2018 Annual Report
“Please fasten your seatbelts. We may be in for a bumpy ride.” How I wish someone had issued such a warning at the beginning of 2018. It was indeed a wild and bumpy year—and I’m not even referring to national politics! Starting with a record cold January 1, we had to bear heavy snows, rains, and heat. At MWRD we also dealt with election dramas and contentious land-use issues, changes in leadership (both elected and appointed), and an explosion at one of the largest treatment plants. Years like 2018 remind us how important it is to be resilient at a variety of levels—personal, organizational, regional, global—and force us to respond with energy and verve, foresight and courage.
Departures and Arrivals
In June, David St. Pierre resigned after seven years as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD) executive director. Dave had come to the District after stints at water and wastewater utilities in St. Louis and Atlanta. He was a passionate advocate for resource recovery and for using stormwater projects as a catalyst for community development. We wish him well.
In early December, the Board appointed Brian Perkovich as the District’s new executive director. An engineering graduate of the University of Illinois with an MBA from DePaul, Brian has 25 years' experience working at most of the District’s treatment plants and was Assistant Director of Maintenance & Operations.
Brian was joined in early December by three new members of the Board of Commissioners: Kimberly du Buclet, Cam Davis, and Marcelino Garcia. Kim and Cam were elected to two-year terms of office—Cam will fill the vacancy created by the death of Commissioner Tim Bradford in 2017, and Kim will fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Commissioner Cynthia Santos in 2016. Also, in early December, Commissioner Kari Steele and I each began another six-year term on the Board.
The MWRD Board is now a majority-minority board and a majority-female board. Remarkable.
Congratulations to my colleague, Commissioner Josina Morita, who may be the first MWRD Board member to have given birth while in office. Welcome, Kai!
There Grows the Neighborhood
At the One Water Summit in Minneapolis in July, I met Emmanuel Pratt, executive director and guiding beacon of the Sweet Water Foundation in Chicago. Both of us participated in the arts and culture advisory group for the US Water Alliance, and we immediately saw opportunities to collaborate, learn from each other, and share resources. (I encourage you right now to mark your calendar for the growing season and visit the farmer’s market held on Fridays in the summer at Perry Avenue Commons. The tomatoes are splendid.) Emmanuel’s vision is that of “regenerative neighborhood development” to be achieved by mixing urban agriculture, arts, and education to transform spaces—and people.
At the harmonic convergence of street, sweat, and soil—a.k.a. West 57th Place and Perry Avenue in Chicago—you’ll find a repurposed shipping container called the Think-Do Pod; the Thought Barn (the first timber frame barn raised in Chicago since the Great Fire); apprentices learning carpentry skills and making crafty stools, shelves, and tables; ideas being planted and floated and cooked daily. Plan a visit. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Cybersecurity at MWRD
One Thursday morning in March 2018, the employees of the City of Atlanta got an unpleasant surprise: their access to crucial computer files and applications had been interrupted by computer hackers demanding payment in Bitcoin (a kind of digital money). For five days, the city government’s computers were shut down as the city responded to the attack. Employees had to use pen and paper to do work that was usually processed by computer; the police department lost thousands of hours of dash cam footage; and residents were unable to pay water bills and traffic tickets online. Even though the City of Atlanta didn’t submit to the ransom demand, the recovery costs of the attack were high—perhaps $17 million or more.
Weather and Climate
February 2018 was messy. Between February 3 and February 11, Cook County witnessed nine straight days with measurable amounts of snow. Chicago accumulated 18.3 inches of snow. Then came heavy rains on February 19 and 20—2.68 inches recorded at O’Hare Airport and 3.15 inches at Midway—on top of more than three inches of rain that had already fallen in the preceding days. The combination was something like a worst-case scenario for stormwater management—rain runoff plus melting snowpack on frozen ground. The first section of the McCook Reservoir, which had gone into operation only two months prior, filled to its 3.5 billion gallon capacity over a 20-hour period.
This was a severe test of Deep Tunnel and the reservoirs, which together held 9 billion gallons of stormwater overflow. There was flooding in some parts of Cook County—but for the first time since 1985 during a winter storm, there was no reversal to Lake Michigan. That’s 9 billion gallons that otherwise would have poured into people’s basements and damaged homes and businesses.
The system worked as designed. Good to know, yes?
Water Reuse: Beer Leads the Way
Invited to represent a water-abundant area on a discussion panel at the Water Reuse Symposium in Austin, Texas in September, I was charmed to learn that beer has become a premier ambassador for smart conversations (over a frothy glass?) about recycling water.
Bravo to smart messaging from Pure Water Brew:
- All water has been consumed before and will be consumed again.
- This water is more than 4.6 billion years old.
- All water aspires to be beer.
In Cook County, the abundant water supply from Lake Michigan has been the biggest single obstacle to water reuse and recycling. (There’s a reason Lagunitas opened its second largest brewery in Chicago.) Looking further ahead, we will have to get smarter about our water use and planning, though. No water, no beer.
In the Public Interest
Inspector General Update
The Board of Commissioners has been considering establishing an independent inspector general (IG) at MWRD for some time. Thus, it was an important step in the direction of improved oversight and good governance in May when the Board directed MWRD staff to explore the model—already adopted by a number of other government agencies—of a “shared IG” by authorizing Cook County’s Office of the Independent Inspector General to serve as IG for MWRD.
This approach, if successful, would bring high-quality, independent oversight to MWRD’s $1 billion annual budget and its employees, contractors, and vendors. It would also allow Cook County and MWRD to make the most efficient and effective use of scarce oversight resources.
At the Board’s direction, the District’s law department has been drafting an intergovernmental agreement with Cook County to achieve this goal, and we are told that work is nearing completion as of this writing. During hearings on the 2019 MWRD budget, I was once again able to secure a $600,000 appropriation to fund the operations of an IG should the Board decide to proceed with this approach.
All the Queen’s Horses
Remember when Rita Crundwell, the comptroller in Dixon, Illinois, embezzled $53 million from her town over the course of two decades? DePaul accounting professor Kelly Richmond Pope had watched that municipal drama unfold with absorbing interest. So much so that she directed and produced a documentary about Crundwell’s fraud (All the Queen’s Horses, 2017).
How did it happen? What questions should the city officials have been asking? Why did the auditors not detect something amiss?
My staff and I had a chance to view the film and participate in a Q&A with Professor Pope. Anyone charged with reviewing budgets and being stewards of public money should see this film, which is now available on Netflix.
It’s riveting. Thumbs up.
This Land, Your Land
One of the most contentious issues that’s occupied my time and that of my colleagues over the last two years has to do with land, not water.
The question facing us was whether to grant an easement allowing a road to be built on land owned by the MWRD along the North Shore Channel in Wilmette and Evanston in order to provide access to a vacant parcel of privately-owned land. The road, as initially proposed in 2017, would have cut through an area with many large trees providing habitat and capturing a considerable amount of stormwater. MWRD’s property has been leased to the Wilmette Park District and the City of Evanston, which have jointly operated a community golf course and park along the North Shore Channel for nearly 100 years. Formerly known as the Peter Jans Golf Course and now called Canal Shores, the course offers one of the cheapest rounds of golf anywhere in Cook County. The course is also widely used for dog-walking, jogging, cross-country skiing, birdwatching, and other recreation.
MWRD leases do not allow development by third parties without the consent of the tenant, and neither the Wilmette Park District nor the City of Evanston approved of the proposal to build a road cutting through the golf course and woods. Moreover, the MWRD Board of Commissioners had unanimously adopted a policy in March 2005 stating that all lands along the North Shore Channel stretching from Devon Avenue in Chicago to Wilmette Harbor should remain as open and green space for recreational use. Given the objections of the tenants and the District’s land policy, one might have thought the matter would be simple to resolve.
But it wasn’t. The MWRD’s leases contain a provision stating:
“If…any portions of the demised premises are required for the construction of highways and roadways…as determined by the Chief Engineer of the Lessor, for the use of any other governmental agency engaged in the construction of highways and roadways, or adjuncts thereto, then, in such event, it is understood and agreed by the parties hereto, that the Lessee shall surrender possession of such part of the demised premises.”
Exercising this provision in the lease, the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways—a government agency engaged in the construction of highways—submitted a request for an easement to build a road on MWRD land providing access to the privately-owned parcel.
When the City of Evanston, the Wilmette Park District, and hundreds of residents objected to the first request for an easement leading north from Isabella Street in Evanston to the landlocked parcel—cutting through what locals had christened “Isabella Woods”—the MWRD Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in May 2017 to deny the easement request. I wrote about this in my 2017 annual report.
However, the County Department of Transportation and Highways returned with a different easement request last fall, this time seeking to build a road south from Maple Avenue to the landlocked parcel—just behind a row of homes on Golf Terrace stretching 486 feet to reach it.
This new proposal affected homeowners, as the easement was to be sited one foot from their rear property line. It would also require a portion of the current fairway for the road. “The road is necessary because the property is landlocked and has no public access,” stated the County’s request.
The County asserted that the public benefit would be taxes generated if the property were sold to a developer and new homes built upon it. As of this writing, the vacant parcel is on the market for $2 million. However, the County did not provide a full public cost/benefit analysis, which would have included:
- damage to public land or to the lessee—the Wilmette Park District and the golf course,
- the cost of the road and its maintenance, and
- potential loss in property values to the seven homes abutting the proposed road.
Hundreds of people objected and urged the Board of Commissioners to reject this new request. Many groups—the Central Street Neighbors Association, Friends of Isabella Woods, the boards of the Canal Shores Golf Association and the Wilmette Park District, the Evanston City Council, and the League of Women Voters, among others—submitted testimony and contacted commissioners to register their opposition to the proposal.
Last November, the MWRD Board voted 5–4 to approve the easement. The easement will still require the County to obtain any and all local permits, licenses, and other approvals (including zoning approvals) that may be required for the road.
I was among those opposed.
Calumet Water Reclamation Plant Explosion
Operating MWRD’s water reclamation plants is usually a matter of routine. That’s a good thing. But on the morning of Thursday, August 30, 2018, at around 11 a.m., an explosion occurred in the Gravity Belt Thickener room of the Sludge Concentration Building at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant. The force of the explosion caused the collapse of the concrete roof in the area of the explosion, trapping a District employee and a contractor and injuring a total of ten people—some of them seriously. Thanks to the heroic efforts of District employees and contractors, and the efficient and professional response of the Chicago Fire Department, no one died.
This was one of the most serious incidents that the District has suffered in its 130-year history, and it has resulted in an enormous amount of soul-searching at MWRD. What were the root causes of the explosion? What could have been done differently to prevent it from happening? And most importantly: what steps do we need to take to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again? MWRD has conducted an internal investigation and hired a team of forensic engineers to conduct an external investigation.
However, the Board and staff have yet to discuss the specifics of this incident and examine the culture that may have allowed it to happen.
That comes soon.
The Driving Question
“Why do we have to drink water?” It would be a 5th grader asking, don’t you know. I’d been invited to talk water and sewage with Gretchen Brinza’s 5th graders at Alcott College Prep.
Gretchen is a standout—winner of Illinois’s STEM teacher of the year award in 2017—and she’s spent the year exploring a “driving question” with her students: “Where does my clean water come from and where does it go once we make it dirty?” Brinza’s students have learned about Lake Michigan, the reversal of the Chicago River, sewage treatment and landfills, mystery pipes, runoff, and wasting water.
You may not be able to visit Mrs. Brinza’s classroom as I did, but you can see posted on her blog the problems and solutions her students have been working on and be inspired by their probing questions and creativity.
You won’t regret that field trip.
Election Drama: Call Me “Knuckles”
The story begins in sorrow: Commissioner Tim Bradford’s untimely death on December 1, 2017, in the middle of his six-year term. The filing period for candidates to be on the ballot for the March 2018 primary was 5 p.m. on December 4, three days later. Not surprisingly, no one filed petitions to be on the ballot for the vacancy created by Tim’s death. In mid-January, the Cook County election authorities determined that there could be a “write-in” for the vacancy if candidates filed the proper paperwork by the January 18 deadline. Eight candidates filed to do so. Two months to mount a campaign and to secure a minimum of 8,075 write-in votes to be on the ballot in November? Sheesh, how to do that?
Most election pros I know were deeply skeptical. A write-in campaign demands an unusual amount of knowledge and commitment from the voters, and 95 percent of people—including me—have never written in a candidate’s name. In fact, many voters worry that writing in a name would spoil their ballot. Not gonna happen, the experts said.
Cam Davis—a friend of mine—had spent seven years directing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in President Obama’s administration and had previously led the Alliance for the Great Lakes. With significant experience and a good ballot name, Cam leapt into the race and ran a vigorous, targeted campaign. Max Temkin, another friend, wrote and produced a video ad that starred Cam and me.
Called “I need your help to keep our water clean,” the video went live on YouTube a mere six days before the primary election and quickly went viral. I’m the one with knuckle tattoos.
Astounding everyone, Cam garnered 54,183 write-in votes out of 60,691 cast in the March primary, including votes for Clam Davis, Camp David, and Cameron Diaz. Chicago Party Aunt and Mickey Mouse received some support, but not enough to win. (Side note: the previous all-time highest write-in vote total in Illinois had been 47,000 cast for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. With his write-in victory in the March 2018 primary, Cam made Illinois electoral history.)
A selection of write-in names:
More drama ensued. Three days after the primary—and nearly four months after the vacancy was created on the Board—Governor Rauner appointed David Walsh to fill the Bradford vacancy until the 2020 general election.
Uh oh. Conflict. The statute governing the MWRD Board of Commissioners states, “When a vacancy exists in the office of [commissioners] of any sanitary district organized under the provisions hereof, the vacancy shall be filled by appointment by the Governor until the next regular election at which [commissioners] of the Sanitary District of Chicago are elected, and thereafter until a successor shall be elected and qualified.”
In all prior instances, including three times since 2009, the next regular election had been interpreted to mean…the next regular election. (In this case, November 2018.) By winning the 2018 primary, Cam Davis had become a general-election candidate for a term of office that would run through 2020. But the governor’s appointment of David Walsh meant that Walsh now had a competing claim for the seat.
Who, then, would be the rightful occupant of that seat on the Board— the winner of the November general election, or the person appointed by the governor? Newspapers opined that the governor was trying to overturn the will of the voters. The governor’s appointee sought to have a resolution adopted by the Board ratifying his appointment. (That measure was pulled from the Board agenda and never came to a vote.) Finally, in September, MWRD lawyers turned to the courts for an answer.
On October 24, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Stanton ruled in favor of the voters and the most commonly understood interpretation of the statute. “Illinois appears to have a preference for vacancies to be filled by election rather than appointment,” he wrote (Case No. 2018 COEL 000030). (Let me commend Judge Stanton on his erudition as his opinion includes an unusual footnote citing a grammar primer: Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Check it out!)
Cam Davis won the election in November and, on December 4, he was sworn in as a member of the MWRD Board of Commissioners. Look for his name on the ballot in the 2020 cycle!