Democratic candidate for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, 6-year term
Responses to our questions
Evaluate the current performance of the MWRD.
In my view the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is doing a pretty good job at fulfilling its core mission, namely to "protect the health and safety of the public in its service area, protect the quality of the water supply source (Lake Michigan), improve the quality of water in watercourses in its service area, protect businesses and homes from flood damages, and manage water as a vital resource for its service area."
The District's finances are well managed. It's one of the few government agencies in Illinois that still retains a AAA bond rating (Fitch). Several years ago the District succeeded in passing a pension reform bill that has resulted in shrinking its unfunded pension obligation. (Its funded ratio has risen from 50.4% in 2012 to 56.2 % in 2016.) The District's workforce has shrunk modestly through attrition and it has been refurbishing and modernizing its treatment plants and operations.
Significantly, the District's strategic plan is to become a resource recovery agency, finding and monetizing the value in materials that used to be considered waste. The District's plans to become energy neutral in seven years and to generate modest revenue from resource recovery initiatives will help it with budgetary constraints in the future.
The Civil Service program has insulated the District from many pressures of the old patronage system and new leadership in 2011 (the selection of David St. Pierre as executive director) has led to a gradual change in the culture of the agency. As with any large government agency, there continue to be opportunities for significant improvement. The District's public information and outreach efforts need to expand and become more agile so that the members of the public can better understand their own very important role in stormwater management and water quality. (Could the District send text messages to residents in a target area during severe storms encouraging them not to run dishwashers or washing machines, to delay taking showers, etc. in order to reduce the load on combined sewers, for instance?)
In our data-driven age, MWRD should be better about publishing real-time information about combined sewer overflows and offering immediate response to citizen complaints about pollution, odor, and trash and debris in the Chicago River and in area waterways. The District needs to think creatively about ways to support and encourage grey water reuse. District contracts need more and better oversight (see my response regarding inspector general below). Finally, it seems to me that one of the major lessons of 2017 is that an agency such as MWRD must think constantly and creatively about disaster preparedness — how to keep the agency prepared for disasters (of many kinds, including flu pandemics and cyber security breaches), and how best to deploy the resources of the agency to prevent and respond effectively to local and regional disasters.
Explain why you are qualified to be a commissioner and three specific initiatives you seek to accomplish during your term in office.
I have served on the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District since December 2006 and am seeking a third (and final) term, principally because there are a few more things I hope to accomplish before I leave office. Chief among them is the establishment of an independent inspector general for the District. We are currently exploring several options to do this (see my response to a question below) and I am hopeful we can secure support from the Board this year.
Second, I would like to see larger-scale implementation of the lessons we learn from the District's stormwater master plan program. This might include cost sharing for installation of flood-protection and basement-backup devices, and creative ways to leverage stormwater management dollars for broader economic and community benefits. The District's ambitious and innovative collaboration in Robbins — which will manage stormwater, but will also promote housing and business development and create new recreational opportunities for the residents there — can serve as a pilot for more widespread efforts throughout the county.
Third, I would like to see the expansion of Cook County's pharmaceutical collection program into hospitals, pharmacies, and senior centers. We should explore changes in protocols for hospice care so that nurses and caretakers do not flush powerful pain medications down the toilet or dispose of them in the trash. And, as a long-term measure, MWRD should promote a product stewardship model for the collection and disposal of medications so that manufacturers pay for the disposal costs of their own products. It is quite expensive to remove pharmaceutical constituents from water, and Cook County taxpayers should not be on the hook for these costs.
Does current MWRD policy sufficiently encourage the use of permeable paving and other tactics to conserve water, diminish flooding and enhance habitat? How, if at all, would you seek to improve the district's conservation policy?
Credits for installation of green infrastructure are included in the Watershed Management Ordinance adopted by the MWRD Board in 2014. These have resulted in much more widespread adoption of green infrastructure than before. I do believe, however, that there is much more that the District could do to encourage use of these techniques.
I'd like to see the District explore some kind of tax break for those individuals and businesses that, through the installation of permeable parking lots, for instance, send less stormwater for the District to treat. There's got to be a way to provide additional, meaningful incentives for adoption of conservation techniques. I'd also like to see the District support a study of restored habitat in some parts of the Cook County forest preserves to demonstrate, for example, that healthy woodlands sequester more stormwater than degraded woodlands.
A modest investment in targeted restoration may provide multiple benefits — increased property values in adjacent sites, improved air and water quality, enhanced recreational opportunities, to name a few— in addition to stormwater retention.
Do you favor or oppose separation of the Chicago/Des Plaines/Calumet river watershed from Lake Michigan? Why or why not?
To my knowledge, no comprehensive study has yet been conducted that evaluates both the costs and the benefits of separating the Lake Michigan watershed from that of the Des Plaines River. Thus, it's impossible to have an informed opinion on the question of separation. That said, I believe there are many benefits to hydrologic separation that have not been considered in the few analyses presented.
Separation could (and would) prompt a reimagining and restructuring of transportation in the Chicago region. Separation would necessitate deep investment in Chicago's stormwater management and water infrastructure. Separation would require massive injection of capital (both human and financial) that would fuel the regional economy on many levels and have lasting benefits (both economic and environmental). And separation would close a major highway for passage of invasive species between the Great Lakes watershed and that of the Mississippi.
Beyond whatever relief recent developments at the McCook quarry will deliver: What more, if anything, should the MWRD do to curb sewage overflows into the Chicago River and, at times, into Lake Michigan? If you propose additional actions, how would you pay for them?
I think there are broad actions to try to make Chicago and Cook County more resilient and better able to withstand the intense rainstorms that are increasingly afflicting our region and there are some specific actions that could be tried to reduce sewage overflows in targeted sewersheds.
Regarding broad actions, the MWRD is working with municipalities to support the development of 100-year stormwater management plans that include installation of a variety of techniques to capture rain where it falls and keep it out of the sewers or slow the flow into the sewers giving them more capacity to convey stormwater to the MWRD's intercepting sewers, tunnel dropshafts, and reservoirs. We need to peel back some of the concrete skin laid over the landscape and restore the land's ability to absorb water.
We also need to install a distributed network of rain capture systems (cisterns, underground tanks, repurposed rail tank cars, among others) to capture rain from roofs and store it until the sewer system has sufficient capacity or release this water into the environment, recharging underground aquifers and groundwater sources. Regarding specific actions, I believe the MWRD can identify the worst outfalls that have the most frequent combined sewer overflows or that have the largest volume of overflows. Targeting the area that feeds into these outfalls – the "sewershed" – MWRD and the city of Chicago or other municipalities may be able to install a mix of green infrastructure (permeable pavement, rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs) and grey infrastructure (larger detention basins, storage systems) to reduce the flow feeding these outfalls.
Currently the MWRD has a demonstration project with 40 homes to be selected in three wards in Chicago to determine if a targeted installation of flood protection devices (overhead sewers and check valves, for instance) and green infrastructure can eliminate basement backups and flooding. If successful, the District may seek a legislative change that will allow the use of MWRD resources for work on private laterals. (Grants would be made to municipalities for cost-sharing programs, for instance, and any work would be done through municipal contracting.)
The MWRD has been highly successful in accessing very low interest loans via the state's revolving loan fund administered by the Illinois EPA and some of these funds can be used for stormwater projects. In addition, when the District was given authority for stormwater management for Cook County in 2004 by the Illinois General Assembly, that included taxing authority up to five cents per $100 equalized assessed valuation for Cook County property owners. The District has never assessed the full amount indeed the current tax levy for stormwater project is at 3.2 cents per $100 of equalized assessed value in the 2018 budget. However, the District has been appropriating money for projects that it has not fully spent in recent years.
I have encouraged the District to spend what it appropriates and to increase the levy modestly to address the widespread needs for stormwater management and infrastructure throughout Cook County.
Does the MWRD have surplus land? If so, should it be sold for development, transferred to abutting municipalities, or conveyed to the Forest Preserve District for conservation? Explain.
Most of the land owned by the MWRD is along the Chicago area waterways. MWRD retains ownership for corporate purposes should the waterways need to be dredged, enlarged, repaired, or changed. I do not support the sale of District land unless a parcel is a remnant separated from the waterways and will never be needed for District operations. These lands were purchased in trust for all Cook County residents and I would be very reluctant to foreclose future uses by transferring land permanently to other entities.
For instance, should re-reversing the Chicago River become a reality, the District might need even isolated parcels for pumping stations or storage to manage stormwater. In future efforts to mitigate climate change, the District may need to embark on a major tree-planting initiative or other habitat measures.
We just cannot know what may be needed 50 years hence and I believe it is more prudent to conserve District resources than to sell them for short-term gain or convey them to other agencies.
Given its sizable budget and the huge contracts it awards, should the MWRD have a different oversight protocol? How would you propose improving oversight and ethics monitoring?
I have been one of the principal advocates for the establishment of an independent inspector general (IG) at the MWRD.
My staff and I prepared and circulated a detailed white paper examining the structure and benefits of inspectors general and providing some examples from other agencies. After the Board held a study session on this topic in late August 2017, the Board President and I met with the inspectors general of the city of Chicago and of Cook County respectively. I was able to secure a commitment of $600,000 in the MWRD's 2018 budget to support establishment of an IG should the Board of Commissioners decide to do so.
I intend to prepare a memo outlining two options to present to the Board in early 2018, namely 1) to establish an independent IG for MWRD or 2) to enter into an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with either the city of Chicago's IG or Cook County's IG to provide those services for MWRD.
In my opinion, the District might obtain a broader array of expertise, a quicker start and at lower cost by collaborating with an existing IG who has already been selected by a rigorous blue-ribbon process. (I will recommend incorporating a review period of three-to-four years into any IGA and so that the MWRD Board could decide to establish an IG for MWRD alone should a collaborative arrangement not prove beneficial or effective.) Nevertheless, a "shared" IG model has already been adopted by both the city — which provides such oversight for the Public Building Commission via an IGA — and by the county, which serves as the IG for the Forest Preserve District.
Sharing of resources and collaboration between agencies represents 21st century governance at its best, in my view. I believe the benefits of independent oversight through an IG will be numerous, not least that IGs can provide helpful review of District policies, practices, and processes that may lead to efficiencies and savings in operations.