From Free Medical Care To Ending Water Shut-Offs: Lightfoot’s Mayoral Blueprint

Lori Lightfoot celebrates her victory in the mayoral election at the Chicago Hilton in Downtown Chicago, on April 2, 2019. On Friday, Lightfoot's transition team released a plan for her first term. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Lori Lightfoot celebrates her victory in the mayoral election at the Chicago Hilton in Downtown Chicago, on April 2, 2019. On Friday, Lightfoot's transition team released a plan for her first term. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

From Free Medical Care To Ending Water Shut-Offs: Lightfoot’s Mayoral Blueprint

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Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot’s transition team on Friday unveiled an ambitious policy blueprint that her administration hopes to tackle over the next four years.

Lightfoot is set to be inaugurated as Chicago’s first black woman mayor on Monday. Ahead of that, more than 400 people participated in roundtable discussions to craft her transition plan.

Read the full transition report here

That work culminated in a more than 100-page report released Friday morning, as leaders of the 10 committees took turns presenting their plans to the mayor-elect at a breakfast held at Malcolm X College on the city’s Near West Side.

Lightfoot said the purpose was simple: Give people a role in shaping their government.

“People have felt estranged and distant from their government — government isn’t legitimate in the eyes of way too many people,” she said.

Transition reports are common at the start of new administrations, though they’re often shelved and forgotten. But Lightfoot said she would treat these policy goals the same way she treated a task force report she drafted on the Chicago Police Department three years ago.

“You know me well,” she told reporters after the breakfast. “When I led the Police Accountability Task Force, I was determined that our report wouldn’t just be relegated to the dustbins of history. I take exactly the same approach to this transition.”

WBEZ beat reporters have the highlights.

More “restorative justice” in schools

The most pointed recommendation from the education committee was for Lightfoot to replace police stationed at Chicago public schools with “restorative justice,” such as peace circles or conversations in which young people talk through their issues.

In response, Lightfoot brought up an incident in which a school-based police officer was seen dragging a student down the stairs in a West Side high school. She didn’t call for getting rid of police in schools, but Lightfoot already has instructed Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson to look at other models around security.

“To see whether or not we can have other responders who are truly trained to address issues that come up in schools with some different tools other than arrest power,” she said. “I feel confident that we will come up with a set of proposals that we will implement starting in the next school year that reenvisions this incredibly difficult thing.”

Another big change recommended is to revise how schools are funded. The education transition committee wants money distributed per school based on a formula that considers equity and what’s needed at schools that serve low-income students to provide an “adequate” education. Currently, schools are provided a stipend per student. Schools serving a majority low-income student body get slightly more per student.

Other recommendations focused on early childhood education, postsecondary options for students and increasing parental voice.

— Sarah Karp

Making hospitals treat more patients for free

Could City Hall force local hospitals to provide their “fair share” of free medical care to patients?

That’s one idea Lightfoot’s transition team is floating as a way to boost access to care for people who are uninsured.

The notion would likely cause heartburn among Chicago-area hospital CEOs. For the past several years, the Cook County-run health system has taken on a greater share of providing free care in the county, while other public and private hospitals have provided less, a WBEZ investigation found last year.

The county’s two public hospitals provided nearly half of all the free care in Cook County in 2016, a WBEZ analysis found. No other hospital came close.

In fact, Dr. Jay Shannon, CEO of the county health system, told WBEZ he believed hospitals were sending more uninsured patients his way, especially people who needed expensive surgery or cancer treatment.

Other recommendations from the transition committee include housing more primary care, mental health and substance abuse services near each other to reach more people. The committee also recommends that corporations should help fund mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The report suggests Chicago should have its own chief of Medicaid, the government-run health insurance program for low-income and disabled people. That person could advocate for the program to cover more services, and pay doctors and hospitals more for the care they provide.

“We believe Chicago can follow the path of New York and San Francisco,” David Munar, one of the transition committee members, said on Friday. “Really close the gap to make sure everyone has access to care.”

— Kristen Schorsch

Tackle housing with “historic and visionary lenses”

More affordable housing and more equitable development beyond the downtown are two areas stressed on Friday.

“Chicago can heal from within, leading a renaissance, if we are bold enough to reckon from our past,” said the housing committee co-chair Angela Hurlock, with Claretian Associates. Lightfoot should approach housing with “both historic and visionary lenses,” she said, referring to the decades of redlining and housing discrimination that continue to impact housing patterns in Chicago today.

Lightfoot said she’s a supporter of “growth” — a term used often by Emanuel — but said it can’t continue without a stronger policy to boost affordable housing. She pledged to strengthen the city’s affordable housing requirements.

“I can assure you, we will change the affordable requirements ordinance to make sure we are pushing developers to build more units on site,” she said, adding that those units must also be “family-friendly.” Usually, when developers are forced to provide a minimum number of affordable units onsite, those units are mostly studio and one-bedroom apartments.

— Claudia Morell

An end to water shut-offs

Lightfoot also announced Friday that she plans to stop the city’s controversial practice of cutting off water from residents who can’t afford to pay their water bills.

L. Anton Seals Jr., executive director of Grow Greater Englewood, who was part of Lightfoot’s environment transitional team, told the mayor-elect a top priority was to restore water for residents who can’t afford it.

“Water is a human right,” Seals said.

That follows an investigation earlier this year by WBEZ and American Public Media that found thousands of water shut-offs are disproportionately concentrated in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

Lightfoot said she has instructed the water commissioner to stop shutting the water off for residents who can’t afford to pay. She also ordered a full audit of the Chicago’s Department of Water Management.

“I was disturbed, like many of you were, to learn that people in our city were being deprived of water,” Lightfoot said. “Water is a basic human right, and when you cut someone off from water, you’re effectively evicting them and putting them on the street.”

The story found that the cost of water tripled in Chicago over the last decade. The hikes hit Chicago’s poor the hardest. Nearly 40% of the shut-offs were concentrated in only five of Chicago’s poorest areas. Some poor Chicago families have resorted to illegally reconnecting their water after a city shut-off.

The water department has also charged additional fines and fees to residents who have struggled to pay for their bills. Since 2007, the water department has charged almost $7 million in fines and fees, mostly concentrated in poor, black and Latino neighborhoods.

— Maria Ines Zamudio