Geoffrey Cubbage is the Green Party nominee to fill Tim Bradford’s vacancy on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District — a regional board that manages storm and sewage water.
The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the nominees for the MWRD a list of questions to find their view on a range of important issues facing the region. They were also invited to tell why on camera they are seeking the office.
Cubbage tells why he is running for the position 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?
Cubbage: The Executive Director vacancy makes the 2018 MWRD election particularly important for voters: the five Commissioners they select this year will likely be the deciding voices in who next runs a massive taxpayer-funded agency with a billion-dollar-plus annual budget.
Ideal candidates should be experienced in wastewater management, actively interested in research and development to modernize MWRD processes, and above all, thoroughly independent from the Board of Commissioners and Chicago’s political establishment.
Major areas for improvement that I would want a new Executive Director to prioritize include asset management, resource reclamation and power generation, and green infrastructure, as well as needed upgrades in disinfectant processes.
Should large landowners be billed for how much water runs off their properties?
Cubbage: Yes. Runoff fees are one of the most transparent and equitable ways to both finance stormwater management and incentivize better development practices: a property pays for the amount of runoff it discharges, meaning the property owner can reduce or eliminate the fee by reducing or eliminating runoff.
Implementing runoff fees and segregating the proceeds specifically for runoff and flood abatement purposes would be a more transparent and equitable way to finance District operations, and would allow the District to reduce its property tax burden on individual homeowners.
Who is Geoffrey Cubbage?
His political/civic background: Secretary of the Illinois Green Party
His occupation: Freelance Writer/Analyst
His education: BA – Grinnell College
Campaign website: www.mwrd-ilgp.org
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?
Cubbage: Nearly everything about the departure of former Executive Director David St. Pierre should concern Cook County voters and taxpayers.
All the public knows at this point is that the head of a multi-billion dollar government agency was under investigation by an outside law firm, and that during or shortly following that investigation he opted to retire, with a $95,000 severance package and what one sitting Commissioner described as a “non-defamation” clause that prevents them from disclosing any details.
That’s the opposite of transparency and accountability. To begin with, the MWRD should have its own fully-funded and legally empowered Inspector General’s office to handle investigations like this one, but in any case, the Board of Commissioners should be open and transparent with the public as to the nature, scope, and outcome of any internal investigations.
There should be no “golden parachutes” in the case of wrongdoing, and the public needs to know whether wrongdoing has, in fact, occurred, which can’t happen under non-defamation, non-disclosure, or other “gag” clauses.
It is deeply irresponsible of the current Commissioners to keep the details of the investigation and St. Pierre’s resignation from the public. If the Board of Commissioners can’t be relied upon to keep the public informed, then the agency needs an Inspector General, ombudsman, or other watchdog authority to serve the taxpayers’ interests.
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?
Cubbage: It’s fair to say that the current rate of uncontrolled discharge during rainfall is unacceptable: roughly 2,000 combined sewer outflows (CSOs) occurred in 2017, and the Chicago Tribune calculated that we discharge untreated waste into the Chicago Area Waterway System once every six days, on average.
That’s a problem that ultimately has to be solved, at least in part, by runoff reduction. Without at least some permeable land to absorb rainwater, runoff goes straight into the storm sewers, which overflow, flooding the streets and discharging combined sewage into the waterways, which causes the familiar smell (and more serious health issues) associated with CSOs.
The current Wastewater Management Ordinance mandates certain levels of permeability, retention, runoff control, and erosion management, but it is limited in application: only to certain kinds of new development or redevelopment throughout Cook County, and within the City of Chicago only for developments that directly impact MWRD infrastructure, property, or waterways.
At a bare minimum, applying the existing Cook County permitting and runoff requirements to qualifying development within the City of Chicago is critical. The MWRD should also be working on incentivising runoff management practices on already-existing properties (the runoff fee concept discussed in Question #2 is a good example).
Stormwater management best-practices are often value-adding in other respects — green rooftops help with heat management, rain gardens and native species restorations reduce long-term maintenance costs, and so on. Ideal implementation would incentivize and assist property owners with runoff management, rather than simply applying across-the-board regulatory burdens.
Should the MWRD’s disinfection system be expanded? Is cost a concern?
Cubbage: Cost is always a concern, but in the case of disinfecting treatments, there’s no real alternative, other than continuing to dump hazardous waste on downstream communities.
Tertiary disinfecting treatment is industry standard. The MWRD should be applying it at all seven of its treatment plants, but has so far only implemented third-stage disinfection at two, accounting for roughly one-third of our total treated wastewater discharge. The other two-thirds goes out after secondary treatment, resulting in waterways that are unsafe for human contact.
The MWRD deserves credit for experimenting with multiple disinfection methods (chlorination and UV, currently), and future methods need to be chosen carefully. Disinfection technology is improving rapidly, with alternatives to traditional chlorination rapidly becoming competitive in cost and efficacy.
As much as taxpayers (and newspapers!) tend to balk at major up-front capital investments, the MWRD should keep ongoing maintenance and supply expenses in mind when implementing disinfection systems (or any other major treatment improvements). A larger one-time expense for a more stable, long-lasting process with lower cost over time is preferable to a cheaper installation with higher long-term costs.
What new ideas would you bring to the district?
Cubbage: Any Green Party candidate elected in 2018 (whether myself or my colleagues on the ballot Chris Anthony, Karen Roothaan, Tammie Vinson, and Rachel Wales) would bring something novel to the MWRD: a Commissioner elected from outside the Democratic Party, which Cook County has not seen in 20-plus years.
That’s not just of academic interest, since the nine-member structure of the Board of Commissioners is theoretically supposed to bring a measure of legislative deliberation to agency decisions. Major Board decisions should be discussed and even debated, but decades of one-party control have resulted in a Board that votes unanimously more than 99% of the time.
Green Party candidates (myself included) are also unique in that neither we as candidates nor our political party accept corporate contributions. Voters should find both novelty and reassurance in the idea of an elected official who’s truly beholden to voters, rather than to campaign donors.
A lot of the reforms and changes that I would put first and foremost at the MWRD are not new ideas, merely badly-needed: third-stage disinfection at all the treatment plants, an independent Inspector General’s office, and a thorough review of payroll and hiring practices, as well as an updated and fully digitized agency-wide asset management system.
In terms of bigger ideas, though, one area of where I want to see the MWRD focus is in rain-absorbing green infrastructure development on a holistic scale, rather than as single, independent, isolated projects wherever space can be found. Putting in a rain garden here or a bioswale there is good for demo projects, but what’s the watershed-by-watershed, countywide or even statewide plan for 21st century flood prevention? The MWRD needs to be willing to keep the kind of big-picture vision that gave us TARP (Deep Tunnel) — but with a modern understanding of water management that focuses on sustainable, ecologically active infrastructure, rather than hard-surface tunnels and reservoirs.
Any large-scale development plans would obviously involve negotiations with and buy-in from other levels of government, beyond just the MWRD, but one place the MWRD can start right away is on its own land. The agency is the second-largest landowner in Cook County, with almost 10,000 acres of property — and much of that property is leased out to private, industrial tenants, including actual waterway polluters.
Rather than renting out taxpayer land to private businesses that pollute our water, the MWRD should be using that land to develop interconnected greenspace developments that absorb rainwater, store and filter runoff, and help cool the city as global temperatures rise.
Finally, on the subject of rising temperatures, I would like to see the MWRD’s long-range strategic plan include climate change readiness. As of the 2018 revision, there is still no mention of climate change in the Strategic Business Plan, which seems a glaring oversight for a water management agency.
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?
Cubbage: Earlier this year the Illinois Green Party took a look at campaign contribution and MWRD contract records, and found that over the last five years, roughly 60% of MWRD contract spending went to campaign donors of the sitting Commissioners.
Combined, the current Commissioners (and Commissioner Cynthia Santos, whose term runs through 2020 but who left the agency at the end of 2016) took over $400,000 in campaign contributions from businesses that received MWRD contracts in that same five-year period.
It’s extremely unrealistic to think that Commissioners are giving fair consideration to bids from companies that donate thousands of dollars to their re-election funds. Many of the donations taken are over the limits that City of Chicago and Cook County law place on “entities doing business or seeking to do business” with the government — but as its own separate level of government, the MWRD is exempt from those restrictions.
The fact that some of the major expenditures of sitting Commissioners’ campaigns are transfers to other Democratic Party campaign committees raises a double concern for voters: you not only have the prospect of pay-to-play (companies making donations in exchange for winning MWRD contract bids), you also have the real concern that MWRD campaigns are being used as clearinghouses for over-the-limit donations to city and county candidates.
I feel comfortable saying that, if your campaign contributions don’t even meet the ethical standards of the City of Chicago, you’ve got problems. MWRD Commissioners should not be taking contributions from “entities doing business,” as the city and county statutes define them, and in cases where they have, they should recuse themselves from any contracting or other payment decisions.
This is another case where voters can have confidence in Green Party candidates: because we don’t take corporate donations in the first place, there will never be a case of Green Party Commissioners evaluating bids from campaign donor firms.
Should there be an independent and adequately funded inspector general’s office at the MWRD?
Cubbage: Yes. Key words being “independent” and “adequately funded” — Cook County has seen examples of toothless IG offices before. As a Commissioner, I would be a solid vote for a fully-empowered Inspector General of the MWRD.
Various MWRD Commissioners have said over the years that this is something they support as well, but with incumbents serving six-year terms, I think it’s fair to ask: if it didn’t get done (or even come up for a vote) during your first term, why should voters be expected to believe that it’s a priority for you in your second? Six years is a long time to get something done.
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?
Cubbage: MWRD Commissioners can and should represent Cook County’s interests to other levels of government (and to other government agencies, such as the Interior Department, the Army Corps of Engineers, etc.).
Being a vocal spokesperson for the long-term sustainability of our water resources — including Lake Michigan, the Chicago Area Waterway System, and groundwater aquifers — is part of the job. In the case of anything affecting Lake Michigan, it’s even an international brief, as Illinois is signatory to the Great Lakes–Saint Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, along with other Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces.
The MWRD is the major testing agency for waterway quality flowing downstream from Lake Michigan. That needs to come with a serious reporting responsibility, and a willingness to work with other levels of government when there are water quality concerns.
One of the most common questions we get as candidates is “what can you do about lead in the drinking water.” The short answer, unfortunately, is that the MWRD has no control over the drinking water supply, only the water disposal end of the equation — but the longer answer is that MWRD annual water quality reports throughout the 2000s and 2010s were showing lead concentrations that were two or three times the EPA and WHO alert levels.
While there are other potential sources for lead in the downstream flow besides Chicago’s drinking water, the concentration should have been a “canary in the coal mine” moment that prompted substantial at-the-tap testing years ago.
Currently, much of that water quality data is only available as tables in the PDF files of Annual Summary Reports, the most recently-available of which is from 2015. When there are water quality concerns, the MWRD needs to be pushing its data as a public interest story, not burying it in long-delayed reports.
How do you foresee the MWRD eliminating all combined sewer overflows?
Cubbage: “All” is a tall order, but serious runoff diversion-and-retention requirements for all properties (not just new developments outside the City of Chicago that meet specific criteria) would be a good start.
Major rain-absorbing green infrastructure will help as well, both at the macro level (major wetlands restoration, waterway rehabilitation, etc.) and the micro (neighborhood-specific development plans, bioswales and median plantings, etc.).
There are also “smart” sensor-and-gate technologies being deployed in other sewer systems that adjust pressure in realtime to help head off outflows as they occur, and which could lead to long-term savings on maintenance and operations (perennially the largest expenditure category in MWRD annual budgets). Like disinfecting treatments, it’s an up-front expense that, done properly, can pay off in the long run.
Is the MWRD responsible for combined sewer discharges by Chicago and other municipalities?
Cubbage: Depending on the District’s arrangements with the individual municipality, sewers are usually a shared responsibility, with the MWRD’s official authority ending at the interceptor sewers. The actual connections to individual homes, businesses, and streets are usually administered by the municipality.
That means there are some limits to what the MWRD can do to prevent outflows — a reservoir at the far end of a sewer system can’t do anything to stop outflows if the feeder pipe at the other end has filled to capacity. (And even the reservoirs themselves are limited, as we saw this year, when the newly-opened McCook Reservoir reached capacity in less than 20 hours of rainfall.) The MWRD is to an extent reliant on cooperation from and good-faith efforts by individual municipalities to make sure their local sewer infrastructure meets and exceeds local need.
Ultimately, however, the MWRD has its taxing authority as the principal wastewater management and flood abatement agency in the county. If the buck has to stop somewhere for CSOs, it stops with the MWRD Board of Commissioners.
Is the MWRD doing enough to buy up buildings in flood plains to reduce the cost and damage of flooding?
Cubbage: Since receiving legal authority in 2014, the MWRD has made some substantial progress in flood-prone property buybacks. As of last year, 201 floodplain or flood-damaged properties had been reclaimed, with more scheduled for 2018.
There are major challenges to reclaiming floodplains from existing development — starting with the serious concern of displacing residents from homes, which is why the program to date has been entirely voluntary — but the ultimate goal is a necessary one, and I would like to see the MWRD continue to return flood-prone properties to green space.
Under its current model, the MWRD helps fund the purchase but transfers the land and management responsibilities to the sponsoring government agency (usually the local municipality). In areas where local governments are unwilling or unable to take on the responsibility, I would potentially be comfortable seeing the MWRD (or another agency such as the Forest Preserves or the Army Corps of Engineers) become the land owner and administrator — provided that the deed be restricted to flood prevention use or natural restoration, so that it doesn’t become another home for “toxic tenants” or other misuse.
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.