Dave Ehrlich: Candidate Profile

Metro. Water Reclamation District (Green)

  • Dave Ehrlich, running for Metro. Water Reclamation District

    Dave Ehrlich, running for Metro. Water Reclamation District

Updated 10/10/2012 6:51 AM




Note: Answers provided have not been edited for grammar, misspellings or typos. In some instances, candidate claims that could not be immediately verified have been omitted.

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City: Chicago

Website: http://http:\\CleanWaterDave.com

Office sought: Metro. Water Reclamation District

Age: 54

Family: Single, no children

Occupation: Professor teaching in the Environmental Management & Sustainability (EMS) and Masters in Public Administration (MPA) programs, Illinois Institute of Technology.

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Education: Ph.D. in Political Science, Wayne State University (invited to join Pi Alpha Alpha, the Public Administration honor society) M.P.P. (Masters in Public Policy), Georgetown University B.A. in Political Science (High Honors), University of Michigan

Civic involvement: My federal employment placed limits on my involvement in electoral politics. I am on the Board of the nonprofit American Friends of WOTR (friendsofwotr.org), volunteered for Obama for President Campaign (GOTV), volunteered for Chicago Food Depository collections, DePaul University Vincentian Service Day, and beach cleanup. Served on DePaul university-wide Sustainability Committee. Donate to United Way and other charities.

Elected offices held: I have never run for political office, but have held several merit-based appointments that increased my political, public administration, and public policy experience. I worked for 15 years as a senior analyst with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) -- the nonpartisan, investigative, and consulting arm of the US Congress nicknamed the federal government's "Watchdog." The agency saved the federal government $50 billion last year in verified, accepted recommendations to Congress, 82 percent of which were accepted. GAO consults with Congress on nearly every major issue, seeks to save taxpayers money by making government more efficient and effective, and helps to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse. It has one of the highest returns on investment of any government entity in the world. I will bring the same rigor, cost-saving approach, and emphasis on clean and transparent government to the MWRD Board. I also worked for seven years for several Members of Congress in Washington, DC: Senior Legislative Assistant, Congressman and former Senator Claude Pepper (D-FL). Legislative Aide, Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY). I handled many infrastructure and environmental issues for Congressman Pepper, including working with the EPA and the US Corps of Engineers on waterway projects; both federal agencies work frequently with the MWRD.

Have you ever been arrested for or convicted of a crime? If yes, please explain: No.

Candidate's Key Issues

Key Issue 1

Low Taxes: ? More transparent contracting procedures ? a main function of the board is to oversee contracting, a large part of the MWRD budget. ? Rigorous cost controls, measuring results of alternative treatment & flood relief methods. ? Sharp expansion in use of lower-cost green infrastructure to control runoff, treatment volumes, and flooding. MWRD is not using these methods at any meaningful level while many other cities are saving millions of taxpayer dollars by doing so.


Key Issue 2

Less Flooding through Green Infrastructure: A sharp increase in green infrastructure to achieve low taxes, clean water, and less flooding. Following cities like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and many others, I would immediately change the MWRD?s long-term plans to include at least half green infrastructure systems, which are cheaper, more effective, less polluting, and much less energy intensive than the MWRD's current almost 100 percent gray (concrete and metal) infrastructure. Phildelphia is investing more in green than gray (such as MWRD's traditional concrete piping and machine pumps) infrastructure for its sewage and flood control needs. Here, however, where MWRD has a very traditional engineering culture, half is a reasonable initial goal. Green infrastructure includes constructed wetlands, permeable pavement, rain gardens, rain barrels, green roofs, disconnecting downspouts, constructed wetlands, bioswales, and other means to keep clean water out of the sewers and out of the wastewater treatment system, to regenerate groundwater aquifers, to reduce flooding, and to assist in pollutant and nutrient removal.

Key Issue 3

Clean Government: I will work to increase publicly available information on bidding, contracting, and contract performance; I worked with the U.S. Senate to improve contracting while at GAO. I will work to improve Board oversight of bond offerings: the Board needs Commissioners with government finance knowledge. I believe in complete nondiscrimination in the MWRD?s contracting, hiring, promotion, and community partnerships, and I oppose any type of patronage. I support establishing an independent inspector general. As a GAO analyst I helped look for federal fraud, waste, and abuse, skills that will help my work at the MWRD. I will work to end the hidden perk of free cars for the unlimited personal use of commissioners. The US president needs unlimited free travel; MWRD Board members don?t, especially when taxpayers are hurting, the MWRD is raising taxes, and virtually every other US government prohibits such personal travel.

Questions & Answers

What special knowledge or experience do you have that particularly qualifies you for this office?

I have more than 30 years of public administration and environmental policy experience and, with all due respect to my opponents, as much directly relevant policy, political, and environmental experience as all the other candidates combined. I have the experience, knowledge, skills, abilities, and vision to help lead the agency into a more sustainable future both environmentally and fiscally, and to work effectively for Cook County taxpayers across the range of important issues the MWRD faces. Eighty percent of what the Board does on a day to day basis is to oversee contracts, which make up about a third of the MWRD's spending. I have written and studied contracting both for my Ph.D., at GAO, and in my public administration teaching. As a professor in the Environmental Management and Sustainability graduate degree program at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and previously at DePaul University's School of Public Service, I?ve initiated, designed, and taught many courses on water and the environment that are directly relevant to the Board?s work: ? Water policy ? Environmental policy ? Green development ? Climate change I?ve also taught other public administration-related courses that involve issues that the Board is involved with every day: ? Policy Design and Analysis ? Policy Implementation ? Advocacy and Public Policy ? Strategic Planning ? Government Finance ? Comparative Public Policy ? Leadership and Public Policy ? Public Administration I?ve taught and studied water policy several times in India. These courses have taught me a great deal about green infrastructure, and that our water challenges are, in some ways, very similar to India?s as well as to other U.S. and global cities. I am on the Board of a local nonprofit, American Friends of WOTR ? the Watershed Organization Trust (AFOW- friendsofwotr.org), a water conservation organization in Maharashtra, India. WOTR villages have many similar rainfall runoff problems as we do in Chicago, and many similar green infrastructure solutions. I?ve interviewed and included as guest speakers in classes many environmental experts, including water and environmental experts from the private, nonprofit, and government sectors.

What should the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District do to prevent disasters like the widespread flooding that affected the North and Northwest suburbs in July 2011?

While traditional gray infrastructure to prevent flooding is still needed for identifiable problem areas when a clear solution is available, the costs to taxpayers are high and the solutions are inadequate. Given that TARP, at a cost of nearly $4 billion dollars, will not be completed until 2029 and will not solve increasingly severe flooding problems in Cook County, there is no other option except green infrastructure for stormwater management that will be affordable and effective. However, the MWRD Board is not using proven green infrastructure methods in any significant way, which is why the US and Illinois EPAs and US Federal Courts are forcing the MWRD to use green infrastructure in the future, though not at a large enough scale to address flooding problems. The MWRD Board needs knowledgeable Commissioners who do not have to be legally forced and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars to take proven steps to prevent flooding using green infrastructure, as other cities are doing. We need MWRD Board members who can lead the District in a different direction -- a direction that will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and reduce flooding sharply. In 2011, 2010, and 2008, severe storms led to MWRD dumping raw sewage in the rivers and Lake Michigan. The MWRD says this is caused by insufficient first-line sewers in many communities. But green infrastructure, as Philadelphia plans to use for over half its water infrastructure needs, avoids that problem entirely by keeping water out of any sewers (regardless of which government owns it) and by storing and detaining rain where it falls to reduce flooding. The proposed Cook County Stormwater Management Ordinance would help, but as written will prevent little flooding. Large-scale green infrastructure is the only affordable way to reduce flooding in the near future, and to reduce or prevent sewage overflows into our rivers and Lake Michigan. This is a similar conclusion to what many other cities have already reached, but that the MWRD has not yet reached. Financial realities, environmental concerns over polluted water, and the promise of less costly flood control will push all wastewater agencies to move toward using more green infrastructure. Several leading cities in green infrastructure that MWRD may model its planning on are Philadelphia, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Aurora (IL), Portland (OR). Water conservation can also play a role in reducing the load on water infrastructure and increasing its stormwater capacity, making sure the system works as designed during intense storms. The District should be involved in giving incentives to businesses and homeowners if they show proof of appliances or projects that take measurable amounts of water out of the sewers and wastewater system, saving the MWRD and taxpayers treatment and flood control costs. These benefits could be refunded for low-flow faucets and shower heads, dual flush toilets, front load washers, as well as green infrastructure projects such as rain gardens, disconnected downspouts (required in some cities), retention ponds, or native plants rather than turf grass where possible, such as for public parks or businesses. There is a way forward. MWRD must make a fundamental transition to the path that cities like Philadelphia's "Green City, Clean Water" plan and Milwaukee's ?Fresh Coast Green Solutions? plan are taking. The choice for voters is what kind of Board can lead the MWRD there. The current status quo board has not. Dave and Nasrin will.

The district changed its severance policies last year, prompting 78 employees, including the executive director and a commissioner, to quit and resulting in a payout of $2.4 million. Do you support how that change was handled? Why or why not?

The severance decisions were part of larger challenges that the MWRD Board still faces. I am not privy to cost documents, but retroactive severance policies like this always take a toll on institutional knowledge and morale, and this should have been considered in changing severance policies. Also on the revenue side, a mishandled $600 million bond deal cost taxpayers $68 million, according to the former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt. On the expenditure side, despite its competencies and achievements, those who have followed the MWRD closely over the last several years know that the agency has seen serious financial and oversight failings over expenditures by the Board, as well as serious environmental lapses. For example, more than $10 million was spent fighting against clean water; MWRD was fined $675,000 by the US and Illinois EPAs and US Dept of Justice for not meeting pollutant discharge standards; a consent decree now puts the MWRD under US federal court supervision to make sure it ?comes into and remain[s] in full compliance? with pollution laws; the MWRD Board has no serious plans to keep Asian Carp from destroying the ecology of Lake Michigan as they come closer each day, such as by re-reversing the Chicago River; MWRD is making insufficient progress to save energy to reduce $43 million a year in energy costs and to use more renewable energy; the Board funded a needless $4 million legal fight with the Ritz-Carleton over a 16 by 100 foot alley near Michigan Avenue; and finally, the Board accepts free cars for Commissioners for unlimited personal travel despite a nearly 4% MWRD tax increase ? the largest allowed under state law; I won?t take the car and will work to end the perk.

What should the district's policies be with regard to severance, sick time and pensions? Please explain in detail.

MWRD policies with regard to severance, sick time, and pensions should be competitive with other government employers, and my understanding is that MWRD policies are now competitive. Employee pension contributions have been increased in an effort to reverse the decline in pension coverage. The deteriorating pension fund is now at 53% coverage, down from 85% a decade ago (for more detail on these two issues, see the Civic Federation report: ?Conditional Support for Tentative FY2012 MWRD Budget Proposal?). The MWRD and state legislature have addressed this through an agreement with employee unions. This was a good step and necessary to reverse the decline of the pension fund, but the plan will not result in 90% pension coverage for 40 years and may have to be revisited in the next decade. Another financial issue noted in the Civic Federation report is that the District?s 2012 budget does not reach its own fund balance policy of reserving 12-15% of Corporate Fund appropriations for contingencies. Not keeping such fund balances increases financial risks to the District.

The Water Reclamation District voted in June to disinfect sewage before dumping it into waterways. Are there more steps the board should take to protect the environment? Please be specific.

The MWRD Board was forced by legal action to disinfect by the US and Illinois EPA, and later fined $675,000. MWRD will also be forced under US District Court to take many steps to eventually meet environmental regulations. To reduce flooding and save taxpayer money, the MWRD must be proactive, not wait to be sued and fined to act. Disinfection will not stop the MWRD's dumping of raw waste into Chicago waterways and Lake Michigan during storm events. The Tunnel and Reservoir Project (TARP) has not and will not be enough to stop sewage overflows into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, even when finished in 2029. Only green infrastructure can do that at low cost and in the near term, as Philadelphia and many other cites are doing. But the MWRD Board will not act. Disinfection should be planned for the Stickney plant as soon as detailed information from the disinfection equipment now being installed at the Calumet and North Side plants is available. I support other environmental sustainability measures that the MWRD is largely ignoring: * Asian Carp: I will lead MWRD efforts to re-reverse the Chicago River with hydrologic separation to prevent Asian Carp from destroying the ecology of the Great Lakes. the most effective and lowest-risk way to prevent Asian Carp from reaching Lake Michigan.If the MWRD Board gets serious about the Asian Carp problem before it is too late and a population is established in Lake Michigan, many other states, the US and Illinois EPA, the US and Canadian national governments, and many others stand ready and willing to help with technical advice and, given the serious consequences of not acting, with funding assistance. Contrary to the claims by some that Asian Carp could not survive in Lake Michigan, and that a few Asian Carp would not be a problem, the Canadian report noted that as few as 20 or fewer Asian Carp could establish a foothold if they reached the lake. In addition, three live Bighead Asian Carp were recently caught alive in Lake Erie, showing their ability to survive in large lakes. Both the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Initiative report in January and the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat report last year identified the Chicago Area Waterways System (CAWS), which is largely controlled by the MWRD, as the highest risk entry point for Asian Carp to reach Lake Michigan. Yet the Board has not endorsed separation to reduce these risks in the short or long term. More Asian Carp DNA is being found this summer above the electric barriers than last year, suggesting live Asian Carp are above the barrier and may be moving toward Lake Michigan. Jeanne Gang, the MacArthur ?genius? Prize architect, recently wrote a book proposing re-reversal: ?Reverse Effect,? with Harvard Graduate School of Design students and Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Ms. Gang told me that they focused on environmental and broad economic development benefits rather than the financial specifics of barrier options. However, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Initiative report did research costs, estimating a ?mid-system? alternative costing between $3.26 and $4.27 billion to construct four barriers, one each on the South Branch of the Chicago River upstream of Bubbly Creek, near O?Brien Lock, and on the Grand Calumet and Little Calumet Rivers. While the costs are high, they are a reasonable investment compared to the ecological and economic losses should Asian Carp reach Lake Michigan. However, I believe that costs should be shared by the Great Lakes states and Canada, each of whom would be significant beneficiaries of any re-reversal. * Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone: I'll lead an MWRD effort to enact a set of actionable goals and reduction targets to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in Cook County in order to reduce eutrophication - the 6,000 square mile dead area that cannot support fish in the Gulf of Mexico, the second largest such dead sea area in the world. Excess phosphorous causes excess algae growth, which lowers dissolved oxygen, killing aquatic life. The benefits of removing nitrogen and phosphorous, while harder to estimate accurately, are highly likely to exceed the costs, which can be estimated more accurately before equipment installation in most scenarios. While full biological and chemical removal to reach the lowest levels can be expensive, MWRD should begin to use the lowest cost alternative initially (most likely biological treatment) ? one that is compatible with follow-on steps (most likely chemical) to lower levels further. However, recent advances in biological removal have lowered costs and increased the capacity of biological methods to reduce nitrogen to very low levels. Some methods of nitrogen removal offer reductions in cost as plant size increases, as incremental benefit/cost ratios can differ; MWRD has significant cost advantages with some technologies due to the scale of its plants. Life-cycle costs vary greatly for de-nutrification equipment (nitrogen and phosphorous), from $.20 to $5.25 per gallon per day of capacity. Another very promising and much less expensive way to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous is through innovative policy approaches. While conventional command and control policies often require large enforcement budgets, many other policy alternatives do not. For example, enforcement need not have high costs or be excessive or intrusive. Voluntary agreements, tax incentives, and partnerships with community and environmental organizations can all play important roles. Working with major buyers and sellers of home and agricultural fertilizer and other products to voluntary use only low or no-nitrogen products can help dramatically, especially since these nutrients are usually not needed for Illinois soil. Point sources, such as from MWRD treatment effluent, are more easily monitored and controlled. Non-point sources, such as stormwater or agricultural runoff, are more difficult to control and depend more on these policy-oriented approaches. Green infrastructure, as noted above, not only keeps polluted runoff out of sewers and waterways, but can be an excellent and very inexpensive way to minimize nitrogen and phosphorous, at much lower cost than traditional wastewater treatment plant removal technologies. Several watersheds have economic, traded markets for nutrient pollution permits, giving greater economic benefits to both point and non-point sources that can remove nutrients most cheaply, lowering nutrient pollution at low cost (see World Resources Institute report on the subject). I have spoken with several of the authors of the WRI report; they would be very willing to work with MWRD to explore whether such a traded market holds promise for Cook County and other Great Lakes states, as it has for states in the Chesapeake Bay region. * Renewable Energy at MWRD: I'll push for rapid conversion of MWRD electrical power to fully renewable sources as soon as possible; if negotiated well, this could immediately allow a reduction in the $40 million/year electrical costs that the MWRD now incurs that is by far the largest contributor to the MWRD's carbon footprint and climate change damage. * I will support a full bottom-up and top-down sustainability review to identify areas for improvement at MWRD; * I will support more thorough metrics and benchmarking of MWRD operations ? including environmental operations to allow both management and the public to see MWRD progress on key goals. * I will lead and support a sharp increase in MWRD education efforts on green infrastructure, water conservation, and proper pharmaceutical disposal.