Fritchey faces Degnen in commissioner race
by Kevin Gross
Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey (D-12) is facing a challenge from Edgebrook resident Bridget Degnen in the March 20 primary election.
Degnen served as an environmental engineer before attending law school at Loyola University and worked from 2004 to 2013 in private law at Segal, McCambridge, Singer and Mahoney and in the Illinois Attorney General’s Environmental Law Bureau.
Degnen later served as deputy general counsel for the Illinois Department of Public Health and after about a year was appointed to oversee former Governor Pat Quinn’s new state medical cannabis pilot program, serving as deputy director of the program until she resigned in October to focus on campaigning full-time.
Degnen said that if elected she would serve full-time as a commissioner, and that Fritchey’s roles as a lobbyist and a private sector zoning attorney could represent a conflict of interest.
"My problem with Fritchey is that he’s paid $85,000 to represent residents in the district, and also serves as a lobbyist for businesses within the district. I think it’s a real conflict of interest," Degnen said. "Fritchey seems to treat his commissioner job as a more ceremonial position, and it’s not fair to the people you represent and claim to be finding solutions for."
Fritchey defended his employment and called the allegations misleading, and said that some of Degnen’s legal history in the private sector involved representation of polluting companies.
"As a lobbyist I’ve spent four days in Springfield the last 2 years, none of which coincided with official county business," Fritchey said. "With respect to my zoning work, I’ve handled four to five cases over the last 5 years. (Cases) related to putting an extension to a lady’s house so that she could have more relatives live with her, or changing the zoning of abandoned industrial building so that a husband and wife could have an art studio in there.
"When you don’t have a record to run on, you attack your opponent," Fritchey said.
Fritchey said that his record in office highlights a focus on cutting taxes and costs. Amidst the passage of the controversial sweetened beverage tax in November of 2016, he drafted an ordinance to freeze county property and sales tax rates below the rate of inflation until 2020, with addendums making it more difficult to raise either tax rate.
"There is no question my constituents are taxed out. Residents in my district already pay the highest sales tax in the country. It’s inconceivable to me that they’d pay more. The city had the biggest property tax increase in history. There’s also the tax on water bills, and even the plastic bag tax adds hardship. It’s getting increasingly difficult for working families to make ends meet when a new tax hits them," Fritchey said. "My belief is that families need certainty. Families need to have a budget, and it’s impossible to plan if families do not know what they’ll be hit with."
Fritchey also pushed for the merging of the Offices of the Clerk and Recorder of Deeds, supported Chicago’s marijuana decriminalization and the placement of a non-binding legalization question on the upcoming primary ballot, worked towards the teardown of Cook County Jail buildings and reform of bond court that he said "saved hundreds of millions" combined, and was one of the staunchest opponents of the beverage tax that was repealed on Oct. 11, 2017.
"I was the first person to come out against the sugar tax," Fritchey said. "The revenues weren’t earmarked for healthcare so it felt like a misrepresentation to the public."
Degnen said that she disliked the beverage tax, both due to its unpopularity with constituents and due to over reliance on the tax as a major budgeting tool.
"We put all our eggs in the soda pop basket, and it was repealed," Degnen said. "What if we put our eggs into, say, 10 sources of revenue? It’s not as easy as one big tax and takes more work to find and implement, but if we can dedicate more time to finding those solutions it would be a lot more fiscally responsible."
Degnen said her opponent took an irresponsible approach to budgeting throughout his tenure and said, "Fritchey votes down all new sources of revenue, then points fingers at others for handcuffing us and not having a balanced budget."
Fritchey said that his approach to budgeting fundamentally differs from his opponent.
"In Degnen’s first piece of literature she’s talking about finding new streams of revenue, which will mean new taxes," Fritchey said. "It’s one of the differences between my opponent and I. I’m finding balanced budgets by finding savings."
Degnen said that she would prefer to seek out more creative methods of new revenue or cost savings in various county offices, such as expediting county services and documents or using the county’s "underutilized" forest preserves to allow pop-up restaurants. She also discussed the idea of heightened county enforcement of environmental regulations.
"The county has the right to file environmental complaints, and I think there’s a lot that can be done to sharpen the teeth of the County in handing out fines," Degnen said. "That could also serve as another potential revenue source."
Degnen additionally said that data suggests most people who sign up for County Care are in the Northwest area of Chicago and the suburbs.
"It’s my understanding there is no county clinic in this area," she said. "First, I think we could find much better ways to educate people who might use County Care how to access it. Second, if we have a lot of recipients, there should be a clinic opened in the area and operated by the county."
Fritchey, when asked what Northwest side projects he is working on, said, "I’m currently working with the County Highway Department to allocate significant resources for infrastructure improvements in my district, whether its road improvements or other areas that we see for safety or convenience of residents that we can put additional funds into those areas."
The 12th District of Cook County includes parts of the 33rd, 36th, 38th, 39th, 40th, 45th and 47th wards on the Northwest Side.