Frank Avila: Candidate profile
Office sought: Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago
Family: wife Sharilyn, 3 children and 3 grandchildren
Occupation: MWRD Commissioner, Professional Engineer, Professional Land Surveyor
Education: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering
University of Arizona at Tucson, Master of Science in Finance
Civic involvement: The American Society of Civil Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, American Water Works Association, Hispanic American Labor Council, The Midwest Pesticide Action Center, Future City Competition, Irish American Heritage Center, Board of the Mother Jones Heritage Project, Board of These Streets are Holy, Past External Advisory Board for the Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Illinois, Past Board Member of New Hope Food Pantry
Elected offices held: Only MWRD
Incumbent? If yes, when were first elected: I was first elected to the MWRD Board of Commissioners in 2002 and reelected in 2008 and 2014.
Questions and Answers
1. What special knowledge or experience do you have that particularly qualifies you for this office? If you are an incumbent, describe your main contributions. Tell us of any important initiatives you've led. If you are a challenger, what would you bring to the board and what would your priority be?
I am a Civil Engineer who cares deeply about the water, soil, and air environment in Cook County. Civil Engineers are keenly aware of and often most affected by regulations that either advance or impede expeditious, cost efficient, and environmentally effective infrastructure to support our modern society. Civil engineers planned, designed, and built the MWRD's wastewater plants, reservoirs, and tunnels. I understand the technical, environmental, and financial aspects of MWRD operations and projects.
I have a Master of Finance and the experience from running my own engineering business to steer the MWRD to stay at the forefront of fiscally responsible and environmentally forward policy. As Chairman of Finance, I ensure the MWRD maintains AAA/AA+ bond ratings, undertakes pension reform, creates local jobs, and adds billions to the local economy.
One of my main initiatives has been to research and prevent emerging contaminants from entering the sewer system. I advanced a policy to restrict the use of toxic pesticides that pose a threat to human health and the environment from being used on MWRD land and actively educate the public how to use natural lawn care practices.
I pressed for the MWRD to change its investment policy to consider Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) factors when evaluating MWRD investments. As an agency that works to protect health and the environment, it is important to invest in companies that prioritize good environmental and social business practices, while also protecting public funds against risk.
2. How do you view the role the district has played in controlling flooding and what, if any, actions need to be taken to improve things?
From the colossal Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), to regional and local projects that integrate green with gray infrastructure, the MWRD employs a holistic approach to stormwater management and flood control. This approach includes flood prone property acquisitions and regulation of development through the Watershed Management Ordinance. The MWRD has developed over 140 capital stormwater projects that provide homes and business protection from flooding.
The Cook County region faces unique challenges with its large population, combined sewer systems, and highly developed watersheds that cannot be addressed through MWRD infrastructure alone. Now that TARP, a visionary civil engineering accomplishment, is almost completed, the key will be to think small instead of big and improve local sewer systems and continue to fund local green infrastructure (GI) projects to soak up stormwater before it even enters the system.
Funding local projects is crucial to creating a resilient region because they help identify where local sewers can be enhanced to convey more water to TARP as well as where to establish drainage, detention, and GI for most effective results. The 2020 Stormwater Management Fund budget increased by $24.8 million to $116.3 million to further investment in flood control projects and local stormwater issues.
3. What changes in technology, equipment or infrastructure are needed to improve management of the region's water supply.
In order to withstand unpredictable weather caused by climate change, the MWRD must maintain, rehabilitate, and update its infrastructure. If MWRD operations fail, the health of the region is at risk. Aging infrastructure must be assessed and inspected in order to prioritize rehabilitation and modernization projects and to avoid costly emergency repairs.
It is also important to incorporate energy efficiency in the design of infrastructure upgrades. I advocated the MWRD to examine its energy use, reduce its carbon footprint, and exploit its biogas excess. I plan to work with the MWRD to increase its utilization of renewable energy and be a proactive leader in addressing climate change.
Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are an emerging concern that has been detected in the groundwater in a number of states. Evaluating the effects of PFAS on MWRD operations is very important. I will push the MWRD to stay on top of legislation and regulation.
The best way to reduce pollutants in the MWRD system is to prevent them from entering. Collaborating with producers, users, and legislators to discontinue contaminants and find safer alternatives will ease the burden on utilities. Emerging technologies that can filter pollutants could also be a possible solution.
4. What is the role of the district, and of district commissioners, in promoting conservation of resources?
The MWRD reclaims resources like biosolids, nutrients, energy, and water. Every year, 145,000 tons of biosolids are recovered to return to the environment as a soil amendment to aid turf and plant growth. The MWRD opened the world's largest nutrient recovery facility and has consequently removed 86% of all total phosphorus entering its WRPS. Approximately, 30-35% of the MWRD's total energy needs are through renewable energy sources of biogas and hydroelectricity.
Supplementing gray infrastructure with strategic green infrastructure (GI) now plays an important role in easing the burden on MWRD operations as well as providing aesthetic, social, and health benefits. The MWRD has implemented a successful GI and Space to Grow program that has shifted the culture to allow rainwater to soak and seep into the soil instead of the sewer system. MWRD leased lands and the Watershed Management Ordinance also require a GI component. The MWRD has additionally given away over 70,000 free oak trees and distributed over 130,000 rain barrels to encourage residents to help capture stormwater and implement their own conservation practices.
Traveling throughout Cook County, I educate communities about the MWRD and how to be good stewards of the environment. I outreach and organize educational boat rides and tours of MWRD facilities. I distribute countless rain barrels, free trees, and bags of compost to different organizations. The role of the District and Commissioners is to be proactive leaders in promoting conservation of resources.
5. How do you rate the MWRD on transparency and the public's access to records? If you consider it adequate, please explain why. If you think improvements are needed, please describe them and why they are important
In 2019, the MWRD Board of Commissioners unanimously authorized Cook County's Office of the Independent Inspector General to serve as the MWRD's Inspector General (OIIG). The OIIG is specifically tasked with oversight of the MWRD and will create greater accountability and transparency for the agency. The OIIG's jurisdiction includes employees, elected and appointed officials, contractors, and subcontractors. The OIIG conducts investigations and issues findings and recommendations. The OIIG Quarterly reports are publicly available online.
The 2004 MWRD Ethics Ordinance was very recently updated and strengthened to include lobbyist reporting and registration, ethics liaisons for each department, a revolving door policy, and other measures. These amendments reflect the MWRD's commitment to strong ethical practices. The MWRD has many different layers of oversight and ethics monitoring.
Further, the MWRD received an A grade for transparency from the City Bureau. The MWRD has a new and improved website with accessible public information. The MWRD posts meetings, agendas, and minutes from meetings online. I was one of the first Commissioners to encourage meetings to be livestreamed. The MWRD also complies promptly with FOIA. I'm open to any suggestions on how to further improve transparency and public access to records.