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Bloomington-Normal council candidate nonpartisan forum turns partisan

Bloomington and Normal city and town council candidates addressed a crowd at Saturday's event, hosted by the McLean County Republicans.
Colleen Reynolds
Bloomington and Normal city and town council candidates addressed a crowd at Saturday's event, hosted by the McLean County Republicans.

The new chair of the McLean County Republican Party began Saturday’s GOP-hosted candidate forum by highlighting that not enough people vote in municipal elections.

Chair Dennis Grundler told the city and town council candidates gathered at the DoubleTree Hotel and Conference Center in Bloomington that he wanted to provide them with an opportunity to speak directly to voters.

“I want your voices to be heard so the people can decide what they want. Because, that’s what it’s all about. We can’t have elections with 40-50% of people showing up, and then everyone just complaining, ‘Life is busy.’ We need to find a way to get everybody to get out and vote,” Grundler said.

Grundler says while there were about 60 people at the breakfast, there are 120,000 people who could potentially see a ballot that doesn’t have an R or a D by the candidate’s name. He thinks about 30% of voters are strictly partisan and for whom forums or debates don’t really matter anyway, but that for the voters who will turn out, they should be informed about the candidates.

The election is April 4.

The Bloomington City Council ward map.
City of Bloomington
The Bloomington City Council ward map.

Bloomington City Council candidates - Wards 1, 2, 4, 6 and 8

The City of Bloomington has two contested ward races: Ward 4 and Ward 6. However, two candidates for those races, John Wyatt Danenberger (Ward 4) and Cody Hendricks (Ward 6) cited competing obligations in canceling their scheduled appearances, according to Grundler.

Ward 1 candidate Jenna Kearns, who said she’s worked for multiple nonprofits, stressed Bloomington is a great place to live and raise a family. She supports strong infrastructure and making it less burdensome for small businesses to thrive.

“Strong infrastructure is what will ensure Bloomington will remain a competitive place economically. Strong infrastructure indicates to businesses that Bloomington is functional and accessible to its customers, to its products both locally, regionally, and nationally,” said Kearns, who is unopposed. “We also have to hold our government accountable. We have to make sure that we’re balancing and keeping in check fees and taxes so that Bloomington can remain an affordable place for all of us to live.”

Ward 2 incumbent Donna Boelen, who is unopposed, had the shortest presentation, saying she would rather let her record speak for itself and yielded her time to newcomers. She emphasized she doesn’t have a platform but always does her homework.

“I do research. I give thoughtful consideration, eye contact, and discuss with my constituents and my colleagues, and hopefully come to the most reasonable and beneficial decision for the entire community,” Boelen said.

Ward 4 candidate Steven Nalefski, a longtime engineer who most recently worked for the Woodford County Highway Department, said his platform includes fiscal responsibility, infrastructure and lower taxes. The first-time candidate for elected office is also the McLean County representative and an executive committee member of the Route 66 Association of Illinois.

“I’m running for office so into the future, Bloomington can be a place to be safe and an affordable place to live,” Nalefski said.

Ward 6 candidate Jordan Baker is a 24-year-old graduate from Illinois Wesleyan University. He said as he went door-to-door in Ward 6, residents indicated three priorities which also match his own: public safety, investing in infrastructure, and safe neighborhoods.

“I want to be a candidate that runs on focusing on city issues and doing those core city issues well today; really focus on your interactions with the city,” Baker said.

Bloomington Ward 8 candidate Kent Lee, who is unopposed, is an ISU graduate who decided 30 years ago to stay in Bloomington-Normal. The State Farm employee said he wants to keep Bloomington a place where people can earn a good living and get high-quality education because of some great schools.

“A safe environment is conducive for families, businesses, large and small. Infrastructure is essential for providing goods and services to people in this community. It’s essential for our local economy, and it’s essential for quality of life,” Lee said.

Lee also recited the preamble to the Constitution and quoted Thomas Jefferson in saying “a wide and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another; shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor.”

Normal Town Council candidates

Normal has an at-large method of electing candidates, meaning all candidates for open seats are elected by all registered voters throughout the town. There are six candidates for three seats.

Incumbent Kathleen Lorenz touted herself as engaged, experienced and an effective leader who is a strong collaborator and relationship-builder. She believes in finding common ground, compromise and solutions.

Lorenz also touted accomplishments such as nearly fully funding public service pensions; significantly reducing town debt; pouring significant money into roads, water, sewer and parking; and promoting economic growth.

Marc Tiritilli speaks
Colleen Reynolds
Former mayoral candidate Marc Tiritilli, who is now running for Normal Town Council, addresses the room at Saturday's event.

She referenced Phoenix Investors, a development company which bought and expanded a warehouse in north Normal that, until 2020, had been vacant for a decade.

“We do that by getting along and governing, and getting things done,” Lorenz said.

Incumbent Karyn Smith has a child who is cognitively impaired, and she pushed for a working group to examine Connect Transit fees that were proposed to increase from $1 to more than $3 for a one-way trip for themobility service for older or impaired individuals. The result was a one-for-all fee, and the town opted to use American Rescue Fund money to increase a subsidy for Connect Transit operations.

Smith said she pours over city council information and, when it’s unclear, she’ll ask for an explanation during public meetings to improve communication and transparency.

“I want to have it so that citizens know why the town is doing things,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just a simple matter of clearing the air … getting the information out there. That is what I feel is important to do.”

Another candidate, Andy Byars, moved to Normal in 2015 to attend Illinois State University. He graduated in 2018 and recently bought a house. He explained his platform includes four values and key issues: economic growth, quality of life, core services, and fiscal responsibility.

“I was born in 1997. The budget was last federally balanced before I was born. Think about that. No matter who was in charge. But, here in Normal, the last four or five years, we’ve seen debt reduction. How crazy is that, right? To go from over $90 million in debt to now below $80 (million)? That's impressive."

Incumbent Stan Nord said he wasn’t elected to be a cheerleader, but to be a player. Nord said he is a minority on the council who “shines light on issues.”

Nord believes elected boards need to be “more balanced to force these difficult conversations.” For example, he pointed to the recent decision to purchase two town vehicles from local electric automaker Rivian. Nord wrongly called it a 6-1 vote, pointing to the vote as a reflection of a one-sided council. In fact, the measure narrowly passed on a 4-3 vote.

“This goes against two things that I say are most important: affordability and safety. If we’re spending money on luxury vehicles … most people in this room can’t afford it. And, you know what, you’re paying for two people to have that and if we had a balanced board, we would have forced that conversation.”

The town council spent one hour of a 75-minute meeting discussing the Rivian vehicle purchase.

Nord said the town needs to spend more money on infrastructure. Normal’s latest five-year outlook calls for putting $175 million toward hundreds of capital projects — about $18 million more than last year’s plan. Nord was recently the sole “no” vote on a proposal to use state motor fuel tax money to extend the Constitution Trail past Normal Community West High School, Parkside Junior High School, Maxwell Park and Champion Fields.

Two-time unsuccessful mayoral candidate Marc Tiritilli, who is now running for council, said the way the town accomplishes what it does, needs improvement. He said he supports reducing the town's debt, but he questions why the town has borrowed so extensively.

“No one asked why we took on the debt in the first place?” to which some in the audience applauded.

Tiritilli said tax increment financing districts (TIFs) are taking money away from school districts and the incentives offered aren’t necessary to bring in new business. He pointed to a recent comment in a WGLT story by Phoenix Investors about a warehouse expansion.

“Second to the last sentence, the owner of Phoenix properties was asked about the incentives that were given. He said, ‘They were nice but we didn’t need them. We would have come here anyway.’”

Tiritilli points out, “That’s eventually money that could have gone to Unit 5. That’s what TIF districts do – they withhold the money that would have come from the improved value. The town has held back millions and millions of dollars from Unit 5 and now, of course, they’re asking for a referendum.” Unit 5 school boards vote to approve or reject any TIF districts before they are created.

Karl Sila, who calls himself a Libertarian, said Normal needs a council that listens to people. He referenced shutting down businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They just shut down businesses. They didn’t follow the science. They didn’t even follow our local health department and just did what they wanted to do. If you want to encourage business, shutting them down without actively good reason is not a good way to encourage local business,” Sila said.

The town council enforced the ban on indoor dining imposed by Gov. JB Pritzker under the July 15 Restore Illinois resurgence plan. It put in place mitigation measures including a suspension of service at all indoor bars and restaurants based on advice of public health officials based on the level of community spread.

Sila refers to himself as one of the new people the board needs to balance representation. He called himself open to working together and joked, “I liked to say, ‘I’m usually right about most things but that’s because I’m very open to being wrong. You tell me how I’m wrong, I will change my mind.”

Unit 5 referendum

Candidates were asked if council members have a role in what happens with the Unit 5 property tax referendum that will be on the April 4 ballot. District leaders say a growing structural deficit – now at $12 million and showing no signs of slowing – is behind the renewed push. Leader stress while the education fund would go up with this proposal, the district's overall tax rate eventually would be lower than today's $5.51 rate per $100 EAV.

“That’s their lane and we have to be mindful of what’s our lane,” Lorenz said. “Good schools is good community and we cannot forget that, so however we accomplish that … should be our true North.”

Bloomington’s Ward 2 candidate Donna Boelen said she’s willing to meet with constituents to listen, talk and share their perspectives.

“That’s the most effective way an elected official can handle this situation,” Boelen said.

Normal’s Stan Nord says he sees some positive development on the horizon including two housing developments that’ll be taxed.

“Unit 5 is going to see a lot of new money from these homes that are going to hit the tax rolls,” Nord said.

He encouraged the city of Bloomington and the town of Normal to communicate with Unit 5 about the positive impact of these new homes coming on the property tax rolls.

Marc Tiritilli returned to the town’s decision to extend a TIF district in north Normal for 12 more years and pointed out that while he ultimately became convinced Rivian was a good company with good plans, he opposed incentives that kept $2 million from Unit 5.

“I’m glad Rivian’s here. They would have come here anyway. Normal is great because they’re here. Normal could have been better because we didn’t have to take the money from the school district to do it,” he said.

The Republican Party will host another forum Feb. 11 featuring candidates for school board.

Corrected: January 16, 2023 at 8:13 AM CST
This story has been edited for clarification regarding Marc Tiritilli's position on Town of Normal debt.
Colleen Reynolds was a correspondent at WGLT. She left the station in 2023.