Aldermanic hopefuls in 39th Ward explore issues at forum
by KEVIN GROSS
Economic development, pension debt and ethics reform at City Hall were among the topics discussed at a forum with 39th Ward aldermanic candidates held Thursday, Jan. 24, at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave.
The moderator of the event was Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, and candidates answered questions submitted from the audience. The candidates are 39th Ward Democratic committeeman Robert Murphy, former Cook County Department of Homeland Security chief of staff Samantha Nugent, Albany Park Community Center director of community engagement Casey Smagala, and Chicago police officer Joe Duplechin.
Candidates discussed the need to invest in public infrastructure and create an environment for new businesses to move into vacant storefronts along Devon Avenue, Elston and Montrose avenues, and Foster and Kedzie avenues.
"We really need to review how the city budgets for road repair and maintenance are used," Nugent said. "Specifically, I want to look into a stronger preventative maintenance schedule, which could produce an incredible return on investment for us…prevention is much cheaper than the cure."
Murphy said that he understood the planning and collaboration process in the city because of his employment as an architect, including his work on the Six Corners Master Plan. He said that he would consider using tax increment financign funds to hire professional master planners because he approves of master plans that can be used as guides to spur development.
Murphy also said that he would create a zoning advisory board, while Nugent said she would create a zoning task force comprised of people from the business, civic and non-profit communities and push to attract anchor businesses.
Duplechin said that the city must create new incentives for landlords to rent vacant properties to new businesses instead of keeping them vacant, and Smagala touted his experience planning events such as "Taste of Albany Park" and going to business incubators to recruit small businesses.
Candidates also said they would work with local chambers of commerce and other stakeholders regarding business development.
"We are also very fortunate here in the 39th Ward because we have universities," Nugent said of North Park University and Northeastern Illinois University. "We can tap into the academia world, and the professional professors and planners and developers there, and the students, to utilize them."
All candidates said they support public education, and Smagala said he would use some discretionary and TIF funds for neighborhood schools and ensure "vertical alignment" from kindergarten through twelfth grades at public schools that residents want to attend.
On the topic of pension debt, all four candidates shot down the idea of reducing payouts to current pensioners, citing the Illinois Supreme Court’s protection of pension benefits. Smagala said he would fight for a fair share of Local Government Distributive Funds from state income taxes, create a Tier 3 pension structure for short-term public employees that roll into a 401k-style system, and offer cash buyouts for cost of living adjustments, which the state already offers to state employees.
Additionally, Smagala and Nugent both discussed exploring pension obligation bonds, whereas Duplechin said, "The only thing really being talked about right now is a pension obligation bond…it seems that’s what’s going to happen, so for the next 4 years our children will be stuck paying everyone else’s debts."
"Current pensions, the way they’re set up, are actually fairly well funded. The problem that we’re facing is the pensions that weren’t paid for the last 12 years," Murphy said. He suggested amortizing the debt and fighting for the state to fund education better, thus reducing the obligation on local property taxes.
Candidates also discussed the need for new revenue streams to address pension debt, with Nugent pushing for a Chicago casino and legalized sports gambling. All candidates voiced their support for the legalization and taxation of recreational marijuana.
Regarding the need for political ethics reform, all candidates except for Duplechin discussed increased inspector general oversight in Chicago.
"I’m in favor of a legislative inspector general, who’s sole purpose is to oversee me and my city council colleagues, looking into every day, the timestamps of the people who work in my office, and the zoning and developments that we approve," Smagala said.
Murphy suggested auditing programs such as workman’s compensation, city recycling and private city contracts that have "a lot of potential for abuse" and called for a stronger city council to check on the mayor.
"We need to find the 26 votes so that city council can actually appoint the chairs and pick who’s on these committees, because right now the mayor controls that," Murphy said. "And when the mayor controls the committee chairs, the mayor basically controls city council."
Murphy and Duplechin also discussed limiting outside employment and income for elected officials, but none of the candidates committed to ending the practice of aldermanic prerogative, an unwritten rule giving aldermen power over ward zoning issues.
All candidates except for Smagala discussed implementing participatory budgeting but also identified flaws, with Murphy and Nugent saying that the allocated $1.3 million is not enough for the geographically large 39th Ward.
Duplechin said "it seems like a great idea" but he questioned whether the process is truly democratic if "there’s not a lot of participation and 500 people or so control where most of the money goes."
Candidates also fielded a question asking their two favorite current aldermen and each named outgoing Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th) as a favorite and others.
Nugent also said, "I’m going to give our current alderman (Margaret Laurino) a shout-out for this, because I think she did some very good work getting that $75 million tunnel in Albany Park to deal with flooding, and she did start the sexual harassment training, making it a requirement in City Council."
The forum was sponsored by the Hollywood-North Park Community Association, the Mayfair Civic Association, the Forest Glen Community Club, the North Mayfair Improvement Association, the North River Commission, the Old Irving Park Association, the Peterson Park Improvement Association, the Sauganash Community Association, the Sauganash Park Community Association and the West Walker Civic Association.