37th Ward candidate for alderman: Emma Mitts
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The Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the candidates running for 37th Ward alderman a list of questions to find out their views on a range of issues facing the city and their ward. Emma Mitts submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):
Who is Emma Mitts?
Her political/civic background: Current Alderman and Democratic Committeeman, 37th Ward.
Her occupation: Alderman of the 37th Ward
Her education: University of Arkansas. Also attended Triton College
Campaign website: EM-37.com
What are the top three priorities for your ward?
Emma Mitts: I firmly believe that the job of an Alderman is to provide excellent constituent service, make informed legislative decisions to benefit both their individual Ward and the entire City of Chicago, and channel good development, designed to expand the economic strength of local neighborhood’s and the promote city’s diverse vitality. I’m focused on the following key interrelated priorities designed to further strengthen the individuals, working families, businesses and neighborhoods within the 37th Ward:
Economic Sustainability Requires Quality Education: I will continue to work to strengthen the health and wealth of all 37th Ward communities, and further — I am committed to coordinate efforts with my City Council colleagues to give all Chicagoans equal opportunities for good jobs, growth and advancement. In addition, I’m focused on strategies to attract and retain manufacturing and other large businesses to underserved communities.
The 37th Ward is home to the city’s 1st-ever Walmart. I also secured such major retail employers as the Washington Square Mall, CVS Pharmacy, Menards, Coca-Cola and others. I supported the re-opening of the longtime neighborhood business the Buyer’s Flea Market after a devastating setback, and have revitalized the North Avenue business corridor with a mix of corporate, mid-sized and small business establishments. As chairman of the City Council Licensing and Consumer Protection Committee, I’m proud to have successfully advocated for the expansion of food trucks, pop-up shops, industrial retail thrive zones and other forward-thinking initiatives designed to help support and expand small businesses in my ward and across the city. I also know from experience that to fully support sustainable, long-term economic development, you need good, quality schools to generate a well-educated workforce.
A few years ago, we welcomed the West Side Health Authority to service the community’s health needs. I am a strong education advocate who helped facilitate the opening of San Miguel Catholic school and Ronald McNair Elementary Schools, and oversaw the opening of the first library in the 37th Ward. I also know that for the City’s west side as well as many other areas of Chicago, the current educational challenge is to train high school students and adults for jobs in future expected high-growth employment industries and areas. We must transform the dynamics which prohibit the full utilization of the Chicago Public School system by local students in both the 37th Ward and neighborhoods across this great city.
Infrastructure & City Neighborhood Services: These form the backbone of my work as Alderman the 37th Ward and I will persist in my ongoing fight to improve our transportation policies – supporting and enhancing our public transportation system and working toward initiatives that reduce west side traffic congestion and improve pedestrian safety. I also believe in improving the delivery of basic city services to keep our neighborhoods attractive places to live, work and play, particularly: installing new energy-efficient street and alley lighting; repairing and cleaning streets and alleys; removing waste; renovating malfunctioning equipment and city infrastructure.
I am equally focused on maintaining our precious neighborhood green space, in partnership with the Park District, to improve our local parks and creating new open space in the ward whenever possible. Finally, I will always support responsible, balanced growth and development by engaging in balanced urban planning that weighs the needs of businesses and developers with the need to maintain a high quality of life for our diverse, multi-generational families in the 37th Ward’s west side neighborhoods.
Public Safety: As of this week, 67 new officers are now on the streets, to protect the citizens of Chicago. I will continue my longstanding tradition of working closely with the Chicago Police Department to improve public safety for local west side residents, by reducing crime and protecting private property, not only by supporting CAPS programs, but also by bringing together local residents, businesses and law enforcement to develop creative new solutions to help keep our neighborhoods safe and secure.
I work in close partnership with the Commanders in my ward to discuss nuisance businesses, current crime hotspots and drug locations, as well as proactive strategies, such as Roll Calls and more to address problems specific to each area. A major part of this strategy includes opening the Public Safety Academy in West Garfield Park, which will stimulate economic development, provide quality jobs, improve 21st century training for all first responders and further to promote enhanced positive relations between safety first responders and the residents of surrounding 37th Ward and citywide communities.
As a leading supporter/sponsor of the city’s Illegal Party Bus ordinance, I’m proud that we’re reduced violent incidents significantly and have forced unscrupulous operators to cease operations, while giving notice to all party bus companies that behavior which results in harem to consumers and other innocent bystanders will not be tolerated in Chicago.
Finally — In addressing public safety issues, consideration must also be given to the inter-connected relationship between reducing crime and addressing the rising need for comprehensive social and human services. That’s why I work hard every day to address the issues of affordable housing and homeless prevention, mental health and other human services by strengthening the city’s human services network; encouraging better coordination and support of non-profit organization networks and affordable housing programs for families, seniors and returning populations, while also ensuring enforcement of laws regarding aggressive gun and gang violence, and all other unsanctioned, illegal street activities.
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.
Emma Mitts: A forty-plus year resident of Chicago’s west side Austin community, I have served as Alderman of the 37th Ward since 2000. The issues of civil rights, economic empowerment, social justice and academic opportunity have always served as key cornerstones of my life, philosophy and work.
A strong commitment to active civic involvement is an important component of my work as an Alderman. During my years as a public servant, I’ve worked on a range of dynamically multi-faceted, intensive collaborative projects and initiatives, which have also served as an inspiring, ongoing source of innovative approaches to improving neighborhoods within the 37th Ward. I’ve served my community as a Local School Council member, CAPS Facilitator in the 15th District, Block Club President, a Henry Horner Boys and Girls Club volunteer, Sunday-School Instructor and President of the Community Action Council (a neighborhood organization).The bottom line: I am a visible, approachable and accessible Alderman who puts the needs of the 37th Ward residents, neighborhood groups and businesses, first.
As Alderman, I’ve brought several top local and national businesses to the 37th Ward, including Chicago’s first-ever Walmart, Food 4 Less, and more, which helped spur additional interest in our area. Recently — the 37th Ward welcomed it’s first-ever Taco Bell restaurant and the popular Wingstop food emporium. I work to encourage my existing businesses to ensure their eligibility for available city-sponsored resources like Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF) grants.
I’ve also supported TIF/Special Service Area assistance, tax-credit, property tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, land assistance, and other aid to local small, mid-sized, family- and minority-owned businesses such as Brown Sugar Bakery and others, including Friedman Seating – when the CTA needed a company to build seats for the new fleet of buses, I advocated that those jobs be built in Chicago at Friedman’s. I also support emerging entrepreneurs, helping them connect to resources. Equally important, I continue in my ongoing role serving as a Council fiscal watchdog, fighting to ensure that property taxes are affordable for our 37th Ward residents and seniors.
As Local Community Representative, I spend many afternoons, nights and weekends meeting with my residents and our police officers, on the street, dealing with the needs and concerns in an active and engaged way. I host weekly Ward night meetings in my service office, also hosting various town hall meetings and other community information forums for residents across the 37th Ward. My staff and I attend school, block club, business association gatherings, CAPS community meetings and neighborhood events, to address issues and concerns of area residents, businesses and organizations, to actively develop a collaborative neighborhood agenda and jointly understand how, by working together – we can improve our ward for today and the future.
As Legislator, I’ve sponsored/championed key ordinances and policies expanding small and other business opportunities, including Licensing Reform for the Retail Thrive Zones; Food Trucks and Pop-Up Retail Establishments. Public safety legislative initiatives include crackdowns on Illegal Party Buses Ordinance; further I was a strong advocate for implementation of the Paid Sick Leave and the Police Reform ordinances among others.
I was the key sponsor of the Chronic Illegal Activity ordinance, which levied fines, and licensure revocation on neighborhood retail re-sellers of lost and/or stolen cell phones, which are often used in robberies and other criminal activity. Additionally, as Chairman of the License and Consumer Protection Committee, during 2018 we collaborated closely with the Department of Business Affairs to overhaul and streamline the citywide business licensing process.
As Civically Active Alderman, I’ve served as an engaged member of the Prosser Local School Council; strongly advocated for Police Reform and expansion of the social services support network. I am a supporter of anti-violence efforts throughout the ward.
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.
Emma Mitts: We need to honor our commitment to the current hard-working public-sector employees and retirees, and make our undiminished and unimpaired pension payments as mandated by Illinois state law. However, as these are fiscally challenging times, this can’t be a fully one sided approach – we will need a balance that takes into account our commitments to both current city workers and retirees, as well as our responsibilities to the taxpayers. I took the hard votes to shore up our pension funds.
Moving forward, we should explore the feasibility of adding another tier for new hires that have the option for 401k-style retirement plans. Further, I want to work with organized labor to ensure that their input is heard in any discussions about pension reform. Moving forward, we must seek a combination of negotiation, collaboration and commitment to establish pension liabilities which are sustainable for taxpayers, restores good credit ratings for the city and offers continued retirement security for our retirees who are ineligible for Medicare and Social Security.
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. What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose?
Emma Mitts: I believe that we need to explore various options, including but not limited to, video gambling, increasing the real estate transfer tax, as well as potentially considering the proposed legalization and taxation of recreational marijuana for additional revenue.
With respect to a Chicago Casino, we will need to carefully assess and evaluate the potential impact on local communities, but we should definitely explore strategies designed to keep gambling revenues in Chicago as opposed to letting them go elsewhere to other states. As long as local communities support its placement and revenues are used to increase funding for schools, services and public safety — I believe a casino, with proper planning and positioning, would potentially generate a vitally important source of new jobs, tourists and other visitors, and income to Chicago.
One thing is certain. We must work to avoid keep taxing those who least can afford it in Chicago. For example, recent reports indicate that Illinois currently charges the highest cell phone taxes in the country, with wireless taxes accounting for 21 percent of the state’s average consumer bill — disproportionately affecting low- and moderate-income resident populations that I serve on Chicago’s northwest side.
Aldermen, as local elected officials need to play an important role in advocating for these enhanced municipal profitability changes and increased revenue-generating business opportunities. These and other workable solutions are out there, we just need the vision and fortitude to enact them into reality. And further, we must incorporate other inclusive approaches to address the city’s current and future financial challenges before any engaging in any discussions about raising sales or property taxes.
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?
Emma Mitts: TIF funding has been a key part of updating our infrastructure and stimulating economic growth and expansion in neighborhoods across the city. We need to amend the TIF ordinance to modernize it and address today’s concerns that weren’t prevalent when the ordinance was first passed. Further, consideration of developing a TIF surplus policy could also be explored. I think that all TIF districts should formulate plans that embrace innovation and transparency regarding how these increments are used.
In addition, every development project funded should have strong job creation and clear benefits for the surrounding communities. We need to hold those who receive TIF dollars accountable for their promises. When companies commit to creating certain amount of jobs in return for incentives, as city elected officials, we need to ensure those jobs were actually created and expand opportunities for local residents. Finally, I also think TIF funds should be used more purposefully to strategically revitalize blighted areas, while helping create new local jobs in under-resourced city neighborhoods. I would support a more open and transparent process for the use of TIF funding.
What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?
Emma Mitts: Aldermen are elected to be advocates for their communities. Currently our present form of government depends on the Alderman to be accountable for the delivery of all city services. It further depends on the Alderman to evaluate zoning matters It is also our duty and responsibility, and I believe that Aldermen should continue to use the tools at their disposal to affect change within their community. I am a firm advocate of community planning in a cohesive, comprehensive manner.
As an Alderman, it’s our duty to ensure we are communicating and collaborating effectively with our constituents about decisions on programs, policies and plans that impact the city and ward. The council as a whole might need input on ward specific projects on a case by case basis as they can have a citywide impact. Conversely, certain ward projects may require more input from constituents to discuss possible citywide impact. We need to consider each of these instances on a case-by-case basis
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?
Emma Mitts: In general, I support the consent decree. The consent decree was negotiated with the Attorney General, CPD, and the City of Chicago at the table. The increased accountability reflects the values of our City while providing police with more training and more resources. In many ways, police reform, accountability and public safety go hand-in-hand. This consent decree will help ensure Chicago police officers have the training, resources and support they need to do their often difficult jobs. It will also go a long way in helping rebuild trust, facilitate communication and engender mutual respect between the Chicago Police Department and residents in the communities they serve.
What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?
Emma Mitts: The City of Chicago needs to continue developing and implementing programs, policies and initiatives designed to stop the demand for guns by continuing to invest in underserved communities through economic development, create jobs, mentorship and job skills training. We need to work with our legislators in Springfield to explore all options to reducing gun violence and the flow of illegal guns into our communities, a growing number of which are constantly dealing with the after effects of persistent gun-related violence.
What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?
Emma Mitts: Charters can play an important role in education of Chicago’s students; however, each proposal needs to be carefully examined and assessed according to the needs of the local community, the academic performance of other schools within the charter network, and the quality of life of students enrolled. However, I also believe that Charter schools should be held to the same standards of academic performance as all other CPS schools.
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?
Emma Mitts: I support the current school board and Dr. Jackson but I am open to discussing what a hybrid approach would look like.
Is there enough affordable housing in your ward? Please explain.
Emma Mitts: As Chicago continues to evolve as a major metropolitan city, there will also be a need for additional housing. I work in partnership with the community to offset prevailing foreclosures and other market forces to increase the supply of affordable housing for resident stakeholders throughout the 37th Ward. We need to continue to grow our affordable housing stock through expansion of Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund and the expansion of the Preservation of Existing Affordable Rental (PEAR) program, both of which purchase and preserve affordable housing stock in Chicago.
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?
Emma Mitts: I support Chicago’s status as a “welcoming city”. We need to continue to offer resources for those who locate here including access to job opportunities, housing, and legal assistance.
Should the inspector general have the power to audit and review City Council programs, operations and committees? Why or why not?
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.
Emma Mitts: The Inspector General has proven to be a powerful resource for the City Council and should have the power to examine whenever appropriate; however these cases should be considered on an individual basis, and only when there is clear and compelling evidence that there is something that requires audit or investigative review. No.
Is there a past or current alderman whom you model yourself after, or would model yourself after, or take inspiration from? Please explain.
Emma Mitts: While I respect my current and former City Council Colleagues, my public service philosophy, commitment and inspiration comes from an amalgamation of beliefs: First, I believe in the power of putting my faith in action. The word foundation means the load-bearing support, and my dedication to serving the public is founded upon invaluable lessons of hard work, integrity, collaboration and compassion learned early in life, thanks to my family, church upbringing and extended community. I also believe in giving generously and selflessly of my time, energy, professional knowledge and skills to improving the long-term growth, viability and success of the 37th Ward.
I am a pro-neighborhood and business-oriented official, equally committed to expressing a broad vision for the future, while partnering with those individuals and groups in my diverse communities to keep our eyes focused on victoriously navigating the rapid pulse of change and escalating need, both in the city and our ward.
This is what inspires me — Emma Mitts, 37th Ward Alderman to act with decisive determination on all fronts, and to fearlessly fight to uplift, inspire and encourage all those whom I have served over the last nineteen years, those I continue today to serve — as well as for those who I look to remain committed to serve in the future.