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Bloomington mayor criticized over handling of Ward 6 vacancy

 Bloomington resident Coretta Jackson addresses the Bloomington City Council during its meeting Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, at the downtown Government Center.
Michele Steinbacher
Bloomington resident Coretta Jackson addresses the Bloomington City Council during its meeting Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, at the downtown Government Center.
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More than half of the dozen public commenters at Monday night’s Bloomington City Council meeting criticized Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe’s handling of the vacant Ward 6 seat, unoccupied since Jenn Carrillo stepped down in August.

The mayor said in early September he planned to nominate an individual for council approval that month. However, last week, he said of the 10 applicants who’d applied by the mid-August deadline to serve the remainder of Carrillo’s term, he’d not found consensus among council members. A name has not formally been presented in a council meeting.

Bloomington resident Coretta Jackson spoke during Monday's public comments, lamenting how the city neglected Ward 6, saying Mwilambwe has dragged his feet on a decision, leaving the ward unrepresented during crucial decisions such as how to address the impact of June flooding.

Last week, WGLT reported that instead of selecting from the 10 applicants, the mayor was considering appointing former longtime Ward 6 council member Karen Schmidt, whom Carrillo defeated in 2019, and who didn’t file an application to serve at this time.

Mwilambwe gave no indication Monday if Schmidt still was under consideration. He only said a nominee could be presented to council at the Oct. 25 regular meeting, or during a special meeting called this month.

“Not only did (Schmidt) lose the election, she didn’t even apply” to serve the remainder of Carrillo’s term, said commenter Olivia Butts, who called the mayor's dismissal of applicants an overreach of power. Legally, it is within his right to do so.

Commenter Matt Tozcko said the applicant who most seamlessly continues Carrillo’s ideological and political style should be selected to ensure 2019 voters' voices count.

During comments, three people who filed to be considered for the post, addressed the council, including Luisa Gomez, Jenee Clark Richards, and Dianna "De" Urban.

Gomez said she filed on time, had a good meeting with the mayor, but then learned of Schmidt’s name had come up.

“Now, we’re told that someone else who didn’t follow the procedures is being considered,” said Gomez. “How can you win a race when the rules change?” she asked the council.

Clark Richards said whether someone is named to the seat shouldn't depend on who the mayor likes.

The other applicants were Andrew Alvarez, JohAnna Chambers, Levi Champion, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Misty Metroz, Gary Stevens, and David Wolfe.

As the meeting wrapped up, Mwilambwe spoke of the unfilled seat, but didn’t respond to the public’s criticism. He said only that the search for Carrillo’s replacement continues.

At the meeting, the council’s main business was voting to increase the individual grant caps for a downtown accessibility improvement program. But it also voted to create a local commission for the Welcoming America initiative, and heard from the city’s new top cop, Bloomington Police Chief Jamal Simington.

The chief, who was sworn in Oct. 1, has spent about three decades in law enforcement, mostly with the Illinois State Police. He's a longtime Bloomington resident.

“You had a number of different options, and you could’ve chosen to be elsewhere, so we’re definitely honored and humbled that you chose to be the police chief here in Bloomington,” Mwilambwe told the police chief.

On Monday, the chief told the council he aims to solve problems collaboratively, to improve public safety and enhance the quality of life. He called police work the most noble of professions.

Simington shared that his father’s unsolved 1975 murder means he understands the impact of violent crime.

“That experience has woven into my fabric a high level of dedication to duty, and the importance of due diligence while serving the community in the capacity of a law enforcement officer,” he said.

He thanked his children and family for their support, including his father’s sisters who were at the meeting.

Downtown stores’ accessibility

The council voted 6-0 to boost financial incentives for downtown business to improve accessibility. But before that can take effect, the city’s historic preservation commission must sign off on changes to the Harriett Fuller Rust grant program.

Ward 1’s Jamie Mathy, and Ward 3’s Julie Emig, abstained from voting because Mathy's business is in leased downtown space, while Emig is the McLean County Museum of History's executive director.

The proposed change calls for one-time awards covering 75% of a project’s cost, up to $50,000. That’s significantly higher than current grant offerings, which is half the cost of a project up to $25,000. The proposal also calls for the city to better market the accessibility grants.

The Fuller Rust fund provides $125,000 annually to the city’s budget — tagged for the facade improvement program.

“It looks like there’s no impact on the existing budget, no additional funding is required from the city at this point,” said council member Tom Crumpler of Ward 9. “To me trying to make a difference in the accessibility of downtown Bloomington is a project we really ought to move forward on.”

In May, Ward 7’s Mollie Ward raised the issue of the Fuller Rust program as a possible funding mechanism to help resolve the problem of many downtown storefronts being inaccessible to people in wheelchairs, and other situations.

On Monday, she reiterated many business owners can’t afford making the changes without the grant assistance.

Welcoming America gets local commission

The council voted 5-1 to accept an amended version of an ordinance to create a seven-member Welcoming America commission in Bloomington. All members will be appointed by the mayor, with council consent. The group can include one ex-officio member of the council, who will serve as liaison between city council members and the immigration welcoming group.

The amendment, proposed by Ward 8's Jeff Crabill, adds language that the commission will “establish indicators that will allow the city to measure how well the community is meeting the standards” of Welcoming America. The council spent 45 minutes debating how to fine tune the wording, but in the end Ward 5's Nick Becker voted against that amended version. Ward 2's Donna Boelen, and Ward 3's Sheila Montney, who voiced opposition to the wording during discussion, abstained from voting on the amended version.

The council voted in January for the city to join the Welcoming Network, a national nonprofit that bills itself as improving communities by fostering inclusivity for immigrants.

In other business, the council:

  • Learned that victims of June flooding can apply for Illinois Department of Housing Authority single-family dwelling rehabilitation grants starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday. City staff will be on hand in the downtown Government Center's Hub to help.
  • Crabill said the city could do a better job in recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day in 2022. He asked that the city make sure Indigenous Peoples Day is on the Human Relations Commission's radar next year.
  • Postponed a decision on proposed changes to video gaming licensing rules. The vote now is planned for Oct. 25.
  • Authorized administrators to draft a policy on city sponsorships, clarifying parameters for private entities that donate to public events and programs.
  • OK’d a zoning change to make way for a rehabilitation training site. The nearly three-acre property off Veterans Parkway, at 2002 Fox Creek Road, now will be zoned public — the next step in NeuroRestorative’s proposal for a brain injury rehabilitation services school.
  • Approved a liquor license for The Stable Music Hall and Lounge that opens Thursday at 236 E. Front St. The venue will showcase blues, Americana, bluegrass and comedy acts.
Corrected: October 12, 2021 at 11:09 AM CDT
This story has been updated to correct council member Jeff Crabill' comments about Indigenous Peoples Day. He said the city could do better in recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day, not the Human Relations Commission.
Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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