On primary day, sixteen candidates will take part in a down-ballot scrum for the chance to contest positions in an administrative body few people have even heard of. The Democratic, Republican, and Green parties will each choose three candidates to run in November for the three open spots on the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago—the body responsible for water reclamation and flood control across nearly 900 square miles of Cook County, an area containing over five million people.
It was the Reclamation District, then called the Sanitary District of Chicago at the time, that reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900 to divert wastewater from Lake Michigan, which the District still does today. It was the District that local environmentalists first looked toward in 2002 to curb the ongoing spread of invasive Asian carp in the lake and connected area waters. And it was the District that local environmentalists began condemning in 2008 for its long-held policy, reversed in 2011, of dumping filtered but untreated wastewater into the Chicago River.
The Board of Commissioners controls the District and its $1 billion dollar annual budget. Consequently, they control much of Greater Chicago’s water policy and have responsibilities as significant as the city they serve.
Candidate Frank Gardner, one of ten Democrats running for the Board, seems to understand the Board’s importance, but he still manages, somehow, to find room for exaggeration.
“Together with respect for the environment—with unbridled integrity—we can bring forth unparalleled prosperity to this city and the environment—and Cook County in general,” he says in a brief YouTube campaign video.
Among the other Democratic candidates vying to bring “unparalleled prosperity” to the city via sewage treatment is Kathleen Mary O’Reilley—a current employee at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, a previous candidate for the board, and, according to Gardner’s Facebook page, his running mate.
O’Reilley is also Frank Gardner’s mother.
In late February, Fox 32’s Dane Placko reported that both Gardner and O’Reilley share the same River Forest home and had filed their candidacy documents at the exact same time in November. Placko also found that the full name on O’Reilley’s driver’s license is Kathleen O’Reilley Gardner. O’Reilley is evidently a maiden name—one dropped upon marriage to Frank Gardner’s father (also named Frank Gardner), a former commissioner on the Reclamation District’s Board.
“Look…I’m happy to speak about my candidacy,” the younger Gardner told Placko upon being confronted by Fox 32’s news crew at his home. Shortly thereafter, he shut the door in Placko’s face. To date, Gardner and O’Reilley have yet to publicly acknowledge their familial relationship. Neither could be reached for comment.
The Gardner-O’Reilley situation would have been unlikely in the mundane Board elections of not so long ago. For many years, the Board’s elections were largely uncompetitive and unwatched, with positions occupied by, as former Chicago Reader reporter Chris Hayes wrote in a 2005 story on the subject, “Democratic organization veterans and longtime district employees.” That changed with the independent candidacy of environmentalist Debra Shore, who managed to garner both tens of thousands of dollars in donations and a victory through unprecedentedly vigorous campaigning and a conservation-based platform. As Reader reporter Mick Dumke wrote in 2010, the Board has gained “attention, notoriety, and importance” in the eyes of Chicago politicos ever since then. Elections to the Board are now hotly contested between environmentalists, assorted civil servants, businesspeople, and well-connected insiders with no water policy experience beyond the flushing of their toilets.
2012 saw the election of one such insider candidate, attorney and lobbyist Patrick Daley Thompson, to the Board. Thompson, the first of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s grandchildren to make a bid for public office, received over $160,000 in donations in that year’s primary, according to the Reader. Much came from high-profile Democratic party politicians and donors, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and billionaire J.B. Pritzker.
Though Thompson’s answers to a candidate questionnaire distributed by the Chicago Tribune that year referenced nominally-related experience working with storm water issues as a real estate attorney, the extent of his qualifications differed noticeably from those of other Democratic candidates. Kari Steele, for example, ran, also successfully, on her thirteen years of experience as a water chemist and Reclamation District lab technician and water sampler.
Beyond Gardner and O’Reilley, this year’s slate of non-incumbent candidates is particularly stacked with newcomers to water policy. Running alongside incumbent Commissioner Cynthia Santos on the Democratic “Leaders for Water Reclamation” ticket are Tom Courtney, an attorney and former candidate for 27th Ward Alderman and Adam Miguest, a twenty-three-year-old fundraising consultant and former candidate for 4th Ward alderman. Also running on the Democratic side are Brendan Houlihan, a former Cook County Board of Review commissioner, community organizer and urban planner Josina Morita, Rich Township administrator Tim Bradford, and attorney John S. Xydakis.
The three Republican candidates vying for a spot on the Board include management consultant and former Democratic candidate for Illinois’ 5th U.S. Congressional district R. Cary Capparelli, Cook County Board of Review tax analyst and former Cook County Commissioner Herb Schumann, and 19th Ward Republican committeeman Jim Parrilli.
The Green Party slate notably includes the only non-incumbent environmentalist in the race, urban gardener and sustainability advocate Karen Roothaan, who is running alongside retired Chicago Public School teacher and trained policy analyst George Milkowski and former Chicago Public Housing Police Officer Michael Smith.
Despite their differences in background, the stances taken by the Board candidates on some of the most significant issues facing the District are fairly similar. Candidate questionnaires distributed by the Daily Herald indicate broad support for greater District collaboration with local bodies on flood and storm water management in light of the floods that hit the city’s northern suburbs last spring, the development of largely unspecified “green infrastructure,” and the finishing of the Deep Tunnel Project, a highly ambitious, multi-billion-dollar anti-flooding and sewage treatment scheme already thirty-nine years in the making. Deep Tunnel is not slated for completion until 2029.
Although rainwater and runoff aren’t likely to drive voters to the polls with the same fervor inspired by charter schools or city crime, the perks of a spot on the Board rival those offered by the more high-profile, up-ballot offices responsible for tackling those issues. Beyond winning a potential springboard into higher-level city politics, Commissioners earn $70,000 a year for part-time work and are each supplied with a District car. Commissioner pay, though, is notably less than compensation for many of the District’s full-time employees. According to the District’s 2013 budget, principle mechanical engineers can make up to $133,829 a year while the body’s top administrators can make up to $217,850 a year—more than Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 salary of $204,726 and in the ballpark of police Superintendent Garry McCarthy’s $260,000. In 2010, similarly high compensation levels were scrutinized in a Chicago News Cooperative and Better Government Association investigation whose findings were published in the New York Times. The two groups discovered that the number of Reclamation District employees earning six-figures tripled between 2005 and 2010—and that sixteen District employees earned 2010 salaries higher than that of then-Mayor Richard Daley.
By the laws governing the District, the Board of Commissioners is responsible for appointing the body’s top and highest-paid administrator, the Executive Director, as well as the also highly-paid Treasurer. Additionally, the executive director appoints the rest of the District’s top administrators with the advice and consent of the Board. Both powers give Commissioners significant influence and authority over some of the most highly paid public sector jobs in the city and state. Interestingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2005 to 2010 period that saw an expansion in six figure compensation was also the period during which elections to the Board of Commissioners became more conspicuously competitive by media accounts.
Commissioners also enjoy full discretion in the hiring of personal aides. The 2010 investigation singled out two still-serving commissioners—Barbara McGowan and Frank Avila—for hiring their children, with McGowan’s daughter Donna then earning an annual salary of $88,000, a full $18,000 more than her mother’s current salary. Avila, who is currently running for reelection in the Democratic primary, also employed Dominic Longo, a man convicted of vote fraud in 1984 and described in the Times as a “veteran Chicago Democratic political operative,” for nearly $84,000 a year.
In light of this recent history, Gardner and O’Reilley’s joint candidacy for the Board seems almost appropriate—as does the question of whether the taint of Chicago politics has really managed to pollute even this highly obscure and highly important body.
Answer: Is water wet?