The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent candidates for city treasurer a list of questions to find out their views on a range of issues facing the city and their wards. Melissa Conyears-Ervin submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit responses):
Who is Melissa Conyears-Ervin?
She’s running for: City Treasurer
Her political/civic background: I have worked as an Executive in Residency with a charity based organization in Garfield Park called Breakthrough Urban Ministries. Soon after, in 2016, I ran for and won a seat to become a state representative. As a legislator, I earned a reputation as someone who reaches across the aisle to get things done for working families. As a state representative, I sponsored the improved Illinois education funding formula that directed over $221 million in additional funding to Chicago Public Schools. I was also the chief sponsor of bipartisan legislation that protected funding for child care assistance, a service that allows many working parents to stay in the workforce.
Her occupation: Illinois State Representative
Her education: I am a product of Chicago Public Schools, I was the first person in my family to attend college and graduated with a finance degree from Eastern Illinois University. I then moved back home to the West Side and obtained my M.B.A. in Finance from Roosevelt University.
Campaign website: melissaforchicago.com
Are the city’s funds invested in a sufficiently safe manner, while getting the best returns? How would you improve the city’s investment practices?
Melissa Conyears-Ervin: Treasurer Summers has responsibly operated the office of City Treasurer using some innovative practices, such as the Catalyst fund, to try to stretch taxpayer dollars further to prioritize investments in our community. While there is much more that can be done, we have to take a financially responsible approach to maintaining liquidity and preservation of capital when it comes to City of Chicago funds. The 2008 recession demonstrated to us that even AAA rated securities can have flaws and our obligations to workers, contractors, and organizations in Chicago are many. My experience in Springfield has taught me that asking people to accept “IOU’s” in lieu of payments is destructive to vulnerable communities and I will not allow such a thing to happen in Chicago. What we can do is choose who manages our money and which banks hold our money and ensure that they are committed to investing properly in our communities. I am also willing to explore progressive revenue streams to fund programs that address underbanked populations, investments in communities of needs, and long-term planning for our future.
I admire Treasurer Summers efforts to employ ESG investment practices, particularly focusing on worker-friendly businesses. However, I believe the Chicago Treasurer’s biggest challenge is to increase investment revenues to defray the guaranteed annual budget increases through 2046 to pay for the pension deals negotiated in 2016.
The city treasurer is an ex officio member on the boards of all the city pension funds. How would you view your responsibility in ensuring the boards are following the most efficient investment policies?
Melissa Conyears-Ervin: While managing our pension funds, I plan to establish guidelines of ethical behavior, transparency, competition, familiarity, commitment, and prudence.
I will encourage transparent and open processes with competitive bidding when it comes to selecting fund managers. I will ask questions about strategy that, I hope, will reveal any biases, ethical conflicts, or lack of details when choosing investments. I will attend meetings and report back to the public or any appropriate elected officials on happenings and bring attention to matters that give me concern. Finally, I will seek input from not only those who are familiar with the process of investing such large sums of money, but from ordinary people who can provide wisdom and insight from their community’s perspective on what our government should be doing to safeguard working people’s retirement.
What is the appropriate working relationship between the treasurer’s office and the mayor’s office, and between the treasurer’s office and the City Council?
Melissa Conyears-Ervin: I believe the Treasurer’s responsibility is first and foremost to safeguard public tax dollars. Outside of the official duties of the office, I believe that requires a productive relationship with both the Mayor and the City Council, but it also demands that the Treasurer speak out when politicians are acting in such a way that is not in the best interest of taxpayers. When it comes to matters of fiscal responsibility, investing in future growth, and wasteful spending, I will do what’s right for Chicago residents, not the Mayor or the members of the City Council.
Would you accept or have you accepted campaign donations from financial firms that do business with the city?
Melissa Conyears-Ervin: I will follow all applicable campaign finance regulations governing any entity that does business with the city.
What are your thoughts on a proposal to create a municipal-owned public bank?
Melissa Conyears-Ervin: I am not happy with the way financial institutions have treated citizens in Chicago and am as alarmed as any public figure that huge swaths of my community have the least access to basic banking tools or credit. I will work closely with our State Treasurer to determine if it is in the best interest of Chicagoans to have a municipal deposit institution or a State one to compete with the private sector. I envision that this institution would offer financial products and services such as basic accounts, check cashing, direct deposit, online banking, loans for business, automobiles, education or homes, and financial literacy services. This would also be a powerful tool to regulate the private sector by having to compete with a public institution.
Should the city’s investment portfolio be carbon-neutral by 2020? Please explain.
Melissa Conyears-Ervin: My first goal is to make sure the city’s investment portfolio is safe and secure, so I would happily sign onto that goal assuming that securities transferred out of the portfolio were not done in a hasty fashion and that securities replacing them earn an equally appropriate rate of return. With each year, the number of blue-chip companies seeking to be carbon-neutral increases, such as Apple, 3M and Dow Chemical. It is a reasonable challenge to achieve a carbon-neutral portfolio, and I plan to make it a top priority for my investment policy.
Chicago was the first city to join the United Nation’s Principles for Responsible Investment. Will you maintain that? Please explain.
Melissa Conyears-Ervin: Yes. I believe we can achieve principal preservation, maintain adequate return, and manage our risk while broadening our views of the factors that determine our investments. We should be thinking broadly about how companies structure themselves, whether they have appropriate policies in place promoting sound corporate governance, measure their progress in promoting gender and race diversity on their boards, evaluate their strategy beyond simple short-term measurers, and take a hard look at whether they engage in value-destroying reputational risks. Rate of return is important, but we have the tools and experts to incorporate ESG factors into investment decisions and achieve – in many instances – better rates of return and lower risk to our portfolio.
Outgoing Treasurer Kurt Summers established a $100 million investment fund for neighborhood projects. He also set up a system, as part of making investment decisions, to evaluate companies as good corporate citizens on environmental and social issues. How would you expand, shrink or maintain those programs?
Melissa Conyears-Ervin: I spoke of some of the ESG factors in my answer about the UN Principles for Responsible Investment above. Regarding the Catalyst Fund, it is an excellent idea, but after two years, it has yet to find partner investors, so that the promise of leveraging non-city capital has gone unfulfilled. I believe the concept of leveraging city funds for local development is an excellent idea, but in most other programs, the weight of finding matching funds is the duty of the individual project, not the investor (Catalyst in this case).
Two years is too long to wait. I want to get funds for programs quicker by experimenting with the Catalyst fund, altering it so that qualifications for eligible recipients stay the same, but the method by which they are funded is changed. Once programs are selected, they would be eligible for an investment match, but it would be the program’s responsibility to identify eligible investors. I believe by using this kind of market-driven approach, we can address the market failure of community development on the South and West Sides, and foster more private investment in these communities.
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