The Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the 33rd Ward aldermanic candidates a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the city and their ward. Deborah Mell submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):
Who is Deborah Mell?
She’s running for:
Her political/civic background:
- State Representative- 40th District (2009-2013)
- Alderman- Ward 33 (2013 to present)
Her occupation: Alderman- 33rd Ward
Her education: Cornell College and California Culinary Academy
Campaign website: debfor33.com
What are the top three priorities for your ward?
Deborah Mell: Community Safety —
I will continue to embrace a holistic, all-of-the-above approach to keeping our neighborhoods safe. That includes:
- Reform the Chicago Police Department and making sure first responders are properly trained, diverse, and fully accountable to the people they serve and protect
- Maintain a zero-tolerance policy on gang violence that destroys families and tears at the fabric of our neighborhoods
- Making sure the 33rd Ward has its fair share of police resources and increasing the number of detectives in their ranks so that families get the justice they deserve
- Ensuring the safety of every resident regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender identification, residency status and/or socio-economic status
- Empowering residents to help address the root causes of crime by working closely with community nonprofits and other local service agencies on expanding access to critical resources in the community and building neighborhoods rooted in a strong foundation of systemic empathy. I will also work to establish a 33rd Ward Community Justice Center that can facilitate restorative justice practices and other forms of conflict resolution.
As alderman, I am fortunate to represent a collection of neighborhoods that are among the safest in Chicago, but we still have significant challenges that need to be addressed. I want to continue working with our local first responders on building the trust that is needed in order to get police and residents working together in a meaningful way. Of course, public safety can’t rely solely on the efforts of law enforcement. That includes holding negligent landlords and problem business accountable for fostering an environment where dangerous criminal activity is allowed to exist without concern for the safety and security of our residents.
An Affordable Chicago and Balanced Economic Development —
I want to continue building on an inclusive, community driven housing agenda that preserves and expands our inventory of safe and affordable housing in the 33rd Ward so that every resident can afford to live in Chicago without fear of being priced out of their neighborhood.
I will use every resource available to my office to responsibly expand our housing stock using Transit Oriented Development, coach houses/ADUs, and the development of new mixed-use projects along our commercial corridors. I want to compliment these efforts with new tenant protections and impactful reforms to the City’s ARO program.
I strongly believe that vibrant commercial corridors and small, locally owned businesses help make our neighborhoods great communities. When residents are walking around supporting our economy, we all experience the benefits. During my first term in office, the 33rd Ward’s business districts are flourishing like never before. Every month, a new locally owned business is filling a once vacant storefront. With your support, I will continue to create more walkable neighborhoods, grow our local economy in a balanced way, and broaden our tax base as a city.
The 33rd Ward’s neighborhood schools have grown by leaps and bounds during my first term in office, which is a significant accomplishment given the fact that they have been able to thrive despite the revolving door of leaders both at CPS and the BOE. For too long, our priorities as a public-school system have been too far removed from the needs of parents and educators. I want to help build a public-school system that equitably distributes its resources and get the politics out of decision making.
I will focus on establishing greater community control over decision making by working towards a democratically elected school board; identifying progressive forms of revenue to help ensure our classrooms have the resources and support they need; appropriating capital investments where they are needed to most so to ensure the physical safety and vibrancy of our schools; and ending costly privatization schemes that are a giveaway to corporations, without any mechanism for accountability.
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.
Deborah Mell: Being an alderman is an important responsibility that requires a full-time commitment and I’ve treated it as such during my first term in office. I don’t hold any other jobs or earn any other form of compensation. I sincerely enjoy public service.
I’ve run an accessible, professional, and service-oriented ward office with a dedicated staff that works day and night to provide good city services and help residents navigate our city government. I believe I have developed a reputation as someone who listens and works collaboratively with a diverse group of stakeholders on delivering results for my constituents.
From helping residents with their property taxes and dealing with sudden infrastructure emergencies to securing important community investments and helping grow our local economy, the overarching philosophy in the office is to focus on making things happen.
I’ve established an independent voting record in the City Council and have proven I’m willing to stand up and do what’s right. We’ve passed good government reforms like giving Inspector Joseph Ferguson oversight of aldermen and their staff and creating a new Independent Budget Office. I’ve supported new protections for city workers like Paid Sick Leave and a $13 dollar minimum wage, while helping establish a new Office of Labor Standards to enforce those new protections. I’ve also fought for reforms to the City’s TIF program and pushed back against the use of public dollars for businesses that don’t support the reproductive rights of women.
Back in the ward, I’ve worked tirelessly to ensure our communities get their share of city resources and investments. Our neighborhood schools have seen over $29 million in capital investments. That means new playgrounds, turf fields, and important upgrades like new science labs and air conditioning.
Our public parks have seen exciting upgrades totaling $28 million on my watch. We have new riverfront trails, bike path connectors, a new hockey rink, a beautiful dog park, tennis courts, and soon we will enjoy the 312 RiverRun trail.
I believe the 33rd Ward is made up of some of the best neighborhoods in Chicago to live, work or play and I’m confident that my efforts as alderman have played a role in shaping this community we enjoy today.
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.
Deborah Mell: I oppose a constitutional amendment that reneges on our promises to public workers.
Our unfunded pension liabilities pose the greatest threat to our fiscal health. If we ignore it for much longer, there will be room for little else in our operating budget. That would be a disaster for our city.
We need to get on a path towards making sure our funds are solvent. That will require bold action and we don’t have a lot of time to waste. I reject the idea that we need to start by cutting benefits, raising property taxes on low- and middle-income Chicagoans, or overlying on regressive fines and fees that make it harder for working class residents to get by in Chicago.
When an economy collapses anywhere in the world–the banks get paid. When our government doesn’t have an operating budget–the banks get paid. The banks always get paid. We need to use every bit of leverage over these banks and get them to make meaningful concessions.
It’s time for us to work with our colleagues in Springfield and build a movement towards passing a progressive income tax in the state of Illinois.
We also have a responsibility to prioritize our spending before asking the taxpayers to make additional sacrifices. Many Chicagoans see a city government that can always find the money for somethings and not others. It’s hard to dispute.
We should stop subsidizing corporate development instead prioritize spending on education, housing, and a narrow set of economic development plans in communities where we can grow our tax base and create new jobs in economically depressed neighborhoods. A lot of savings can be materialized. It’s time for the city to reform a system that offers generous subsidizes and tax breaks those who can and should pay their fair share.
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.
Deborah Mell: I support the establishment of video gaming in our airports because our city is an attractive tourist destination and I am open to any reasonable proposal that collects revenue from our visitors. I support legalizing and taxing marijuana. I support a tax on financial transactions. I am open to a commuter tax in Chicago, but I would need to evaluate a specific proposal before lending my full support.
What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose?
Deborah Mell: I will continue to oppose property tax increases without true spending reforms, a meaningful push towards establishing a more progressive, fair income tax structure and the implementation of other new sources of revenue.
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?
Deborah Mell: I have been a strong advocate for changes to the our broken TIF program. I was a cosponsor of the TIF surplus ordinance in the City Council which would have returned those surplus dollars to their original taxing bodies so that they could be used on more important things like supporting our neighborhood schools. A wide range of reforms are desperately needed and I believe the public deserves a full and transparent accounting of how these dollars are being spent.
I would prioritize expiring some TIF districts that have long outlived their intended purpose and end the giveaways to wealthy corporations. These funds are meant to expand opportunities and improve infrastructure in neighborhoods that need investment, not the building an entirely new neighborhood to support a billion-dollar developer. I have prioritized TIF spending in the 33rd Ward on investments in affordable housing and neighborhood schools and that will continue to be my priority should the voters feel I am deserving of a second term in office.
What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?
Deborah Mell: As a member of the Committee on Zoning, I have fought some tough battles against colleagues that use aldermanic prerogative as a justification for opposing the creation of safe and affordable housing in their communities for vulnerable groups like veterans and the disabled, particularly on the northwest side where they are needed the most. The justification is usually couched in concerns over density or school utilization rates. I think this sends the wrong message to Chicago and only exacerbates our legacy of segregation. I am a cosponsor of legislation that would curtail this “right” on matters related to housing. I believe this longstanding practice might also leave Chicago vulnerable to litigation under federal housing laws.
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?
Deborah Mell: I support the consent decree because I believe it is critical for the Chicago Police Department to earn the trust of the residents our first responders are sworn to protect. I believe that a relatively small percentage of police officers are bad actors, but they cast a very large shadow over the entire department. We’ve seen too many examples of officers abusing their powers and the impact that has had on communities throughout Chicago has been devastating. I think we’ve made good progress in recent years enacting many of the recommendations put forth by the Justice Department under the Obama administration and our own Chicago Police Accountability Task Force. These investments and reforms are incredibly important because without proper accountability, our first responders will continue to experience a deficit of trust in the neighborhoods they serve. As with most issues facing our city, I believe there is a meaningful, honest and pragmatic way forward.
What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?
Deborah Mell: Stemming the flow of dangerous firearms on our streets remains our biggest public safety priority. I believe Chicago has done about as much as it can to push back on the proliferation of illegal weapons, what we desperately need is a state and federal government willing to follow suit. We border a number of states with incredibly lax gun laws so it is far too easy for these to be transported over state lines. Without common sense guns in Washington, we will never make meaningful progress on keeping these weapons out of our neighborhoods.
What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?
Deborah Mell: I support a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools because the focus of CPS and the BOE should be to focus on fully funding our neighborhood schools, which have long suffered from a gradual decrease in their enrollment numbers as a result of charter proliferation. Furthermore, there is a growing disconnect between the executives that operate these schools and the actual needs of the students within their buildings.
I do believe we have a responsibility to support our existing charter schools and the teachers that are committed to providing a good quality education for our young people. They are a part of neighborhoods like mine and deserve an alderman’s office that will advocate for their needs.
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?
Deborah Mell: In the same way constituents elect State Representatives, Aldermen, and the Mayor, Chicagoans deserve to hold a stake in who runs the third largest school district in the country. The decisions made by the School Board affect nearly 400,000 students in the city; they are the children of multitudinous races, genders, backgrounds, and beliefs. Giving their families a say in who represents the Board provides an opportunity to run CPS with greater oversight and win back the confidence of our constituents in a democratic process.
Is there enough affordable housing in your ward? Please explain.
Deborah Mell: No. The 33rd Ward has seen its inventory of affordable housing erode over time. Too often we are seeing two and three flat apartments converted into single family homes, which strains our supply of affordable rental units. I voted against the most recent 5 year housing plan because I don’t think it did enough to preserve and expand the availability of safe, affordable housing in communities like mine. I have been a leading voice in the Chicago City Council on a wide range of reforms that would preserve and expand affordable housing in every corner of the city.
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?
Deborah Mell: I support the welcoming city ordinance without any carve outs or exceptions. I do not believe it is the responsibility of local law enforcement to enforce the Trump Administration’s immoral and abusive deportation scheme. Albany Park is home to many residents who are undocumented and/or refugees. They are part of our community and unfortunately, many of them live in a perpetual state of fear. These are some of the most vulnerable residents among us and they deserve to be treated with compassion and respect.
Should the inspector general have the power to audit and review City Council programs, operations and committees? Why or why not?
Deborah Mell: I believe the inspector general should have all the authority he needs to audit and review every facet of city government because we have a responsibility to be transparent and accountable to the people of Chicago. I’ve been part of passing some important reforms over the past four years, but we have much more work ahead. All too often, the inspector general conducts extensive audits and issues detailed reports on different departments and agencies that just end up sitting on a shelf. I believe the city council has a responsibility to give vet those recommendations with the thoughtful consideration they deserve.
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.
Deborah Mell: Never. Each of my employees have a full-time commitment to the ward and hold no outside employment. I believe it is important to lead by example and that is why I treated the job with the full-time commitment it deserves. That has held true my entire public life. I do not hold any other jobs or earn any other form of compensation.
Is there a past or current alderman whom you model yourself after, or would model yourself after, or take inspiration from? Please explain.
Deborah Mell: I’ve spent much of my first term in office learning from some of my progressive colleagues on the northwest side who were first elected back in 2011. I have been inspired by their commitment to help build a better Chicago from within the system and I am grateful that many have been supportive of my time in office. I am fortunate to represent a great collection of neighborhoods that enjoy a good quality of life and I attribute a lot of that to my father’s devotion to those communities he served for so many years.