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Q&A: Mayor Mwilambwe on proposals for controlling costs, a gun violence panel, and a 'green infrastructure' commission

Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe
Emily Bollinger
WGLT’s Charlie Schlenker spoke to Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe, above, on Monday about three ideas set to discussion at Monday's city council meeting.

The Bloomington City Council meets Monday night. It’s a non-voting Committee of the Whole meeting.

On the agenda are three proposals from individual council members:

  • Council member Nick Becker: “…to find ways to reduce costs in other areas as an offset to the coming spending as opposed to increasing the taxpayer burden.”
  • Council member Julie Emig: “…to propose the establishment of an advisory Green Infrastructure Commission.”
  • Council member Mollie Ward: “…to create a Special Commission to develop a comprehensive plan to address the issue of gun violence locally.”

WGLT’s Charlie Schlenker spoke to Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe on Monday about these ideas. Here is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
WGLT: What do you think of council member Mollie Ward’s suggestion of an anti-gun violence commission?

Mwilambwe: From what I understand, it's just kind of a preliminary step to try to understand what are the sources, or the origins, of gun violence locally. And then from there, depending on what the findings are going to be, then decide what course of action would be most appropriate. So, I am certainly interested in finding out what is going on.

I know that in the past, we've had some ups and ups and downs, in terms of gun violence. So we'll see. I'm not sure. I had a conversation with other mayors about this very issue. We’re not sure. We don't know if it's COVID. Does COVID play a part in it? Not quite sure. So it certainly is something that will be interesting to look into and try to find out.

Does it belong with the city as the coordinating body on this? Or does it need to be communitywide?

It is true that we are fairly close to each other. The Town of Normal, the county in general. You can take it one way or another. It’s (Ward’s) initiative, so we’ll start with that. And see first of all where the council goes, because I don't know that there would be … I’m not sure if there would be appetite from other bodies in the community, governmental bodies in the community. So we'll start with that. And then we'll see. I’m sure they'll be watching and seeing what transpires out of it.

There are a variety of stakeholders in the community already working on this issue. There’s Project Oz. There are a number of churches on the west side and in the downtown area. There are social service agencies, law enforcement, the schools, the Boys & Girls Club. It’s not like the situation doesn’t get attention. What should the City’s role be in overseeing or coordinating this sort of thing?

This is (Ward’s) initiative. I am aware that there's other bodies, other organizations in town who work to address those (things). We’ll see where that goes, you know? Could it be a question of additional coordination? Could it be a question of providing additional resources? I don't know. I'm not sure where that's going to go. So those are would be really good questions to ask (Ward).

Do you think the city should have such a role or should it be left to other agencies?

I don't want to seem like I'm being evasive. But I would want to see what comes out of this. Because from what I understand, it's intended to be sort of a commission for research and looking into what all of these issues are. So I don't want to commit one way or another until we really … if it does move forward, we find out what is going on.

Certainly, this issue is not new. It's something that yes, you're concerned about it any time someone who uses a gun. You get concerned about that. But at the same time, while it is unfortunate that people make some bad decisions, I would say it is something that our police department pays very close attention to. They work very quickly to apprehend those individuals who can make those sorts of decisions. So I'm not sure. We’ll see where that goes.

There's another commission being suggested too. Council member Julie Emig has a Green Infrastructure commission idea. Is that something that the city staff should be doing? Or is that something that grassroots community members should also have an active role in?

I think we're seeing a number of commissions and ideas from council members. Now, while those are can be good ideas in theory, the implementation of it can become an issue. Because I do know that the staff, specifically on green initiatives and ideas, the staff works to stay on the cutting edge of green ideas. Now, when you start to put in a commission, I think it can result in additional work for the staff. I believe we’re very lean as an organization, and for everything that we add, there could be something that doesn't get done.

So I do hope that the council can think about that and realize that, yes, some of these things can come at a cost of other things not being done.

And also, with these commissions, you have to really think very carefully: How are you going to lay out the work? Because there could be times where there's just not enough work for the commission to do. And that can result in canceled meetings and things like that. There can be some inefficiencies there.

Is the city notably lacking in attention to green infrastructure?

No. I know that the staff works very hard to do all these things. As a matter of fact, we've done a number of different things over the years. For example, bicycle master plan. When we purchase vehicles, we try to find ones that are as green as possible. When we do construction, we try to do the ones that are the most efficient as possible. So, those are things that we do routinely, so I'm not quite sure what direction (Emig) wants to go with that. But we'll see. She'll have a chance to explain that a little bit more.

How difficult is it to fill the positions on even the existing commissions and boards within the city?

It can be difficult. Because you have to find people who have an interest. Some people are interested in some commissions, and others are not. Then you also have to have people who have the availability.

And in some commissions and boards, we do have some positions that are very specific. For example, Historic Preservation Commission needs someone, a board member, who is also an attorney. But that was proving very difficult to find – somebody who is interested in historic preservation, but also has a law degree. There are others, like the Property Maintenance Review Board, that have some specifics, where you need somebody who has an HVAC background, but also electrical and those kinds of things. And that that can be difficult.

What do you think of council member Nick Becker's proposal “to find ways to reduce costs in other areas as an offset to the coming spending as opposed to increasing the taxpayer burden”?

That's something that we all want to do.

Is that something that's not happening already?

I think it is happening. This is something that the staff consistently works on. And no, we haven't raised property taxes other than for the library, but we haven't raised property taxes in a long time. So certainly, I would say I'm always one to, if somebody has an idea, I'm open to listening and seeing where this might go.

Do you think do you think it's an overture to trying to enshrine in policy the idea that property taxes should be permanently frozen in the city, and that further adjustments to city spending should come from either natural property growth in value or cuts to city operations?

I don't know. I don't know. I'm really not sure what direction (Becker) is going with that.

Is such a policy, if that is the case, a desirable thing at all?

Rather than setting things in stone – not to say that I will look to raise property taxes in the future – but I think it's always important to have some flexibility, because if you want to take such action so much further into the future, I would say, you're not taking into account that things could change in the future. At this point, Bloomington and Normal are both growing, and we definitely want to be able to in the future sit down and think about what that means without setting some barriers based on what you know right now, because in the future things could be completely, completely different.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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