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Elections

39th Ward candidate for alderman: Casey Smagala

39th Ward aldermanic candidate Casey Smagala 2019 election rich hein

39th Ward aldermanic candidate Casey Smagala 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. Casey Smagala submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):

Who is Casey Smagala?

He’s running for: 39th Ward alderman

His political/civic background: For almost decade I’ve been involved in political and civic activities in the 39th Ward. Commitment to the local community is a family tradition. My mother is a recovering drug addict who has turned her challenges with addiction into inspiration for others. She regularly speaks to students, law enforcement, and medical groups about the dangers of methamphetamines. She engraved in me the importance of taking challenges head on.

When I’ve come across concerns and inequities in my community, I’ve always stepped in to support. Here is a list of my civic and political activities:

  • North Park University, President of the Student Body and Captain of Football team, 2011 – 2012
  • Responsible for leading service project for over 200 students in the community at neighborhood nonprofit organizations.
  • Albany Park Restaurant Crawl, Founder. 2011 – 2018
  • Created restaurant crawl highlighting the cultural causince of our that attracted over 550 guests in 2018.
  • 39th Ward Summer Intern. 2011
  • Learned how to fulfill city service requests, conveen community discussions, and took extensive and in depth tours of the 39th Ward
  • Economic Development Intern. 2012
  • Created vacancy index of Bryn Mawr Ave. to showcase available properties to potential businesses.
  • North River Commission, Board of Directors. 2013-2018
  • Vice President of Economic Development focused on highlighting community assets like walkability, public transit proximity, density of purchasing power to attract and retain businesses.
  • Chairperson of Education Committee focused on building and strengthening nonprofit “Friends Of” organizations to raise private dollars for school needs. Coordinated community events for Parent Teacher Organizations, LSCs, and Friends Of groups to share resources and best practices.
  • Roosevelt High School, Elected Local School Council Community Representative, 2014-2018
  • For 15 years Roosevelt High School was probartinarly rated School according to CPS. In the four years I was on the Local School Council we selected an extraordinary principal, built a Friends of RHS group to raise resources and awareness of the school, and began forming an Advisory Council to our Career and Technical Education Programs to connect students to career certifications and professionals within their desired industry. I’m proud to say RHS is now .02 percentage points away from earning CPS’s top rating of a Level 1 School.
  • Jin Lee for School Board, Campaign Manager. 2012
  • State Representative Robert Martwick, 39th Ward Liaison. 2014- Present
  • Led door to door canvassing efforts for his petition drives and successful elections. Statisticaly gatthered more petion signitues than the 39th Ward Democratic Committeeman and his “organization” combined.
  • Omar Aquino for IL State Senate, Volunteer field organizer and canvasser, 2016
  • Albany Park World Fest, Founder. 2015 – 2016
  • Organized Chicago’s only streetfest themed on diversity. I helped lead the sponsorship efforts, local vendor recruitment, and City Hall permitting process. The fest attracted over 5,000 people to our community and business district both years.
  • North Mayfair Bikes Bites and Brews Fest, Founder. 2016 – 2017
    Activated a vacant parking lot in the community with a summer concert, food fest, and bike ride. I helped lead the sponsorship efforts, local vendor recruitment, and City Hall permitting process.
  • LISC Chicago Business District Leadership Program, Member. 2016 – Present
    Participated in intensive professional development training with other leaders of local Chambers of Commerce on creating community quality of life plans, business attraction programs, and public facilitation best practices.
  • The Well of Mercy, Board Member. 2016 – Present
  • Edgebrook Farmers Market, Volunteer. 2016 – Present
  • Queen of All Saints Mens Club, Service Chairperson. 2016
  • Colleen Daly for Judge, 39th Ward organizer and canvasser, 2017
  • Ram Villivalam for IL State Senate, 39th Ward organizer and canvasser. 2018
  • Volta Elementary School Mentoring Program, Founder and Mentor. 2018

His occupation: Director of Development and Community Engagement at the Albany Park Community Center (APCC)

His education: North Park University, Bachelors in Political Science. University of Helsinki, Focus in Urban Planning

Campaign website: caseyforalderman.com

Facebook: CaseyForAlderman

Top priorities

What are the top three priorities for your ward?

Casey Smagala: Public Safety

This summer at least four young men were shot to death in 39th Ward neighborhoods. One lived two blocks from me, another is the cousin of one of my colleagues, and another graduated from Roosevelt High School where I served on the LSC. I take crime in my community personally. This is why I’ve personally stepped up to combat with prevention and deterrence methods.

At the root of crime in my community and the city of Chicago is lack of opportunity for young people. Growing up with a mother in and out of jain and a father in rehab, I know what that looks like. This is why I helped found a mentoring program for 15 at-risk boys at Volta Elementary School in the 39th Ward. The Advisory Board to the Career and Technical Education Programs I’m helping build at Roosevelt HS is connecting kids with career certifications and industry mentors. Helping young people see a bright future is our best crime prevention tool.

In addition to supporting our young people, we MUST SUPPORT OUR POLICE. Trying to save money by staffing ‘high-crime’ precincts and understaffing ‘low-crime’ precincts IS NOT WORKING for either community! We need need an adequate number of police to respond in a timely manner to crime in our neighborhoods.

Economic Development

As my parents fight daly to overcome their addictions and I know their best defences is employment. Local jobs make our neighborhoods safer, give families a reason to stay, and provide the best form of social service; employment. This is why I’ve volunteered for multiple 39th Ward Chambers of Commerce for the past six years.

I’ve created vacancy indexes of underperforming business districts. I helped build customer attraction pamphlets for our restaurant and entertainment clusters. I regularly work to recruit business from accelerators and incubator spaces to 39th Ward neighborhoods.

Through our Adult Education and Employment Training Department at the Albany Park Community Center we help prepare under and unemployed Chicagoans for in-demand industries. I’m often our connector between the job seekers and employers resulting in jobs staying in the community and saving for the employers HR and recruiting departments.

City Services

The 39th Ward is a wonderful part of the city! Many of my neighbors simply want to see the value of their tax dollars reflected in the quality of their city services. Too often the timeline to complete simple city services is too long and unrealistic expectations are set.

I will be a millennial Alley Alderman. One of my first acts will be to implement the Romulus Softate to track every service request we receive via phone, email, drop in, or social media. The software automatically generate a tracking number for my staff and the constituent making the request. It integrates with the 311 system to track the request in real time allowing us to give a reasonable timeline to the taxpayer.

The software also dashboards the type of request over time helping me prioritize resource allocation.

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.

Casey Smagala: Through my job as the Director of Development and Community Engagement at the Albany Park Community Center (APCC) I helped found a mentoring program for 15 at risk young men at Volta Elementary School. This summer at least two alumni of this school were shot to death. This is unacceptable and action needed to be taken. I helped raise funds and recruit volunteers for the program. The mentors and I meet with our mentees twice per month, one in a group setting and the other in one on one field trips. The program is strengthen by our professional counseling department of Licensed Clinical social Workers at APCC. They meet with the young men monthly as well.

As the Co-Founder and Chairperson of the Education Committee in the Northwest Side we’ve strengthened our neighborhood schools. Our committee hosted workshops to help schools raise more funds, market their assets to potential students, organize and advocate for needed infrastructure updates, and share resources. Some of my proudest achievements our committee supported are:

Forming the Friends of RHS group

Assisting Palmer Elementary School raise funds for their building addition
Vertically aligning elementary schools to neighboring grade schools and high schools through a “Fast Facts” campaign to highlight the assets of our great schools

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.

Casey Smagala: I am opposed to a constitutional amendment and I am opposed to additional reductions for future employees.

Pension debt prevents Chicago from adequate delivery of city services and sufficient investment in quality educational opportunities. As the debt grows it puts a larger and larger tax burden on us. It must be solved. However the solution should not include diminishing the retirement security of middle class workers who lived up to their end of the deal, made every contribution that was required of them and have relied on that benefit being in place when they retire. That is not a moral solution to the problem.

Additionally, the proposed constitutional amendment has serious legal problems. It is highly unlikely that the supermajority of Democrats in the legislature would agree to placing the amendment on the ballot. Even if they did, it is unlikely that the referendum would achieve the 60% necessary for passage, as the unions would wage an all out media blitz to defeat it.

Finally, even if by some miracle the provision passed, the very same Illinois Supreme Court that found efforts to diminish pensions unconstitutional would somehow have to permit a retroactive application of that diminishment. Finally, even if all three of these things happened, there would undoubtedly be a federal lawsuit filed, as the United States Constitution prohibits states from retroactively affecting contracts.

Ultimately, the legal challenges would take years to sort out with the very real possibility that the efforts would be fruitless. The city and the state need to address this problem immediately and not wait and hope for some kind of “miracle” that most likely will not happen and is morally wrong to begin with.

I also would not propose any diminishment of benefits to future employees. In 2010, the legislature passed Tier 2 pension reform, which creates a dramatically lower benefit for all employees hired after January 1, 2011. This new retirement system has a benefit structure that is in some cases entirely paid for by the contribution of the employees, meaning there is little to no cost to the taxpayer. These benefits are so low that many municipalities are having a difficult time recruiting and retaining police officers and teachers. While I am opposed to diminishing these retirement benefits any further, I am in favor of modernizing the structure of the benefits and adopting reforms.

The pension problem is a debt problem. We should use math and money to solve it. I would support and push for changes that reform and modernize our system, and ensure that we are paying back the debt in a way that minimizes the burden on taxpayers. The following is my plan:

I would seek legislation to permit the city to offer discounted benefit buyouts as was adopted by the state last year. This would allow us to reduce the unfunded future liabilities, making the long term obligations more manageable.

I would approve pension obligation bonding as a tool to manage the debt. Certainly the city should not use debt to avoid obligations, however bonding can be an effective tool in managing the repayment of the debt.

The police and fire pension systems have funded ratios of approximately 24%. Funds can’t generate enough returns at this level to pay pension checks, therefore we are selling off principal to pay pensions. A sustained recession would render these funds insolvent. Instead, the city can use bonds to add a large influx of cash into the systems. If a recession hits, this will insulate the funds against large sell offs and preserve the solvency throughout the recession. When the market returns, the funds will have the assets to capitalize on the returns. The bonding can also be used to level out the payment schedule, ensuring the city can meet its future obligations.

I would advocate for progressive revenue. I’ve been working closely with Representative Martwick on his progressive revenue plan. A graduated state income tax will provide the revenue necessary to solve the state pension crisis. I will seek to work with my colleagues and other municipalities to ensure that a portion of the revenue is returned to municipalities through the LGDF (local government distributive fund). When you pay your state income tax and sales tax a portion of that is paid back to your local municipality to be dedicated to solving municipal pension debt. If some of my neighbors pay higher taxes I demand that it has to be used to solve our problems as well as state pension problem.

I support a tier 3 pension system. Traditional pension plans are obsolete because they dramatically reduced pension benefit if you work less than 30 years.My generation does not find a job after college and keep it until retirement. Millennial spend 3-7 years and then move to another position. A tier 3 pension system with a 401k style complement would give the next generation the portability they need, the retirement security they deserve, and would save the city money on the funding of the system. The current system creates a barrier to entering public service.

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.

Casey Smagala: Chicago, like most of Illinois, would benefit from a reformed state tax structure. Property taxes are too high in Illinois and in Chicago, because of the Cook County classification ordinance, those taxes are especially high on commercial and industrial property. Small businesses cannot bear this increasing burden and the city is plagued with vacant storefronts. I am a strong advocate for progressive income taxes as the revenue from that can be pushed down to the municipal level, easing the burden on property taxes. Lower property taxes on business will grow the base, further easing the burden on homeowners and apartment properties. This should be our priority.

I also support expanded gaming, including one or even multiple Chicago casinos. Our current casino policy serves as a form of protectionism for suburban and downstate casinos, and Chicago suffers from the lack of revenue a casino would inevitably bring. The creation of the Casinos would create good paying construction jobs and once open many enterylve and service industry jobs would be available.

Additionally, I support the legalization of recreational marijuana. The state has already decriminalized the possession of Marijuana, but the sale of it remains a crime. That makes no sense whatsoever. The time has come for Illinois to join the trend and legalize the sale so that we can raise legal revenue from what is currently an illegal endeavor.

I am open to a Lasalle Street Tax, but only with very careful consideration. A simple “revenue grab” could drive the markets from our City and that would be devastating. However, I do believe that a very modest tax could help secure the finances of this fair city in which those markets reside.

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

Casey Smagala: We must grow our tax base through the sale of underutilized city owned property. For example, outside of the 17th District Police Station in the 39th Ward is two football fields of mostly vacant parking lots. While these lots lies empty, my neighbors suffer from high property taxes, lack of affordable housing, and shortages of places to shop. With community input and oversight, the city needs to fast track the development of this land into mixed-use taxable parcels. Ideally a blend of residential and commercial properties. The developed land would elevate property tax pressure, the commercial stores would generate new sales tax and the employees would be paying new income tax. Growing the tax base is far better than taxing what’s left out of the city and state.

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?

Casey Smagala: TIF districts must be reformed. While TIF is a very effective tool for economic development, it has been regularly abused by the City. TIF law must be reformed to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not become windfalls for wealthy developers. I am not an expert in the subject. However I am encouraged by the work of the Progressive Reform Caucus, and would consider other measures as well including the following:

Automatic declaration of surplus. TIF districts freeze taxation levels for 23 years, and many are extended for another 23. I suggest a change that would require a percentage of any growth in value be set aside annually to be distributed back to the taxing bodies. This would ensure that schools, parks, and the city itself share in the returns of the investment.

Changes to the “but for” test (but for the TIF, the development wouldn’t occur)

Changes to the definition of “blight” to ensure that TIF development is available for truly blighted areas and not abused by those areas (like the Loop) that are clearly not blighted.

I will always advocate for the creation of Special Service Areas (SSAs) over TIFs. They are democratically created and locally governed. While I was on the Board of Directors of the North River Commission we successfully created SSA #60 which is doing wonders to clean up the community and injecting incentives to update facades in in our business districts. All the while the SSA is not siphoning off any tax revenue that would have been allocated to schools.

Aldermanic power

What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?

Casey Smagala: Aldermanic Prerogative is a concept that is part of the fabric of our city. However, recent actions by alderman show that it simply cannot be an absolute power, the way it is used today. Progress has been thwarted by aldermen who seek to control the fiefdoms they govern, making it impossible for the city to have any kind of coordinated long-term development plan. I would support reigning in the power of aldermanic prerogative while preserving the ability of the alderman to speak on behalf of and in representation of their constituents.

One option is to establish 20 local zoning advisory boards in the city of Chicago. The would be formed by elected members, aldermanic appointed members, and mayoral appointed members. The decisions of the board on local zoning matters would be reported to the full zoning board along with the vote. The alderman could then present this to the board along with their own recommendation for the zoning board to consider before making their decision. This would ensure that the residents of the ward are well represented, but the decisions are not being made simply out of deference to a single elected official.

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?

Casey Smagala: Chicago policing and oversight needs an entire overhaul. There are currently 4 bodies (Police Board, COPA, District Advisory Councils, and the Chicago City Council) that are charged with oversight of the Chicago Police Department. All are comprised of civilians. Yet, clearance rates are low and the public has little confidence in the police. The operation of the Police Department falls under the control of the Mayor. However, the city council should seek to consolidate the various oversight boards into a single board comprised of both civilians and police officers, to establish best practices for policing and with broad oversight and disciplinary authority. This board would report to the Mayor, but be subject to the oversight of the Chicago City Council.

Guns

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

Casey Smagala: We need a multi pronged approach to reduce the number of illegal guns in Chicago. One is to increase penalties on crimes committed with illegal guns as a deterrent. While locking people up and throwing away the key for non-violent offenses has been a huge disaster, we must draw a clear line a violent acts with illegal weapons. Unfortunately, all the penalties in the world won’t solve the gun-crime issue.

My career in the community has centered around prevention of violence. Education, economic development, mentoring, and after school programs are some of our best tools.

Neighboring states have more relaxed gun laws and gun shows are regulated on federal level making it difficult to do much on city level. The Gun Dealer licensing act would have reigned in rogue dealers. Gun dealers should be subject to license by the state of Illinois and had to keep video cameras. My barber has to be licensed, why shouldn’t gun dealers?

Schools

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

Casey Smagala: Under the Emanuel administration Neighborhood Schools were improperly classified as underutilized, closed and the nearly simultaneously replaced with Charter Schools. Charters have had spotty results. I believe that Chicago should reinvest in public education, ensuring that every child, and every neighborhood has educational opportunities at sufficiently resourced schools. Improvement in educational opportunities is the best path to reducing crime, improving neighborhoods and encouraging economic development. As such, I would support a moratorium on new charter schools until after the school system is turned over to an elected representative school board.

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?

Casey Smagala: Chicago should have a fully elected school board. Since the board was switched to full mayor control in 1995, the number of failures are almost too exhaustive to list. A decade of pension payments was skipped, causing the debt to skyrocket and forcing taxpayer dollars to be diverted away from classrooms in order to pay back the pension debt. Insider deals have led to privatization contracts that cost the jobs of middle class workers with decent wages and benefits and drastically reduced the quality of services provided (Aramark).

Some of the dealings have been inept and insensitive (Claypool’s special ed scandal) and others corrupt (Barbara Byrd Bennet). A fully elected school board will provide the accountability that Chicagoans want and deserve. I support the most recent proposals in Springfield that divide the city into 20 representative districts, to ensure the diverse fabric of our city is represented and that the influence of special interest money is minimized and elected school board president.

A Hybrid board makes no sense whatsoever as the school district is a stand alone government with separate and distinct taxing and spending authority. It’s governing board should not be influenced by a government who’s only relation is geographic and does not share in the financial matters.

Affordable housing

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

Casey Smagala: Affordable housing is lacking in the 39th Ward. To remedy this we must retain what we have, attract new development where it fits, and partner with organizations to support those residence on a path to self-sustainability.

Retaining affordable housing means closely examining the rezoning of multi unit buildings into single family homes. When this happens it results in less affordable housing for working class Chicagoans.
We must attract affordable housing to corners of the community where it fits. This is where my focus in urban planning ubprining come together. When my parents separated and my dad left to handle his addiction problems, my mother, brother, and I went into an affordable housing complex. Because it was intentionally planned this way, the complex was near our elementary school where we had counseling and after school programs. My mother enrolled at a neighboring non profit to begin getting her GED. Our apartment was close enough to a manufacturing district that my mom could walk and apply to job because we did not have a car.

When developing affordable housing we must consider it in the context of the community. Families like mine and the ones I work for at the community center need affordable housing in addition to quality school that are not over enrolled. They need to be close to additional social service to assist the kids in school and adults on a path to self-sustainability. Proximity to public transit and employment opportunities all factor into selecting a successful site.

I serve on two non-profit boards that have developed and manage affordable housing. The North River Commission and The Well of Mercy both own building that house senior and women with infant children. As a board member I’m there to connect the residents with other social serves as support.

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?

Casey Smagala: Chicago was built by ambitious immigrants and we should never turn our back on them. I believe welcoming immigrants is morally the right thing to do. If you disagree, that’s your right, but think of it in an economic context.

The city of Chicago is rapidly losing population. Our manufacturing, service, and many other industries are scrambling to fill jobs. For us to meet our financial obligations we must grow our tax base. Immigrants are positive additions to our economy and communities.

After closing half of the cities mental health facilities CPD is now forced to be our front line mental health support. We already have a low clearance rate on crime. I believe CPD has other priorities to attend to.

Ethics

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

Casey Smagala: Yes, of course. Every publicly elected government ward should be subject to robust and comprehensive oversight by an ind and investigative body to ensure citizens of government have trust in their government. And I would willingly submit to any request to participate.

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.

Casey Smagala: I would not. There’s no place for conflicts of interest in governments.

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.

Casey Smagala: A good Alderman is a great listener, convener, action taker, and independent thinker. They understand the cities finances, their neighborhood school, the built environment, the business community, and are open to innovation.

I have the utmost respect for Ameya Pawar. Over the course of his career he strengthened his neighborhood schools throughout the GROW 47 campaign. By listening to the needs of his neighbors they prioritized their local schools. He helped build “Friends Of” organizations, connected them with local businesses, and leveraged TIF and Menu money to support them. We’ve modeled our neighborhood school vertical integration plan on the Education Committee after his success.

He’s show his independence from the the mayor and the city council. I admire the innovation he brought to city services through app development for constituent requests.