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Big Budget MWRD had Big Write-In Ballot

Russ Stewart 30 April 2018 One Comment

To anoint or to appoint? That is the legal question surrounding the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District seat of the late Commissioner Tim Bradford, who died on December 1.

The MWRD is an independent agency created in 1889 by the Illinois legislature to treat and dispose of solid and liquid waste in Cook County, so the governor has authority to make appointments should any of the nine seats become vacant. But the county clerk and state’s attorney made a rushed and legally dubious 2017 decision to put the Bradford vacancy on the March 20 primary ballot, with no candidates listed. The filing period closed on December 4, so nobody had the time to gather the 8,075 signatures to get a ballot line.

MWRDtunnel

Governor Bruce Rauner has since appointed Republican David Walsh to the Bradford vacancy for the remainder of his elected term, which extends to the end of 2020. Walsh is unique in the annals of the MWRD: He has been appointed three times in 3 years.

In 2015, when Patrick Daley Thompson, nephew and grandson of Chicago mayors, was elected 11th Ward (Bridgeport) alderman, and resigned in April, Walsh was appointed to his 2012-18 term, and served through December 2016. He did not seek election.

In December 2016, when Rauner appointed Commissioner Cynthia Santos to the Illinois Pollution Control Board, a post which pays $117,043-a year, he appointed Walsh to that vacancy, which runs through December of this year, but required a special election in 2018 for the remainder of the term through 2020. He is not seeking that election.

In December of 2017, Bradford died, and in early 2018, after Walsh resigned the Santos vacancy, Rauner appointed Walsh to the Bradford vacancy, which is for the 2014-20 term, and runs through December 2020. So instead of being out in 2018, Walsh could hang around until 2020. The governor has not yet made an appointment to the Walsh vacancy, which is the Santos vacancy, which will be filled by Democrat Kim Dubuclet in December.

This is your government “at work.” Unbelievable.

The March 20 voters – or, I should say, those voters who were particularly well-informed – nominated Cam Davis, of Evanston, an attorney and former Obama Administration official, giving him an incredible 54,183 write-in votes. He was declared the Democratic nominee on April 10, but has not yet been certified for the November ballot. To be nominated as a write-in, the candidate must get more clearly discernable votes than the 8,075-signature threshold.

On the March 20 ballot of all parties were candidates for the 6-year term (vote for 3), one candidate for the 2-year term, and “No Candidate” for the Bradford vacancy. In the Democratic primary for the 6-year term were the slated Debra Shore, Kari Steele and Marty Durkan, all incumbents, with lawyer Marcelino Garcia out of state Representative Luis Arroyo’s (D-3) 36th Ward organization, listed first on the ballot. The result was a huge upset. Shore finished first with 436,330 votes, meaning a lot of her “progressive” supporters just voted for her alone; Steele, daughter of a former South Side alderman and Judge John O. Steele, was second with 393,573 votes, getting a solid black vote; and Garcia finished third with 286,549 votes, topping Durkan’s 259,703. Durkan was fourth on the ballot, got 176,627 fewer votes than Shore. Kim Dubuclet, a former aide to county board president Toni Preckwinkle, was unopposed for the 2-year term. And no votes were registered on the city or county election Web site for the Bradford vacancy.

The Bradford vacancy legal issues are twofold: First, who serves? And second, for how long? This will soon surface in federal court, with Rauner and his lawyers arguing that the “snap” write-in primary violated the Voting Rights Act by denying ballot access, curtailing due process and equal protection rights under the First Amendment, and resembles the same old trick the Machine used to play to get its candidates on the ballot (or replaced) at the last moment without competition.

Their argument is that state statute requires a 90-day petition circulatory window prior to the 7-day filing period, which ended December 4 for all 2018 candidates. Federal case law states that ballot access cannot be made “onerous” by excessive signature requirements. Getting 8,075 signatures for the Bradford vacancy is a lot less onerous and expensive than getting 8,075 write-ins. And there is the matter of due notice. Only a handful of political insiders even knew the office was on the ballot, and even fewer knew that a “write-in” must file a written declaration of intent.

Arrayed against Rauner, in a total role reversal, were the county’s and Chicago’s progressive establishment, whose leaders endorsed Davis, and who educated and motivated thousands of voters in suburban Evanston, New Trier, Northfield and Oak Park townships, and in the 49th, 48th and 47th wards, along the Lakefront. Davis got 4,000 to 5,000 write-ins in each.

“It was a finely targeted campaign” for Davis, explained County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, of Evanston. The goal was to get liberal Democrats intrigued and excited, and to make history. To that end, he said, all the progressive heavyweights – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, U.S. Representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-9) and Mike Quigley (D-5), MWRD commissioners Debra Shore and Josina Morita – endorsed Davis. Mailings went to the hardcore Democratic households, along with Facebook videos, particularly those that supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and a vibrant gubernatorial primary between Evanston’s Dan Biss and J.B. Pritzker boosted turnout, and the pro-Davis crowd had volunteers at key polling places handing out sample ballots with write-in explanations. “Plus,” added Suffredin, “he had an easy name to remember.”

The hype for Davis was that he was a “conservationist,” while Shore said that the 1.8 billion gallons of effluent flushed through the MWRD’s pipe system not only be “treated” but also “disinfected,” a costly process, and Steele called herself the “only chemist and environmentalist” on the board, while Durkan stressed the fact that he was a business agent for Local 150, the collective bargaining union for the MWRD’s operating engineers. They all pledged to “protect our drinking water” and to “protect Lake Michigan.”

That is so disingenuous. The MWRD’s job, for which it has a budget of $1.21 billion, is to collect effluent, which includes any liquids that go down a drain or are flushed down a toilet, plus rainwater runoff down a sewer, floodwater backups in the Deep Tunnel and industrial pollutants or contaminants. The task is to GET RID OF IT by treating the effluent and then pumping it into the Chicago River, thence into the Sanitary and Ship Canal, thence into the Mississippi River, and thence into the Gulf of Mexico. Nobody drinks what the MWRD treats. Thank God. Lake Michigan water is purified at Chicago treating plants, and then sold to municipalities who then charge end users.

As for solid waste, millions of tons of biodegradable matter is piped to various MWRD facilities, the largest being in Stickney, where it is placed in huge open-air vats, stirred until such time as all moisture evaporates, at which time it becomes fertilizer. It is then trucked to farmland all over Illinois.

The MWRD is not a legislative body, and the commissioners are basically rubber-stamps. They neither make nor set policy. The well-paid general superintendent makes sure the behemoth functions, and that the 2,000 employees do their jobs. The president, one of the commissioners chosen by the other eight commissioners, sets an agenda for the 22 annual board meetings, crafts a budget, and handles administrative chores. The commissioner’s post is deemed one of the premier part-time perks in Cook County, paying $60,000 annually, with a pension, a free car, 3-person staff and an office, and a workload entailing about 66 hours per year – 22 meetings times 3 hours each. That computes to about $909 per hour. The joy is that there is no constituent service so you never have to deal with the public. All the commissioners need to do is show up and ratify the president’s agenda. The president (Mariyana Spyropoulos), vice-president (Barbara McGowan) and finance committee chairman (Frank Avila) earn $70,000, but do more work, spend more time, and have a bigger staff.

But there is zero job security. Voters neither know nor care who sits on the board. Therefore, factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, slating, ballot position, special interest group backing (which means both unions and progressives), number of candidates, and Irish surnames prevail over qualifications and media endorsements. In 2016, Durkan, from Edison Park, ran as an independent, was second on the ballot with two other men, and beat the slated Tom Greenhaw, who was an Evanston protege of Shore and Schakowsky, for the 2-year term. The 6-year winners were Spyropoulos, McGowan and Morita, all women. In 2018, Durkan had strong union backing, but was fourth on the ballot, and lost to Garcia.

One of the big March 20 winners was Arroyo, a 12-year state representative. The defeat of Joe Berrios as assessor clears competition in the North Side Puerto Rican wards, and Arroyo’s foray into county politics was a success. Luis Arroyo Jr. is a county commissioner, and the elder Arroyo has become a real powerhouse.

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Russ Stewart is a political analyst for the Chicago Daily Observer

One Comment »

  • Peter Monko said:

    What you don’t understand about protecting the drinking water in Chicago is why the Metropolitan Sanitary District (currently the MWRDGC) was created in the first place. Heavy floods and no sewer systems in the late 1800s created a system in which the effluent, stormwater and other unmentionables got dumped in the Chicago river which discharged into Lake Michigan. Our source of drinking water. During this period, the cribs that take in lake water to moved further and further away from the shoreline to avoid taking in contaminated water. People still got sick. Finally, after a typoid outbreak in the 1870s killed nearly 80 people Chicago realized it couldn’t keep the status quo. The MSD reversed the flow of the Chicago river to protect the drinking water. This was not enough as we all know. Heavy rains create combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that dump untreated sewage into the river. In particularly bad storm events the gates at Wilmette, the Calumet river and downtown have to be opened to dump out this dirty river water into Lake Michigan. To prevent this from occurring frequently, the MWRD created TARP in the late 1970s. Even this massive engineered stormwater/CSO storage system is not enough. More needs to be down to store rainwater on site or separate out our antiquated combined sewer system.
    Therefore, the politicians are correct, the MWRD does protect the drinking water of Chicagoland, and more needs to be done.

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