43rd Ward candidate for alderman: Michele Smith
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The Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the 43rd Ward aldermanic candidates a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the city and their wards. Michele Smith submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):
Who is Michele Smith?
She’s running for: 43rd Ward alderman
Her political/civic background: Alderman 43rd ward 2011-Present Committeeman 43rd Ward 2008-2016
Her occupation: Alderman 43rd Ward
Her education: J.D., University of Chicago 1979 B.A. Political Science magna cum laude SUNY Buffalo 1976
Campaign website: michelesmith.org
What are the top three priorities for your ward?
Michele Smith: The priority is to make sure crime has consequences so that my constituents enjoy the same level of safety they have come to expect. We have added 100 new officers in our community and have received Strategic Decision Support Centers in both the 18th and 19th Districts, as well as more license plate readers and cameras. We have held seminars and have distributed information to constituents about how to keep themselves safer. However, the critical disconnect exists between the ability of police to arrest offenders and the legal consequences to those who commit crime.
In 2017, I helped pass a law to increase penalties for repeat gun offenders. Yet the Sun Times found that a year later, no one has been sentenced under that law since it was passed.
I also spearheaded an analysis of juvenile gun offenses. The Sun Times reported on the work in February 2018 exposing that most juveniles who are arrested for gun crimes are released within 24 hours. Moreover, 42% of juveniles arrested for a gun offense were rearrested in the same year and half of those arrests were for gun-related or other violent crimes.
In response to the data, I supported a law requiring screening of offenders for detention in all gun offenses, particularly car-jackings, and to clarify the law on Possession of a Stolen Vehicle to enable prosecution of this crime which is a “precursor” to car-jacking. The law passed, but later was watered down. I believe it should be reintroduced and additional penalties should be imposed on adults enlisting juveniles in crime.
Fortunately, federal prosecutions for gun crimes in Chicago have gone up, 75% from 2016-2017 and another 29% this year. Almost 200 people have been prosecuted in federal court for gun crimes. That is not high enough and we can do better.
While juvenile crime is a number one concern, I also believe that at risk juveniles need more support. As part of our investigation into juvenile crime, we discovered there were almost no services available for 18th District juveniles who are arrested. I’m working now to bring a pilot program to Lincoln Park High School.
Another priority is to support our local schools. I have been a strong advocate for acquiring funds to ensure that our schools have the resources needed to handle the increased enrollment and produce quality outcomes for every student. In addition to championing the expansion at Lincoln Elementary, I have focused on making Lincoln Park High School an excellent choice for all of our residents. I will continue these efforts in my next term.
The massive Lincoln Yards development is another key priority. We need a buffer between looming development and our community to preserve our quality of life and maintain our property values. Chicagoans present and future deserve a true public park to serve for the next 100 years.
A park will ensure uninterrupted access to our river. It will create a public amenity
that is properly funded, in part from public TIF dollars. We have come far in garnering support for the North Branch Park and Preserve on the east bank of the Chicago River and I want to finish that fight.
I’m running again because when we elect a new Mayor in Chicago there will be a new point of view at City Hall. The ward needs, more than ever, strong, experienced representation in the new dynamic that is coming.
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.
Parks and Open Space
- Advocated for and developed a coalition supporting the creation of a 24-acre public park along the east bank of the Chicago River – the North Branch Park Preserve.
- Obtained funding, helped community raise money for new water park features at Adams Water Park
- Funded improvements at Oz Park
- Through the Chicago Plays programs, rebuilt playgrounds at Bauler, Cummings and Trebes Parks
- Helped found and acted as liaison for the Chicago Women’s March, bringing march organizers together with appropriate city departments to create a safe and historic Women’s March.
- Won Strategic Decision Support Centers for the 18th and 19th District police stations
- Advocated for and received over 100 new police officers in the 18th and 19th Districts
- Advocated for and won new police security cameras for arterial streets
- Conducted public safety workshops, anti-burglary workshops and distributed public safety materials to help inform residents how to stay safe
- Voted to support city council bans on bump stocks, body armor
- Advocated for and won $20 million in investments to rehabilitate the 1890’s era Lincoln Park High School
- Obtained $1.5 million to fund a new turf field and playground for LaSalle Language Academy, and $2 million for a new turf field for Lincoln Park High School
- Supported plans for the revitalization of Lincoln Avenue, Clark Street and Armitage Avenue, leading to the lowest number of retail vacancies since 2011
- Brought the Gus Giordano Dance Company to Lincoln Park as its new home
- Worked with community to create a landmarked Historic Gateway at Halsted and Willow
- Landmarked several significant historic structures
- Created and led the City’s Absenteeism Task Force, slashing lost time in the Water and Transportation Departments in half.
- Led fight for a tax rebate for long term homeowners
- Improved constituent service by creating a “Text Us” feature allowing direct texts to our office system
- Held condo summits to educate condo owners about common issues and new laws
- Brought staff from Cook County to assist residents in appealing property tax assessments
- Relocated a bus stop to be more accessible to a senior building
- Hold annual shredding events and recycling drives
- Organized toiletry drives for our local shelters and school supply drives for local schools
- Held several events to celebrate seniors in our community
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.
Michele Smith: There is no doubt that the current level of pension underfunding is unsustainable. While much progress has been made, full funding at actuarial levels would require a 60% increase in property taxes – something that would be a catastrophic for our city. The alternative would be to cut virtually every city service except police and fire – also an equally unacceptable alternative.
I have discussed the pension crisis extensively with my constituents in several newsletters, beginning in 2012. I supported the pension negotiations which led to a compromise.
Since the compromises were ruled unconstitutional, I believe we can balance the rights of pensioners against the ability of the taxpayers to pay. After Mayor Emanuel’s speech on pensions, I polled my constituents about their reactions to his proposals. Responses are still coming in, but so far, an overwhelming number supported modifying Cost of Living Increases through a constitutional amendment, as well as funding pensions from tax revenues from the legalization of marijuana and a casino. I look to Governor Pritzker to bring the parties together to find solutions.
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.
Michele Smith: As I mentioned, I am in the process of polling my constituents about these very topics. I can say, that the legalization of marijuana and its taxation to support the pension plans seems viable. I also support widening of the sales tax base to include services. However, at this point, my Ward does not support a real estate transfer tax increase, the LaSalle Street tax, a commuter tax, or increasing property taxes.
What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose?
Michele Smith: I believe that the “virtual” economy, like ride share and short-term rentals, should pay the same taxes for providing the same services as their competitors.
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?
Michele Smith: City Council and the public should play a larger role in how the TIF money is spent. Specifically, TIF money should be considered alongside all other city spending. I co-sponsored the TIF Accountability Ordinance, which placed the information about TIF spending in a searchable database, as well as the “back to basics” ordinance.
What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?
Michele Smith: Aldermanic prerogative is a very good tool for Aldermen to ensure that activities in their neighborhoods reflect public support. The prerogative allows Alderman them to do community building with their constituents in our city of neighborhoods. However, political ward boundaries are often artificial, temporary and too often disenfranchise immediately impacted neighborhoods and neighbors from being heard on certain developments. Our community has gotten involved in the Lincoln Yards development, for just this reason. Though it is just outside the 43rd Ward right now, over the last decades the area has been in the 43rd Ward and it sits on our doorstep. This approach to the unprecedented Lincoln Yards is consistent with other citywide project issues that such as the Obama Library, the Lucas Museum and the Chicago Children’s Museum. All of these projects have involved a myriad of voices and interests.
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?
Michele Smith: I strongly support the consent decree as a necessary means to provide better training for our police, increase trust and to avoid the types of expensive civil litigation judgments that have plagued our city.
What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?
Michele Smith: I support commonsense gun control laws to require stricter background checks, tighter oversight of gun sales, and a ban on military-style assault weapons that have no business in civilian hands. I also support gun dealer licensing in Illinois and harsher penalties for individuals who bring guns into our communities from states with lax gun laws.
What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?
Michele Smith: I can’t speak for every school in the City, but Lincoln Park public schools are thriving. Every school in the ward is rated 1 or 1+. Lincoln Park High School has recently become all-IB facility and an annex was built to expand Lincoln Elementary School, one of the City’s finest elementary schools, to house a booming population. We have seen a sharp increase in the number of children below age 5 and from ages 5 to 9 since I was first elected in 2011. There are no charter schools in the ward.
These results are the outcome of decades of work by committed principals, teachers, and parents, who constantly fought for quality education, often by organizing for educational support. I believe that quality schools are critical to keeping and attracting corporate headquarters and keeping young families from moving to the suburbs.
But these advances need to be replicated. While significant progress has been made, we must continue to stress excellent principals and teachers and continue to promote parental involvement in the schools. And we must take our commitment to education to the pre-school level, as studies (and common sense) demonstrate that early learning contributes mightily to academic, and adult, success.
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?
Michele Smith: I believe that the school board should continue to be appointed by the Mayor of Chicago to tie political accountability to CPS results.
Is there enough affordable housing in your ward? Please explain.
I worked to ensure the addition of the first affordable housing in the 43rd Ward in more than 30 years with the 54 affordable units which are part of the Lincoln Common (Children’s Memorial Hospital site) development. In addition, Lincoln Common will bring the first ever affordable units in a private assisted living facility, which I negotiated with the developer. I will continue to work with developers and the community to find innovative ways to bring affordable options into our community. I have required other developments to fulfill all their affordable units on site.
The 43rd Ward has a fair amount of affordable housing, including 5 CHA senior housing buildings, a large HUD building, and a private Section 8 hi-rise. In addition, there are three or four low-rise apartment complexes that have been converted to co-ops in which tenants have purchased Section 8 housing projects when the mortgages expired.
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?
Michele Smith: I support all of our “welcoming city” programs.
Should the inspector general have the power to audit and review City Council programs, operations and committees? Why or why not?
Michele Smith: Yes. Since being elected in 2011, I have led the fight for increased transparency and oversight of all programs, committees, and members of the city council. I will continue to advocate for transparency throughout city government.
In 2016, I spearheaded the ordinance to eliminate the separate Legislative Inspector General Ordinance and give the Inspector General full power over City Council. We passed the measure through the Workforce Committee. This ordinance included the ability to audit City Council programs and committees.
I led the floor action to give the Inspector General the power to audit and review City Council programs. The measure lost on a 25-23 vote, the closest roll call in memory.
And the fight continues to bring transparency to our government.
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.
Michele Smith: No
Is there a past or current alderman whom you model yourself after, or would model yourself after, or take inspiration from? Please explain.
Michele Smith: I’m fortunate in that the 43rd Ward has had a history of strong and independent leadership. My aldermanic mentor has been former 43rd Ward Alderman Marty Oberman. I learned from him the critical value of basing decisions on the full input of the community. He is a shining of example of an ethical, smart and hard-working alderman. I’ve also relied on the sound advice of all my predecessors – Bill Singer, Edwin Eisendrath, Chuck Bernardini, and Vi Daley.