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updated: 1/15/2010 10:30 AM

Candidates debate 'gravy train' issue on water district

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  • Kari Steele

    Kari Steele


First of a series on issues facing candidates in the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District race.

When it comes to perks, it's a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty world for the nine Democrats running for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in the Feb. 2 primary.

The winners of the race for three six-year, part-time positions will be paid $70,000 a year, receive a vehicle, and two staff members.

The contenders include incumbents Barbara McGowan and Mariyana Spyropoulos and newcomers Michael Alvarez, Stella Black, Todd Connor, Wallace Davis III, Maureen Kelly, Kathleen Mary O'Reilley and Kari Steele.

Candidates are divided among those critical of salaries, those defending the benefits and some in the middle.

Black, a Chicago property tax consultant, was neutral about the salary but critical of other perks.

"If elected, I do not want a pension," Black said. "I'm not running to get a pension. I think the car is ridiculous. I'd rather use my car and get a mileage reimbursement."

She also said she would "look seriously" at staffing and consider hiring college interns.

Kelly said salaries should be reviewed.

"That's not the reason I'm running," she said. "People who run are accused of trying to jump on the gravy train, but when you talk to the majority of candidates, they are concerned with the issues and want to make positive changes."

A car is a "reasonable benefit," she added. Kelly, of Chicago, is executive director of community and government relations at St. Xavier University.

Spyropoulos, an attorney, and McGowan, a former MWRD employee, said the salary isn't excessive for hard workers. Both currently earn $50,000.

"It's the type of position that you can make what you want out of it," Spyropoulos said. However, "if there are budget constraints and salaries of commissioners are something that needs to be looked at - I have no problem with that. I have my own law practice. I am not running to jump on the gravy train." Spyropoulos, of Chicago.

Spyropoulos refused offers of an SUV and Crown Victoria but accepted a hybrid car.

"It's sitting in my garage and I haven't used it," she said. She has 1.5 employees.

Connor calls the benefits excessive and symptomatic of waste elsewhere at the district, "$70,000 is too much," he said.

Regarding a car, "my personal decision would be not to use it; it's not a necessary perk."

Connor added that the district should sell its "marquee property" in downtown Chicago and move to a cheaper site. He is a Chicago management consultant.

Wallace said he already has a full-time job as Chicago water management department general superintendent.

"I would look to not accept a salary or donate the salary to charity - 100 percent to charity or better yet not accept a salary at all. That's how much I believe in my ability to bring transparency to our infrastructure."

McGowan said, "It is no gravy train if you're serious about serving the people. If you're serious about the flooding issues, ... it is no gravy train.

"I don't think the car is a big deal," McGowan, of Chicago, added. "There's a lot of work to be done. And if you think you only need one staff person - then you are not doing your job."

Steele contends that the job is about how much effort you put into it.

"I don't have a problem with the salary, because if you're doing your job, you get what you earn," she said. Regarding the car, "if someone's house floods - if you're a good commissioner, you're going to try and make it out there and visit these sites and talk to constituents," Steele said. She is a Chicago chemist.

Alvarez said he would refuse a car. Regarding employees, a hardworking commissioner could need all the staff available, he said. "I would not treat this as a part-time job," he said.

"The overall question is about waste. I'm all for looking strategically and seeing where costs can be cut," he said. Alvarez is a Chicago public affairs consultant.

O'Reilley supports slimming the number of commissioners, their employees and perks,

"$70,000 for a part-time job - I think it's too much," she said.

O'Reilley is a River Forest administrative assistant whose husband served as a MWRD commissioner.