“Candidates for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District usually don’t have Web sites, don’t march in the Gay Pride Parade, and don’t receive endorsements from Democracy for America meetups. The board of commissioners is typically filled by Democratic organization veterans and longtime district employees, and campaigning typically means buttering up the committeemen who do the slating, passing out yard signs, and hoping your name comes first on the ballot.”

That’s the opening of Christopher Hayes’s 2005 story about Debra Shore’s energetic campaign to join the water rec board, which oversees the agency that treats wastewater—that is, sewage—and then releases it into a drainage system leading to the Mississippi. Thanks in part to the interest raised by Shore’s 2006 election, the three board spots on the ballot this year have provoked an intense, costly, and fascinating Democratic free-for-all among the trio of incumbents and five aggressive challengers. And most of them have Web sites.

Commissioners are paid $50,000 to $70,000, depending on their years of service, for what’s supposed to be a part-time job. Angling to keep the gig are commissioners Frank Avila, an engineer; Kathleen Meany, a political science professor; and Cynthia Santos, who also works in the secretary of state’s office. Challenging them are Diane Jones, last year’s city clerk runner-up whose campaign is being run out of state senator Rickey Hendon’s reelection office; attorney Dean Maragos, who’s spent more than $186,000 of his own money on the race; attorney Mariyana Spyropoulos, who’s spent more than $268,000 of her father’s money on the race (plus thousands more handed out to Hendon and other party regulars); Derrick Stinson, a water rec employee who’s spent a mere $23,000 of his own cash; and Matthew Podgorski, a manager for Kraft Foods.

Meany’s the board veteran, having served for 17 years, and Avila is one of its most enthusiastic promoters, prone to saying things like, “We’re talking about water and environment, the safety of the planet! The good lord made the planet, and he made human beings! In order for humans, animals and plants to survive, we need water! Without water, we wouldn’t even make it to February 5th!”

Santos, in contrast, acts like she doesn’t care about holding her seat—or showing up to fill it for board meetings.

The board meets twice a month except in August, when it meets once. But in 2007 Santos skipped six of its 23 meetings—an attendance rate below 75 percent. No other commissioners missed more than two meetings, and five, including Avila, didn’t miss any.

At the same time, records show, Santos was taking advantage of a district perk by having taxpayers reimburse her for $1,800 in tuition at Northeastern Illinois University. In her quest for a bachelor’s degree, Santos took Art in Society, Business and Economic Statistics, U.S. History, and The World of Fiction. (I haven’t seen her report card.)

Santos—wife of state rep Rich Bradley—didn’t return repeated calls for comment.

“If you can’t even make those meetings, why are you a commissioner?” wonders Spyropoulos.

But Spyropoulos is under attack now too. She, Podgorski, and Maragos have taken a cue from Shore and framed their candidacies as part of an environmental movement; on its Web site, the Illinois Sierra Club has a pleasant-looking picture of the three of them winning its endorsement.

On Friday, though, Podgorski issued a press release accusing Spyropoulos of greenwashing. Podgorski noted that while she’s promised to battle BP and other companies that pollute the lake, the primary source of her campaign financing—her pops, Theodor—is the owner of a gasoline distribution company.

“It’s a shame that I have to bring all this up,” he said in an interview. But, he charged, Spyropoulos running as an environmentalist “is like Mel Gibson running for prime minister of Israel.”

Spyropoulos dismissed the charge. “People are entitled to say whatever they want—that’s the beauty of democracy,” she said. She added that her dad is also concerned about the environment—he’s deeply involved in an organization that fights deforestation in Greece.

“My father has been very helpful to me, as any father would,” she said. “And I’m not suggesting BP go out of business; I’m urging them to be more responsible for how and where the dump their toxins—until we find an alternative to burning gasoline.”