Malcolm Chester: 2021 candidate for Des Plaines mayor
Three candidates for one seat
City: Des Plaines
Occupation: Attorney, alderman
Civic involvement: Alderman, 2015-present; Des Plaines Economic Development Commission, 2012-15
Q. How do you view your role in confronting the pandemic: provide leadership even if unpopular, give a voice to constituents -- even ones with whom you disagree, or defer to state and federal authorities?
A. Because President Donald Trump did a poor job of articulating a national policy on COVID, Gov. Pritzker issued his COVID guidelines for local governments and others to follow. Even though the courts seemed to be disposed to implement some of the more prescriptive policies, enforcement for many of the policies fell on the local governments. Various state policemen told us as much. While local governments generally followed the guidelines, I personally voted every time to give our mayor the power to do so, problems began to occur with some of the more prescriptive measures. In particular, the ban on sit down sales inside restaurants caused problems. Rosemont, Mount Prospect, Elk Grove Village and Arlington Heights among other communities did not enforce the ban, while we did so. I pushed for a public hearing on our policy and during this hearing we heard from a number of our local restaurants, some of which are unique to our city and have been in business for a very long time, about the financial threats to them of this policy. Some maintained they would close if we continued to enforce it. We nonetheless voted to continue to enforce the governor's policy but did so on a very close vote. My problem with the policy is that I doubted whether Des Plaines residents wishing to go out to dinner would choose not to go when several nearby communities offered indoor dining. They would merely drive next door. Also, contact tracing has been poor. We have decided where infections occur but we don't really have very good data to back up these decisions. For example, a study in England backed up by national health data, concluded that restaurants without bars had the lowest occurrence of infections out of 16 categories. Grocery stores had the highest incidence. Despite this data, I would have supported a restaurant indoor dinning ban if our neighbors did as well. So, my role is to back state and federal COVID policies to the extent I can but maintain an independent opinion on policies that are not working as well.
Q. Did your town continue to adequately serve its constituents during the disruptions caused by the pandemic? If so, please cite an example of how it successfully adjusted to providing services. If not, please cite a specific example of what could have been done better.
A. Des Plaines has done an excellent job of performing city services during COVID. The garbage has been picked up, the streets cleared of snow, ambulance and fire calls made, tickets issued, arrests made in the normal course of business. Actually, our city hall operation has become even more efficient. We are using zoom a great deal for our numerous meetings, which has allowed people to devote more time to work rather than hosting or traveling to meetings.
Q. In light of our experiences with COVID-19, what safeguards/guidelines should you put in place to address any future public health crises?
A. Several thoughts come to mind. 1. I believe the mayor could have reached out to other nearby communities and tried to come up with regional policies on some of the more controversial aspects of the governor's COVID policy. Meetings at the North West Municipal Conference could have been used for this purpose. Northwest communities are very competitive for new businesses and jobs. Many mayors viewed the restaurant indoor dining ban as an opportunity to attract businesses from nearby suburbs enforcing the ban as well as a way to keep their businesses afloat. 2. We could have been more aggressive about enforcing a mandatory mask order with penalties assessed against nonusers. We could have also checked businesses more carefully to see whether they are engaged in other PPP functions like spraying disinfectant. Des Plaines should have ordered the use of masks from the outset. For some time, I have been pushing for more COVID testing and/or vaccination sites. The city has responded with the Kmart site and also with some vaccinations at the senior center. Despite my suggestions, I believe the city has done a good job overall.
Q. What cuts can local government make to reduce the burden of the pandemic on taxpayers?
A. As council finance chair, I made it clear to our finance director and our city manager that we needed cuts to survive the COVID crisis. We investigated several options and decided to offer an early retirement incentive. I am not sure of the exact number of people taking the option but the last time I checked it was in the mid 20s. We also delayed capital projects for at least a year but did not cancel them. As a backup plan, we considered laying off part time employees but as this was a nonconsensual act, we hoped we would not have to do this and so far we have not. I also informed the finance director and the city manager that I would not support a property tax increase, nor any other tax increase. As a result of the early retirement program and the capital deferrals, we were able to create a budget without tax increases. Our finance director has recently informed us, however, that we are $10 mm short of projections. We will address this issue soon. Once again, we will look at savings or drawing down our reserves, approximately, $17 mm but the figure fluctuates, to address this shortfall. I do not want to increase taxes.
Q. What do you see as the most important infrastructure project you must address? Why and how should it be paid for? Conversely, during these uncertain economic times, what infrastructure project can be put on the back burner?
A. Two important infrastructure projects have just been completed: The River Road widening and restructure to avoid flooding and the hook up to the Northwest Water Commission to save money on our water purchases. Our latest project is the creation of an Oakton TIF to revitalize this important commercial strip. The cornerstone of this will be a new train station at Oakton right at the Butera shopping center. I am a big and early supporter of this project. Beyond the large projects, we also have many streets to restore with better drainage. Our old sewer pipes often become clogged and cause local funding. In my first four years of office in my 6th Ward we completed 1.4 miles of street improvements, 2.04 miles of sewer and water improvements, 1.5 miles of sidewalk improvements, and .54 miles of alley improvements. I intend to maintain and even increase our focus on local ward improvements for all our wards as mayor. Of course, some projects might have to be delayed as I mentioned earlier but for planning purposes we intend to go forward with these improvements to our community.
Q. Do you agree or disagree with the stance your board/council has taken on permitting recreational marijuana sales in the community? What would you change about that stance, if you could?
A. The communities surrounding us have authorized the sale of marijuana. For example, a new marijuana dispensary is being built in the Rosemont shopping center across the street from the Des Plaines Chamber on Touhy. We would accomplish little by banning it. My approach is to limit such a store to an industrial area removed from city institutions like schools and churches and in fact I voted for such a measure. The Rosemont location is not one I would have approved. If we ever have a location which seems unlikely now that our neighbors are offering commercial locations near customers, our police can watch the location to make sure no intoxicated drivers are emerging from it. As to the drug, I think it impairs driving and stays in a person's system for a very long time. This is why it should be closely watched. I am concerned that normalizing the drug will cause too many young people to try and then use the drug. I recognize that marijuana has beneficial therapeutic benefits and many people enjoy the high the drug produces but we have too many impaired people on our roads already.
Q. What's one good idea you have to better the community that no one is talking about yet?
A. In 2012, I received a community service award from President Obama for my work as one of the founders and longtime chairman of Keep Chicago Beautiful, the largest Keep America Chapter in the country. KCB created a number of award-winning programs over the years including its highly regarded environmental curricula for elementary school students. I would like to create A Keep Des Plaines Beautiful Program or its equivalent to incorporate some of our existing recycling and beautification programs like the mayor's awards for the best looking front yards in the city. There are literally hundreds of Keep America Beautiful Programs developed by its affiliates that could be incorporated by our city. We can make our city a more attractive place to live and work. We need only the will to do so.
Q. What makes you the best candidate for the job?
A. I have the academic credentials for the job: B.A. at Brown in political science, Med in Child Study at Tufts and a JD at IIT Kent in law where I received a Cali Award in Mediation and was on the honor roll. Also, I have an advanced study certificate in Financial Analysis for Non-Financial Managers from the University of Chicago Business School. I also have the experience. I was a corporate vice president at Pepsi for 20 years, where I specialized in relations between the company and its state, local and federal government partners. I also served as the Environmental and Energy director of the Illinois Manufacturers Association. In recent years I have been a counsel and consultant to the Forest Count Potawatomi Community in Wisconsin, a nationally recognized Indian Tribe. In all these avocations, I have been involved in managing people and issues. In addition, I have six years' experience as an alderman in Des Plaines, four more years than when I last ran. As a part of this experience, I am chairing the Finance Committee, where I prepare and present the budget to the council. I know the cities' issues and what must be done to address them.