About a dozen voters braved the rain Wednesday night to learn a little more about DuPage County Board candidates in Districts 1 and 2. Candidates shared their ideas on such things as the environment, flood control, the DuPage Airport Authority and county consolidation—at least as much as their one-minute-per-question time limit would allow.
The forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Elmhurst, also offered an opportunity for a few subtle jabs between candidates.
Only two out of the six candidates running in DuPage District 1, Republicans Paul Fichtner of Elmhurst (incumbent) and Sam Tornatore of Roselle, attended the forum at Community Bank of Elmhurst. Absent were Republican Donald Puchalski of Elmhurst (incumbent) and Democrats Thomas Castillo and Maria DeAngelis-Vesey of Elmhurst, and Rita Gonzalez of Addison (incumbent).
All four of the candidates in the District 2 race attended: Republicans Elaine Zannis of Oak Brook, Elmhurst Mayor Peter DiCianni and Sean Noonan of Elmhurst, and lone Democrat Liz Chaplin of Downers Grove.
Voters will be asked to choose three candidates in each district.
At one point, Chaplin became defensive after DiCianni twice mentioned the importance of having a college degree in running the county's half-billion-dollar budget. He cited his own degree in business management.
"You want people with credibility to make decisions," he said.
Chaplin fired back when answering another question about candidates' attendance at meetings. After sharing her 90 percent attendance record during her eight years on the DuPage Water Commission, she said, "Bill Gates didn't have a (college education). I don't think having a college degree makes you any more qualified than anyone else."
Chaplin also took the opportunity to tout her role as a whistle-blower on the Commission and to take issue with Fichtner's assertion that water rates are high in DuPage because the city of Chicago is "inefficient" and looking to DuPage to repair its own water system.
"We're paying for (Chicago's) inefficiencies," Fichtner said. "They're coming after their biggest customer."
Chaplin acknowledged Chicago is raising the rates, but she said that is not the only reason rates are going up in DuPage. "The DuPage Water Commission misspent $80 million," she said.
Fichtner said the money was not misspent, but "mis-rebated to municipalities in excess of what it should have been."
It was a misuse of sales tax dollars, Chaplin insisted.
"(The commission was) purchasing water for $1.33 and selling it for $1.25 and using sales tax to subsidize that. I called them out on the fiscal mismanagement that was going on," she said.
On the Environment
When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, candidates largely agreed on issues such as potentially replacing vehicles with hybrids.
Chaplin also pointed to improving public transportation and requiring green building standards for any new construction that uses public funds. Tornatore said tax credits for businesses will motivate them to watch their energy consumption, and Fichtner said public-private partnerships are key.
"It's dependent not upon the county, but upon the utilities and creative thinking of local businesses," Fichtner said.
The county has programmed traffic signals to be in sync, reducing pollution and saving time for commuters, Fichtner said. Zannis noted that the traffic signal changes have saved $1.5 million so far.
"If we continue those efforts, it would mean a whole lot to all of DuPage," she said.
DiCianni, who repeatedly mentioned his interest and experience in stormwater management, offered a different idea.
"We in DuPage County have a lot of water—streams like Salt Creek that run through our county," he said. "I think we can turn this water into electricity. It's being tested right now at the quarry (in Elmhurst)."
But water has been more of a problem in DuPage than a resource.
Chaplin is a proponent of green infrastructure, porous pavement, green roofs, street planning and the use of vegetation and soil to manage rainwater. Tornatore said he would like to see new commercial buildings built with underground water retention systems. And Fichtner said the ability to make rain a resource requires public-private partnerships to build solutions and fund regional education programs.
On-site storage is the answer, DiCianni said. Drains in back yards of homes and storing water on properties to take the burden off sewer systems will provide relief.
"I have first-hand knowledge of the problem," he said, referring to the floods of 2010 that severely damaged thousands of homes in Elmhurst. "(It must be solved) both on the private side, by storing more water on one's property and separating clean water from sanitary water, and on the public side, working intergovernmentally, like with the Busse Woods Dam Project."
Zannis also said communities have to work together.
"This is not just a difficulty for DuPage and its unincorporated areas. All municipalities have to work together. We have to have consensus so we all treat wastewater and rainwater effectively," she said.
Noonan pointed to the costly work already done along Salt Creek to keep the banks from overflowing. The county needs to educate municipalities and residents to incorporate rain barrels and rain gardens to keep water from overflowing rivers and creeks. The county is working with School and Community Assistance for Composting and Recycling Education toward this initiative, he said.
Candidates also spoke to the work begun by DuPage Chairman Dan Cronin to consolidate various boards and commissions. Fichtner suggested consolidating DuPage government campus security with the sheriff's office. DiCianni said he would like to look at combining fire districts that cover unincorporated areas but have no firetrucks or stations.
Zannis said consolidation is "the No. 1 key issue as I walk around talking to people." There are opportunities "everywhere," she said.
"We want to reduce costs, we want to consolidate, but we do not want to compromise our county," she said.
In addition to consolidating the Water Commission and DuPage County Board, Chaplin said she would like to see the Election Commission combined with the DuPage Clerk's Office. She also wants to replace the members on the DuPage Board of Review, which handles property tax appeals, and would be in favor of "cutting their $40,000 salary and benefits to a small stipend."
But she was opposed to the closing of the DuPage Juvenile Detention facility and transferring youth to the Kane County facility, which was done earlier this year.
"You can't put a price on the future of our children," she said. "They are (no longer) receiving the same services that will help them be productive citizens when they leave. DuPage offered them a chance to finish their education, Kane does not. It's a burden on families to visit them and a waste of time and gas for officers to transport them."
All candidates but Chaplin said pensions are reasonable for County Board members as long as the system is not abused with double-dipping and spiking.
"It needs to be controlled," Zannis said.
Noonan said while he would not take a pension because he already will receive one from his job as a police officer in Bloomingdale, "people don't realize how much committed time there is. There is a lot more going on behind the scenes" than attending meetings, he said.
DiCianni said board members are responsible for a budget that is larger than that of some states.
"A lot of us put a lot of work in," he said. "I plan on putting a good work effort in to earn those dollars."
He said most of the work he's done in Elmhurst—bringing Mariano's Fresh Market to Elmhurst and founding the Elmhurst Children's Assistance Foundation—he did without compensation. (His position as mayor comes with a stipend.) But matters of the county with regard to public safety are "really matters of life and death."
Chaplin said the position is a part-time job that should not be rewarded with a pension or health benefits. The pension system in Illinois is already overburdened, she said.
"We're running for office to serve the public," she said. "I do not believe this position warrants a pension and I will work to make sure we eliminate it for County Board members."
Tornatore said comparing the state's pension problems to the county is inaccurate. "The two are like oil and water," he said.
Fichtner said the pension program will likely be eliminated anyway.
"Springfield is moving in that direction and I think it will be gone in the next few years," he said.
As for the fiscal health of DuPage, Fichtner cited the county's Triple-A bond rating, consolidation of services and zero percent property tax increases for the past five years.