Vallas, Johnson commit to resurrecting Department of Environment at forum on Southwest Side

At a forum in Pilsen, both mayoral candidates vowed to revive the shuttered agency to improve air, water quality and enforce ordinances to bring polluters into compliance.

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Members of the crowd raise green cards in the air to show their support of what Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson is saying during his closing speech, during a Peoples’ Dialogue on the environment at Lincoln United Methodist Church in the Pilsen neighborhood, Monday, March 27, 2023.

Members of the crowd raise green cards in the air to show their support of what Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson is saying during his closing speech at a mayoral forum Monday at Lincoln United Methodist Church in Pilsen. Both Johnson and Paul Vallas vowed to re-launch the shuttered city Department of Environment.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

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Mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson both pledged to reestablish Chicago’s Department of Environment if elected to help address pollution in the city and particularly on the hard-hit South and Southwest sides.

The two made that commitment at a forum on environmental issues at Lincoln United Methodist Church, 2242 S. Damen Ave., in Pilsen. Hundreds packed the small church for the event, which was organized by the Southwest Environmental Alliance.

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Each candidate took the stage separately and answered the same set of questions, largely sticking to the issues and not lobbing attacks at the other.

Vallas, the former Chicago Public Schools chief executive, appearing on stage a little out of breath after having rushed to get to the forum on time, talked about what the department would look like.

“Not only do you need to open up the environmental department and provide continued appropriation so that it is adequately funded, you need to create an oversight board that can oversee the department, and that oversight board needs to have representatives from the community,” Vallas said.

Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas answers a question during a Peoples’ Dialogue on the Environment, at Lincoln United Methodist Church in the Pilsen neighborhood, Monday, March 27, 2023.

Paul Vallas says an environmental department must be adequately funded and have board members made up of people from the community.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Johnson, the Cook County board member, agreed and said he wants to make sure the department includes input from affected communities.

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Brandon Johnson wants to see an environmental department staffed with organizers with ties to the community to ensure the agency is responding effectively.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“Yes, I’m committed to making sure that it is fully funded and staffed, and I’m talking about not just staffed with regulators and policy wonks, which we’re welcoming all of those folks as well, we want to make sure that there are organizers that are prepared and willing to dig in deep, to serve time in the neighborhoods, the communities, to make sure that we are putting forth the proper response,” said Johnson.

Organizers of the event said it was important that candidates address pollution in the city and not focus solely on public safety, which has been the dominant issue this election cycle. Multiple environmental maps and the city’s own research have shown the South and Southwest sides to have a high concentration of health and environmental burdens.

Last year city health officials announced that they will conduct an environmental impact study to determine the cumulative impact of pollution on Chicago residents.

Many in the crowd flashed green cards of approval in response to Vallas and Johnson’s commitment to reopen the department.

But voters have heard other politicians make the same pledge. Mayor Lori Lightfoot also made promises to establish the department, which was disbanded by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011, when she was a candidate, but she never managed to bring it to fruition.

Instead, Lightfoot created the Office of Climate and Environmental Equity with a budget of $1.04 million. Vallas and Johnson have said a city office is not enough to address the problems.

Asked Monday whether their administrations would enforce municipal codes to bring polluters into compliance, and deny city contracts to repeat offenders, Vallas and Johnson both said they would not tolerate companies that skirt the rules.

“We have to really start to look to adjust regulations and laws that are permitting far more pollutants in our communities than what should be,” Johnson said.

Vallas said there should be “zero tolerance for anyone that is non-compliant with city law,” adding that when he was head of CPS, entities that violated their contracts were put on the “no-hire list.”

Both candidates also said they would not raise property taxes and would instead look for other revenue streams to fill the city’s coffers and fund the department.

Early voting for the April 4 election is underway.

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