Troy Antonio Hernandez: Candidate profile, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago
Three Democrats and three Green Party candidates are running for three, 6-year seats on the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, a government agency responsible for spending more than $1.1 billion annually to perform essential functions in preventing flooding and keeping Cook County's waterways clean.
Democrat incumbents Cameron "Cam" Davis of Evanston and Kimberly Neely DuBuclet of Chicago are joined on the ballot by Democrat Eira L. Corral Sepúlveda, the Village Clerk of Hanover Park, and Green Party candidates Troy Hernandez of Chicago, a data scientist and solution engineer; Tammie Vinson of Chicago, a Chicago Public Schools teacher; and Rachel Wales of Oak Lawn, a humane farming adviser and freelance writer.
Q. Why are you running for this office, whether for reelection or election for the first time? Is there a particular issue that motivates you? If so, what? What specific professional qualifications do you possess that would make you excel in this office?
A. I have a Ph.D. in statistics and have been employed in Chicago's tech sector as an expert in data science, AI, and optimization for the last six years. Additionally, I've volunteered for the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization for the last six years and with the Chicago R User Group for the last four years.
I believe the most pressing issue facing the MWRD is legalized corruption via campaign contributions. Our uniformly Democratic Board of Commissioners have their campaigns financed by large engineering firms. When you have big engineering firms making big campaign contributions to MWRD candidates, you get big expensive engineering solutions at MWRD.
If there were green infrastructure companies handing out campaign contributions, MWRD Commissioners might entertain more economical and efficient solutions like green roofs and permeable pavers.
I don't take corporate campaign contributions. My goal is to serve the people of the district, not to leech taxpayers for my campaign contributors like typical Madigan Democrats. For a detailed list of my opponents' questionable campaign contributions, go here: southsideweekly.com/running-clean-water-mwrd-finances-2020/
Q. If you are an incumbent, describe your main contributions. Tell us of any important initiatives you've led. If you are a challenger, what would you bring to the board and what would your priority be?
A. One of the questions a citizen frequently asks in voting for their MWRD Board of Commissioners is "Do I need a statistician as part of my Board of Commissioners?" The answer is "Yes!" since a statistician can help to optimize design, analysis and interpretation of results, and drawing conclusions.
There is no commissioner on the board with my skills, experience, and knowledge. The board recently authorized a $300k contract to a politically connected vendor to update their website. That's outrageous. For that price, we could've hired a full-time employee for three years!
My three priorities are to: 1. Align the incentives of the board with the priorities of the district's taxpayers. We need to reform campaign finance laws for the MWRD. I echo my proposal from six years ago to publicly finance our political campaigns. (Available at troyhernandez.com.)
2. Modernize the MWRD's technology to make the district operate more efficiently. This includes using low-cost sensors, aka an internet-of-things (IoT). 3. Prioritize our investments by performing statistical analyses on IoT data to optimize our investments in gray or green infrastructure.
Q. Due to the old infrastructure of a combined sewage system, raw sewage may be released into rivers and the lake during a heavy rain. While efforts such as rain barrels are important, does the district have any long-term plans to address the underlying infrastructure issue?
A. There are two underlying infrastructure issues. The first being combined sewers. The second being a lack of green infrastructure. As alluded to in a following question, the MWRD is a billion dollar a year agency with a fraction of the attention that the similarly sized Chicago Police Department is currently receiving.
If the MWRD has long-term plans to help separate the sewer systems at large, it's not been widely reported. My thoughts on the matter are these: While approximately half of the municipalities within the district have separated sewer systems, given the scope of legacy investments in combined sewer systems in our other municipalities, it's highly unlikely that it's cost-efficient to replace every combined sewer system. However, it would be reasonable to explore targeted investments where separating the sewers makes sense.
Regarding green infrastructure, rain barrels aren't going to be enough. We need to ramp up our investments in green infrastructure. As I write below, Milwaukee is committed to 74 times the amount of green infrastructure compared to Chicago: i.e. the largest combined sewer system in the district. Why does Chicago have to be last so frequently?
Q. For years, not one suburban Republican has been elected to the board. Should the board be elected by regional districts?
A. Given that Republicans get approximately one-third of the votes in Cook County in single-member district elections like the Senate race, it would seem reasonable to expect that they would win one out of three MWRD seats every two years. Similarly, the Green Party wins approximately one-third of the vote in MWRD elections, so it would seem reasonable to expect that we would win one out of three MWRD seats every two years. This has not happened.
To quote a New York Times article on the subject: "The solution is to elect members through ranked-choice voting (RCV), a process in which voters rank listed candidates in order of preference ... In multimember districts, each party is allowed to run as many candidates as there are seats ... Voters would then vote for three candidates, in order of preference. One more tweak is necessary: Because a successful multimember district is one that fairly represents the different viewpoints in that district, you need to mathematically mandate vote thresholds that will guarantee winners. In a three-member district, each candidate would need to win more than 25 percent to be elected."
Q. How do you rate the MWRD on transparency and the public's access to records? If you consider it adequate, please explain why. If you think improvements are needed, please describe them and why they are important.
A. With an annual budget of over $1 billion, it's imperative that the public's interests are properly represented. While I'm sure my Democratic opponents will pat themselves on the back for their new inspector general (IG), let's remember that: 1. It was originally a Green Party proposal. 2. Some Democratic MWRD Commissioners tried to stall the appointment process. 3. The IG has already found that four commissioners have used their political email accounts, "to solicit MWRD employees ... for political purposes" in this election cycle. Our tax dollars are literally financing my opponents' campaigns against me.
Moreover, in an underappreciated agency like the MWRD, increased transparency would not necessarily improve things. The public's appetite for MWRD information is limited. This is why it's the perfect patronage vehicle.
For the average MWRD constituent, the less they have to think about us, the better. The priority should be to elect competent commissioners who will serve the public's interest. That's why I push hard on public campaign financing and RCV. If we can create the proper electoral systems and incentives for our elected officials, these issues take care of themselves.
Q. What other issues, if any, are important to you as a candidate for this office?
A. With a 1,200 character limit, this needs to be emphasized. Chicagoland has experienced its wettest May ever for the third year in the row! An MWRD engineer was quoted last year (on slate.com) saying, "It's now clear that this 50-year, multibillion-dollar project (Deep Tunnel) will not be sufficient to stop flooding in Chicago." And yet, the Democratic MWRD board continues to prefer big engineering solutions.
They go on: "The Deep Tunnel is helpless to empty undersized sewers battling against supersize storms and sprawl ... Even the system's original engineers knew that its potential to solve neighborhood flooding would be limited by local infrastructure."
Lastly, "the MWRD has committed to creating just 10 million gallons of green infrastructure capacity under its EPA consent decree. Compare that to ... Milwaukee, [which] now believes its green infrastructure will, by 2035 ... hold up to 740 million gallons of rain where it falls."
Our priority should be to reduce flooding in our communities' homes, not to enrich our campaign contributors.