Note: Answers provided have not been edited for grammar, misspellings or typos. In some instances, candidate claims that could not be immediately verified have been omitted.
Office sought: Metro. Water Reclamation District
Family: Domestic partnership with Kathleen Gillespie. One son, Ben Smith.
Occupation: Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago
Education: B.A. in Philosophy & Visual Arts (Phi Beta Kappa), Goucher College. Master?s degree, Johns Hopkins University in Liberal Arts; Master?s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, Columbia College. Certificate in Executive Education, Harvard's Kennedy School.
Civic involvement: I serve on the board of the Great Lakes Protection Fund, the Illinois Women?s Institute for Leadership, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute (Chair), and Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette. I was the founding editor of Chicago WILDERNESS Magazine and am an active volunteer with the North Branch Restoration Project restoring prairies and oak woods in the forest preserves. In 1996 I became a founding board member of Friends of the Forest Preserves. I am also a member of the Women?s Board at the University of Chicago.
Elected offices held: Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, 2006-Present
Have you ever been arrested for or convicted of a crime? If yes, please explain: No
Key Issue 1
Passing a strong stormwater ordinance to reduce flooding and improve water quality in rivers and streams.
Key Issue 2
Expanding and promoting use of green infrastructure to prevent basement backups and flooding by keeping rain out of the local sewer system.
Key Issue 3
Establishing an independent inspector general to provide oversight and auditing for hundreds of millions of dollars in construction contracts and identify waste and inefficiency at the agency.
What special knowledge or experience do you have that particularly qualifies you for this office?
Since the early 1990s I have been an active volunteer engaged in habitat restoration in the Cook County forest preserves. Through that work, I learned firsthand about the globally-significant biodiversity surviving in remnants of our native landscape in the Chicago metropolitan region. In 1997 I helped to launch Chicago WILDERNESS Magazine, a quarterly publication devoted to the rare nature of the Chicago region and to the inspiring stories of people working to protect and restore it. Subsequently I became a leader in the Chicago Wilderness consortium of more than 300 public and private organizations working together to preserve the biological diversity here. In 1996, I helped to found Friends of the Forest Preserves. In 1997 I was appointed to serve on Cook County's Community Advisory Council on Land Management, which I did until 2007. In 2005, I was one of three representatives of Chicago Wilderness to attend the White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation. In addition, I've written about natural resource and national parks issues for Outside Magazine, Southwest Airlines Spirit, Travel Holiday, the University of Chicago Magazine and won a Peter Lisagor award for my editorials in Chicago WILDERNESS Magazine (in 2003). I ran for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in 2006 because I believe water is going to be "the" issue in years to come and this agency has a key role to play in managing our precious freshwater resources. At that time, I was the first person in 20 years to run for the Board with any kind of conservation credentials.
What should the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District do to prevent disasters like the widespread flooding that affected the North and Northwest suburbs in July 2011?
The storm in July 2011 broke all previous records for the amount of rainfall in a 24-hour period, much of it within 2-3 hours. The effects of a storm of this magnitude cannot be prevented -- much as a tornado or a hurricane cannot be prevented; however, the MWRD can do more to help people prepare for the changing nature of rainstorms. The proposed Watershed Management Ordinance is designed to reduce flooding by requiring new development and redevelopment on parcels of a certain size to retain stormwater onsite and slow the flow into the sewer system. The District should pass this ordinance in 2012. In addition, installing a variety of green infrastructure techniques--rain gardens, rain barrels, green roofs, permeable pavement, and vegetated bioswales--can help give local sewer infrastructure more capacity to handle large storms. Where feasible, restrictors in street drains also help by using the streets as temporary storage areas for rain. Engineers at MWRD are working on a larger rain storage system that can be installed by homeowners to assist in reducing the amount of rain flowing into the sewers. In addition, residents should be informed not to take showers and not to run dishwashers or washing machines during heavy rain storms in order to reduce the burden on local sewers.
The district changed its severance policies last year, prompting 78 employees, including the executive director and a commissioner, to quit and resulting in a payout of $2.4 million. Do you support how that change was handled? Why or why not?
I did not agree with the manner in which the Board abolished the termination pay policy. Two separate legal opinions held that some District employees -- those who were hired before 1994 -- were entitled to termination pay upon retirement as a form of deferred compensation. I supported abolishing termination pay from January 2011 onward but not retroactively, as I thought it might cause a rush to the door by District employees and prompt a lawsuit. I sought to amend the policy action taken by the Board but was not successful in doing so. As you noted, 78 employees retired and the District was subsequently sued by a number of employees. Staff morale plummeted. The policy action taken by the Board has since been rescinded in part.
What should the district's policies be with regard to severance, sick time and pensions? Please explain in detail.
The District has increased the amount employees must contribute to their health care and pension to address budget constraints and the unfunded pension obligation. The District has also made some changes to the amount of sick time that can be accrued and payouts received upon departure. The District's policies regarding sick time and vacation payouts remain generous among public agencies. The policy of awarding severance for time served (termination pay) has been changed so that no future accrual will occur. In the 2012 legislative session, the IL General Assembly passed and Gov Quinn signed pension reform legislation proposed by the MWRD to address its unfunded pension obligation. This will require employees to contribute more to their pension (increasing from 9 percent of salary to 12 percent over three years) and nearly doubles the employer's contribution to the pension fund. It is a responsible approach.
The Water Reclamation District voted in June to disinfect sewage before dumping it into waterways. Are there more steps the board should take to protect the environment? Please be specific.
Wastewater is not the right name for the water that comes into a treatment plant. It is full of valuable resources such as organic matter, nitrogen, phosphorus, and, of course, the water itself. I believe the District can do more than be a wastewater treatment and stormwater management agency. The District can become a resource recovery agency. For many years, the District has taken advantage of the organic matter in wastewater by converting it into biosolids that can be used for fertilizer and brownfield remediation. Processing biosolids produces a lot of methane gas. That methane is already used to produce heat for District operations. In my next term, I would like to help advance co-generation initiatives at the District where we could use methane to both heat operations and produce electricity. Co-generation will help us shrink our carbon footprint and become more sustainable through use of a renewable resource. Phosphorus is critical to agriculture and our ability to feed the growing world population. Unfortunately, phosphorus mines are expected to be depleted by the end of this century. Ironically, much of the phosphorus we do mine ends up in our waterways as pollutants from agricultural runoff and wastewater treatment effluent. Phosphorous pollution can severely diminish or kill aquatic lifeforms, as is the case with the 8,000 square mile Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, of which the District is a major point source contributor. New methods exist that can extract nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater and convert it into a slow release fertilizer. This solves multiple problems: 1) It helps prevent nutrient runoff into the waterways, 2) it results in a slow-release fertilizer that won't runoff after application, 3) it helps alleviate the world's dependence on mined phosphorous, and 4) it provides the District with a commodity that can be sold. Water is extracted, treated, and conveyed at enormous economic and environmental expense. We use it once in our homes and businesses and then we flush it down the drain. The effluent water that comes out of a treatment plant is not drinkable, but it may be useful to some industries as a cheaper alternative to potable water. I think the District should explore re-use of effluent by providing this treated water to the industries surrounding the wastewater treatment plants. Reusing the District's effluent could help provide income for the District, lower cost for industry, and stop the cycle of only using water once.