Susan Smentek: 2021 candidate for Elmhurst 1st Ward Alderman
In the April 6, 2021, consolidated election, incumbent Jennifer Veremis and challengers Susan Smentek and Kevin Flanagan are vying for a two-year term as Elmhurst 1st Ward Alderman. The Daily Herald asked the candidates several questions about issues facing the city. Below are Smentek's responses.
In-person early voting with paper ballots is available at DuPage County Fairgrounds Building 5, 2015 Manchester Road, Wheaton. In-person early voting with touch-screen voting begins March 22 at locations throughout the county. Learn more at www.dupageco.org/earlyvoting.
Occupation: CPRP, Certified Park and Recreation Professional at Elmhurst Park District (2013-2020) and Director of Music at Elmhurst Presbyterian Church
Civic involvement: Former Board Member Elmhurst Music Boosters; Hawthorne PTA Committee Co-Chair, Sandburg PTA Committees; York PTSA; Elmhurst Presbyterian Church, Member; lead and support drives for DUPAGEPADS & Elmhurst-Yorkfield Food Pantry; Youth Sports Elmhurst Impact Dance Company, Elmhurst Eagles Cheer, Elmhurst Youth Baseball; Hawthorne Cub Scouts Pact 24; Former Illinois Arts Council Ethnic and Folk Arts Panelist, Former Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs Community Arts Assistance Program Panelist; Member, Illinois Park and Recreation Association; Founder, Elmhurst VOICE Ward 1 (Voicing Our Ideas Citizens of Elmhurst) Group
Q: How do you view your role in confronting the pandemic: provide leadership even if unpopular, give a voice to constituents -- even ones with whom you disagree, or defer to state and federal authorities?
A: As an alderman, abiding by federal law is a given. On the state level, law is mandated to the municipalities. At the level of municipal government, it is my job to listen to my constituents and inform them of any federal and state guidelines. As their elected representative, it is my job to listen, communicate, and voice their concerns to the city manager and city council.
Q: Did your town continue to adequately serve its constituents during the disruptions caused by the pandemic? If so, please cite an example of how it successfully adjusted to providing services. If not, please cite a specific example of what could have been done better.
A: City services were uninterrupted during COVID-19 the city made necessary changes to service the community and keep their staff safe. City of Elmhurst staff successfully adjusted the in person early voting set up to accommodate social distancing and efficient movement of voters through the process. Through signage on the walls and markings on the pavement and floors, along with staff on hand to give assistance and directions, expectations were clear. Everything flowed smoothly on the day that I went to vote. Many neighbors reported similar experiences. I was very impressed with their efforts and the protocols that they put in place.
Q: In light of our experiences with COVID-19, what safeguards/guidelines should you put in place to address any future public health crises?
A: This experience has taught us how to address a pandemic and, it isn't over yet. There is still much to learn. We have learned a great deal about how our health care systems can support schools and educators with both education about the protocols involved in safe operations and with vaccine distribution to staff and teachers.
While the city isn't in control of health care, we are all navigating through this new territory together. We should work toward establishing more efficient communications systems, as residents are looking for one place to go for reliable information about the crisis. One of the major groups that the city might become better able to assist is the senior population. Through this experience the city might consider improving methods of communicating to the seniors to support them with access to the resources they need in order to navigate locating vaccine appointments.
We certainly have level of organization now that we didn't have before COVID-19, with room for future improvements.
Q: What cuts can local government make to reduce the burden of the pandemic on taxpayers?
A: The city can evaluate the services that are currently being performed by consultants, require competitive bids and evaluate relationships that it has with long term contractors, to ensure that taxpayers are paying competitive prices and are receiving proper value for the service. Regarding the 50% rate increase for water and sewer proposed in the Baxter and Woodman consultant report, the city can examine all of the options in the proposal and work to come up with a new option that places the least amount of financial burden on the residents. We must be fiscally responsible, sustainable and affordable.
Q: What do you see as the most important infrastructure project you must address? Why and how should it be paid for? Conversely, during these uncertain economic times, what infrastructure project can be put on the back burner?
A: There are two large infrastructure projects taking place in Ward 1.
The College View Stormwater Project, $4.7M funded by bonds. Work on the project starts June 1 with completion in the Fall. Construction will disrupt the neighborhood. Remaining in communication with the residents of the Ward about project updates is a priority.
The Metra Station Project has a total cost of approx. $25M. The project is partially funded by grants from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program administered by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Surface Transportation Program, the Illinois Commerce Commission, and Metra. Federal grants are anticipated to fund future phases of the work, to leverage city funding. Keeping Ward 1 residents informed about opportunities for public input is important. Many of them live within sight and/or walking distance of the station.
The City's Preliminary 2021 Five-Year Capital Expenditure Budget already takes into account that the timing of some of the larger Public Safety Building Improvement projects may be pushed out a few years, in order to allow the local economy to improve before taking on additional debt.
Q: Do you plan to address businesses that don't adhere to the governor's order to close or restrict business?
A: With lower rates of transmission, DuPage County moved to operating under Phase 4 mitigation guidelines on February 3. Examples of what the guidelines allow include restaurants and bars (permitted to have indoor drinking and dining with capacity limits and restrictions), and health and fitness businesses (also allowed to operate indoors with restrictions and capacity limits). We need to be supportive of our local businesses because many of them have their life savings on the line, as well as the livelihoods of their employees. In Elmhurst, local groups have also pulled together to find ways to support the businesses and restaurants (for example, readers can search social media to see if their town has a "Take Out 25" group that promotes spending $25 weekly getting take out from local restaurants).
As vaccines become more widely available, and everyone who wants one is able to receive one, we look forward to a bright future. Ultimately, we do need to look at protocols reflective of the CDC guidelines, remain vigilant, and maintain the progress that we have made toward combating COVID-19.
Q: Do you agree or disagree with the stance your board/council has taken on permitting recreational marijuana sales in the community? What would you change about that stance, if you could?
A: The City Council abided by the process and due diligence of what they felt was right for our community and that decision has been made. If the residents voice a concern now that indicates we should revisit the topic, data will be available from other communities that should be studied. Without resident support and input, I would not exercise additional resources to further investigate recreational marijuana sales at this time.
Q: What's one good idea you have to better the community that no one is talking about yet?
A: There are a lot of great ideas being talked about by candidates and residents! I would like to see City Hall and City Council take a more customer/resident-centered approach to the services it offers and to the major projects it undertakes, such as the Metra Station. The City could be more involved in helping seniors in our community navigate the various services available to them. The outcry of seniors, or their adult children, asking on social media for help in securing vaccine appointments revealed a need to connect people to resources and information in a meaningful way. It became especially clear during the COVID-19 shutdowns that Elmhurst lacks a true Community Center, the kind of place and organization that seniors can access for a variety of services.