Water management chief exits as lead testing poised to begin

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Tom Powers, commissioner of the Water Management Department, are shown in 2011 meeting with city employees. | Sun-Times file photo

The engineer who executed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to rebuild Chicago’s aging water and sewer system announced his resignation Thursday, just as Chicago prepares to test tap water for the health risks posed by lead water pipes.

Tom Powers, who has served as Emanuel’s only Water Management commissioner, will be replaced by his top deputy, Barrett Murphy, another holdover from the administration of former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Daley hired Murphy in 1999 as Chicago was preparing for the potential Y2K terrorism threat that never materialized. Murphy’s wife, Lynn Lockwood, is an Emanuel friend who once chaired a political fund-raising committee for the mayor.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2014 that Lockwood had a one-year, $160,000 consulting contract with the tourism agency known as Choose Chicago. She was an aide to Maggie Daley, the former mayor’s late wife, and worked for the city cultural affairs department. Emanuel appointed her to the Chicago Public Library board in March 2012.

Early on, Powers — whose salary was $169,512 — was widely regarded as the teacher’s pet among city department heads. He emerged as Emanuel’s go-to guy on infrastructure projects because he has promoted ways to do work more efficiently without tearing up streets multiple times for different projects.

When Emanuel more than doubled water and sewer rates over a four-year period, it was with confidence in Powers’ ability to deliver the massive project of rebuilding Chicago’s aging water system on time and on budget.

A news release announcing the changing-of-the-guard in a department once at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals credited Powers with an impressive scorecard: 320 miles of water main and 77 miles of sewer main replaced; 198 miles of sewers re-lined and 72,176 water meters installed in Chicago homes to promote water conservation.

“Over the last five years, Tom has overseen an historic investment in Chicago’s infrastructure that has helped to build a better Chicago and I thank him for his service to the city,” the mayor was quoted as saying.

“Moving forward, Barrett Murphy’s vast knowledge of and experience within the department make him the best choice for the job as we continue to implement our 10-year capital improvement program.”

Powers did not return repeated phone calls. The news release claims that he was leaving to “pursue other professional endeavors” and that he had originally planned to leave last year, but stayed on at Emanuel’s request to “ensure a smooth transition.”

Murphy also could not be reached.

The mayor’s press release makes no mention of the city’s decision to start testing tap water in the South and West Side homes of children who have suffered from lead poisoning in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

Nearly 80 percent of Chicago’s homes and businesses are connected to water mains by lead pipes. They’ve been used here until the federal government banned them 30 years ago, city officials said.
Whether Powers jumped to avoid being pushed or simply tired of the City Hall bureaucracy, Chicago aldermen are sorry to see him go.

“He’s the best commissioner I’ve ever seen in terms of responsiveness. If you have a leak, he’ll come out at any time, night or day,” said Southwest Side Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd).

“Everyone has confidence in him. His willingness to put in the hours. His knowledge of all of the infrastructure departments. The fact that he’s a structural engineer who came from the Department of Transportation. When you have somebody with that kind of institutional knowledge who has come up through the ranks, that’s invaluable. It’s a huge loss for Chicago.”

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