Decatur City Council

I previously wrote that I wouldn’t endorse any candidate in the municipal election, and I intended to stick with that, but I want to share who I think would be the best city council picks for Decatur.   Knowing my endorsements sure didn’t help John McCain or Hillary Clinton, I sure hope I’m not the kiss of political death, but I’m going to share my picks anyway.

A few weeks ago I sent questions to most of the candidates.  Out of ten candidates to whom I sent questions to, only four replied.  The lack of responses from the majority of the candidates, tells me everything I need to know.  Okay, I’m not Larry King or Oprah Winfrey; I’m sure there’s more important people to impress, but it’s not my ego that concerns me.  I’m just a concerned resident of Decatur.  If they aren’t willing to respond to me, a nobody, how could I believe they’d respond to the other 70,000 nobodys in town?   It changed my mind about nearly all of the candidates.  In fact, several of the people I was going to vote for, lost my vote.

2 Year Candidates:  Marcia Phillips, Larry Foster, Pat McDaniel

My pick:  Pat McDaniel

I have had discussions, albeit through a blog, with Pat McDaniel, but I think it’s given me a pretty good idea of the type of person he is.  He seems like someone who would be independent enough to vote based upon, not only his convictions, but community input.  He’s conservative but not aligned with any particular organization in town.  He’s been involved with the community for many years, in many different roles.  He has plenty of knowledge of city council issues, having been a reporter for the Decatur Tribune, covering city council meetings for several years.  I believe he would be a reasonable voice on the council.

4 year Candidates:  Betsy Stockard, Dan Caulkins, Rev. Carey Grady, Adam Ruderman, Matthew Jackson, Julie Moore-Wolfe, Jerry Dawson, Adam Brown

There are three 4-year council seats up for election.  If Mike McElroy wins as mayor, his seat will be open; it’s likely that one of the losing candidates would be appointed to fill McElroy’s seat.

Here are my best picks:

Jerry Dawson – His response to my questions was convincing.  I agree with everything he wrote.  I think we’re on the same page, regarding many issues.  I wasn’t aware of that prior to his response.  He isn’t running as a “change” candidate, or a “chamber” candidate.  He’s just running as a candidate.  Refreshing.   Much of Decatur’s success is dependent upon our school district.  Even though the city council and school board are two different entities, they still need to work together to make Decatur public schools, the best in our area.  It will require both our city council and school board working together to make that happen.  I believe Dawson understands this.  Making our neighborhoods safer and more attractive, will boost property values, and encourage young families to choose to stay in Decatur.  This will create more revenue for both the city and school district.  More importantly, it will create a better environment for kids to grow up in.  Decatur needs to retain its’ young families, if we are to have positive growth and success in the future.

Adam Ruderman – Before I sent Ruderman my list of questions, he contacted me to come speak before the neighborhood group that a few neighbors in my area are trying to form.  To me, that shows someone who is willing to get to know the people he would represent.   A very important quality.  I also like his ideas for lakefront development.  In the Business Journal of Midcentral Illinois, he pointed out his interest in capitalizing on Decatur’s most attractive asset – our lake.  “A boardwalk with everything from restaurants, specialty shops, arcades, etc. would give Central Illinoisans another reason to visit Decatur for a day or two.”  I too believe it would be a unique attraction to the city and open up many possibilities and sources of revenue.  I agree with him on several other issues as well.  He also understand labor issues, which is important in a city like Decatur.

My third candidates choice is a toss up.  I’m not even sure who I’m going to vote for yet, but I think any of these candidates would be a good choice:

Rev. Carey Grady: I believe he understand the problems of many of our most troubled youth in the community.  As a pastor, he’s on the frontlines every day.  I also believe he would be a voice for a large part of Decatur that hasn’t always been represented well in the community – our inner city.

Adam Brown: Brown is an energetic individual who I believe would be receptive to new ideas, and represent a segment of our population, of which Decatur desperately needs to attract and retain – young professionals.  I also agree with his stance on city taxes.  Decatur needs to be competitive with its neighboring communities to attract new business.  Having a younger and fresher perspective on the city is important.

Matthew Jackson (Write-In Candidate): Of all the candidates I have discussed, Jackson is the one I have had the most discussions with over the past couple of years.   He has faithfully attended city council meetings, and knows the issues well.  I believe that he would take the time to study all aspects of an issue before voting on it.

Mayoral candidates:  Steve Daniels, Mike McElroy

My pick:  Steve Daniels. We know what status-quo has produced, and if we take a look around Decatur, we can see that it hasn’t achieved the effect many of us, working paycheck to paycheck, or trying to live without a paycheck, would like to see.  Our city council has paid more attention to neighborhood issues as of late, but much of that is the result of ChangeDecatur’s efforts to give neighborhoods more of a voice in the city.   I have been an opponent of ChangeDecatur in the past, and haven’t agreed with some of their tactics, but I think it’s fair to say- the opposing side isn’t without fault either.

Daniels education plan is on the right path, even though at this point, funding hasn’t been secured.   I’m skeptical of it coming to fruition, but it shows me, that Daniels is at least thinking outside the box.  I think a better alternative is to have Richland begin offering 4-year degrees.  It would allow recent high school grads and adult learners an affordable option.  Any way you slice it, Decatur needs an educated workforce to attract different employers, of which we haven’t been able to attract in the past.  Decatur hasn’t been able to diversify our job base, in large part because we are seen as only a blue-collar town.  The percentage of college graduates in Decatur is less than Springfield, Bloomington-Normal, and Champaign-Urbana.  It puts us at a disadvantage right off the bat.   If we are to attract high paying white collar jobs, we have to have a trained workforce ready to fill those positions.

I have some reservations of Daniels, but McElroy seems to lack a vision to really improve Decatur in any meaningful way.  I haven’t heard anything new from him.  No, I don’t want empty promises, or impossible plans, but I do want a mayor who is open to new ideas.  I’m willing to give Daniels two years to try a different approach.

In conclusion, I think it’s important to see new faces on the city council.  While I respect all of the candidates running for office, and have nothing against any one of them personally, I tried to pick the people that I believe would put forth the most effort to improve Decatur and, most importantly,  respond to residents’ needs.   I believe it’s important to have people from all walks of life on our city council, with open minds, and new ideas.   In a city that could easily have a 10% unemployment rate soon, we need to try something different.

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Tomorrow night the Decatur city council will be discussing an initiative to introduce alternative biofuel grasses to the Lake Decatur watershed area.  If I got it right, this pertains to grasses that could be used as a bio-energy source and a means to help prevent soil erosion, which is causing sediment buildup in Lake Decatur.  It’s purpose is to study how well such grasses would do in our area and encourage farmers to switch to such grasses for biofuel production.  Well, considering Central Illinois was once covered with 12 foot tall prairie grasses, I think our soil can grow grass pretty darn good!

Unlike corn, grass actually gives back considerable amounts of nutrients to the soil, thus requiring far less, if any fertilizer – which finds its way into our water supply.  After all, we can credit the prairie grasses that once covered our part of the state for our rich soil.

Personally, I’ve never been a proponent of corn-based ethanol.  Corn ethanol, in essence, takes about as much energy to produce as it yields.  It’s also highly subsidized by the federal government and takes massive amounts of water to produce.  It requires approximately 1,700 gallons of fresh water to produce one gallon of ethanol!  This is undoubtedly a huge strain on our lake and local water supply.  We’re not alone.  Other regions in the county have dealt with the strain corn-based ethanol production puts on their water supplies.  Switching to grasses, like Switchgrass for our biofuel needs, is certainly something to consider.

Here’s an interesting article on switchgrass:  http://bioenergy.ornl.gov/papers/misc/switgrs.html

City Council Agenda for January 20, 2009:  http://decaturil.gov/citygovernment/council/council_agenda.htm

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I just wanted to point out, what I think is a good explanation, for the city council’s decision regarding the recent police station.  A couple of concerned residents wrote a letter to the editor on the Herald & Review asking why the old Regions building wasn’t chosen, and I think the reply by Dan Caulkins is very informative.

http://www.herald-review.com/blogs/letterstotheeditor/?p=3791#comments

By the way, thumbs up to Dan Caulkins for directly answering a resident’s question online. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him do that.

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Here’s a few city council candidate links that I’m aware of:

Adam Ruderman

http://www.voteruderman.com

Dan Caulkins

http://www.dancaulkins.com/

Steve Daniels

http://www.stevedaniels2009.com

If anyone knows of any other candidate’s link, I’d be happy to post it here.

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Not a whole lot was voted on during last night’s Decatur’s city council meeting, mostly annexation requests, but there were two interesting study session topics. The Decatur Celebration, represented by Fred Puglia, presented its “Welcome Home Mr. Lincoln” concept for the Celebration, which is a three day event held in August every year. The Celebration is seeking additional funds to pay for Abraham Lincoln themed events such as: a railsplitting contest, a Lincoln look alike contest, a Lincoln funeral museum, a wood carvers competition with a Lincoln theme, a Civil War museum, and banners. 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and Puglia expressed that it would be a good idea to theme this year’s anniversary after Lincoln in celebration of the anniversary. Puglia was hoping to secure another $75,000-$96,000 in an additional funds from the city to help pay for the events. The city already helps subsidize the Celebration each year at around $35,000. No vote was taken but some council members weighed in with their thoughts.

Looking for Lincoln Funds and the 2% Motel Tax

Councilman Edwards asked what the status of the Looking for Lincoln funds were at this time. Last month the council approved using much of the Looking for Lincoln funds to help cover pension costs. $540,000 was taken from the fund to make up for the city’s budget shortfall leaving approximately $34,000 of unallocated money, according to Kim Bauer.

Currently, a 2% motel tax provides money to the Looking for Lincoln funds. The tax is set to expire in August of 2009. (The Herald & Review listed 2010 in its article but I wrote in my notes 2009…) At any rate, city manager Ryan McCrady recommended continuing the tax beyond the sunset date, expressing that it wasn’t a tax on the residents and wasn’t a noticeable deterrent to guest staying at Decatur’s hotels.

Matching Funds

An interesting part of the tax, if I’ve got this right, is that Federal money totaling between $1,000,000 – $1,500,000 is or will be available to a 42 county wide area in the state of Illinois, to those counties that have matching funds. These fund could go towards capital improvement projects, education and training programs. I’m not sure if these funds are only for Abraham Lincoln projects. (I’ll have to email the Convention and Visitors Center and clarify that.) The matching funds are to be available for a 15 year period, so if Decatur wanted to qualify for the 50/50 matching funds from the federal government through the Federal Park System, the tax would need to stay in place.

As far as the fund request for the Celebration, no decision was made but both councilmen Leagler and Caulkins believed that the city shouldn’t be responsible for funding such attractions, instead the budget for the Decatur Celebration should pay for it. Puglia responded that there is no additional money in the budget for the attractions. However, Caulkins offered to help with some of the cost personally and encouraged other private individuals and businesses to step up. Another discussion is scheduled in two weeks regarding the request.

Noise Ordinance

A study session also discussed the current noise ordinance. Mr. Wheeler, I don’t want to misspell his first name, came before the council and expressed why he felt the ordinance should be amended. Currently vehicles that are issued citations for playing excessively loud music are impounded. The bond fee to get the vehicle back is $250. There is an additional $250 fine and a court fee of $75 – plus towing fees.

A problem of the ordinance is in such a scenario where the car owner is not the one pulled over for violating the ordinance. The violator is issued a $250 fine, however the car owner is responsible for paying the $250 bond to release the vehicle from impoundment. Plus there are towing fees and court costs. I hope I have all of the numbers right, it was a bit confusing to follow. So in essence the car owner, who wasn’t the actual offender could end up paying more than the violator. There’s also the problem that those who’s cars are impounded are left without a ride. Police officers also have to stay with the vehicle until it is towed. A concerned citizen remarked that police officers had better things to do with their time than wait with a vehicle until it is towed away for a noise ordinance violation. Several other citizens stepped up in favor of continuing the ordinance as is because they felt is had worked in greatly reducing the noise issue.

In the end three council members expressed interest in amended the ordinance in some manner while three others thought it should be left as is. The mayor was the deciding factor and sided with those who thought the ordinance didn’t need to be amended.

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You’ll find a proposal in this week’s city agenda packet with detailed drawings and conceptual renderings of the proposed new Decatur Police Station.  It certainly helps to actually see what the building may look like, if the city can find funding for the project.  The new station is expected to cost between $15,490,000 – $17,436,000.  The new police station would be located just west of the current law enforcement center on the corner of E. Macon and S. Water Street.  The city council will be discussing this proposal tonight during the city council meeting.

http://decaturil.gov/citygovernment/council/packetinfo/policeproposal.pdf

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