East Peoria mayoral and commissioner candidates introduced themselves at a breakfast Friday and discussed the possible benefits of a municipal government, the salaries for city employees and economic growth opportunities in a moderated forum.
Friday’s Eggs and Issues breakfast meeting at the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino, sponsored by the East Peoria Chamber of Commerce, was a forum for two mayoral candidates and six commissioner candidates to introduce themselves to the community ahead of the April 2 Tazewell County Consolidated Election.
East Peoria’s mayoral race will pit John Kahl against Tim Jeffers. Kahl is a current member of the East Peoria City Council and the chairman of the Tazewell County Consolidated Communication Board.
“I’m looking forward not only to this forum but the forum coming up (at the Fondulac District Library) on (March) 13, and the next 30 days ahead,” said Kahl. “I’ve already been out engaging the community, and I’ll continue to do so.”
Jeffers has been serving on the East Peoria City Council for 12 years. His experience as a council member has expanded his perspective by giving him the opportunity to interact with the East Peoria Chamber of Commerce, city employees and constituents, he said.
“It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to offer myself as a candidate for mayor,” he said. “I think there are good days ahead for East Peoria, and I think we’ll prove that out.”
The candidates vying for four East Peoria city commissioner seats in the April 2 election are Dan Decker, Mark Hill, Steve Matheny, Norm Sales, Mike Sutherland and Seth Mingus.
Decker has 12 years of experience as a City Council member and 23 years of service with the East Peoria Fire Department. He said he believes that one of the hardest parts of serving his community is that it sometimes cuts into his family life. However, he recognizes East Peoria as a community worth serving.
“I love the city of East Peoria,” he said. “I really enjoy what I do, and I’ve enjoyed the 12 years I’ve been on the council. I love my wife, and I love my kids. It’s difficult sometimes when I have to go away for things and leave them. I appreciate their support.”
Hill hopes that his experience as a certified project management professional with Caterpillar and as a member of the East Peoria Zoning Board of Appeals will serve him in good stead as a city commissioner. Like Decker, his love for his community is a major reason he felt the call to serve East Peoria.
“I was born and raised here,” he said. “My wife of 31 years is also an East Peoria native, and we’ve raised our four children here in East Peoria.”
Unlike Decker and Hill, Matheny is not an East Peoria native, having moved to central Illinois in 1992. However, his attachment to the community in which he has raised his three children appears to have been a strong and lasting one. He has not held elected office, but has served on the East Peoria Community High School District 309 Board of Education for 14 years.
“I chose to live in East Peoria and stay in East Peoria,” said Matheny. “I love the community ... and appreciate everything the community has given me.”
Sales is a first-time political candidate whose horizons and appreciation for East Peoria have both broadened with travel.
“I can remember when East Peoria was the ‘stepchild on the other side of the river,’” Sales said. “We’ve certainly made a lot of progress. I spent the last years of my employment with Dave Hill Express (working) in numerous locations and was actually in five different countries and worked in Chicago. That made me more appreciative of the city of East Peoria and the small-town community feel it brings to us.”
The owner of two small businesses in East Peoria, Sutherland, another first-time political candidate, is an advocate of continuing the city’s economic development.
“I’ve never lived anywhere else,” he said. “I hope that I bring business to the city as far as thoughts on how to do things.”
Mingus is a current member of the Tazewell County Board, as well as the superintendent and principal of South Pekin Grade School. He said he believes that it is vital to the success of all organizations, including municipal governments to frequently study and honestly critique the productivity of their operations.
“All organizations, to be successful, need to analyze what they’re doing and constantly be evaluating if what they’re doing is the most efficient and effective way to do it,” he said. “If elected, one of my goals will be to look at that.”
Following their introductory remarks, the candidates discussed various topics in a forum moderated by Scott Estes, associate superintendent of East Peoria Elementary School District 86.
Addressing the quality of a commissioner form of municipal government versus a city manager form, Kahl expressed a belief that a city council with five commissioners like East Peoria’s has the potential to be more productive than a much larger council because it can streamline the decision-making process.
“I know that last August, there were two different resolutions brought forward, seeking to put a referendum on the ballot and allow the voters to decide whether or not to change the form of government,” he said. “One (option) was city manager, and the other would have defaulted our government to aldermanic. But I think with the right people in place, (a commission) is a great form of government to serve, as well.”
Jeffers said that while there are advantages to both the commission and the city manager form of government, the most important factor in municipal government is not its form, but rather the quality of its officials.
“Whichever form you choose, it depends on the quality of the people,” he said. “You can have very good people or you can have people who make poor decisions. I’m more concerned with the people I serve with than the form of government I serve.”
Decker, in addressing economic growth opportunities, cited simple geography as one of biggest obstacles to commercial and residential growth in East Peoria.
“I think it’s obvious that the city of East Peoria is landlocked,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of room to expand. (We have) the (Illinois River) on one side and all the communities around us, so we only have so much potential to develop.”
Decker also believes that infrastructure problems could hold back East Peoria’s growth potential if not addressed.
“We have to put more money into our streets, and we have to put more money into infrastructure in general.”
Matheny said that the city has done well in the past in working with developers and businesses. An atmosphere that continues to be business-friendly and encourage development will sustain a flourishing local economy,
“We need to help increase businesses by bringing more customers to them,” he said. “Residentially, we have areas where we have residential lots started. We need to see if we can’t help developers fill those lots with homes.”
For Sales, a major potential obstacle to East Peoria’s commercial and residential development is infrastructure.
“As soon as your infrastructure starts crumbling, property values go down,” said Sales. “So, that’s going to be less tax revenue for us. Then, for possible outside residents and possible outside businesses, (East Peoria) becomes much less attractive. If we don’t fix this infrastructure, I’m concerned we’re going to be on a downward spiral.”
Mingus cautioned against too much commercial growth too quickly. Like Decker and Sales, he is concerned about the city’s infrastructure and its ability to keep up with a rapidly-expanding business community.
“It’s not just roads,” he said. “It’s water lines and sewer lines and other things we can’t see. As we get bigger, there’s just more and more to keep up with. I think we need to continue to grow, but we need to grow within reason.”
A question as to whether salaries for city employees are too high, too low, or at the proper rate needed extensive study, said Hill. He examined available salary information for municipal workers police officers, firefighters, and administrators to arrive at the conclusion that, for the most part, city employee salaries are where they should be.
“My findings were that most (salaries) were just right,” he said. “There are some that are running on the high side, compared to regional salary information.”
Sutherland praised the commitment of East Peoria’s city employees on their commitment to public service and said city employee wages are exactly where they should be.
“Nobody ever gets paid enough,” he added. “Everyone will say that, including me. But they’re not getting cheated in any way, shape, or form.”