Democrat Kari Steele 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.
Steele, who is seeking a 6-year term, submitted the following responses to our questionnaire:
What skills and qualities will you look for in hiring a new MWRD general superintendent?
Steele: Some of the characteristics I will look for in hiring our Executive Director are listed below but not limited to the following list.
Educational background (Bachelor of Science Degree, preferably in engineering or the sciences), previous background, management experience, environmental background, and an innovator with a vision for the future. An environmental individual with a strong engineering and water treatment background complimented with experience managing and supervising employees. Our Executive Director will need to be able to provide direction and decisions on Engineering, Finance, General Administration, Human Resources, Information and Technology, Law, Maintenance and Operations, Monitoring and Research, and Procurement and Materials Management. The environment and sustainability are the STEM job creators of the future, so I will also look for an executive director with a plan to better integrate the MWRD and our projects into the dialogue when it comes to growing the economy of Cook County.
*This list represents some of the characteristics I will look for in hiring our Executive Director
Should large landowners be billed for how much water runs off their properties?
Steele: MWRD is primarily funded by property taxes, which the large land owners pay in to, so I do not believe they should be taxed any more than their property has been assessed. I would however, like for large land owners to work with us on creating local sustainability plans and projects that can be mutually beneficial, from private irrigation plans to various forms of green infrastructure.
Who is Kari Steele?
Her occupation: MWRD Commissioner Her education: Bachelor of Sciences – Chemistry Pre-Med (Minor-Biology) (August 1997) Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans, Louisiana Campaign website: www.electkaristeele.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?
Steele: Under the circumstances, we did everything possible to provide as much transparency and public information as possible while respecting employee’s right to privacy. While I cannot speak for the other Commissioners, I believe we handled parting ways with the Executive Director in an appropriate, professional manner and in the best interests of the tax payers of Cook County. Because of the legal ramifications of the situation, I am limited in what I can discuss. That stated, I will support the release of any FOIA’d documents regarding the situation within the limits of the law. I am confident, considering everything involved, we did the best thing for the tax payers and the MWRD. I am confident, we addressed the departure of the Executive Director in the best interests of taxpayers and MWRD.
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?
Steele: I support the staff prepared and board approved Watershed Management Ordinance ((WMO), because as the County grows and the weather climate changes we need to protect Cook County residents against flooding. The Board of Commissioners can vote to make amendments to the ordinance when necessary. I plan to continue to keep the lines of communication open with all municipalities and address concerns or public comments as they arise. The WMO is a necessary component to the Cook County Storm Water Management Plan and the MWRD considered numerous factors in its creation like inappropriate floodplain uses and development increasing flood risk, the role of wetlands in flood storage, riparian environments reducing flow rates, and stormwater retention requirements for new developments, to name a few.
What can strengthen the WMO is the community and municipalities involvement. The MWRD currently has a good working relationship with various local governments in the Chicago region to manage watershed. We host open meetings, study sessions, or special meetings when there is a widespread topic to discuss and I have a representative attend all watershed/storm water management meetings I’m invited to. Often times, our experienced staff will meet with representatives from municipalities to collaborate and assist with projects by donating our time, professional expertise, and opinions to make sure we all continue to protect our waterways.
Should the MWRD’s disinfection system be expanded? Is cost a concern?
Steele: I support expanding the MWRD disinfection system if there is a location where it is needed. Cost is a concern, but not a deciding factor because we should not put a price on our health. MWRD has made major accomplishments the past 5 years implementing additional disinfection of effluent. Two of our larger plants, the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant and O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant, provide full primary, secondary, and tertiary treatment. The Calumet Water Reclamation Plant provides tertiary treatment with disinfection via chlorination/de-chlorination as the final phase of the treatment process. The final disinfection step at the O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant uses a new disinfection technology that neutralizes microbes in the water with ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Both tertiary treatment processes remove more than 95% of the impurities and can be deposited into a river or stream without any adverse environmental impacts. This effluent is often cleaner than the water of the stream. I support both methods for the final phase of the treatment process and support tertiary treatment of effluent when needed.
What new ideas would you bring to the district?
Steele: I would like to reiterate, I believe that the environment and sustainability will significantly influence job growth of the future. Understanding that, I’d like to position the MWRD as a source of job growth, economic opportunity, and STEM education. If we begin to look at ourselves as part of the “sustainability economy” we can become a larger factor in the regional growth.
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?
Steele: Unfortunately, the job of Commissioner at the MWRD is not based on just our qualifications and credentials, but it also requires that we run for office in municipal elections, which in turn requires all of us to fundraise. For me, campaign contributions do not equate to securing contracts at the MWRD. The MWRD has a procurement department with a clearly defined procurement process for businesses seeking to do business with the MWRD. I refer all inquiries regarding doing business with the MWRD to them. For transparency’s sake all of my campaign contributions and expenditures are listed on my D-2’s and can be verified at the Illinois State Board of Elections.
As a chemist and environmentalist, I take my job much too seriously to ever consider giving contracts based on any campaign donation. I work hard everyday as an MWRD Commissioner to protect our waterways and to do the best job for the residents of Cook County. I consider campaign donations an acknowledgement of that hard work, whether from individuals or companies.
Should there be an independent and adequately funded inspector general’s office at the MWRD?
Steele: Yes I support an independent and adequately funded inspector general at MWRD. As the most fiscally well run governmental agency in Cook County, with the largest surplus, we are always looking for ways to improve what we do, and provide more transparency to taxpayers. I believe an independent inspector general would be another step in that direction.
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?
Steele: The MWRD as an organization, MWRD Commissioners and staff should be active lobbyists on issues that impact the environment, sustainability, or water in the country. Lake Michigan is our most valuable resource and that value will only increase over time. We should operate as such.
How do you foresee the MWRD eliminating all combined sewer overflows?
Steele: I advocate on the Board at MWRD to increase the use of green infrastructure and minimize concrete and asphalt surfaces throughout Cook County because I know it can assist with alleviating flooding and combined sewage overflows (CSO) in addition to The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP).
Mother Nature is an unpredictable source of rainfall, and there is no single solution to eliminate all combined sewage overflows (CSO). The MWRD is decreasing CSOs by combining various solutions; we currently have over 100 on-going storm water management projects throughout our service area, including green and grey infrastructure and innovative pilot studies.
The long-term solution is the district completing The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) & the second stage of the McCook Reservoir. Once completed, the four TARP tunnel systems and the three reservoirs (Majewski, Thornton, and McCook) will have a total combined capacity of 20.55 billion gallons of CSO. There should be less flooding from CSOs with the TARP project being close to complete. If we embrace various options of Green infrastructure and water conservation to compliment TARP we can decrease flooding and protect our water quality resulting from unpredictable heavy downpours.
Is the MWRD responsible for combined sewer discharges by Chicago and other municipalities?
Steele: No, Eliminating Combined sewer overflow (CSO) is a major concern for MWRD, but not our sole responsibility because local sewer lines are involved also. MWRD is responsible for flood water management and to protect businesses and homes from flood damages.
Is the MWRD doing enough to buy up buildings in flood plains to reduce the cost and damage of flooding?
Steele: Yes, MWRD’s flood prone property acquisition program is an example of how we are using new tools to tackle flooding issues and ensure future stormwater management issues are addressed and mitigated. The Flood Prone Property Acquisitions involve partnerships with local communities to acquire flood damaged and flood-prone homes on a voluntary basis. The MWRD is currently working with serveral communities to acquire flood prone homes which will be removed from the floodplain and preserved as open space. Additional acquisitions are being evaluated, and agreements for the purchase, structural removal, and transfer of property to the appropriate government agency will follow.
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