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Candidates for city treasurer air divergent views on future of the office

Video by Sun-Times Team

Runoff opponents in the race for city treasurer on Friday aired their very different views on where to take the office charged with managing the city’s $8 billion portfolio.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) wants to create a public bank that could be used to implement a universal basic income pilot program. He has floated a plan to sell or give Chicagoans shares in the city water system and use city employee pension funds and investments to help solve the student loan crisis.

State Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin said it’s OK to “look at concepts that will benefit us down the road.” But she’s more concerned about demanding that banks holding city deposits provide capital for struggling inner-city businesses.

And she wants to take over the City Council Office of Financial Analysis and bring it within the treasurer’s office so it can be used to serve as a watchdog over other agencies of local government.

“I’m speaking about CPS, Park District and . . . CHA. Sister agencies right now report to the mayor’s office. That’s the fox watching the hen house. The financial analysis is being done through the mayor’s office,” Conyears-Ervin told the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday during a debate with Pawar.

“What I’m proposing is that we have an independent treasurer’s office providing that information so taxpayers can know the real story. That’s what we deserve. … We want to provide an annual analysis of the pension funds. We want to provide an annual analysis of the budget and bond deals. We want to make certain there’s a one-stop shop.”

Pawar was the driving force behind creating the City Council’s Office of Financial Analysis.

It took a two-year crusade to do it. And it’s still nowhere near what he envisioned, because now-deposed Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Budget Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) have been “putting their thumbs on” the office and “making it really difficult for Ben Winick to do his job,” Pawar said, referring to the Council’s financial analyst.

Pawar said he’s not about to take “pot-shots at familial relationships” by claiming it’s a conflict for Conyears-Ervin to try to dilute the power of a City Council that includes her husband, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), the Budget Committee vice-chair.

But, he said, “moving an office that’s set up to create independence for the City Council back into the executive branch doesn’t create independence.”

Earlier this week, vanquished treasurer candidate Peter Gariepy endorsed Conyears-Ervin in the runoff, portraying Pawar as a publicity hound whose activist ideas would put Chicago taxpayers at risk.

Gariepy argued that the city treasurer’s office is “not about headlines and hashtags . . . It’s not a matter of crazy ideas and personal beliefs or setting yourself up for something else.”

On Friday, Pawar said he was “taught not to tear someone else down to build myself up.”

But he insisted his activist agenda is about confronting income inequality, saving Chicago’s shrinking middle class and stopping the black exodus that has caused the city’s population to plummet. It’s not about grabbing headlines or climbing the political ladder.

City Treasurer candidate Melissa Conyears-Ervin responded to her opponent’s more ambitious proposals by saying it’s OK to “look at concepts that will benefit us down the road” but that dealing with a looming pension-funding crisis remains one of her prima
City Treasurer candidate Melissa Conyears-Ervin responded to her opponent’s more ambitious proposals by saying it’s OK to “look at concepts that will benefit us down the road” but that dealing with a looming pension-funding crisis remains one of her primary responsibilities. The candidates were interviewed by Fran Spielman on Friday, at the Chicago Sun-Times. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“The amount of money we pay every year to the banks for interest on our bonds, the amount we spend to manage our dollars with big banks, the amount we spend so private equity managers can take a slice of our dollars is what’s driving tax increases,” Pawar said.

“If we want to prevent future tax increases and get better returns . . . it’s about investing in our neighborhoods, addressing the issues that are impacting working families every single day. Whether it’s student loans so you can unleash an economic stimulus. Whether it is affordable housing so more families don’t get pushed out of Chicago. Or whether it’s investing in investments that don’t pollute our environment.”

Noting that he is the “only candidate who has refused money from big banks and fossil fuels,” Pawar added, “We will divest from fossil fuels and put those dollars in green infrastructure on day one.”

Conyears-Ervin has been airing a television commercial that shows her campaigning door-to-door and telling a woman who greets her that she’s the only candidate “born and raised” in Chicago.

She denied that was a coded anti-immigrant message. Pawar, whose parents came here from India, is not so sure.

“I was born in Chicago. We were in Rogers Park until I was 8. The reason why my family left the city of Chicago for the suburbs for unincorporated Des Plaines was because no one would sell them a house,” he said.

“Over 50 percent of Chicagoans are not from here. I just don’t think it makes sense to create the ‘other’ out of people who live here.”