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Lightfoot moves to fill two big holes in her fast-changing cabinet

Andrea Holthouse Cheng, a 16-year veteran of the Department of Water Management, takes over after holding down the fort since the ouster of Commissioner Randy Conner.

Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot filled two cabinet positions on Tuesday.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot moved Tuesday to plug the holes in her cabinet — by handing the permanent jobs to two acting department heads.

Andrea Holthouse Cheng, a 16-year veteran of the Department of Water Management who has held down the fort since the January ouster of Commissioner Randy Conner, will be Conner’s permanent, $174,600-a-year replacement.

The same script was followed in the Department of Family and Support Services. First Deputy Commissioner Brandie Knazze, who’s been riding herd since the Feb. 26 resignation of Lisa Morrison Butler, gets the $180,276-a-year permanent job.

Both new commissioners assume their roles at a time of unprecedented turnover in the mayor’s cabinet.

And both have their work cut out for them.

Cheng inherits a department at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals and the more recent scandal involving racist, sexist and homophobic emails.

She must sell and implement Lightfoot’s go-slow plan to replace lead service lines carrying water from street mains to nearly 380,000 Chicago homes.

Rather than ask all Chicago homeowners to share the cost, Lightfoot has opted to start small, with the city replacing lead service pipes at 600 homes in impoverished Chicago neighborhoods.

For homeowners willing to hire contractors and assume replacement costs, the city has offered to waive up to $3,300 in permit fees, connect the new service line to the water main and install a free water meter when the project is completed.

The city will also choose an entire block — roughly 50 homes — where all service lines will be replaced as the water main is replaced. The city has applied for an Illinois EPA revolving loan of up to $4 million to cover that program.

Chicago also won a heated competition with Hammond for the right to sell Lake Michigan water to Joliet. The deal could bring $30 million in annual revenues. But Cheng must preside over the Joliet-bankrolled construction of a 31-mile pipeline and other pumping station infrastructure improvements costing $592 million to $810 million.

Morrison Butler was a favorite among aldermen because of her tireless work to combat Chicago’s entrenched problem of homelessness and prevent the coronavirus from spreading like wildfire through the city’s homeless shelters.

Family and Support Services delivers social service programs and resources to more than 400,000 of Chicago’s most vulnerable residents.

“She was compassionate and fair. Whoever comes behind her has big shoes to fill,” said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee said on the day she announced her resignation.

Housing Committee Chairman Harry Osterman (48th) has called Morrison Butler “one of the shining stars” at City Hall, leaving Lightfoot with a “huge hole” to fill.

“She has worked to help homeless people, children, senior citizens in a very tireless way. She really touched a lot of lives in Chicago with people who need it the most and did so always with the City Council in a spirit of partnership,” Osterman said.

“I can’t say enough about how hard-working and what a great person she’s been for the city of Chicago.”

In a press release announcing the appointments, Lightfoot described Knazze as an “exceptional leader” who has already helped Chicagoans through “several difficult moments” including the polar vortex of 2019.

“As our city begins to reopen and double down on its socioeconomic supports for our most vulnerable residents, Brandie’s appointment … couldn’t have come at a better time,” the mayor was quoted as saying.

“I am … beyond confident that she will make Chicago a better, more equitable place for those who have been struggling long before the pandemic hit our city.”

The mayor called Cheng a “skilled engineer and a national expert in the water industry” who has a “deep understanding of, not only the necessity of providing water services…in an equitable and practical way, but the science behind it.”

Cheng said her priority is to “promote professionalism and create diversity in our workforce” so the department is “prepared for new challenges like expanding regional growth and launching lead service line replacement.”

“I am passionate about water,” she was quoted as saying.

Knazze said she has spent the last six years offering “tangible solutions to real-life problems facing Chicagoans every day.” The work of Family and Support Services “has become even more necessary in the city’s successful response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” she was quoted as saying.