The five candidates on the primary ballot to succeed outgoing Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis say they want to lead the city through its current challenges and into the future.
Rita Ali, Andy Diaz, Jim Montelongo, Sid Ruckriegel and Chama St. Louis are vying for the opportunity to become Peoria's first new mayor since 2005. All five participated in a WCBU candidates forum on Thursday, co-hosted by the League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria and Peoria Public Library.
In the Zoom forum, they addressed such issues as Peoria’s current budget crisis and escalating pension obligations, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, criminal justice reform and racial inequity, and the city’s dwindling population.
As an at-large representative, Ali is one of three current City Council members in the field. She said the multiple crises facing the city present a unique challenge.
“This situation requires experienced and proven leadership to spearhead collective efforts to stabilize Peoria’s social and economic climate and lead our city toward recovery and revitalization. My mindset is that every problem is an opportunity. Peoria is struggling and it has been further beaten down by a terrible pandemic,” Ali said before referencing her namesake legendary heavyweight champion.
“Muhammad Ali said, ‘You don't lose if you get knocked down. You lose if you stay down.’ Peoria will not stay down. I am passionate about building a stronger Peoria that future generations will enjoy and be proud of.”
Diaz operates the Urban Acres farm and Springboard Market in the North Valley neighborhood where he grew up and lives today. He said one of his goals is to make it easier for citizens to work with city management.
“To get where I am now took hard work, and it seemed as if the hardest of that work was dealing with City Hall,” said Diaz. “I know my frustrations aren't unique, and we need to change that to begin to grow our community.
“We have so many talented people in Peoria. We have to empower and enable them to achieve their dreams. We do that with a responsive City Hall that doesn't determine winners and losers before we ever know who was in the race.”
Montelongo chose to enter the mayoral race over seeking re-election in District 4. He said economic development holds the key to solving Peoria's fiscal woes.
“This is a great place to raise a family, build a career and work for a great company in our community. But Peoria also has very serious financial issues that we must address and confront,” said Montelongo. “We have $330 million in pension liability, $150 million in combined sewer overflow, $40 million in the Pere Marquette debacle, a declining population and revenues. Our property tax is one of the highest in Illinois.
“As a mayor of Peoria, I will focus on getting our financial house in order, focus on basic city services – police fire and our roads – and I want to put forward the largest effort ever made in Peoria to help businesses grow and expand.”
Ruckriegel, who is in his second term as an at-large council member, pointed to his experience with job creation and helping businesses grow among his qualifications.
“The job of city council member and the job of mayor are two very different positions. With the job of mayor you must balance all of the requests, priorities and voices of the city,” said Ruckriegel. “I want to be that person for you.
“I've got the most experience on actual job creation, working on small businesses and working on large businesses, listening to the businesses and the residents about why and why not they choose to make Peoria home. I've opposed taxes, fees, fines, and extra charges that drive businesses and our residents away. But I’ve also helped build up our community.”
A community organizer and activist, St. Louis said Peoria deserves a mayor who will prioritize reinvesting in the communities and improving residents' financial well-being.
“One of the ways I plan to do that is with a monthly stimulus program, over incentivizing developers and corporations,” said St. Louis. “Peoria deserves someone who wants to rebuild the table and give residents decision-making power concerning their own communities, and who wants to reimagine public safety as access to resources and opportunities and create a Community Safety Department.
“I'm running because Peoria needs a mayor who wants to rejuvenate our economy by prioritizing scalable and startup businesses over big chains, and who is focused on fixing systemic issues, not continuing the status quo.”
Early questions in the 90-minute forum dealt with Peoria’s budget woes stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and escalating police and fire pension obligations that have prompted placing a referendum on the ballot to gauge voters’ receptiveness to a tax increase to meet those obligations.
“I have a strong record of voting against taxes, fines and fees,” said Ruckriegel, noting he hasn’t made up his mind on how he will vote on the referendum. “We've got a budget that needs to be right-sized, we've got a pension liability, we've got a growing amount of debt that we have not been able to solve, and we keep thinking (it) is the answer to balancing each of these budgets. I actually have the experience to work with large-scale budgets, and I bring that to be able to lead a conversation for the council as we start my zero balanced budgeting source.”
Ali said she opposed placing the referendum on the ballot, believing the measure is an unfair trick question that is only destined to fail. She said one possible solution to the fiscal mess is to consult with outside budget experts and partner with financial industries.
“Our citizens are tired of taxes, and we have to be more creative in terms of ways to generate revenues,” said Ali. “When I worked for the private sector, when our customer base changed, we had to change the way that we did business; we had to diversify. In many ways, the city government has to be more like business in terms of modifying what you're doing, thinking out of the box and being creative in ways to generate revenues.”
St. Louis disagreed with the idea of taking a private sector approach, and said the city should be open to progressive ideas and employ a fully-staffed innovation team to explore creative ways to increase revenue.
“A city should not be run like businesses. The government's mission is to provide for all citizens to the common good, so I am not in favor of running a city like a business,” said St. Louis. “To be quite frank, there isn't much left to cut at this point. We're already cutting into our core services. So I think we should be focusing on core services and growing our local businesses.”
Montelongo proposed implementing a development plan called “economic gardening” that he said produced positive results in Rochester, N.Y.
“We can no longer tax our people, (and) we can only cut so much at City Hall,” said Montelongo. “The only way out of this mess that we're in is for growth. I want to help our small and medium sized businesses grow. That's our only way out of the problems that we're in today.”
Suggesting a need to take separate approaches to long-term and short-term responsibilities, Diaz reiterated his belief that city hall must make it easier for Peoria businesses to thrive.
“We will have to look at the budget and cut expenditures that are ‘nice to have’ but that aren't actually generating revenue,” said Diaz. “I don't have the experience of being on the city council, but I can tell you that the candidates that have been on the council have not introduced those short term cuts because there are too many ‘sacred cows.’ We need to stop that, take a look at the budget and figure out how we get to a balanced budget without adding additional fees, taxes and costs.”
Two other questions posed in the forum sought the candidates’ positions on criminal justice reform and improving racial equity, following last year’s civil unrest in reaction to the death of George Floyd and similar incidents across the nation.
“There are many moral reasons why we should focus on equity, but it's also important to realize that not everybody is motivated by the same moral reasons,” said St. Louis. “We have to be able to draw the connections between the outcomes of our people in our community, to the future of our economy for it to begin to make a real shift in terms of level of importance.
“I think that Peoria could do a lot for racial inequity by first acknowledging that it exists. I think we still have people in leadership positions (and) in elected positions who are in denial about the level to which racism exists here in Peoria, and then really work through policy to undo a lot of those harms. I think it's going to take someone who has been advocating for racial inequity for a long time, who knows what the issues are, and what is needed to actually curtail that.”
Ali noted she has been an advocate for equity in her positions with Illinois Central College and formerly at Bradley University, and touted her roles with the city and county's Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity and the Police Community Relations Board.
“Criminal justice reform should be an ongoing process that shouldn't start and stop,” said Ali. “I've advocated for body cams, and I believe that body cams have made both citizens and police more accountable. I advocated for no chokeholds and other policies that make us more responsible and accountable. One thing that I really advocated strongly for was CALEA (Commission Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies). It's really the gold standard for public safety; it’s an improvement process, and it takes a lot of work, a lot of effort (and) it takes community engagement as well.”
Diaz said he has personally experienced the systemic biases and inequity on a regular basis.
“I see this every day, part of it because I go through these processes, having grown up in the North Valley, having experienced all of this in my life, and still being able to come out and achieve because I have found success in Peoria,” said Diaz. “We have people that want to change this story. We have great people who say, ‘Black Lives Matter, period,’ and that we can't have justice until then. We need to have someone who's lived it, who's experienced it and who continues to fight on behalf of everybody in their neighborhood and the community at large.”
Montelongo pointed out he helped create the Greater Peoria Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and serves on its board. Regarding criminal justice reform, he suggested more neighborhood outreach.
“Police officers out there, they're going from one issue to another to another to another (and) they don't have time to build relationships in some of the neighborhoods that needed the most,” he said. “One of the proposals that I'm making is that we have a team, two people that are together when they go into some of the tough neighborhoods, where they have the ability to spend more time with the community because that's exactly what's needed. I'm also for having a police office or substation in some of the higher areas of crime so we get that chance to develop those relationships.”
Ruckriegel referenced the frequently cited 2016 ranking by 24/7 Wall Street labeling Peoria the worst city for Black Americans.
“I sure hope that nobody in the city of Peoria had to wait for a magazine or newspaper article to know that we had opportunities and challenges that we needed to face. We have an inequality, and as a council member and off of council, I have worked continuously in various ways to be able to bridge this gap. I think there's a lot of work to be done,” said Ruckriegel, touting his development of internship programs and workforce opportunities, raising money for scholarships, and supporting programs for affordable housing.
The two candidates receiving the most votes in the Feb. 23 primary election will advance to the consolidated election on April 6.
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