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Alderman, 43rd Ward: Michele Smith

Updated: January 20, 2011 4:28PM



Birth date: 02-12-1955

Political affiliation: Democrat

Neighborhood: Lincoln Park

Occupation/Firm name: Self-employed lawyer and consultant.

Marital status: single

Campaign HQ address: 2527 N Lincoln Ave Chicago IL 60614

Campaign website: www.michelsmithforalderman.com

What is your campaign budget?

$300,000.00

What are your top priorities for the City of Chicago?

My ward is concerned about the overall health of our city and getting our city's fiscal house in order. I will press to focus our city spending on the most important areas: safety, schools, and ward services. I am committed to working with other alderman and the new mayor on fiscal reforms. I will make ethical reforms a top priority to assure our taxpayers that their money is being spent wisely.

As a former federal prosecutor, I will press for more beat cops and street patrols, along with more accountability by the police force. I support efforts to return as many sworn officers to the street as possible, and to find innovative ways to fund more police.

What are your top priorities for your ward?

The most pressing issues in the ward are crime, education and the revitalization of our neighborhood retail districts. Our ward faces potentially dramatic change due to the pending redevelopment of the Children's Memorial Hospital site. I will lead the ward through a planning process so that the former Children's Memorial site can be a showpiece of urban planning that creates a new neighborhood crossroads at the heart of Lincoln Park.

I hear real fear that our neighborhood and property values are threatened, not because of the current financial situation, but because the 43rd Ward is becoming a less attractive place to live compared to other neighborhoods with flourishing retail districts. I held a community meeting, attended by over 200 people, on the future of retail development in the ward. I found that the 60614 zip code has today over 750,000 square feet of vacant retail space. My presentation and details are posted at http://43rdwarddemocrats.blogspot.com/2010/06/recap-of-our-forum-on-retail.html. As a result, I have founded the Clark Street Task Force, a community-based group working to fill the empty store fronts on Clark Street. We are surveying the community to determine the needs of the residents, and are advocating that the local chamber of commerce and Clark Street SSA retain a business broker to bring stores to the neighborhood. At the same time, as alderman, I intend to crack down on the absentee landlords who own significant vacant storefronts in the ward.

Education is another top priority of my ward. There are over ten public schools in the 43rd Ward almost all of which are raising capital privately to support themselves. As alderman, I'll throw the full weight my office behind the capital campaigns and seek the support of neighbors, local businesses and larger businesses to support our schools.

This leadership as alderman will help not only our resident children, but children from all over the city. Many of our local schools are magnet schools, drawing children from all over the city. Those parents who send their kids long distances to our schools come here because they want as good an education as they can get. Our support of those schools benefits those families, too.

Plus, I'll advocate with the Board of Education to allocate its capital funds in conjunction with private funds to address the pressing needs of Lincoln Park High School. And I'll continue the aldermanic support of the new Alcott High School.

The city is in serious financial trouble and can't afford the level of service it currently provides. For 2011, Mayor Daley, with City Council backing, balanced the budget without raising taxes or fees, relying instead on some cost-saving measures and one-time fixes, including using proceeds from leasing the city's parking meters. Do you support this approach? What should be done differently going forward?

Please be specific about your plans to reshape government: what services and departments would you scale back or cut? Can you identify new revenue sources? How can the City reduce personnel costs? What kind of concessions should the City seek from the unions?

The City faces twin, but separate, deficits: its operating budget and its pensions. The city council should act today to review the city's spending to avoid another large deficit. We have to conduct both an audit of our city's spending and create an independent budget office. All spending should be investigated with the city council performing oversight duties.

Most important is reform of the TIF program. I support reforms in the TIF program that would return surplus and interest to the operating budget of the city (and the other taxing entities affected by TIF). In addition, TIF spending should be considered alongside other city spending so that we can make choices among our City's priorities.

The areas suggested by Inspector General Joe Ferguson present at least some options. Switching to a regional, grid-based system of garbage collection, according to Inspector General Ferguson would save the city an estimated $29.6 million. I would also move sworn officers from administrative positions back onto active duty. This would save an estimated $1.9 million. These are small items, but are further proof that we need zero-based budgeting to justify our spending to the taxpayers. Some other areas for reform include streamlining the Department of Business Affairs.

We need real oversight to evaluate how to balance the operating budget now and in the future.

The city's four employee pension funds have been called a "ticking time bomb," with Mayor Daley's pension commission predicting that the four funds will run out of money in 20 years. "There is no low- or no-cost solution to this problem," the commission wrote in a report earlier this year. "Deferring action is not a viable option." What is your plan for bringing the pension funds to solvency?

Pension fund liability is the result of a combination of factors including funding, eligibility requirements, benefit levels, investment returns and actuarial assumptions. The current financial pension fund liability is due to inadequate funding, poor investment decisions, unfunded levels of benefits, and the current economic realities. I believe that we need to focus more on pension fund management and depoliticizing the process. I also believe that we must negotiate with the unions and employees affected to seek a way to combine adequate funding and reasonable levels of benefits. The city's report on pension fund reform provides many avenues to pursue. Our pensions and health care plans need to be restructured and funded in a way to ensure security for both employees and the taxpayers who are paying those benefits

Does Chicago need 50 aldermen? If not, what's a better number? What City Council committees could be combined? What other ways can the City Council save money?

While of course we have to consider all cost-savings measures, our current form of government depends on the aldermen to be accountable for the delivery of all city services, and it depends on the alderman to vet zoning matters. Accordingly, a reduction in the number of aldermen could only be considered in conjunction with major changes in how our government is organized. Certain things - like routine applications for signs, could be handled administratively. In addition, certain City Council committees could be combined - but I believe we must allocate money for oversight.

Chicago was designed as a weak mayor, strong council form of government yet Mayor Daley wields considerable power over the City Council. What measures would you recommend to strengthen the council? On which issues should the mayor lead? On which should the council lead?

The most significant reform for an independent city council is to return the filling of vacant city council seats to the voters. The mayor of Chicago has only had the power to fill vacancies in the last twenty or so years. This results in mayoral control. The city council should have oversight powers over the city budget, and should have staff that can draft legislation and investigate city spending. Of course, the mayor is the executive officer and should be able to press for policy, like the President does.

The city's tax-increment financing program has been criticized on several fronts, including the proliferation of districts, how money is diverted from schools and other basic city services, how TIF funding decisions are made and for an overall lack of transparency. How would you improve the TIF program? Does the TIF law need to be changed in any way?

Unfortunately, since Harold Washington's time, TIFs have strayed from their original purpose. Under Washington, a TIF was created with a specific project in mind and then dissolved once the goals had been met. Today, TIF districts cover 30% of the city, creating a slush fund to be used as the city wants, without accountability to the taxpayers or without an opportunity to weigh the use of those funds against other pressing needs.

The time has come to have real transparency about the use of TIF funds. The Sunshine Ordinance requiring the City to make TIF information available to the general public was a good start -- and much more needs to be done. There should be no question as to where our money is and how it is spent.

I believe that the City Council and the public should play a larger role in how the money is spent. In particular, TIF money should be considered alongside all other city spending. Additionally, TIF spending should be much more narrowly targeted against specific project objectives and when those objectives are met the TIF should be dissolved.

I would also support legislation that allows a TIF district to collect less than the entire new increment to allow a better matching of proposed projects with funds received.

Mayor Daley has focused on privatizing city assets. Are there any other assets the City Council should consider privatizing? If so, would you make any changes to the way privatization deals are negotiated and passed through the City Council?

When services rendered to the public are contracted out of the hands of public officials a certain level of accountability is lost because the city is the customer of the contractor not the individual constituent. I oppose privatization efforts that are an excuse to lower benefits and wages. There should be accountability to the public whenever a public service is rendered.

Privatization and contracting out are matters to be handled on a case by case basis, depending on the service or program involved, the overall cost and benefit to the city as a whole; including the cost, the impact on the delivery of services, and the impact on the potentially affected employees. Most importantly, privatization proposals, like other significant policy decisions, should be fully vetted by City Council, with adequate time to review and consider the proposals.

The Chicago Police Department is understaffed, with no lasting budget solution in sight. Given the current staffing levels, what changes would you recommend to use resources more efficiently? Do you support realigning beats in a way that moves police from lower crime areas to higher crime neighborhoods? What should happen to the diminished CAPS program?

I support moving as many sworn officers to active duty as possible. The major improvement that I would suggest is that CAPs officers receive more extensive training in problem solving on the job. It is extremely important that officers have a working knowledge of how to solves problems as they occur and before they become unmanageable.

The next mayor will choose a new CEO for the Chicago Public Schools. Do you think the CEO needs to have education experience? Should the new mayor continue the Renaissance 2010 program of shutting down failing schools and creating new ones? Should the new mayor continue Ron Huberman's "culture of calm" effort, which aims to improve the culture of the toughest schools and provides mentors and extra support for kids at greatest risk of being shot? What should CPS do to improve neighborhood schools that are struggling to educate the large numbers of students left behind, the students that don't make it into test-based, charters or other specialized schools?

I believe the next Chief Executive Officer should be a person who has the confidence of the next mayor, a strong commitment to excellence, and who understands education.

I believe that we should use a variety of approaches to help our school children, and charter schools are sometimes appropriate. However, we must continue to support existing public schools as well.

In my ward, our neighborhood schools have been consistently improving -- due to dedicated staff and engaged parents. As alderman, I believe it is my job to fully support my local public schools. I will make myself available to those interested in continuing the improvement our schools, but perhaps more importantly, I plan to listen and learn from as many parents, teachers, educators, and those most affected by the schools as I can. In general, we should continue to press for resources to aid our public schools.

Do you support one or more casinos for Chicago? If so, where would you like to see casinos located?

I oppose the building of a casino in Chicago.

Aldermen have considerable influence over TIF, zoning and other decisions, both large and small, related to development and services in their ward. Do aldermen have too much influence?

In the best of circumstances, the aldermen should be stewards of their wards, making sure that development proceeds in the best interests of the community. This is local control at its best. Unfortunately, there have been far too many examples in our city council of improprieties in zoning matters. We should have strong ethics ordinances to try to remove the influcens of money in zoning decisions.

If elected alderman, do you plan to maintain an outside job? Would you pledge not to hold any job that represents a conflict of interest, including those that involve spending public dollars?

Alderman is a full-time job and it will be my full-time job when I am elected.

Would you accept campaign contributions or gifts from your employees? Would you pledge not to hire relatives on your staff?

I will not take campaign contributions from employees and I pledge not to hire relatives for my staff.

Does the City need to change the way it hands out contracts? Should aldermen reclaim oversight of City contracts? If so, contracts above what dollar amount?

I support pending ordinances requiring city council oversight of contracts over $500,000, and believe that the council should have have power to do oversight of all city contract spending.

Do you support an inspector general just for the City Council? Would you support giving the city's existing inspector general power to investigate aldermen and their staffs, including subpoena power?

I believe the current inspector general should have the power to investigate City Council. The Inspector General's powers should be expanded to include all agencies that have no independent watchdog, including the Chicago Park District and the Public Building Commission. The IG should have subpoena power.

Should there be new limits on who can lobby City Hall officials, including aldermen? Should former City Hall employees be prohibited from doing business with the city after their departure? If so, for how long?

I support the ethics plan authored by former Inspector General David Hoffman. Both former Alderman and City Hall employees should be prohibited from lobbying or doing any business with the city for at least two years after the employment or elected services ends.

What's the best book ever written about Chicago? Why?

Boss by Mike Royko.

Please list your educational background

J.D. University of Chicago, 1979

B.A. Political Science magna cum laude, SUNY Buffalo 1976

Please list civic, professional, fraternal or other organizations to which you belong

Social Action Chair at Chicago Sinai Congregatio.

Board Member, Facing History and Ourselves

former Board Member, National Conference for Community and Justice

Have you held elective or appointive political office or been employed by any branch of government?

Current Democratic Committeeman, 43rd Ward

former Assistant United States Attorney, Northern District of Illinois. (1981-1989)

former law clerk to Judge Wm. J. Bauer, U.S. Ct. of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Please list jobs or contracts you, members of your immediate family or business partners have had with government

None

Name your five biggest campaign contributors and the amount they contributed

Helen Meier, Tom Hall, Diane Graham-Henry, Peter England and Donald Mudd.

Please paste a brief biography here

After a long career in both the public and private sector - first at the U.S. Attorney's Office, then as a corporate attorney -- Michele was asked to return to public service by members of the community. After forcing the incumbent into a runoff election in 2007, Michele was elected to serve as Committeeman of Chicago's 43rd Ward in 2008.

After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1979, Michele joined the US Attorney's Office. During her time there Michele prosecuted over 400 narcotics, white-collar, and political corruption cases. She convicted a large number of City of Chicago employees for racketeering and extortion as well as former State Rep. Doug Huff and other City and County employees for fraud. Additionally, she shut down the largest commodities "boiler room" (securities fraud) in the United States, convicting over twenty defendants

As former General Counsel for the Engine Group at Navistar International Corporation, Michele led the team responsible for bringing about changes in the Clean Air Act to reduce diesel emissions to near zero in 2007. Michele was a guiding force in partnering with environmental groups and industry. Her strong and responsible leadership was noted in Contagious Success by University of Chicago Graduate School of Business author Susan Annunzio.

Michele has a solid record of accomplishment in informing voters about candidates for Congress, County Board, and state-wide office, in meetings attended by hundreds of residents. She has kept the community informed about issues that affect them, including the first ward-wide meeting about the future of development in Lincoln Park, attended by over 200 people. She has developed a reputation for standing for honest, independent government and fiscal responsibility.Michele has always been committed to public and community service. As a Volunteer Leader for United Power for Action and Justice, Michele helped to promote interfaith grassroots organizing. Michele is currently a board member of Facing History and Ourselves, an organization whose goal of promoting tolerance through education is one which Michele values highly. Michele is an active member of her synagogue, the Chicago Sinai Congregation, and has served as Social Action Chair.

Lincoln Park has been Michele's home since 1979. She raised her daughter there, and led Girl Scout Troop at the Menomonee Club, and made lasting friendships with her neighbors. She is a loyal member of the Chicago Walkers Club. Michele looks forward to becoming an even more active member of the community she loves.



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