become manageable in most wards, it would not be in wards twice the size. The fact is that while Aldermanic jobs are called part time, I do not know of a colleague that works less than 60 hours most weeks. The level of individual service given by the Alderman and staff is tremendous yet unlikely to be recognized even by other residents. In order to maintain a system with fewer Alderman you would have to increase staff budgets to remove any potential cost savings and the city council would suffer, conceptually, from the reduction in diversity of opinion.

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

13. My highest priority is increasing economic opportunity in my ward. The 6th Ward has a long tradition of strong middle class neighborhoods with stable business districts and residents who hold a deep level of pride in their community. As the community has aged, and some of the residents have changed we have faced some challenges, but at the core if we can increase the income available to residents and the opportunity available to children we can stabilize our community and get it moving back in the right direction. Achieving this feat in a systematic way by taking advantage of our natural resources of location, access to transit and institutions like churches and businesses with strong legacies in the community is the best path towards solving an issue that I often hear from my residents, which is safety. I have supported more police and fuller integration in the community. But in the end if we do not find a way to expand opportunity for young people and stabilize the incomes of working families we will not have the save neighborhoods that we all deserve. My greatest goal as alderman is to combine the traditional city service work with promoting policies that will improve the quality of life on a larger scale for all of our residents. People need to be able to see that government can be effective.

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

I have always dreamed of being the Maitre'd at my own restaurant.

City Council, 6th Ward