Slate favored in Dems’ water district primary


When Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Frank Avila says his job is all about effluent and excrement, he means it literally, not figuratively.

Every day, the 5.3 million residents of Cook County’s 946 square miles "use the facilities," create 500 tons of solid waste, and inundate the sewers with 1.5 billion gallons of liquid effluent. Add to that another 300 million gallons of industrial waste.

It has to go somewhere, and it’s the distinctly unglamorous task of the water district to collect, separate, purify and get rid of it, annually dumping almost 700 billion gallons of treated effluent into the Chicago River (and thence to the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico) and trucking about 185,000 tons of dried manure to farms and landfills.

Here’s a thought: What is the cost of every toilet flush? Every tank holds up to 5 gallons. There are roughly 1.8 million residential households in Chicago and the suburbs. The average person "flushes" five to seven times daily, about half at work or in public washrooms. Taking into account the use of urinals and the cost of treating non-toxic industrial waste (which is 15 to 20 percent of the water district’s budget), the computation comes to about 10 cents per flush per household. What a bargain.

What’s not a bargain is the overhead. Avila and the eight other elected water district commissioners, all Democrats, get paid $70,000 a year to perform, on a part-time basis, what in the military is called "latrine duty." With a $1.2 billion budget and a civil service-protected, non-political work force of about 2,000, consisting of civil engineers, lawyers and field workers, a commissioner’s job is the epitome of featherbedding. They meet 22 times per year, for 3 hours, and they do nothing more than ratify the district president’s "consent agenda." The commissioners are not legislators, they are rubber stamps.

Much controversy has arisen about Illinois’ minimum wage of $8.25 per hour. That disturbs the commissioners not a bit. They spend about 66 hours annually at board meetings. They each have an office, three staffers, a car and gas credit card, health insurance for them and their family, and an accruing pension. Their hourly wage is about $1,060, which is about 128 times greater than all those employees at Walmart and Home Depot, and 15.8 percent of all water district employees make more than $100,000.

For decades the water district has been a dumping ground and a breeding ground — and an indicting ground. Commissioners Tom Fuller and Joe Gardner were indicted for bribery; Fuller was convicted, but Gardner died before trial. The district’s only recent "graduates" were Aurie Pucinski to clerk of the Circuit Court in 1988 and Jerry Cosentino to state treasurer in 1978. Commissioners who lost bids for other office include Fuller, Joanne Alter, Dick Troy, Frank Gardner, Joe Gardner, Nancy Drew Sheehan and, most recently, water district president Terry O’Brien, who got trounced for Cook County Board president by Toni Preckwinkle in 2010, getting 23 percent of the vote. Over the past 30 years, six commissioners seeking renomination were defeated in the Democratic primary.

One commissioner who is going places is Patrick Daley Thompson, whose uncle and grandfather served as Chicago mayor. He was elected in 2012.

In short, the water district board is a revolving door. Three commissioners are elected every 2 years, and the Democratic primary is the proverbial crapshoot. Qualifications mean nothing, and superficialities dominate. Ballot position (being first or last), gender (women have an edge), surname (Irish names do well), slating (slated candidates run well in a big field), race, sexual orientation, size of the field, media endorsements and coalition building are the tickets to victory. Voters have no clue who’s running, don’t particularly care, and vote on impulse.
No Republican has been elected since 1972, although three Republicans, Cary Capparelli, Herb Schumann and Jim Parilli, are on the ballot this year. The Democratic primary is dispositive, and fields have ranged from seven to 22 to over the past 20 years. The larger the field, the more important party slating is, as the committeemen’s sample ballot has weight in a low-turnout affair. The smaller the field, the greater the chance for an independent candidate to prevail. It is not unusual for someone to run a couple time, lose respectably, and then get slated.

The 2014 slate consists of Avila, a civil engineer who was elected in 2002 after failed bids in 1998 and 2000, south suburban Rich Township Democratic Committeeman Tim Bradford, who is black, and Josina Morita, a Japanese-American social service executive who is backed by influential Niles Township Committeeman Lou Lang.

Also on the primary ballot are Commissioner Cindy Santos, who was first elected in 1996 and who was dumped by party slatemakers last summer, former Board of Review commissioner Brendan Houlihan, who lost re-election to Republican Dan Patlak in 2012, Kathy O’Reilley, a county employee and the wife of former commissioner Frank Gardner, an attorney who works for Preckwinkle along with their son, also named Frank Gardner, and a slate of three total obscurities, Tom Courtney, Adam Miguest and John Xydakis. The ballot positions are: Santos, Avila, Bradford, Morita, Courtney, Miguest, Xydakis, Gardner, O’Reilley and Houlihan.

In a 10-person field, several advantages occur. First, there are only three women, one of which has an Irish surname. That’s a big help to O’Reilley. Second, Santos and Houlihan have the best ballot spots, and their surnames have a shopworn familiarity to voters; they’ve both been on the ballot before, as have other candidates with the same surname. Jim Houlihan was the longtime county assessor, and Miriam Santos was the city treasurer. Santos is of Greek ancestry, but many will mistake her for Hispanic. Third, the slate is in a good ballot position, and includes an African American, a Hispanic and an Asian. Fourth, Bradford is the only black candidate in the field. Thus, black committeemen will not have a "soul slate" as in the past, consisting of slated and unslated black candidates. They will back the Avila-Bradford-Morita slate.

Finally, there will be oodles of money poured into the race on behalf of Morita, who, if she is elected, will be a rising star and the county’s first Asian-American office holder. However, the dough won’t be spent on television ads and other media. Instead, it will flow into the ward and township Democratic organizations, acting as an incentive for them to push the slate.

There is an interesting subtext to the election, relating to Santos being dumped. She and her husband Rich Bradley, along with Mike Wojcik and Joe Kotlarz, were the "Young Turks" who ousted John Marcin in the old 35th Ward. Kotlarz and Wojcik were aldermen, and Bradley won an Illinois House seat in 1996. After the ward became increasingly Hispanic, Santos and Bradley allied themselves with Alderman Dick Mell (33rd). In 2008 Mell’s daughter Deb decided she wanted to be a state representative, so Bradley got dumped. Santos then allied herself with Alderman Bill Banks’ 36th Ward organization. Banks resigned in 2010, and his hand-picked alderman, John Rice, lost to Nick Sposato in 2011.

Santos had a full-time job with the Secretary of State’s Offiice, while Bradley had a job with the Department of Streets and Sanitation. Santos now works as a economic development aide to of Saint Viator Parish.

"She had no juice," Sposato said after the 2013 slatemaking in which Santos was tossed off the slate.

Not true, according to a Santos spokesman, who said the dumping was orchestrated by Debra Shore, a commissioner from Skokie who wants to be the water district president. O’Brien retired in 2012 after 24 years as a commissioner and 16 as the district’s president. Shore, who was first elected in 2006, thought she had the votes of four commissioners to grab O’Brien’s job, which pays $80,000 and has a much higher "environmental" profile. Shore saw the job as a steppingstone to a 2014 statewide run, and she would have been the first lesbian to hold a major county office.

Shore’s coalition crumbled, however, when Commissioner Mariyana Spyropoulos, who was elected in 2010 after losing in 2008, defected and backed Kathy Meany, who hails from the powerful 19th Ward. First elected in 1990, Meany is retiring after only 2 years as president.

Spyropoulos and Shore are battling for the presidency. According to Santos’ camp, Shore has commitments from Avila, Bradford, Morita and Commissioner Kari Steele, which is enough to win. Santos is with Spyropoulos. "I have made no commitment," said Avila, who is a ubiquitous presence on cable television, makes three or four speeches each week to civic and educational groups, and who is a cinch to win one nomination.

Issues are irrelevant in a water district election. Get rid of my waste, voters say. The tunnel-digging portion of the $3 billion Tunnel and Reservoir Plan pollution control project, which began in 1975, is finished. The federal Environmental Protection Agency prohibits the district from selling biosolid waste. It gives the manure away for free, and even delivers it to farms for a fee. Plants recapture phosphate from urine and detergents, which can be resold. Waste emits methane gas. "The future of the MWRD is to turn waste into energy, sell it, and be self-sustaining," Avila said.

Turnout on March 18 will be desultory. The winners likely will be Santos-Avila-Bradford, but O’Reilley or Houlihan could pull off an upset.

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