Candidate for City Council, 50th Ward
Education: Aligarh University, B.S. 1986 (India)
Occupation: Executive Director - ZAM's Hope
Age: Not answered
Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered
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.
Except in times of dire emergency or natural disaster, borrowing for government operating expenses is never justified. It is simply political cowardice and governmental incompetence. It would be best if our City government identifies and dedicates specific funding sources for long term capital projects in order to raise funding for projects before they start, but that is asking pigs to fly. At the very least, we should limit long term borrowing to long term capital projects only. I believe that if we stop diverting 80% of the funds we now load up our TIF Funds with, we will have more than enough tax revenue to fund the long term elimination of the excessive debt while maintaining the current level of services need to help our residents. In the meantime, I think we should scale down multi-million dollar downtown vanity projects such as Maggie Daley Park. Those strategies, coupled with increased efficiency as well as the ongoing elimination of patronage, fraud, and waste should solve our financial problems as long as the economy remains stable.
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 we should work out a transfer of the excess in our TIF Funds to fund the short term shortages in the pension funds. If it takes state legislative action, then every city official should work hard to lobby our state legislators to make sure the legislation passes. The long term solution is to follow the same strategy I outlined in my first answer.
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 TIF fund disbursement process seems tainted by insider favoritism instead of the true purpose of economic redevelopment of the blighted areas of the city. I believe some of our major commercial corridors such as Devon and Western could use some funds dedicated toward improvement whether or not it comes from a TIF fund or separate economic development resource. As stated above, I believe we should establish a legal mechanism for transferring current TIF fund balances to fund our pension deficits. I oppose the $55 million dedicated toward the DePaul basketball arena. We just can't afford it at this time and other venues can accomodate the team. I believe that groundwork for this fiasco was laid when the new previous administration insisted on the ruining Soldier Field by implanting an uncovered spaceship stadium on top of the national landmark. Chicago should have taken the opportunity to build a multi-use indoor stadium on the near south side with would have been able to accommodate the Chicago Bears as well numerous other civic and sports events, including DePaul basketball. The National Singapore Stadium which just opened is a visionary achievement which Chicago could have benefited from.
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 chicagotribune.com/plan. Please tell us which ideas you would champion. We invite you to offer additional ideas for dealing with Chicago's challenges.
I support the free GED test, the sister neighborhood concept, the federally funded Safe Children program, Innovation Houses (the function I believe my organization ZAM's Hope partially fills today in Rogers Park), City in a Garden, the MWRD industrial water usage concept, and Kids & Careers. Not that I do not support the the other good ideas that were proposed, but I feel these have the most potential to succeed and benefit our city.
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 should keep the office of the legislative inspector general and the IG should be selected by the U.S. Attorney General with an annual appointment renewal. The office should be funded with a set percentage of the city budget which cannot be lowered by the city council when they become angry at the IG for doing his job. Corruption, favoritism, nepotism and the idea that politics/government is a path to wealth is so ingrained in the political psyche of Chicago that it will only be removed through decades of increased enforcement of ethics laws and vigilant prosecution of offenders. I also believe the general level of honesty of elected officials is improving despite the inevitable bad apples who run for office with corrupt motives and goals. I believe transparent government and modern technology afford more opportunity for monitoring government and government officials by ordinary citizens, which will help cut down on some of the larceny.
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?
Schools open and close in every big city based on the changes in the population of children in any given area. The historical lack of efficiency in the CPS administration and the city's current budget crisis also forced the consolidation of schools to cut down on the cost of staffing maintaining underutilized physical school locations. These were the logical steps to take. The budget tricks they use to mask basic financial flaws and the habit of putting off hard budget decisions for future generations needs to stop, and we should address it they same way we will address the shortages in pension funds and operating costs - the shift of TIF fund property tax revenue back into the budget where it was taken from. The charter school concept is good, but we are establishing two schools systems – one for people with clout and one for those without. That is inherently unfair and every student should have an equal opportunity at the best education. Reform should be system wide and CPS has admirable goals that should be incorporated for every child. I would be much more comfortable with the idea of an elected school CPS Board if Chicago had a more civic oriented political climate. Chicago school board elections are shaping up to be a battle between unions trying to control their both sides of their contract negotiations and political bureaucrats and elected officials trying to hang onto the power of their inefficient fiefdom. The basic goal of making sure each child has a proper education and develops intellectually to the best of the ability seems to be an afterthought.
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?
Given the high number of first and second generation immigrants in my community and being familiar with moist of the local employers, I believe most hiring is already local. We are more of a bedroom community ward than an industrial hub. We have very large commercial and retail corridors which have stable business tenants, but we should work toward eliminating a rising retail vacancy rate. We have a number of very experienced business owners with international experience which could help bring new business opportunities to our area. Through my community group, I have worked to bring many employers, local and non-local, together with prospective job holders. I believe the higher level of graduation rates in our area and the belief that higher education is the key to success, coupled with the technological expertise of our younger generation, provides the 50th Ward with an opportunity to serve as a technology hub for employers willing to invest in a technology based facility in our ward.
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.
The minimum wage need to be raised, but it should have been statewide. I would have preferred that the entire State of Illinois had the minimum wage raised through state legislation. Being a ward on the edge of the city, and having many businesses virtually across the street from competitors in suburbs that are not subject to the same wage laws, our local business community will face challenges in making payroll and holding prices that their direct competitors do not.
Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.
Despite the mixed motives for wanting to block the Lucas Museum, I think there is a rational basis for precluding development on our lakefront. Despite previous lakefront development and the fact that a good deal of the eastern portion of downtown is built on landfill, we need to be extremely vigilant in making sure that developers with heavy lobbying budgets can't start gobbling up the people's lakefront recreational area. Because this development is a Museum and because it will provide a major improvement to an area predominantly used for parking now, I would agree to support it despite the fact that I think the design is hideous. If Alderman start approving building permits based on their judgment of the artistic value of every building, the entire city will begin to look like a row of Kmarts in order to achieve a consensus.
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 can use more police officers, but I don't think we can afford it due to the financial irresponsibility of previous administrations. I have attended CAPS meeting in my area in the past and I have a good working relationship with our district police commander. I also believe it is up to a community to pitch in and try to prevent crime by being vigilant in maintaining their property, becoming involved when you see misbehavior or suspicious activity, and raising children to respect all other citizens and property. 12,000 cops will never be able to protect 2,000,000 people 24 hours a day, and it is not logical or realistic for people to believe a police officer will be on every corner. We all have to work together to make our communities safe.
Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.
I think it was originally conceived as both a safety measure and revenue generator, but I think it is being expanded to serve as more of a revenue generator. People should stop for red lights and slow down near parks and schools, and red light cameras do help. I think what people believe is unfair is some of the placements of cameras, the illegal speeding up of yellow light changes to increase tickets, and the right turn on red offenses which really serve no safety purpose (if you don't stop for 8 seconds, you get ticketed).
Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?
I think it should be reduced to 20. Having 50 Alderman is just an elective patronage scheme. 20 wards allows an Alderman a small enough geographic area and manageable number of constituents to service. A reduction in Alderman will mean some of that revenue can be reallocated to the 20 remaining Aldermanic staff budgets to make up for the additional work. Wards should be redrawn to make them truly compact and contiguous like the 1931 ward map.
Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?
The complaint I hear most often is that most of our residents is that they do not know who our Alderman is and have never seen her. The problems I hear about most as a candidate are regarding the lack of local job opportunities, an increasing fear of criminal activity, increased taxation and revenue burdens on business owners, and the lack of quality on the public schools. My highest priority will be to connect to as many families and business owners in the ward as possible to let get them personally involved in advancing the quality of life and commerce in our community. People want to help make their community a better place, but they need a leader who will encourage participation. I have been successful in bringing people together in my community for many years toward a common community goal, and I will accomplish a great deal more as Alderman.
Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.
I was born, raised and educated in India before I came to the United States. After leaving a diffficult marriage in Chicago with two small daughters, I spent many years struggling to make ends meet working multiple jobs, but found there were few resources to help immigrant working mothers. As a result, I started the Zam's Hope charitable organization to help single mothers like myself cope with the problems they will encounter as they make they way in the world.