Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Sean Starr

Sean Starr

Candidate for City Council, 31st Ward

Sean Starr

Candidate for City Council, 31st Ward

Portrait of Sean Starr

Education: DePaul University College of Law – Chicago Juris Doctor 2010 University of Illinois at Chicago – Chicago Master of Arts – English, 2004 Bachelor of Arts – English, 2002

Occupation: Attorney/English Professor

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


Candidates running for City Council, 31st 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 borrowing was not justified. The City knew what it was getting into. I support efforts to terminate bad deals fostered by the City. I am willing to support generating revenues through higher taxes and fees to maintain and improve vital public services, provided a proper analysis and accounting is done to ensure such increases positively impact the largest number of Chicagoans. To those ends, I am in support of the following: 1) Raising the city's portion of the property tax levy; 2) Broadening sales tax on certain services; 3) Instituting a city income tax—but only under certain clearly delineated circumstances—in particular in the form of a "fair and progressive income tax" that would help to narrow the gap between the excessively wealthy and the rest of society; 4) Instituting a sales tax on large scale financial transactions; 5) Instituting a 1% commuter income tax that would benefit the people who make the decision to live and work in Chicago; and 6) Any legislation designed to make corporations bear the brunt of a waning economy instead of individuals. Eliminating or shrinking corporate subsidies to offset the pension crisis would be step in the right direction.

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 am staunchly in favor of public employees receiving the pensions they were promised. Over the last several years, one of my primary clients has been the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No 7 ("the "FOP"). As outside counsel for the FOP, I wrote the FOP's amicus brief in anticipation of litigation. I likewise drafted a set of talking points to make it easier for the FOP administration to communicate with its members regarding the pension situation and their respective rights. While the FOP has not yet needed to enter into any lawsuits, the need exists for all of organized labor to be ready to respond to any legal attacks on their clearly delineated pension rights. Illinois Circuit Court Judge John Belz's decision on Friday, Nov. 21, 2014—albeit a short term win—reaffirmed my conviction that the State of Illinois and City of Chicago need to find alternative sources of funding for the grossly underfunded retirement systems. Contemporary attacks on the public employee pension system are an attempt to destabilize the middle and working classes. When the Illinois Constitutional Convention amended the State Constitution in 1970 to include Article XIII, Section 5, it did so to ensure that the state would not renege on pension obligations to public employees during a financial crisis. Over the last several years, amidst a recession and continuing economic uncertainty, lawmakers and special interest groups have attempted to reinterpret the Pension Clause. The Pension Clause, however, provides a narrow constitutional guarantee: pension system members have an enforceable contractual right to benefits that cannot be unilaterally reduced without consent and consideration. While Illinois courts have said that pensioners cannot sue the State to guarantee funding levels, those same courts have consistently found that pensioners have a right to sue in the event funding levels default or approach default status, as Belz's decision reiterates. Current employees' benefits cannot be reduced in order to relieve Illinois' pension liabilities and if those liabilities are as severe as pension reformers would have the public believe, pensioners have a right to sue the state in circuit court to ensure their benefits. Chicago needs to find alternative sources of revenue for the grossly underfunded retirement systems. I support alternatives that do not adversely impact the public employees whom I believe earned the right to their pensions. For instance, I support using some of the TIF funds to help ease the pension debt burden.

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 am strongly in favor of reforming the TIF system and placing those funds back into the public schools, city services, and pensions. TIF money should be used—at least in part—to alleviate some of pension burden the City faces, instead of being used to build hotels or basketball stadiums. I am in favor of limiting TIF areas to areas of the city that actually need TIF money for stabilization and have demonstrated that use of TIF funds can effectively produce results in the given area. Likewise, I am in favor of a requirement that TIFs actually be used or be redistributed back into specific areas (like directly into CPS) within a certain time period.

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.

While all of the "12 Ways to Heal a City" ideas are exciting and speak to the collaborative power of community to improve itself, I would primarily advocate for the ideas that directly improve the lives of young Chicagoans. If we are going to improve this City, we have to start by focusing on the next generation. Reviving recently closed public schools as community centers, creating "innovation houses," and expanding SAFE Children are the three ideas that I think can pay off the most in the long run. To those ends, I plan on creating a ward office that is open to all of the community, but particularly to its young people. Intervening in the lives of young people can stop cycles of violence, incarceration, and poverty. I believe we need to develop programs that start at the beginning and help maintain relationships with children throughout their developing years. For example, public services that make advocates available for new mothers for a child's first six months of life have shown to statistically enhance the likelihood that a kid goes to college. Likewise, finding ways to make the public schools more accessible to parents and thus make parents more fully engaged in their children's lives only bolsters that possibility. If we really want to remain competitive with the rest of the country—and the world for that matter—Chicago needs to rethink and reinvest in its relationship with its children.

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 keep the legislative inspector general. Far too much legislation is passed by the City Council with no oversight. While voting to use TIF money to fund private development when the majority of alderman are not even present for the vote might be alright with the current City Council, it is not alright with the majority of Chicagoans. Likewise, the Inspector General should be given authority to investigate alderman. The fact that Inspector General Khan produced a report that questioned twenty-four (24) aldermanic offices with sixty-eight (68) City employees found to be engaging in prohibited activity and nothing was done about it speaks to a generational acceptance of Chicago's clout and collusion. More transparency results in more accountability and should, in theory, produce more positive results that benefit all Chicagoans, not simply the aldermen and their "friends."

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 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are a fundamental pillar of society that should function to educate and engage Chicago children. School closings ruin communities. I advocate for a holistic public school system that reciprocates the effort teachers and students put into education. To achieve this, I support numerous reforms such as increased job security for teachers, reduced class size, and a moratorium on school closings. I believe that education necessarily requires attention to more than just core curriculum. As such, I think a return to the arts, physical education, and trade skills are needed. In an effort to help create and nurture a more just and productive society, CPS schools need function as more than just schools, but instead be the centers of the communities they are located in. I am committed to supporting public education and working class people. To begin with, my mother has been a CPS teacher for over 25 years, and my wife is a CPS teacher as well. As such, I am intimately aware of the circumstances and challenges the teachers face in order to perform their jobs. I am cognizant that their "jobs" are much more than a matter of employment. Public education is a fundamental American resource, and teaching is as difficult a calling as there is. I marched with my wife and her fellow teachers during the 2012 strike to demand elimination of high-stakes testing, decreased class size, and increased emphasis on the arts. I likewise completely support an elected school board. The local community must have more of a say in what happens in each respective school. I believe a longer school day and year is a possible option to improve the schools, although I believe more research and input from teachers, social workers, and child psychologists is needed before I am fully convinced. However, I am fully convinced that CPS should reduce the number of charter schools and that the city should use some of the TIF funds to reduce CPS' significant budget gap. I advocate for full funding of our neighborhood public schools. Likewise, I support keeping in place the moratorium on school closings even after the February elections. Furthermore, I think it is important to improve school safety without further disciplining students and to work to reduce outdated diagnostic testing in order to create stronger learning environments.

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?

If elected, I plan to create economic development in my ward without displacing our residents. In order to do this I will promote and assist residents in developing neighborhood businesses, create a multicultural restaurant and bar district, and encourage business development that utilizes vacant building space and creates new jobs in the ward. Likewise, I plan to work to bring additional grocery store options to the ward which will provide additional job opportunities as well. I also plan on creating a resource center/writing center as part of the ward office to provide more computer/internet access and to provide our residents with guidance as it pertains to resume drafting and job interviewing. Our current alderman is anti-development. I will be a pro-development alderman—so long as it is the type of development which benefits and maintains the 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 support a minimum wage increase to $15 dollars an hour. Statistics have shown that increasing the minimum wage increases communities' economies. Additionally, I think a $15 dollar minimum wage is reflective of what Chicagoans actually deserve in 2015.

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

Like most Chicagoans, I grew up a huge fan of Star Wars. However, while the Lucas Museum would be a fun thing to have in our city, and it would probably be a benefit to tourism, there are much more important programs in the Chicago that lack funding. Accordingly, I am against any public funding of the museum at this time. If it can be done without redirected much needed resources out of the communities in the city, then I would be all for 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?

Our public safety has to be a community effort. If we cannot live in our community without fear, then we don't have a community to live in. I order to improve public safety, I would implore the Mayor's office to hire more police officers and assign more officers to our Ward's beats. Likewise, I will work with neighborhood leaders, beat officers, and CAPS to create a more trusting and reciprocal relationship. Similarly, I will strengthen community watch programs. Finally, I will advocate for more public and private sector summer job programs. Studies have shown that when young people can work they overwhelming choose to do so over committing crimes. A lot of the crime in Chicago can be effectively remediated by leveling the economic playing field. If elected, I will work tirelessly to promote legislation and programs that invest in underserved communities so that there are more incentives for the members of those communities to invest in themselves.

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

I do not support the red light program. I will not support the program until which time the program can show that it actually promotes safety and is not simply a revenue devise dressed up like a public safety program.

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

Chicago probably should reduce the number of alderman. However, I have heard from a chorus of people who feel like their current alderman already does not have enough time to respond to their needs. Whether this is a byproduct of time constraints or it is because the incumbents are simply disconnected from their constituency remains to be seen at this time. I will reserve an opinion on this until I am in office.

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 my ward is making sure the people who make up my ward are given a voice in this city. Overwhelming, what I heard from people in my community was that they feel as though their interests are being ignored and left of out of the conversation by their current leaders. I believe that city leaders have moved decidedly away for representing the interests of the common man and woman. Too many politicians put money ahead of their constituents. I am not beholden to big business or the Mayor's office. Likewise, too many incumbents have been unwilling or unable to adapt and change with the times. I am running for the people of the 31st Ward. Our ward's public schools should be the focus of our community. The more resources we put into our schools, the more resources our children will have to not only succeed in, but also help shape the future that awaits them. Our ward's public safety has to be a community effort. If we cannot live in a safe community, then we do not have a community to live in. Our ward's affordable housing needs to be strengthened. If we cannot keep our residents in our community, then we will not have a community. Our ward's economy must be developed. If we concentrate on bringing investment into the ward instead of letting it leave, jobs and economic growth will likewise stay put in the ward. All of these are independent issues. But if we do not have an Alderman who focuses on them interdependently, the entire ward will suffer. I'm also running because the City of Chicago needs a stronger City Council. Aldermen should have a significant influence on important policy matters. Too many current aldermen are afraid to make waves. As a result, the mayor's office becomes the only voice in the room. We already have seen what this can result in: a 75 year long bad contract for the parking meters, TIF money siphoned out of the neighborhoods into the pockets of private downtown developers, and the red light ticket fiasco are only some examples of what can happens when a weak City Council does not stand up for the people of Chicago. I'm also running to fight for the ward's public employees, undocumented Americans, minimum wage earners, and any other underrepresented group currently under attack from the upper class. I firmly believe that the City Council has a responsibility to represent and put the middle and working class people in this City first. These people are the heart and soul of the greatest city in the world.

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

Something that might be surprising about me is that I am a high-end health food foodie. I take my health very seriously, but I take cooking very, very seriously. If I was not an attorney and a teacher who was running for office, I would probably open a restaurant in my underserved community that served high quality health food.