Ald. Michele Smith, challengers spar over $72,000 consulting fee

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Ald. Michele Smith speaks during a debate held at DePaul Student Center Tuesday night. (Megan Deppen / The DePaulia)

Ald. Michele Smith speaks during a debate held at DePaul Student Center Tuesday night. (Megan Deppen / The DePaulia)

Ald. Michele Smith warded off criticism for her $72,000 side job at the hottest debate in the 43 ward election thus far.

On top of her side job, what she calls “consulting,” for the Helen Coburn Meier & Tim Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts, Smith collects $108,000-a year from the city.

Since the start of the debates, public approval ratings for Smith have declined, and the tense atmosphere from the crowd led onlookers to believe that Smith is going to have a challenging four weeks until the election. 

After addressing Smith’s side job, the other candidates pledged to serve full-time and highlighted that Smith did not offer open ward nights for residents to speak with her. In her defense, Smith listed off her involvement with volunteer work and her dedication to the community.

Candidates Jerry Quandt, Jen Kramer, and Smith’s leading opponent Caroline Vickrey, fueled the fire by tapping into the crowd’s angst over the Children’s Memorial development project.

Candidate Jerry Quandt, who has taken a business approach to many of the issues, said the primary issue in Smith’s administration in regards to development has been the lack of leadership.

“Across the ward there is not an overarching strategic platform for commercial or residential development. It’s an ad hoc process at best,” Quandt said.

Caroline Vickrey said she did not support the current plan for Children’s Memorial and was in favor of establishing a 43 ward zoning board that would partner neighborhood organizations with developers to make “smart development decisions.”

“My opponents wanted [a building] way too big,” Smith said, “and the others wanted something so small that it couldn’t be developed.”

Smith said candidate Vickrey’s supporters wanted to keep the Children’s Memorial development under 62 floors. The crowd booed in response and someone called out, “that’s not true.” 

Vickrey said as alderman she would establish a community development corporation, a non-profit organization designed to help low-income neighborhoods, in order to draw needed businesses to Lincoln Park. 

Vickrey took the idea from a similar project in the Chicago neighborhood, Andersonville, but Smith said the IRS would forbid such a corporation in Lincoln Park because it wasn’t struggling financially.

Vickrey also warned voters of the impending pension crisis.

According to the Chicago Civic Federation report of 2012, the total unfunded liabilities for the 10 local pension funds in Chicago amounted to $37.3 billion.

“We’re at a point where we can’t avoid these discussions any longer,” Vickrey said. “It’s really at a much more of a crisis level than average citizens understand.”

Smith said unless she continued fighting a property tax increase, the audience would see their taxes go up 60 percent.

“Anyone who sits up here and says they’re not going to increases property taxes is crazy,” candidate Jerry Quandt said.

“[Smith has] had four years to do something about [the pension crisis],” Quandt said. “Yes, [Smith has] brought the budget down, but for the last 15 years, Chicago hasn’t kept to a balanced budget. We’ve had to borrow time and time again.”

Candidate Jen Kramer also said she would not support a property tax increase. Kramer said she works closely with labor unions and that they were not included in discussions around the pensions.

Kramer said Chicago was not seeing the revenue they were generating for the state, and the pension crisis could be solved with “a lot of creative budgeting.”

The end of the debate held a flash round of questions committing candidates to a stance on a gambling casino in Chicago, an elected or appointed school board, and the contested red light camera program.

While Vickrey and Quandt said they would consider the casino, Smith rejected the idea while Kramer supported it.

Both Kramer and Smith vouched for an appointed Chicago Public Schools school board, while Vickrey and Quandt suggested a vague plan of a hybrid board of officials.

The red light cameras that caused an uproar from Chicago residents over the past year were according to Smith, “helpful in improving safety in our ward.”

Kramer also supported the cameras for the purpose of safety, while Quandt called the cameras a waste of taxpayer dollars. Vickery took a position in the middle and said the program needed reform.