Democrat Marcelino Garcia is one of the candidates running for a board seat at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District who has been endorsed by the Sun-Times.
The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the Chicago area.
Garcia is seeking a 6-year term and submitted the following responses to our questionnaire:
What skills and qualities will you look for in hiring a new MWRD general superintendent?
Garcia: The next MWRD Executive Director (ED) needs to be a leader with an impeccable reputation who is respected by his/her peers and employees. The ED needs to be a good leader who brings people together rather than be divisive and confrontational. The ED needs to be respectful of the Board, his/her employees and his/her constituents by being accessible and a good listener. The ED must ensure that projects are done and completed in a timely manner and under budget. The ED must be innovative by challenging the institution and employees to move forward and enact changes that keep the District in the vanguard position that it has started to become. The ED must be savvy on environmental policy, with a commitment to the utility’s future which includes: Resource recovery (biogas), Green infrastructure, Energy “neutral” (expanding the use of solar and renewable energy sources) and Enhancing (improve and acquire where needed) of land for public watershed protection purposes). In all, the ED should be someone with integrity, vision, and the leadership skills to achieve that vision who we can admire and be proud to lead the District into the future.
Should large landowners be billed for how much water runs off their properties?
Garcia: From a general policy perspective, it sometimes makes sense that the large users pay or are billed more for the use or run-off that they produce. Fees and penalties can help regulate and reduce adverse behavior. They can make builders, organizations and parties think better of the designs that they propose and make them think of incorporating green building practices into their developments. They can also provide revenue for needed public investments.
But from a practical perspective, any such proposal needs to be first defined properly by looking at best practices and what other Districts are doing to make sure that it withstands legal and regulatory scrutiny. Discussion is needed on definitions such as how do we define a “large” landowner. Is it purely a matter of size or acreage, or is it modeled water runoff? Is it only new development or is it also existing development? The enforcement aspect is also extremely important as a proposal that cannot realistically be enforced is not good policy. Issues of equity also come into consideration in the establishment of any such proposal, and a careful consideration of winners and losers and the ability of different parties to pay must be given without fully articulating the need for revenue, what will be done with it, and how all the complications will be addressed, such a proposal is not ready for consideration despite some theoretical advantages.
Who is Marcelino Garcia?
His political/civic background: Democrat His occupation: Attorney and Director of Community Affairs for the Cook County Heath & Hospitals System His education: BA – Dartmouth College; JD – Northwestern University School of Law Campaign website: www.marcelinogarcia.com
The MWRD has just parted ways with its director, paying a nearly $100,000 settlement package. The public has been told very little about what happened. What should have been done differently?
Garcia: The MWRD Board needs to be transparent as to how it does its business so that the public, media or detractors do not have opportunities to question its integrity, decisions or ethics. Like you, I do not know much as to what happened to the former Executive Director. I can only assume that the Board did an extensive legal review of whatever situation arose and that they got a legal opinion that whatever issue took place did not rise to a reportable criminal or reputational offense. Since most personnel transactions are protected, the Board decided to use this powers not to discuss the issue. However, this leads to both speculation and innuendo as to what may have occurred. In the case at hand, the Board should have issued a better statement as to the separation that protects both the District as an entity, brings comfort to employees and the public and defends the reputation of the former ED if warranted.
What is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District?
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District guards the safety of our water source (Lake Michigan), protects businesses and homeowners from flooding and operates seven plants to treat industrial and residential wastewater. Its boundary is 883.5 square miles, roughly Cook County – and serves 5.25 million people.
Buildings continue to go up that put more water into combined sewers during storms. Is a stronger storm water management ordinance needed? What would that be?
Garcia: The City of Chicago has been instrumental in establishing policy and infrastructure that takes advantage of our water resources for public use and enjoyment. Yet, after major storm events that are becoming more regular and robust than ever before, sewer overflows are the reason disease causing bacteria remains staggering in our waterways. Combined Sewer Overflows have a potential direct impact on the City and other local governments in the region which use Lake Michigan as their drinking water source. Greater coordination is needed to alert the public of Combined Sewer Overflows and to regulate them.
Despite years of effort by the City of Chicago and the MWRD to protect our waterways, frequent testing reveals routine serious violations of the water quality standards designated by Federal and State mandates. Storm water pollution cannot be covered by one set of rules. Each source of contamination is unique. The landscape should be evaluated individually, considering appropriate solutions such as the elimination of dominant invasive plants and replacement with deep rooted native vegetation along with removing contaminated soil can mitigate sites that regularly flood by using on-site water filtration. These measures will not only help reduce pollutants to our water ways but also serve as natural storm water management.
Working with City and other local government officials as well as private property owners and environmental advocates, we can develop new practices to deal with storm water management.
Should the MWRD’s disinfection system be expanded? Is cost a concern?
Garcia: The District has begun to expand their technology to offer greater elimination of contaminants at treatment facilities. I will support measures to expand these advances across the service area and to ensure that the treatment designed will be specific and relevant. While cost is a concern, with proper planning these systems can be constructed and implemented in a way that they make sense over time to ensure that sewage is treated properly.
What new ideas would you bring to the district?
Garcia: I have the credentials and work experience to understand the role of a Commissioner on the MWRD Board and how the Board should work in conjunction with the Administration/Management to deliver a positive oversight of programming, strategies, and initiatives. Throughout my career, I have worked with budgets, finance, law, legislation, community outreach, education, management and relationship building. I have honed my skills in these areas and am able to interpret documents and ask difficult questions regarding important topics and issues. I am able to bridge the communication gap with communities of color and can enhance such relationships. I am driven and a good listener who will seek the advice of others before making important decisions that affect everyone. This positive outlook helps me bring parties together to achieve consensus rather than division.
Due to the abovementioned, my priorities and new ideas, once elected will be the following:
• Expansion of Marketing and Community Based Programming – Few citizens of Cook County understand the scope and work of the MWRD. I will work with the Administration to change how the District communicates with our citizens by enhancing their outreach initiatives and bringing these to all communities across the County in a culturally appropriate manner. The District also needs to expand its programs with schools and offer mentorship programs to students and the workforce in general. It is going above and beyond the 4-corners of its mission that will make the District and its programs more accessible to everyone.
• Efficient, effective, and fiscally responsible waste water and storm water management – I will work with the Administration on running an efficient and fiscally responsible operation that has a solid and effective long-term strategic plan. The MWRD should work with municipalities to identify and address issues in flood prone areas and at the same time implement new clean water technologies that both protect the environment and help the District deal with waste water.
• Protection of the Environment – I will be a leader to enhance, clean, and protect our water and our ecosystems which provide livelihood and health to our region. I will be an advocate for all environmental issues that protect the quality of our water, rivers and ecosystems. Special attention must be given to the Asian Carp situation as all levels of government must come together to prevent a catastrophic ecosystem disaster if the fish should enter Lake Michigan waters. In addition, at a time of environmental deregulation coming from Washington, we need an active Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to protect the environment and health of all the citizens in our region.
• Clarity and Openness to constituents – My office will be committed to attending public meetings to ensure that people’s voices are heard and that the District services properly all the people of Cook County.
• Equity and Ethics – As previously mentioned, I have a varied professional background and I am committed to ensuring that the voices of our citizens are heard. Equity is a concept that needs to be incorporated into the Board’s decision making and the Administration’s planning. Ethics and ensuring that business practices are done right is also a concept that I support.
News reports have revealed that MWRD contracts have gone to businesses that have donated to at least one of the district’s commissioners. Is this acceptable? What should the rule be? Would you accept such donations?
Garcia: I have not accepted any donations from any MWRD vendors. All contributions and donations to political candidates are governed and regulated by campaign finance and election law. If it is not banned, then it is permissible and legal per the law in Illinois. If changes are needed, then those need to be brought to and done through the normal legislative process. It is up to each Commissioner to determine what his/her ethics are as related to accepting campaign donations from businesses that work with the District. I can only assume that all procurements and contracts voted on by the Board went through an independent review process conducted by the MWRD Administration which are devoid of Commissioner influence. An independent Inspector General should be in place so that staff can direct anonymous complaints of undue influence in contracting basis. That is a safeguard that the independent Inspector General brings to the process.
Should there be an independent and adequately funded inspector general’s office at the MWRD?
Garcia: It is 2018; I am surprised that the District still does not have independent Inspector General oversight. The establishment of a functional independent Inspector General is one of my campaign priorities.
Because the MWRD must deal with the impact of extreme rain events, how big a role should it play in lobbying other governments, such as the state or federal governments, on climate issues?
Garcia: The MWRD needs to be a leader especially at this time when there is lack of leadership coming from Springfield and Washington DC in the environmental arena. These last two parties are proposing regressive practices to relax environmental laws that will harm our region. MWRD needs to be a convener of interested parties. By working with all Cook County local government officials and State and Federal elected officials in establishing goals and vision that are fair and equitable across the entire service area for the right utilization of funds to do the projects that will deal with climate issues and floodwater control. These issues are not purely local or utilitarian, but they depend on an able body to bring all parties together to discuss, plan, fund and implement.
How do you foresee the MWRD eliminating all combined sewer overflows?
Garcia: Several decades of building grey infrastructure such as the Deep Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) shows us that we can never dig fast enough to stay ahead of the flooding problem. We need to take a One Water approach with a comprehensive look at all the natural and manmade water systems in the region and how they interact and are affected by a wide range of human actions and policies. Green infrastructure is an integral part of this approach. Green infrastructure contributes to the resilience of the region in the face of increasingly severe weather (locally severe events that overwhelm community infrastructure) due to climate change. Green infrastructure has a wealth of co-benefits for our communities, from places for recreation, habitats for native flora and fauna, air pollutant filtration, cleaning the water that returns to our streams and rivers, flood reduction, beautification, and groundwater recharge—just to name a few. It can also be cost-effective per unit of stormwater detained.
I believe that green infrastructure should be approached at all scales – individual properties, neighborhoods, municipalities and regions/watersheds. With its wide geographic reach and engineering depth, MWRD is ideally situated to be a leader on these issues. The rain barrel program, and the MWRD’s partnership with organizations such as Openlands on turning asphalt schoolyards into green spaces, are good starts, but they are not enough as we need to consider green infrastructure beyond individual properties. I would like to see the MWRD take a more comprehensive approach and do more projects like the comprehensive stormwater planning project it recently undertook with the Village of Robbins. This is also a great way for MWRD, with its strong tax base, to contribute to strengthening some of our underserved communities as well.
Partnering with individual stake holders to help prevent sewer overflows and flooding by capturing and storing rainwater needs to be expanded with complimentary programs – Sustainable Backyard Program (SBP).
The City of Chicago has partnered with the Center for Neighborhood Technology to form the SBP. This initiative creates a Rain Barrel approach that individual homeowners, community groups and local municipalities can adopt to effectively manage water, shaped to fit various needs. With the adoption of a plan that combines elements as rain barrels, compost bins, planting trees, native plants and other deep-rooted vegetation will divert rain water into soil and away from our sewers.
The MWRD is a proven environmental leader. Their participation could expand this program beyond the City of Chicago’s boundaries. In short, creating more environmentally friendly landscapes in resident’s backyards, empty lots or community gardens can drive change that will nurture long-term ecological.
Is the MWRD responsible for combined sewer discharges by Chicago and other municipalities?
Garcia: Technically, the MWRD is not responsible for the combined sewer discharges by Chicago and other municipalities, which are permitted separately by the State. However, the MWRD, being the governmental body with the biggest purview over the waters and the rivers, should bring all interested parties together to discuss and come up with solutions on this issue.
Is the MWRD doing enough to buy up buildings in flood plains to reduce the cost and damage of flooding?
Garcia: For government in general, this could be a good long term strategy to deal with buildings and damage in flood prone areas. Cook County and municipalities have gotten funds from HUD to do buyouts. A long term, comprehensive strategy needs to be devised to deal with the issue. MWRD could be a group convener as dealing with floods is mission oriented. Buyouts in essence could be a cost-effective strategy.
Ahead of the historic 2018 elections, the Sun-Times is teaming up weekly with the Better Government Association, in print and online, to fact-check the truthfulness of the candidates. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.