The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the nominees for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District — a regional board that manages storm and swage water — a list of questions to find their view on a range of important issues facing the region.
Green Party nominee for a two-year term, Rachel Wales, submitted the following answers to our questionnaire:
What skills and qualities will you look for in hiring a new MWRD general superintendent?
Wales: When searching for the next MWRD general superintendent the ideal candidate has to be well versed in the duties that are required pertaining to wastewater management, green infrastructure, and flood abatement. He/she should also possess the transparency and honesty that the MWRD appears to be somewhat lacking. It is imperative that this individual also support the implementation of an independent inspector general, which can be beneficial to reducing corruption, wasteful spending and nepotism. I think it is also important for this person to have a background in modernization and resource reclamation so that the MWRD can continue to move forward.
Should large landowners be billed for how much water runs off their properties?
Wales: I do believe that large scale landowners should in fact be held financially accountable for runoff fees. If a property is held accountable for the amount of runoff this may actually encourage them to become better environmental stewards and reduce–or even eliminate runoff altogether. There should be a fee schedule set in place in order to assess fines for landowners for water runoff.
There are other benefits to this as well, including allocating any and all potential proceeds could be used for better flood abatement management and could go towards helping to finance the MWRD operations–this small change could potentially lessen the burden on taxpayers.
Who is Rachel Wales?
Her political/civic background:
I also think my educational background supports my qualifications for this office as I hold a Bachelors Degree in Sociology and Political Science as well as a Masters of Science Degree in Environmental Studies and Environmental Public Policy. In addition I have professional hands on experience working as an environmental and wildlife educator focusing on conservation and urban agriculture. My passion for environmental activism also extends to writing and as I spent time as a freelance environmental policy and animal welfare writer for the Chicago Examiner, and I currently carve out time to volunteer with the non-profit organization Crate Free Illinois whereas I focus on pollution and farm animal welfare blogging. I have always had a passion for both politics and the environment–which I realize can often make strange bedfellows. I started my career in politics working with Organizing for Action as a field organizer during Obama’s tenure in office, and I also volunteered for the Pat Quinn reelection campaign, and most recently with NARAL for the Marie Newman campaign whereas I was selected to appear on the cover of their Illinois voting guide. I currently serve as the Worth Township Committeewoman representing the Green Party.
Her occupation: Environmental educator and Worth Township Committeewoman
Bachelors Degree in Sociology and Political Science from New Mexico State University and a Masters of Science Degree in Environmental Studies and Public Policy from Green Mountain College
Campaign website: https://www.mwrd-ilgp.org/candidates
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?
Wales: The MWRD is a public agency that receives tax payer dollars and makes environmental decisions that impact Cook County residents and as such these residents have a right to know how their money is being spent, as well as the reasoning behind the firing or resignation of the commissioners. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the bizarre and sudden exit of David St. Pierre, but what makes the situation worse is the fact that he received a sizable buyout to the tune of $95,000 and half a year of health insurance, which was approved by the MWRD board members–but yet he does not have to disclose the details behind his resignation. This is a clear reason as to why there needs to be more transparency in government.
I myself have many unanswered questions about why the executive director left the MWRD. I am left to wonder, as are many other Cook County residents, if that money given to St. Pierre could have been better spent on other pressing matters such as water pollution cleanup or flood abatement projects, in lieu of a give away in the guise of a buyout.
I believe another reason why residents are frustrated regarding this issue is because they feel this is more business as usual in Cook County government, and does nothing to fix the image of corruption. Unfortunately, the public may never know the real reasons why St. Pierre left the MWRD because the commissioner’s employment contracts includes language that allows them protection in the form of a non-disclosure clause regarding severance if one of the commissioners is relieved of their duties. This is yet another problem that should be addressed in order to become more ethical and transparent.
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?
Wales: The MWRD should be supportive of adding more permeable pavement in Cook County and should also be promoting acceptance of these projects by being more involved in the community pertaining to outreach conservation education. There are residents who suffer flooding but are unaware of the benefits of these green projects and how they can get involved to help support these initiatives.
I think the conservation policy of the MWRD could be updated to include greener infrastructure, and use more alternative solutions than relying on traditional gray construction projects. They should also replace antiquated and insensitive policies requiring residents sell their homes to the MWRD in order to address flooding issues.
Should the MWRD’s disinfection system be expanded? Is cost a concern?
Wales: While it may not be a popular opinion, we cannot refuse to expand the MWRD disinfection just based on the potential for increased cost. However, the MWRD is a billion dollar agency that can afford to properly manage and increase its disinfection process–and it should. After all, the alternative is either sticking with the status quo or continuing to dump toxic harmful waste into watersheds. It is imperative that the MWRD apply a tertiary treatment process to all seven of its sanitation plants. Not abiding by this standard places the health of people at risk as they encounter wastewater discharge that only goes through secondary treatment process and this is unacceptable. While the MWRD does employ a UV and chlorination process it is not enough, and they cannot claim the cost is too exorbitant while these same Commissioners receive a six figure salary for part-time work. It is important that the MWRD run an audit to determine which approach is best and financially feasible for disinfection expansion. They could invest and focus on paying more up front if it meant it could save money over time.
What new ideas would you bring to the district?
Wales: I believe that the MWRD has made some significant progress regarding green infrastructure and flood abatement, but there is still more work to be done and the commissioners can’t rest on their laurels. However, I would like to see more money spent on green development projects, as well as coordinating more green infrastructure into all future traditional gray construction projects. I think it would be beneficial for the MWRD to reach out and partner with municipalities, and environmental and conservation organizations in order to add more green development projects. Other potential solutions would be to invest in the cleanup and management of runoff and wastewater on older existing properties in order to circumvent possible expensive problems in the future.
I would also like to see the MWRD consider working with some private sector agencies in order to offer additional green projects and expand water pollution cleanup. However, more than anything the MWRD must require tertiary disinfecting treatments at all of its plant locations with the eventual goal of being able to make the rivers safe for fishing and swimming (per the EPA requirements)–but also to hopefully someday recycle the treated wastewater into drinking water. They also need to make it a priority to continue the cleanup of the Chicago River–especially on the South branch as it still contains higher than normal levels of fecal bacteria from such as fecal coliform after heavy rains.
Another issue that often frustrates Cook County residents is the lack of available updates and warnings for area watersheds including but not limited to the Chicago River that may contain high levels of bacteria. It is also difficult to locate and sometimes understand the water quality data provided. The MWRD should work with the city and government officials in Cook County to develop a feasible solution so that everyone has access to updates offered in real time, which could help protect the public.
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.
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?
Wales: The MWRD is a large-scale public agency that is essentially allowed to police themselves, as there is no independent inspector general–which is sorely needed. The MWRD has been served with lawsuits and experienced recent corruption issues within the agency, from both board members and their own police officers and this is a major problem.
There is no fear of loss from board members that violate the rules, as they are often allowed to resign with a severance package and health insurance and without having to disclose anything to the public. As was the case of buyout of David St. Pierre.
This is unacceptable and is just one of the many issues I would address in order to fix the internal dysfunction within the agency.
There are also problems with the MWRD and contracting companies, since upwards of $721 million dollars has gone to construction companies that have ties to several of the MWRD commissioner’s campaigns.
There should also be policy in place that bans board members from accepting or voting on contract bids if that specific company contributed monies to their election campaign. These policy changes can make a major difference in improving a more ethical MWRD.
I would never accept such a campaign contribution, nor would any of the current Green Party candidates running for the office of MWRD.
Should there be an independent and adequately funded inspector general’s office at the MWRD?
Wales: I do support the creation of an independent Inspector General’s office that can regulate and monitor the fiscal decisions made by the commissioners and can hold them accountable ethically and legally. This is important, as there is no standard in place that officially fills that role currently. There is no reason as to why this should not have been implemented years ago, but for the simple fact that its possible there was fear among board members that an inspector general could potentially crackdown on violations, nepotism, and put a halt to bids for contract proposals from vendors with ties to board members or those that have contributed monies to their campaigns.
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?
Wales: The MWRD should be involved as it pertains to policy on lakefront and riverfront development but they need to be regulated and subject to checks and balances, otherwise they are allowed to continue to police themselves. This is part of the problem. There has also been controversy as the MWRD has a history of pressuring residents out of their homes via buyouts when there are flooding issues, instead of finding feasible alternative solutions. We saw this with the Melvina Ditch expansion–as it affected residents who did not suffer from home flooding but were forced to sell homes where some lived for their entire lives. The MWRD also needs to work more with area municipalities and environmental
organizations to come up with solutions for flooding, pollution and cleanup along the lakefront and riverfront. My other concern is that the MWRD needs to first deal with CWA violations from several of its CSOs which are along the Chicago river ways before it gets too heavily involved with policy.
How do you foresee the MWRD eliminating all combined sewer overflows?
Wales: Realistically I don’t know if the MWRD can eliminate all combined sewer overflows (CSOs) but that is not to say that it could not attempt such a feat. I think the MWRD should be working tirelessly on innovative green solutions to reducing CSOs. It would also be beneficial to implement runoff diversion retention requirements for land in Cook County. In addition, the MWRD Commissioners should consider investing more in renewable energy development and green infrastructure including but not limited to the addition and maintenance of wetlands, street trees, rain gardens, bioswales, and permeable pavement. I think this would be a more financially feasible solution than to continue to fund gray infrastructure projects such as the TARP reservoir expansion, which costs millions of dollars with no end in sight.
Is the MWRD responsible for combined sewer discharges by Chicago and other municipalities?
Wales: This is an important question and one that depends on the legal contractual agreements between municipalities and the MWRD as oftentimes sewer management is a shared obligation, but technically speaking the MWRD responsibility stops at the interceptor sewers. The agency monitors a myriad of tasks, and I am not sure if it would be realistic to have them also assume the additional management of combined sewer discharges as it pertains to residential or business when the municipalities typically handle this aspect. If anything, the MWRD needs to work in tandem with other local municipalities to ensure their sewer systems are in good working order so they can support heavy rains and therefore help prevent overflows.
While the MWRD has made progress to reduce flooding by installing new reservoirs such as the Melvina ditch reservoir project and the McCook quarry (which is an extension of TARP) in order to help reduce basement and street flooding, there are still problems that plague them–one being the rate at which they reach capacity after heavy storms. At the end of the day the MWRD is the agency charged with the task of flood abatement and wastewater management, and as such they have an obligation to protect the watersheds and the property of the residents of Cook County to the best of their ability.
Is the MWRD doing enough to buy up buildings in flood plains to reduce the cost and damage of flooding?
Wales: The MWRD property reclamation program is controversial to say the least. There is concern on behalf of many residents that reside in flood regions that feel pressure from the MWRD to sell their homes or risk continued flooding with little solution. Herein lies the problem. Instead of home buyouts when there are flooding issues, why not focus on comprehensive and feasible alternative solutions. While this is technically a voluntary program—we have seen some pushback from homeowners during the recent Melvina Ditch expansion project in Burbank, who did not suffer from flooding but happened to live in the flood affected zones, and thereby felt obligated to sell.
Another concern I have is that there are some municipalities that cannot take on the burden of additional land management after these properties are acquired. So then the task begins of finding an agency that will take on this obligation (whether it be the Cook County Forest Preserve or the Army Corps of Engineers) there has to be an alternative plan in place ahead of time so the MWRD can be proactive instead of reactive. In that same vein, there would also have to be stipulations in the deed with language that would prohibit leasing land to large scale industrial corporations including but not limited to oil companies and chemical plants.
I would like to see the MWRD invest more with area municipalities and environmental organizations to come up with better solutions for flooding. The property buyback program should not be a go-to option, because at the end of the day how much property will the MWRD need to continue acquiring, and how much additional monies will be spent towards this endeavor when these funds could be used for new green technologically advanced development projects meant to prevent and reduce flooding.
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.