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Elections

39th Ward candidate for alderman: Robert Murphy

39th Ward aldermanic candidate Robert Murphy 2019 election Rich Hein

39th Ward aldermanic candidate Robert Murphy at the Sun-Times Dec. 19. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the candidates running for 39th Ward alderman a list of questions to find out their views on a range of issues facing the city and their ward. Robert Murphy submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):

Who is Robert Murphy?

He’s running for: 39th Ward alderman

His political/civic background: Democratic Committeeman, past president of Forest Glen neighborhood assoc.

His occupation: Architect

His education: MArch

Campaign website: murphyfor39.com

Top priorities

What are the top three priorities for your ward?

Robert Murphy: The primary reason I am running is to bring an independent voice on behalf of the residents of the 39th Ward who will fight for improved city services in every part of the ward. For half a century, one family has controlled the office of alderman of the 39th Ward and as a result some neighborhoods have not received the services they need. I will change that.

I am running to have an open, transparent, service-oriented ward office. As the Democratic Committeeman of the ward, I have instituted an open endorsement process that gives community residents a voice into who the ward organization supports. As a result, we endorsed progressives and independents like Fritz Kaegi instead of political insiders. I want to bring that same spirit to the ward office by reaching out to all parts of the ward to determine their needs for city services, helping residents and small local businesses cut through the red tape of city bureaucracy, and serving all parts of the ward.

Last, I am running because our city needs broad-based reforms in how we operate. We can no longer be a city that serves a few powerful interests at the expense of large numbers of residents. I support an elected representative school board; TIF reforms; progressive revenue measures to ease the burden on property taxes; and an economic development program that helps revive neighborhood businesses rather than just downtown.

My three main priorities are addressing:

  • Economic development
  • Safety
  • Infrastructure

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.

Robert Murphy: I have been actively involved in my community for over ten years. From the start I became involved in the Forest Glen Garden Club and attended the community association and CAPS meetings regularly. I became known, along with one of my neighbors, for all the work we did tending rose bushes around the Metra station and in keeping the burning bushes pruned and shapely year in and year out. I was honored to be elected President of the Forest Glen Community Association three years in a row between 2011-14.

Since being elected 39th Ward Democratic Committeeman in 2016, we have initiated several much-needed reforms. For example:

  • First-ever open endorsement process in the history of the 39th Ward.
  • Hosted over 30 open community events about issues important to our ward and holding our elected officials accountable.
  • We greatly improved voter turnout and participation in the ward.
  • We helped to deliver the 39th Ward for many new exciting candidates who share our values, including Fritz Kaegi who ran against machine boss Joseph Berrios.
  • Hosted deputy registrar training by the Board of Elections in the ward.
  • Ran registration drives in the ward.
  • Helped to fundraise for local civics in the ward, in particular for a new park in Mayfair.
  • Used email newsletter to support and promote local civic events.

Pensions

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.

Robert Murphy: If you look under the hood at the actual numbers, it quickly becomes apparent that the problem with pensions is not the normal (current) cost. For example, the City’s contribution to the Laborers’ Pension Fund is forecast to drop from just under 10% of payroll this year to 6.1% of payroll in 2031, and continue to drop until the cost is just 4.1% of payroll. It is important to remember that since many city workers do not get Social Security, this payment substitutes for both the Social Security contribution (FICA) and the employer’s pension share. The problem is not the normal cost, which is lower than what private employers pay into Social Security plus a pension plan like a 401(k) match.

The real crisis is that for decades Chicago simply did not set aside money to pay the pensions it promised. Public servants worked and paid into these pensions plans, while the City did not. Cutting the pensions of those who kept their promise is not constitutional, and it seems extremely unfair to amend the state constitution in order to cut the pensions senior citizens rely on. As for future employees, the normal cost projections speak for themselves. The normal cost of new employee pensions is not the problem as in every single pension fund the cost will already be going down because we adopted lower-benefit Tier 2 pensions.

In any event, there are two important limiting factors in cutting future employees’ pensions. First, federal law limits how much pensions can be cut. To the extent that the City does not pay into Social Security for its employees, it must provide a minimum benefit level. It’s not entirely clear that some Tier 2 pensions don’t already violate this requirement, but it is clear that there isn’t all that much more room to cut pensions. More importantly, the unpaid pension liability will still exist. All cutting future pension costs will do is make it harder for the City to hire qualified people at the wages currently offered, but such cuts will not reduce the unfunded pension debt.

Revenue

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.

Robert Murphy: I do not support a property tax increase. Our property taxes are already high, and we just saw a big increase four years ago. We have to look to other revenue sources before we ask Chicago homeowners to pay even more.

The best options to raise the revenue we need to pay our debt and provide the level of services that the residents of the 39th Ward need require a change in state law. We need a progressive income tax with a greater local government revenue sharing provision, and we need to modernize our sales tax so that it reflects the 21st century economy. I will strongly advocate with our legislators and governor for these changes.

I am also open to considering raising revenue from a financial transactions (LaSalle Street) tax, increasing real estate transfer fees, and video gaming or a Chicago casino. I also believe that should recreational cannabis be legalized revenues from taxes that should be earmarked for municipalities. Implementing some of these new revenue sources will require changes and/or compliance with state and federal laws, so we have to carefully consider the revenue estimates and timeline for each of these sources.

What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose?

Robert Murphy: The easiest sources of new revenue to implement, and the most fair, are changing the state income tax into a progressive tax where the rich pay a higher share; and modernizing the sales tax to reflect the modern economy, where most sales are for services rather than goods. While both require changes in state law, both of these sources of revenue build on already existing tax system with a local government share. Moreover, these two types of revenue sources are the only ones with the realistic capacity to generate the amount of revenue we need without overwhelming the residents of our City.

TIFs

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?

Robert Murphy: We absolutely need TIF reform. TIFs were created as an economic development tool to help blighted areas, but today far too much of the city is a TIF district and the program basically functions as a way to finance projects without approval of the City Council and outside the regular budget process. I would require a vote on TIF budgets, a strict review on the effectiveness and continued need for the TIF district, and more frequent sweeps of surpluses. I also support a full review of each TIF district and repealing any TIF that is no longer in a blighted area. I support the Back to Basics TIF Ordinance that is now pending in the Finance Committee because it tightens the definition of blighted area to qualify for a TIF and institutes an important “but for” test that requires a finding that but for the increment financing the area covered by the TIF district would not be developed or redeveloped.

Aldermanic power

What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?

Robert Murphy: The most important reform to aldermanic prerogative is one that each alderman can implement without any legislation or action by the City: listen and involve the community. I plan on instituting participatory budgeting, and also to implement an open community planning process that allows the residents of the 39th Ward to have input and a voice in the planning process for economic development. By including residents in the discussion with stakeholders, we will be able to get community buy-in and relieve a lot of the anxiety that creates opposition to projects. Opening up the process is what I have done as Committeeman and will continue that work as alderman.

Police reform

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?

Robert Murphy: There are large areas of the city where the community has lost faith in Chicago Police Dept’s practices and accountability. This must be addressed. As with all public institutions there needs to be accountability. CPD is undermanned and overworked and their training lags behind. We need to institute best practices, involved the community so there can be buy in and communication and we need to limit the number of suits being brought against the department that has cost the city nearly a billion dollars already. Accountability needs to go hand in hand with more resources for our officers and remove patronage in the advancement process.

Guns

What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?

Robert Murphy: There are too many guns on our streets and we need to reduce that number. There are two factors that are beyond the control of the City that contribute to this. First, the Supreme Court has recently re-interpreted the meaning of the Second Amendment in a way that makes it harder to pass meaningful legislation to limit who can own guns and regulate the licensing of guns. Second, any ordinance the City Council passes only affects the area within the boundaries of the City of Chicago, but too many guns that show up in crime scenes were originally purchases outside the city limits.

I will oppose any ordinance that weakens our existing gun laws. However, to really reduce the number of guns on our streets we have to think creatively about going after the source of those guns. We know that a high percentage of guns that are recovered in crime scenes were originally bought outside of city limits, with 60% coming from out of state. Remarkably, 25% of guns recovered at a crime scene in Chicago come from just 10 dealers. The City must aggressively pursue these dealers through civil lawsuits, and we must pass legislation that holds those dealers liable if they sell a disproportionate number of guns that end up here.

Schools

What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?

Robert Murphy: Charter schools were created as way to foster innovation in our education system. Charter school expansion has exploded in recent years, first under Mayor Daley and also by Mayor Emanuel. Right now, about 1 in 5 schools in the Chicago Public Schools system is a charter, and about 40% of our high schools are charter schools.

Given the large number of charters now the concept of innovation seems to have fallen to the wayside. Study after study show that when there are many charter schools, their performance as a whole is neither better nor worse than our neighborhood public schools.

The large number of charter schools in the CPS system is causing resources to be diverted from the core mission of educating everyone. I do not want to disrupt any student’s education, but I do not support increasing the number of charter schools. We are at the point where the best educational outcomes will happen by supporting traditional neighborhood schools rather than expanding the “experiment” of charter schools. After all, when 25% of schools are charter schools, it’s hard to call it an experiment any more.

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?

Robert Murphy: I support an elected, representative school board. Accountability has been lacking in our school system and that needs to change. The Chicago Public Schools system is too large and has too big of a taxing power to not have them directly accountable to the people.
Affordable housing

Is there enough affordable housing in your ward? Please explain.

Robert Murphy: There is not enough affordable housing in Chicago generally. Parts of the city are going through a large displacement of residents and this means pushing working families out of their homes. In my ward, which is largely single-family homes, there is much less displacement happening. But maintaining the integrity and affordability of our neighborhoods is important and I support the concepts embodied in the Chicago Housing Initiative’s two ordinances, the Homes for All and the Development for All ordinances. I will institute a transparent process for how we address these questions in my ward.

Immigration

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? 

Robert Murphy: Immigrants are an essential part of Chicago’s identity and structure. I believe that limited resources and time of our Chicago police officers should not be spent enforcing federal law, especially when that law is so rapidly changing. The time and money needed to train officers in federal law and keeping them up to date would be a huge drain on city resources. There is already a huge staffing issue with CPD and adding the burden of enforcing federal immigration laws on top of their other duties is unfair. Finally, study after study has shown that such enforcement makes communities less safe not more safe.

Ethics

Should the inspector general have the power to audit and review City Council programs, operations and committees? Why or why not?

Robert Murphy: City Council, its members, and its employees should be subject to an independent inspector general with broad powers. We have seen how the City Council can stifle the investigations and work of an inspector general that reports directly to the Council, so it is appropriate to have the City’s inspector general also investigate the City Council. I do not support the limiting amendments that passed the City Council that protect some aspects of the City Council’s operations from investigation. In particular exempting the workman’s comp program from oversight has been a disaster. I believe that the inspector general should have the right to initiate investigations, investigate ethics violations, and audit City Council and aldermanic accounts.

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.

Robert Murphy: No

Role model

Is there a past or current alderman whom you model yourself after, or would model yourself after, or take inspiration from? Please explain.

Robert Murphy: I am pleased to have the endorsement Alderman Scott Waguespack for his thoughtfulness and independence. Scott was one of the few aldermen who paid enough attention to the agenda placed before the Council by the Mayor to ask the right questions about deals like the parking meter privatization. Scott does a good job of oversight and independent review of the executive decisions often presented as done deals by the Mayor’s office. I am also honored to have the endorsements of former aldermen and reformers Dick Simpson and David Orr and I plan to carry on their legacy of making the city work for everyone not just powerful families and insiders.