Q&A: Bloomington's New City Manager Talks Economic Development, Transparency, And Police | WGLT

Q&A: Bloomington's New City Manager Talks Economic Development, Transparency, And Police

Jul 31, 2018

New Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason is one week into the job, meeting with elected officials and his department heads to get a lay of the land.

GLT’s Ryan Denham visited Gleason at his new City Hall office on Monday afternoon. They spoke about economic development, government transparency, and his background in law enforcement, among other topics. Here’s a transcript of their Sound Ideas conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

GLT: You’ve said your No. 1 priority in your first week was to meet with every elected official from the city. Have you done that, and what are you hearing from people?

TG: It's a strong desire to increase economic development for the community. It’s a strong desire to partner with the different governmental entities, like McLean County and the Town of Normal. And also to address some of the challenges that we know that we have. Infrastructure is a biggie here.

Really it’s what I’d call the common things that most Illinois municipalities are dealing with. The one way that I think Bloomington is different, is the solutions I think might be a little bit easier. You know, I don't want to say that they will be easier, but a little bit more solutions than what some of the other cities in the state are faced with.

You’ve started several new jobs in the past eight years or so, including positions with the state and as city manager in Washington and Decatur. What have you learned about that process—becoming a leader in a new place, but doing so without stepping on too many landmines?

You can't read it in a textbook, but it's just smart to assess. When you step in to a new position understand your surroundings first. I've been in positions in the past where day one, I've had to address certain things immediately. But that's not the case here, at least so far. I appreciate the opportunity.

This thing seemed to be going rather smoothly, which does not suggest that we can’t improve on things. But I think it's going to allow me to sit back and assess for a while before we dive into changes, if any.

You’ve got around 630 full-time employees in Bloomington, including about a dozen on your executive staff. How do you evaluate the team, especially those leaders?

The meetings, whether it's collectively or individually. And the second week, I'm starting the one-on-one meetings with the department directors, a formal meeting. I've had a fair amount of interaction with most, and at least as a group with all of them. But again, you check out the resume, you pick up on the sense of what other employees and their peers have of that department head. And I think I've stepped into a good situation.

You’ve said in other interviews that one of your strengths is that you’re “very open and honest.” How is that a strength in this job?

I think when you're in government, it's one where you've got public mistrust or maybe skepticism from the public. We are stewards of the taxpayer dollars. And I think being transparent, being open and honest, maybe to a fault, when we're talking about any government issues—it’s a benefit.

"Being transparent, being open and honest, maybe to a fault, when we're talking about any government issues -- it's a benefit."

A lot of times, whether you're dealing with the union, whether you're dealing with an individual employee or the elected officials or the community, if we lay all of our cards, if you will, out in the table, that might put you in a position or in the crosshairs for some criticism, but I really think the truth will set you free and the high road prevails. That’s been my philosophy.

The mayor has expressed frustration with the pace at which economic development efforts move in Bloomington. Is that something you’ve heard in your initial meetings?

It is. It is something that I've heard, even prior to starting day one last Monday. I had a few people from the community reach out to me and expressed some concerns.

The pace at which we achieve, let's say, wins in economic development, there's always a rest of the story. You swing and miss when you're trying to pursue new opportunities more than you actually connect.

Before I say that something is remiss on the economic development front, I need to learn a little bit more. But to answer your question, yes, I have heard those concerns.

Do you sense the city might need additional staff, resources, or outside help on economic development priorities?

At this point, this early in the game—it's not one that I can wait too long. I mean, this is a critical topic for us at the city. But I would say it this way: I've got more questions. And I actually have a meeting with (Community Development director) Bob Mahrt on Thursday morning. So before I say that I have concerns or think that we're thin on resources, I've got questions for that I'd like to get answered.

Downtown is a core priority for the City Council, and very much intertwined with economic development. There are concerns that downtown is stalled, withering even, with few exceptions like the farmers market. There are lots of building vacancies and not a lot of big swings from the city since the arena opened. How much of your attention will downtown receive in this first year?

Actually, you're going to see us bring some of the downtown discussions back in front of council next month at one of the council meetings. Might be the Committee of the Whole meeting.

But we're going to discuss with council members in the (Downtown Task Force report) that I reviewed and see what possibilities and what opportunities do we have to address yet this year.

Grossinger Motors Arena is a key part of that downtown, but it’s had a very rocky first decade or so since it opened. In your 1-on-1s with elected officials, was it a concern? Is there discomfort with the status quo over there, or is that pretty far down the priority list?

No, no. I'm not going to say it's at the top, but it's an area of concern. You mentioned the status quo. None of the elected officials are happy with where we currently stand.

Really the thing that I need to do is understand, what are the other opportunities? What is that one key component that potentially is going to turn this thing around?

I know some people have talked about a hotel, and then when we have the hotel discussion, how much by way of incentives (would be needed) to attract a developer that would even consider building a hotel? There is a big discussion that needs to occur when we're talking about hotel specifically. And then, is a hotel that key link to trying to make the arena a viable downtown attraction? So a lot of questions attached to that as well.

You were previously city manager in Decatur. What was the Decatur Civic Center’s oversight like?

Actually, City Hall is in the Civic Center. It's a 99-year lease. It began in 1980. Basically the city of Decatur subsidizes any losses to the Civic Center. So the staff there, they do their best, but I think we were at a current subsidy of about $450,000, and it's held that for the last handful of years. But it's tough trying to attract bigger name acts. But the venue is pretty full down there. But it's just not your larger acts.

Let’s talk infrastructure. In Decatur during your tenure, the city council approved a new local motor fuel tax to pay for roadwork. Can you talk about how you and the Decatur council reached that agreement on the local motor fuel tax and your overall philosophy on when it’s time to turn to taxpayers for more money?

Gleason, left, seen earlier this summer during a visit to Bloomington, was one of three finalists for the city manager position.
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT

In Decatur, I knew that there had been that discussion in the past. And I resurrected it with the council members, and they eventually approved it. But we had none, no motor fuel tax. But what we did, and we've done this with other taxes where it was pledged specifically with a sunset provision at 10 years on the local motor fuel tax.

And it was a local roads, worst-first type of approach, unless there was an economic development opportunity, we would use the funds for that. We're generating about $1.9 million a year. A nickel on unleaded, and a penny on diesel. So the approach was, being very public and communicating and actually putting it in the ordinance: This is for residential roads. We did not want the community to think that this was going to get lost in the general fund. So we took that approach, and it's actually been very successful.

You haven’t been a City Hall guy your whole career. You worked for the Pekin Police Department from 1989 to 2010, retiring as a lieutenant. You’re going to continue to teach criminal justice courses at University of Illinois at Springfield. Why is that so important to you?

I actually started that when I was still a police officer in 2008. And I just enjoy the interaction with the students. The majority of the students are younger, your traditional age group. I teach two classes. I created a class on community policing. And that's one that I teach on campus. And then the other one is criminal investigation.

And the university has approached me and asked if I'd be willing to change over to management or public administration, and I am interested in that, but have filled an area (in my life) that would be a void if I wasn't continuing to teach a criminal justice stuff for UIS.

How do you think your experience as a police officer informs your approach to supervising the police chief, overseeing their budget, contract negotiations with police?

I'm going to answer this more generically and say that anybody that comes up through the ranks of public safety, I think it's a perfect transition into city management. You continue to deal with problems. You continue to have to take in and digest multiple sides to any given topic. And sometimes you have to be prepared to make a quick decision, and sometimes you're able to take your time and make the decision a little bit down the road.

Given your law enforcement background, do you find yourself paying a special amount of attention to a police department just because you have that background?

I think it's an assessment of my department directors. You give more attention where you feel attention is deserved. You’ve got Clay Wheeler as the new police chief (in Bloomington). But this guy sounds solid, and the meetings that I've had with him, I'm very impressed.  

Brian Mohr is the (fire chief). He’s somebody who, with a lot of fire chiefs and connections that I have around the state, this guy is thought of very highly. On the public safety side, I think the city is in very good hands.

While in Decatur, you were part of a well-documented run-in with the former police chief there, Brad Sweeney. He was fired, and after a legal fight, he ended up retiring instead, paying some money to the city in legal fees. How do you think people here in Bloomington should view that incident, how it reflects on your leadership style and how you may handle executive members of your team?

I think that they should feel confident that department directors are going to be held accountable. And before that, they're equipped with the proper tools and training to be able to successfully complete the job.

Without going into details, that totally was not the case in that dismissal at all. It was a three-week period that's well documented in that case. We ended up arguing repeatedly, one at the circuit (court) level, twice at the appellate level. We're arguing the legality of the whistleblower claim by the former police chief, and we never got to the truth of the matter, where I was able to call in witnesses to the conduct. We really tried to package at the end of all of it a settlement statement that really said it all, if people care to take the time to read it. I think it sums up everything.

Bloomington has a 1-year-old Public Safety and Community Relations Board. It was sought in the wake violence and unrest between communities and their police departments in other American communities. What do you think of this board, and how hopeful are you that something like this can be effective?

It sounds as if it's very similar to a group that I was part of the creation of in Decatur. The acronym was ALERT (Area Leaders and Education Response Team). It was the minority community being engaged in day-to-day issues and challenges and problems. The day that something God forbid happens where you know you've got a minority victim—and let’s say a male white male officer police officer—you activate them. We've done that twice in Decatur since the creation of that.

There was an officer-involved shooting in Minneapolis, where the girlfriend videotaped her boyfriend dying in the front seat of the car. And then you had the first of I think two incidents in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And then not even a full week later, we had an officer-involved shooting (in Decatur). National media shows up. Credit to obviously the police department. But the ALERTS team stood up and said we trust our police department. We trust that this is going to be given a fair look in the investigation, and it really turned things around. It didn't make the national media like it could have, because it definitely was a very volatile time.

And to your question specifically about the program in Bloomington: It sounds very similar, so I'm anxious to learn more.

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