The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the nominees for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District — a regional board that manages storm and sewage water — a list of questions to find their views on a range of important issues facing the region.
Davis explained why he’s running in the video above and submitted the following answers to our questionnaire:
What skills and qualities will you look for in hiring a new MWRD general superintendent?
Davis: Our region deserves the best talent possible in the next executive director. There are a few things I would want to pursue, including:
• Expertise & Innovation. Running one of the largest and most complex water resources systems in the world requires expertise in operations and “asset management” for water utilities. I would also want this person to be aware of cutting-edge technologies that could make MWRD even more effective and efficient. Too often we think of “innovation” as the next high-tech gadget. Innovation also means using cost-effective, nature-based solutions for water management, along with traditional engineering. Innovation often involves experimentation, and MWRD should be a leader in the research and development of new water management strategies, particularly ones that reduce capital costs and environmental disruption.
• A “people person.” Will the new executive director help keep staff, commissioners and others unified toward a well-understood, common mission? Will they be accessible to all and treat people with respect? Having worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with some 15,000 staff, I saw how an agency runs well or poorly depending on whether its people felt included or alienated by leadership. Excellent leadership requires someone who ensures staff are supported to do their jobs. If we don’t take care of MWRD’s staff, the staff will have a tough time staying motivated to take care of the region.
• Sense of Vision. Our world and region—including our climate and tax base—are changing quickly. The next executive director needs to help the board of commissioners prepare for the next 50, 100 or even 500 years by helping to build a resilient region. MWRD can make our region more resilient by recovering waste resources, producing at least as much energy as MWRD uses, minimizing flood risk, ensuring healthy waterways, insisting on fairness (prevailing wages; social equity; contracting that gives minority, women, veterans’ and other similarly disadvantaged business a fair chance, etc.).
Who is Cameron Davis?
His political/civic background: Democrat
His occupation: Vice President, GEI
His education: J.D. and Certification in Environmental & Energy Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law; B.A., Boston University; New Trier High School
Campaign website: camdavis.org
Recent news: Cameron Davis
Should large landowners be billed for how much water runs off their properties?
Davis: It’s becoming increasingly common in the U.S. for stormwater programs to be funded through “stormwater utility fees.” With a system that’s funded through property taxes, fees are determined by the value of a property, rather than the property’s stormwater impact on neighbors and everyone downstream. As a result, property owners with high property values, but little stormwater impact are overcharged, while big, paved expanses like single-level parking lots aren’t charged very much though they cause a lot of negative impacts. I’m always open to exploring more fair and effective ways to achieve MWRD’s mission, whether through stormwater utility fees or other pricing structures that account for the real cost of runoff and its impacts. An important result of such impact-based approaches is that they incentivize changes in design, such as increased open space that improve water quality and reduce flooding and its costs.
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?
Davis: It may be unpopular to say this but having been a manager and having to comply with employment law, I believe severance is a case-by-case call. If there has been financial mismanagement or criminal behavior in a public agency, the public has a right to know. If there have been problems of a personal nature, those might not be appropriate for the spotlight.
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?
Davis: MWRD was given authority to manage all of Cook County’s stormwater in 2004 and adopted its stormwater ordinance (it’s sometimes called the Watershed Management Ordinance) in 2014. It’s helped reduce flooding and stormwater impacts since then. New development and redevelopment over a certain size has been subject to the different provisions of the Ordinance to help reduce runoff. MWRD took several years developing the Ordinance and continues, using its Technical Advisory Committee made up of public stakeholders, to review the Ordinance.
Still, our world is changing, so over time the Ordinance needs to change. We have to make more progress toward eliminating our most polluted discharges—e.g., combined sewer overflows—and reducing local community flooding.
We need to look at options for continuing to make progress while strengthening Cook County’s economic vibrancy. For example, if smaller development and redevelopment projects have a proportionate commitment to keep stormwater on-site, less burden of flooding will be shifted to homeowners and County tax payers. Other counties in Illinois have ordinances that apply to smaller development properties and have stronger requirements to keep stormwater on-site than the MWRD Ordinance. We should address flooding in communities that results from runoff overwhelming local storm sewer systems. This “urban flooding,” which can occur even after moderate rainfalls, has caused tremendous damage and economic hardship across Cook County for decades.
Of course, the MWRD Ordinance isn’t the only tool the agency has to combat water pollution and flooding. As commissioner, I would want to look at all of them, such as coordinating with Chicago and suburban municipalities to achieve results. Cook County will be more resilient if all of our municipal authorities are working together.
Should the MWRD’s disinfection system be expanded? Is cost a concern?
Davis: Disinfection is important wherever the public will be in direct contact with our waterways. For example, since there’s increasing recreation on the North Shore Channel, disinfection was the right call. The benefits might not be worth the costs in places where heavy industry and boat traffic don’t allow people to swim or wade, but we should keep track of trends in recreational use and be prepared to make improvements if increased contact looks likely over time.
What new ideas would you bring to the district?
Davis: I want to make a number of things a priority, including reducing urban flooding, increasing prevailing wage jobs for strong infrastructure, and strengthening cyber security. But the most important “new” thing I want to do is help make MWRD more accessible. A lot of people don’t even know about MWRD. And if they don’t know what it is, then they can’t support efforts to make our region more resilient (reduce flooding, advance public health from water pollution, rebuild habitat, etc.).
More accessible MWRD information—including data, financing, programs, a more user-friendly website—are critical. I give MWRD credit for increasing the number of press releases it has issued and increased use of social media over the past few years. Still, we want the public to have more ownership of MWRD, so we can all make our region more resilient together.
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?
Davis: My campaign is currently funded exclusively by individuals and others who share my values. As commissioner, I will not accept donations from corporations that currently receive MWRD contracts or have applied to receive such contracts if I am aware of the connection.
Should there be an independent and adequately funded inspector general’s office at the MWRD?
Davis: Absolutely. While I was at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we had an Office of the Inspector General. Even if there was no wrongdoing, its presence alone helped ensure accountability. The level of independence granted to an inspector general plays a big role in his or her effectiveness.
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?
Davis: MWRD has a responsibility to deal with the effects of climate change, including extreme rain events and flooding. This means that the District must play a leading role in acting to protect Cook County residents by using the best information available and implementing the best policies possible. MWRD is on record as supporting the Paris Agreement to help combat climate change, despite the Trump Administration taking the reprehensible, opposite position. I strongly believe MWRD must be out front on these issues to make our region resilient with municipal, state and federal agencies.
How do you foresee the MWRD eliminating all combined sewer overflows?
The District has developed a Long-Term Control Plan. The Plan lays out the way and timing to eliminate all combined sewer overflows. Regardless of the terms of the Plan (and companion Consent Decree), I believe MWRD must anticipate the effects of climate change on the size, frequency and intensity of rainfalls in the coming years. It should do this by continuing to design its wastewater treatment and stormwater management programs to hit these effects head-on, with an emphasis on the use of cost-effective, nature-based solutions such as green infrastructure. The approach should not be limited to large, conventional engineering projects, but MWRD should also work closely with communities in Cook County to enhance their use of green infrastructure.
Is the MWRD responsible for combined sewer discharges by Chicago and other municipalities?
Davis: No. But MWRD has the expertise and resources to provide financial and technical assistance to communities so they can reduce their discharge of runoff and eliminate combined sewer overflows.
Is the MWRD doing enough to buy up buildings in flood plains to reduce the cost and damage of flooding?
Davis: As commissioner, I want to help lead MWRD to do more, working with the Cook County Land Bank and others. Part of the problem is that our region has been so manipulated and developed over the past 150 years that it’s hard to tell what is and what is not a “floodplain.” What’s more important is to identify all poor, local drainage areas where flooding frequently occurs, whether such flooding is associated with a mapped floodplain or not. MWRD can then direct its resources more effectively to solve the flooding problem. Still, we can’t build enough treatment plants, pipes and pumps to handle the increasingly intense storms we’re getting. We’re going to need to preserve and enhance open land and scale up the use of green infrastructure to help reduce runoff and mitigate flooding—especially in our most underserved communities.
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.
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