The Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the candidates running for 40th Ward alderman a list of questions to find out their views on a range of issues facing the city and their ward. Patrick J. O’Connor submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):
Who is Patrick J. O’Connor?
He’s running for: 40th Ward alderman
His political/civic background: I am the Alderman of the 40th Ward in Chicago.
His occupation: Attorney
His education: J.D. Loyola University School of Law, June 1979; B.A. Loyola University School of Law, June 1976
What are the top three priorities for your ward?
Patrick J. O’Connor: My top priorities for the 40th Ward are, Economic Development; Education; and Public Safety. At the City level, Budget & Finances, including its pension issue; and Ethics and Transparency.
The 40th Ward is a majority-minority ward. No one racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority. Therefore, my local service must be multi-faceted with a broad appeal. Parts of our ward are home to many recent arrivals to the country, and providing social services, health services, and other wrap around programs must continue to be made available primarily through existing agencies, many of whom I work to provide city funds to.
Most of our community is statistically safer than other parts of the city, but statistics are small comfort to victims of crime and so public safety remains a priority.
Our local schools, public, private, religion-based and charter are among the best in the city, with some ranking high up in the state rankings. My focus here continues to be to work with principals and their school communities to provide assistance that they need in the form of infrastructure and modernization where allowed by law, and the improvements of the area around the schools to ensure pedestrian and traffic safety, easy access and cleanliness.
Maintaining a good business climate on our arterial streets, encouraging local, independent businesses where possible, and creating additional residential units on the arterials are a priority for helping energize the local business districts.
I work with the local chambers, all or most of whom I and the area’s local aldermen provide city funding for to help them provide business opportunities, programming and street festivals throughout the ward.
Providing increased access to quality mental health care is an issue that exists throughout the city, but locally I am working with Swedish Covenant Hospital and other entities to provide mental health treatment and divert emergency room visits that occur when the mental issues are not being adequately addressed.
The foregoing creates the local picture and fall under the heading of maintaining a quality, affordable urban experience for my constituents that is safe, with quality local schools and desirable business locations and destinations. This is a pressing issue for the ward.
City-wide, the constituency is different, as are the pressing issues. Budgetary issues, public safety and maintaining, or in some instances rebuilding destroyed neighborhoods, are the pressing issues in this area. Lack of governmental partners in recent years at the federal and state levels have added to the city’s financial plight. The issues of water service quality from the street to the residence, pensions and the growing gap in income levels remain growing issues. While I have supported an increase in the minimum wage and earned vacation/sick time for Chicago’s workforce and worked on the creation and budgetary funding of a city Office of Fair Labor Standards, much more needs to be done. The Committee assignment that I currently have, that of Workforce Development and Audit, has been, and I expect will continue to be, a forum to champion these issues.
Recent civic work
Please tell us what you have done in the last two years to serve the city, your neighborhood or a civic organization. Please be specific.
Patrick J. O’Connor: In the last two years, as well as previous years, I work hand in hand with the community I represent, including partnering with local school communities and their principals. I work closely with the Chambers of Commerce located in the 40th Ward, as well as with neighborhood Block Clubs and their representatives. I work with Swedish Covenant Hospital so that it is a true partner and is best able to meet the needs of the area residents. I previously served on a Local School Council. I am active in my parish, St. Hilary’s, and as Alderman I sponsor a number of events for the community, food distribution, holiday food and toy drives.
I have devoted a great deal of my time working on issues related to workforce development both for city and private work forces. I have worked on collective bargaining agreements for city employees and for private work forces at both airports, as well as the minimum wage, earned sick time and the creation of the city’s Office of Fair Labor Standards.
Chicago is on the hook for $42 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, which works out to $35,000 for every household. Those pensions, in the language of the Illinois Constitution, “shall not be diminished or impaired.” Should the state Constitution be amended to allow a reduction in pension benefits for current city employees or retirees? How about reducing pension benefits for new employees? Please explain.
Patrick J. O’Connor: Our Governor-elect has indicated that he will not look to entertain the constitutional amendment, so at this point, given the position of the Governor-elect and the legislative houses, this does not appear to be an option.
The city has already created a tiered pension system for some of its workforce and negotiated successfully with some of its organized labor unions to provide different benefits for new workers which the Supreme Court reversed, so I support this approach.
Of the following often proposed sources of new revenue for Chicago, which of the following do you favor, and why? A Chicago casino, legalized and taxed recreational marijuana, a LaSalle Street tax, a commuter tax, a property tax increase, a municipal sales tax increase, a real estate transfer tax increase, video gambling.
Patrick J. O’Connor: My view has not changed, we must meet our obligations and the needs of the citizens and I continue to support a balanced approach of spending cuts and increases. Tax and fee increases are always a last resort. As Chairman of the Committee on Workforce Development and Audit, I have worked on projects that bring jobs and new revenue to the city. I have previously voted for responsible increases in property taxes. I believe a city casino and other large development projects, such as the Obama Library, are important to the long term economic stability of Chicago which create jobs for construction, long term employment, and increases sales tax revenue far into the future.
In my ward, I continue to work to promote local business development having attracted businesses such as a Target store and Tony’s Finer Foods among many others over the years. We continue to try to find ways to close loopholes and increase fees where appropriate (i.e., use tax, skyboxes, and downtown parking rates) with revenues going back into necessary services like road repair, rodent control, and tree services. The legalization of marijuana, although not as lucrative as some believe, may also be a new revenue source.
I support video gambling via the state authorized system. I am working to eliminate the unlicensed machines currently proliferating throughout the city, which the city gets nothing from. It is estimated that a minimum of $80-million per year would go the city when it is fully implemented.
It is my understanding that the city is currently pre-empted from passing a “LaSalle Street” tax by way of a state statute passed many years ago. I would support an analysis of how much could be realized from such a tax given the changes in how and where trading occurs to determine how much could be realized from such a tax to determine if it would be worth trying to change the state law.
What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose?
Patrick J. O’Connor: None at present.
Tax-increment financing districts are a primary economic development tool for Chicago. In a TIF district, taxes from the growth of property values are set aside for 23 years to be used to support public projects and private development. What changes do you favor, if any, in Chicago’s TIF program?
Patrick J. O’Connor: In my ward, the vast majority of TIF expenditure has been made on public building and public capital projects, meaning expenditures of public dollars on public improvements built by union employees. I would continue to do this. New schools, school additions, a library, police station, and a firehouse are some examples.
I also previously supported the changes made to the use of TIF that were enacted after recommendations of the TIF Task Force. Excess TIF funds have been surplussed back into the budget as a result of those changes, a practice that I support. It is not clear if the proposal pending before the City Council would allow currently planned projects to move forward, even those like the ones in the 40th Ward that are currently planned, but all public improvements. When that is clarified, I will have a position on that proposal.
What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?
Patrick J. O’Connor: It is apparent that there may be some change in the way projects that require zoning changes will be made in the future. It is probably easier for the change to take place for the local alderman than for the constituents who will want the decisions on local projects to be a local aldermanic decision. Most zoning decisions, in my opinion, reflect the local community’s viewpoint. Any consideration by an appointed body which seeks to approve local zoning issues should also include some local input beyond testimony, in my opinion.
The City of Chicago has entered into a federally monitored consent decree to overhaul the training and practices of the Chicago Police Department. Civil libertarians say it is long overdue, but others say it is unnecessary and could make it tougher for the police to do their job. What’s your view?
Patrick J. O’Connor: I support the consent decree and the process by which it has been arrived at. The negotiation was inclusive of both supporters and detractors of the Chicago Police Department. It also has included public comment from all interested parties.
I support new, non-lethal technologies that are used in Europe and elsewhere that continue to ensure the safety of police officers, but allow for more non-lethal weapons to affect arrests.
I also sought to establish, within the consent decree, a pilot for mental health teams to be embedded in select districts to determine if their intervention would, where appropriate, benefit the community and the police in the performance of their jobs, but the proposal did not make the cut.
What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?
Patrick J. O’Connor: Chicago has some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation and yet violence due to illegal guns increases. I have and continue to support legislation requiring Illinois gun dealers to obtain a business license and I also continue to support legislation to require gun dealers to report gun purchases at the point of sale. The state, federal and local governments need to work together to pass meaningful legislation that is consistent from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. I also continue to support other anti violence programs that are evidence based and address gun and gang violence form multiple approaches.
What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?
Patrick J. O’Connor: I support having good schools in our neighborhoods – period. I do not blindly support charter schools, however, I believe that if a good charter comes forward with a proposal, it would be irresponsible to turn away a good school. I believe if Chicago Public Schools continue to expand charter schools there must be provisions to support measures to defend the full rights of charter school employees to unionize and provide sanctions to employers who refuse to comply with the law.
Should the Chicago Board of Education be solely appointed by the mayor, as is now the case? Or should Chicago switch to an elected school board or some hybrid?
Patrick J. O’Connor: For background, when I was first elected, I and many members of the City Council supported an elected school board. Late in Mayor Byrne’s tenure, she made several board appointments that were not representative of the city’s population or sensitive to the makeup of the Chicago Public School population.
We felt an elected board would better represent both, so the newly elected council in 1983 pursued the elected school board alternative. I chaired the City Council’s Education Committee for many of the intervening years and we have had Mayoral appointments with council confirmation and direct Mayoral appointments who appear before the committee as a courtesy as they go to the board.
I have also participated in the drawing of city remaps and know how difficult it would be to draw single member districts that would reflect both the city’s population and the makeup of the student body given constitutional one man/one vote requirements. The possibility that communities of color could see a reduction in their representation is a distinct possibility. Couple this problem with the need to fund not only elections but possibly pay board members or at least some staff and you would be diverting resources from education endeavors. There is also the problem of the cost of an elected school board and as we have seen with the LSC’s quite often there are not enough interested individuals to run to fill all of the vacancies.
I do believe, however, that the hybrid idea for the school board may provide local input combined with appointed accountability for others on the board. As a result, this might be a good solution.
Is there enough affordable housing in your ward? Please explain.
Patrick J. O’Connor: No there is not. The issue of housing costs rising disproportionately with salaries is a critical issue facing urban areas everywhere, including Chicago and the 40th Ward. I continue to support an ordinance requiring financial institutions to pay a fee on properties in foreclosure, the proceeds of which would go to support programs to reduce the impact of foreclosures on communities. I also support an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance which requires developers to set aside 20% of residential new construction or rehabilitation for the creation of affordable housing. In addition, I support an ordinance to ensure an adequate supply of affordable and accessible family-sized units for families with Housing Choice vouchers.
Chicago, by ordinance, is an official “welcoming city.” This means the Chicago police are generally prohibited from detaining undocumented immigrants on behalf of federal immigration authorities. What’s your position on this policy? What more — or less — should be done with respect to undocumented immigrants who live in Chicago?
Patrick J. O’Connor: The 40th Ward has always been a ward for immigrants and I support Chicago’s role as a welcoming city. I am proud that Chicago is a municipality that has stood up to President Trump and his immigration polices and the threats from his Justice Department. I supported and continue to support the issuance of Municipal Identification Cards as a way of providing undocumented immigrants with a form of identification as well as protecting them from becoming victims of crime. In addition, I support divestment of city funds from the private prison industry, which is profiting from the imprisonment of immigrants and people of color. I would also work with our Illinois congressional delegation on meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform.
Should the inspector general have the power to audit and review City Council programs, operations and committees? Why or why not?
Patrick J. O’Connor: Yes. I voted to expand the Inspector General’s authority and work with his office on audits and other ethics related issues.
Would you employ, or have you employed, staff in your office who have outside jobs or contracts with entities that do business with the city? If so, please explain.
Patrick J. O’Connor: No, I do not nor have I done so.
Is there a past or current alderman whom you model yourself after, or would model yourself after, or take inspiration from? Please explain.
Patrick J. O’Connor: My aldermanic role model is the late Honorable Seymour Simon. I was privileged to have known Justice Simon as well as having him serve as a mentor. Justice Simon served as the Alderman for the 40th Ward from 1955-1961. He was then appointed to serve on the Cook County Board (1962-1966) and then was re-elected Alderman of the 40th Ward in 1967 where he continued to serve until his appointment to the Illinois Appellate Court. He ended his career serving as Judge of the Illinois Supreme Court. His entire life was dedicated to public service. He served in the US Navy, the US Department of Justice and as an elected official.
He was throughout his public service a well respected attorney. He was admired by everyone in the legal and political communities. He was not afraid to be independent and gained recognition standing up to Mayor Richard J. Daley. Justice Simon was also well known as a dedicated husband and father. I was fortunate to have had his support for my election and to have him as a mentor and someone I could always reach out for advice. He dedicated his life to public service and his integrity, honesty, compassion and hard work ethic have always stood as an example for me to model myself.