After nearly 12 years on the Peoria City Council, Jim Montelongo believes he is the best choice to follow Jim Ardis as the city's mayor.
Elected as the Fourth District representative in 2013 after one term as an at-large council member, Montelongo is one of five candidates on the February primary ballot after Ardis chose not to seek a fifth term.
In a recent discussion with WCBU’s Joe Deacon, Montelongo discussed the city’s financial position, the impact of COVID-19, racial equity and social justice reform, and why he decided to run for mayor.
Joe Deacon: What motivated your decision to not return as District 4 representative and instead seek the mayor's office?
Montelongo: So first of all, on not wanting to re-up for the Fourth District again: I believe I've been in the position for almost eight years now. I feel like we've maintained and moved the Fourth District forward. I think I got a lot of things accomplished that I wanted to get done. So I felt it was time to pass the baton on to the next person.
What are some of the accomplishments that you point to, that you think qualify you to be mayor?
Montelongo: So there's a number of things that I feel like I've accomplished but for districts. First, I created the business roundtable. I got the biggest developers and retail owners together, to work together and come together on a common plan and common goals, and work on a plan to stabilize and make that area one of the best shopping retail areas. Together, we've come up with a new branding for the area. So part of those goals were to make it a clean, safe place for people to shop. Included in that, you see a police substation; we used code enforcement to make it look nice and clean. So those are some of the things that we did with the business community there.
One of the other things that I'm very proud of is my monthly meetings with the community for district residents. From those meetings, I've had representatives from many neighborhood associations throughout my district come together, talk about problems, and solve problems together. I had people from the city staff – the code enforcement, police department, public works – listen to what some of the problems were, and together we saw problems and then took action afterwards to get some of those things taken care of.
When I came into the district, we had several hotspots of crime. We addressed those areas; we created several new neighborhood associations, or I should say maybe got some of them up and running again, to make some of those neighborhoods more stable and enhanced what their neighborhoods look like. So those are probably a few things that I got done that I'm probably most proud of.
How much, if at all, did Mayor Ardis’ decision not to seek another term factor in your choice to run?
Montelongo: It did not impact my decision. I considered running the last term. Everything's got to line up for me just right in order for me to run and certainly this year has been a challenging one, which probably took me a little bit longer to make that final decision that it's time to run for mayor.
After so many years of Mayor Ardis being in the mayor's office, what would be the challenges of following him?
Montelongo: Well, I think Mayor Ardis was and has been a strong leader for the community, and I appreciate all the work that he's done over the years. Everybody wants to see Peoria get better. And for that, from my perspective, I got a chance to see some of the things that he's done well, and maybe some areas that I would do differently. But I think those are probably the pros and cons to it.
What about the crowded field for this year's candidates? Does that make that more of a difficult campaign, and what does that indicate about the direction of city leadership?
Montelongo: I think it's great that we have so many people that are running, and I think it brings a lot of different perspectives. And we'll get a chance to share what they think what some of the problems are for Peoria. I think it's a great thing, and it'll be great to have that debate. Hopefully we get a chance to debate and see what bubbles up to the top, what people like the most.
What do you feel are some of the biggest issues facing the city right now, and how would you go about addressing those as mayor?
Montelongo: So I think some of the biggest issues that are going on right now, obviously the coronavirus is a big thing impacting our city. It's kind of like a gasoline on the fire: our city was struggling already financially, and to put this on there really made things a lot tougher for us. So I would say those are probably our biggest challenges. We’ve got to get our financial house in order, because of the financial issues that we have. We need to get on a solid footing here, and that's probably our biggest challenge overall.
Following up on the COVID-19 pandemic. what's your stance on enforcing the governor's restrictions?
Montelongo: Well, I think what's important is that we follow CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and making sure our businesses are following that. We need to work together with our restaurants and retailers to make sure that they can remain open here. I know we need to probably be pushing that discussion with the governor on, you know, what is safe.
I've seen some other communities right across the river that remained open, and there's no data that says it's coming from restaurants or retailers, where it’s happening. I do believe though we need to make sure that we're doing it in the safest way possible and following the people in the health environment that tells us, the CDC tells us: “These are the guidelines. This is what must be followed.” If you're not following those, then we need to make sure those businesses are not open until they're ready to.
You mentioned getting the city's financial house in order; obviously, the budget issue is well chronicled over the past several months. What would be some of your proposals to try and keep things in line and help the financial position of the city?
Montelongo: First of all, what I'm hearing from the business community and residents (is) no more taxes, no more fees. I think that's part of our biggest problem; we can't tax-and-fee our way out of the problems that we have for our community. That's chasing people away, it's chasing businesses away and we want our businesses to do well. So we're kind of being counter-intuitive with that. I understand the need for money.
I have voted no for any of those tax increases over the last eight years, and that's from the feedback that I would hear from my constituents, both at the coffee meetings or from the business roundtable. That's the feedback I got from them; I was being their voice for them at our (City Council) meetings. So that's certainly one of them.
We need to be following up on our basic city services. And when I say basic city services, I mean our police, our fire, and our public works. We need to make sure that we're delivering at the highest quality job, making sure our people have the right training (and) the right equipment to do their job. The other part of it is, we need to do it in a very efficient way. Because when most people are calling for police or fire, they're expecting them to respond very quickly in a short period of time to whatever crisis may be going on at that time.
But we also need to be thinking, “How do we do this efficiently?” We need to hear from the people that work in these departments (about) how can we cut costs and do this in a more efficient way. So that's going to be a big thing is focus on just those services, and how we do them in the most efficient way – and making sure our revenues … our expenses don't exceed our revenues in our city,
Along with the public safety services themselves – and there were some budget cuts that drew a lot of scrutiny over the past few months – there’s also the ballooning pension obligations, and there could be a referendum about that on the ballot. What are your thoughts on how Peoria can maintain those services and address the pension funding?
Montelongo: Yes, that's a very fine discussion that needs to happen and continue to happen. We have a balanced budget for next year. So it will be the coming years that we're going to really have to settle in, and as I was mentioning, we have to run very lean and mean. We're already running lean and mean; we've already made a lot of cuts already, which I did support to help us get closer to a balanced budget. So with that in mind, we need to continue to look for ways to do things more efficiently.
Racial equity and social justice reform have gotten a lot of attention over the past year as areas that need improvement. How would you go about addressing and seeking improvements in those areas?
Montelongo: Well, first of all, I want to be a mayor for all the people in Peoria, and much like I've been doing with my “coffee and conversation” meeting once a month, I want to have meetings throughout our entire city. I want to listen to everybody and tackle some of the problems that they have in different communities, and help them move forward neighborhood by neighborhood or from business by business. I'm also on a board for the greater Peoria Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I understand as well, as I'm a business owner of the minority business, I understand what some of those needs are for the minority community, and I will be a good advocate to help them move forward. They have different needs.
There’s different needs; some of the same problems that might be going on in First District are going to be different than in Fifth District. But we won't know until we're there to listen and solve problems. I think that's the biggest thing; I think one my biggest differences between the past how things are done, and I think I found a successful way of doing it through these breakfast meetings. What we’ve found out is listening to the people is probably the most important thing, and 9 out of 10 times, not only do they know what the problem is but they know what the solution is. And I found out that not necessarily at City Hall where the answers are to these (problems). Nine out of 10 times people have the solution to the problem as well. So it's good to listen, and you have to represent the entire city with the same amount of passion and desire to see people be successful.
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