Illustration by Gaby Febland

Michael Grace is one of ten candidates running for the three six-year terms up for election on the board of commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Grace was elected in 2010 as the vice president trustee of the South Lyons Township Sanitary District, located in the southwest suburbs, where he is currently serving his third term. He owns a fire and water cleanup and restoration franchise in Des Plaines, and is a licensed water restoration technician.

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Why did you decide to run for commissioner?

Currently, I’m serving my tenth year as vice president of the South Lyons Township Sanitary District. We cover all the sewers, manage flood control and storm situations for all of Countryside and La Grange. We are kind of a smaller version of the MWRD. The MWRD oversees all of these other districts, makes sure that they are in compliance, infrastructure is in place and running properly. For instance, if we have infiltration and inflow in some area of our district, an alarm will go off. And whenever something like that does go through, you must report it to the MWRD.

That’s how I got involved. When I was initially elected, our district was not in very good shape. We were running at a deficit, and we had these infiltration and inflow problems throughout the entire district—a lot of flooding, a lot of basement issues. I have a financial background, so I reviewed our budget and met with our engineers and superintendent, and we came up with a plan of action. It took about three years, but since then, we’ve replaced more than eighty percent of our entire infrastructure: new sewers, new pick holes, new streets, new curbs, new landscaping. I’m proud to say it’s fully paid for, the district is running at a surplus, and that includes a fully-funded pension.

The MWRD sought our office out, they reached out to our engineering team and to our office, and said, “Hey, we’re reviewing your district, and we see that you’re at a surplus, you’ve got a state of the art data system and tech. What are you doing? How are you doing it?” At that point, I decided it was probably a logical step to go to the next level and hopefully bring the success that I’ve had to a larger scale.

If the MWRD is already learning from what you’ve done in South Lyons Township, what more do you think they should be doing?

They do work hard, but they have to be more fiscally responsible. They have a $1.2 billion annual budget, and we still see portions, mostly on the South Side, that have outdated infrastructure. I’ve been through it, I’ve seen it. The simplest way to explain it is, once we put in new sewers, those pipes will obviously age after a while. We can line those pipes, that’s like a vacuum seal that will hold it. Now, that gives them back a little bit of life. After you line them more than two times, then we’re starting to have issues. 

And MWRD has done this throughout; if they keep lining them and keep lining them, instead of replacing them, we’re losing circumference, and that water has to go somewhere. Because of that pressure, it will pop sewer caps and enter people’s basements, and that’s where we really do have a big issue. My biggest selling point is that we just need to focus on infrastructure. Obviously, we want to prevent runoff with green alternatives, such as rain barrels and green alleys and permeable pavers, but I think we really have to start with infrastructure.

As you mentioned, this is an issue that disproportionately affects the South Side. What can you do to make sure that, in building new infrastructure, it’s going to neighborhoods that historically have not seen as much investment?

We have those tools, and they are readily available. The engineering team will perform multiple tests, the first one being the dye test. They will run a dye through the sewers to find out where these troubled areas are. Those reports come back, and they will also do a smoke test. They shoot smoke through, and if you’re having an issue on your block with your lateral pipe that connects you to the sewer, that smoke is going to come right up through, through the sewer caps or possibly in the middle of your lawn. That’s where we can see where blockages and leaks are.

This is the most non-discriminating test we can do. If we have an issue in the southern suburbs, it’s easily detectable and has to be treated. As you know, it seems like some of these poorer neighborhoods are being neglected. We do have the capability to objectively find out which districts have the biggest problems and then treat those immediately.

The MWRD has focused a lot in recent years on reducing its carbon emissions, and now sources thirty percent of its energy from renewable sources. What more do you think the district should be doing to reduce its emissions?

I think the district is definitely on the right path, turning waste into a positive. I think continuing to follow the program. Obviously, renewable energy is becoming a [more] viable option each and every day. We must stay on top of technology.

While they’re doing a good job keeping up with technology on that carbon footprint with renewable energy, we still have to keep up with the technology for our infrastructure, [such as] computer-generated flood systems. We really do have to take advantage of our technology, build on that. And not on an annual basis—we have to keep up with that on a weekly to monthly basis. We do have the funds, and, down the road, if we do keep up, as we’ve seen from my district, once you do that, once it’s installed properly, you save money.

We didn’t raise taxes by one penny when we did over eighty percent [of the system]. Since being paid off, we’re now running at a surplus because of our efficiency. While it might sting a little bit at the beginning, it definitely pays dividends down the road.

The MWRD is Cook County’s second-largest landholder. Are there any specific projects that you think the district should be pursuing with its land holdings over the next few years?

I’m a big proponent of conservation, using that land first for recreation. Any land that is idle that could be leased out—I know there are portions that the MWRD already does lease out—I think that’s an absolute opportunity to create income and protect the taxpayer.

Obviously, if there is a viable solution—I don’t know if you’re familiar with the land [in Blue Island] that they leased out and were farming organic vegetables. They leased it out for a dollar, and they had underprivileged families able to get fresh organic fruits and vegetables at a discounted price. Well, because of the politics, they shut it down. It’s just something like that, if you’re truly trying to do something good for the people, we really have to start thinking logically. We’re not a political organization, we’re more of a technical one. We’re an engineering-based flood control [agency], and our opinion on social issues really shouldn’t take effect, but common sense says hey, if we have an opportunity to use that land and help underprivileged people, we really have to make the right choice.

Any viable option with that land, whether it be developed through the district to ensure viable clean water and reduce the risk of flood, well then absolutely, we have to take advantage of that. If we’re not using that land, let’s either do something good for society or lease it out to create income and protect the taxpayer.

In your survey on Ballotpedia, you mentioned doing more to control invasive species like Asian carp. What specifically is the MWRD’s role, and how does the district work with other agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers to accomplish that goal?

The Army Corps has taken the lead on that, and we have to work side by side with them. Again, that’s something that technology is really going to have to come into play. They have one technology they’re using now to shock the fish and keep them [out], but they have found fish downstream and very close to entering Lake Michigan. We really have to stay on top of that because that’s just a really dangerous situation.

Like I said, the Army Corps of Engineers really does take the lead on that, but I think we have to look outside the Army Corps of Engineers to other districts around the country. I know that they’ve had the same issue up in Canada. Let’s ask for help. We can’t pretend that we have the answers to every problem, so we can look for help from outside sources.

The district has made a big push on ethics recently. They created an independent inspector general, and just overhauled their ethics ordinance. Do you see anything more that the district should be doing on ethics or campaign finance?

I’m running my campaign as the reform candidate. They just recently hired the IG, and immediately the inspector general flagged the district for illegally using their MWRD emails to raise funds for this campaign. They’ve already published that in the Tribune and the Sun-Times. The district, at this time, is able to fire that inspector general. [Ed. note: The MWRD has an intergovernmental agreement with the Cook County Office of the Independent Inspector General. This agreement allows the MWRD to terminate the agreement after providing ninety days’ notice.] As the reform candidate, I would say we have to have an outside source hire and approve that inspector general without having the board able to fire them. Obviously, if we have an inspector general, and we could fire them for what they say, then that’s not really doing its job.

Recently, the board voted on limitations on campaign funding from outside sources, whether it be a PAC or a union. The Chicago City Council actually had the same vote at the same time. The City Council voted for limitations on these numbers and totals of contributions. The MWRD voted against it, saying “no, we’d like to have unlimited campaign contributions.” It’s a disappointment when City Hall is doing better on ethics than the MWRD.

I’m also against double dipping. If you are pulling a paycheck from Cook County or the State of Illinois, I want there to be one paycheck. You can make your choice, but you can’t double them. I think that’s a conflict of interest, not only because I think it’s unfair, but the Cook County governments overlap on so many issues that there could be a commissioner—there might be one serving right now—whose opinion would be influenced by that other government branch. [Ed. note: MWRD Commissioner Marcelino Garcia currently works as the Director of Community Affairs for Cook County Health.] They could be taking direction from somebody to make their decisions for them. Whether it be a hospital or a landowner, anybody that works for Cook County, there could be multiple issues.

And then term limits, I’m in favor of term limits. Because the MWRD is a six-year term, I don’t think anybody should serve more than two terms.

Related to being the reform candidate: you’re running for an office that doesn’t get a ton of attention. There are ten candidates for three seats. How do you get your name out there and how do you distinguish yourself?

Maybe my wife could answer that for you, she’s not too happy with me. First of all, I’ve been lucky enough to have some friends and family help us out with our campaign. We did have an in-kind billboard put up for us, from friends, so that was a major help. Other than that, I’m just on the run between work and events. I average probably two to three events every day. I’ll leave the house at 7:30 and I’ll get home at about eleven o’clock at night. It’s definitely not easy.

What challenges do you see on the horizon that voters might not be thinking about, but that will impact how the district functions over the next few years?

Fiscally, the state that the entire state of Illinois is in if we do not start budgeting correctly. The MWRD does a fairly good job, as far as it’s not running at a deficit, but if we continue to be irresponsible with funds, with $1.2 billion, we get more than enough. Until we take the proper steps to use those funds efficiently, we could end up being like the rest of the state. I think, absolutely, we just want to be more fiscally responsible.

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Sam Joyce is a managing editor and the nature editor of the Weekly. He last covered Hyde Park & Kenwood for the 2019 Best of the South Side issue.

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