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Bloomington Mayoral Candidates Divided Over Cannabis, Public Safety

From left, Bloomington mayoral candidates Mike Straza, Mboka Mwilambwe and Jackie Gunderson at a recent WGLT election debate.

The three candidates for Bloomington mayor agree on the importance of supporting small businesses and encouraging economic development. But they are starkly divided over how recreational cannabis should figure in the city’s economic future.

During a virtual debate on Wednesday, Jackie Gunderson said she supported the idea of recreational cannabis as a new source of revenue for the city.  “I think this is a great way for us to reimagine the way we’ve always done things,” she said.

Gunderson, a procurement manager at Illinois State University, said cannabis dispensaries in nearby communities have spurred economic development and created jobs.

Mboka Mwilambwe and Mike Straza -- who also are on the April 6 ballot -- both pushed back against the idea of increasing the number of local dispensaries.

In September, the Bloomington City Council voted overwhelmingly to approve the city’s first marijuana dispensary. Mwilambwe, who’s served on the council for the past 10 years, cast the lone “no” vote.

“I still feel the same way,” Mwilambwe said during the debate hosted by Pantagraph Media. “Any time I consider many of these decisions, I do think about what is that going to do to Bloomington as a brand.” 

Mwilambwe, who works at ISU on anti-harassment and anti-discrimination issues, said he accepts that the city now has a dispensary, but he wouldn’t support the idea of adding more. 

Straza agreed, saying there would have to be a benefit to the city beyond the generation of additional revenue and asking, “Is it providing some great service to our community by having multiple, multiple dispensaries?”

Gunderson wondered how Mwilambwe and Straza could square their support for small business and economic development with a resistance to additional dispensaries and the revenue generated through legal recreational cannabis sales. 

Straza, an entrepreneur and business consultant, said the dispensaries would do little for the community beyond creating low-wage jobs, adding revenue shouldn’t the only consideration in deciding what kind of businesses to attract. 

“There’s thousands of other ideas out there that we could do that generate money," he said. "It might not generate as much as that type of business, but there (are) several things that we could do to help.” 

Mwilambwe said there’s no guarantee that dispensaries would result in more money for the city. “We still don’t know what the revenues are going to look like. I wouldn’t rush to a conclusion and assume that we should go for another,” he said.

Public safety/defunding the police

The candidates split along similar lines on questions of public saftey. 

Pantagraph Media Central Illinois Editor Chris Coates, who moderated the event, noted a recent surge in gun violence, with the country experiencing two mass shootings in the past month. Bloomington has had six shots-fired incidents so far this year, resulting in two fatalities. 

Coates asked the candidates what they would do to address gun violence on the local level.

Mwilambwe described some of shootings as “outside the norm” and attributed an element of the violence to individuals with interpersonal issues. He said Bloomington is a safe place overall, but the city should focus on building relationships in the areas where shootings happen. 

Straza said one recent shooting took place near his home. 

“It’s kind of scary and sad that this is where people have to worry about their own safety, no matter where they live,” he said. 

Straza emphasized the importance of relationship-building in increasing public safety. He said it was important to reach out to both the community and the police department to determine what resources are needed. 

Gunderson said it was important to shift to a “prevention mindset,” adding public safety is enhanced by improving the lives of residents by eliminating poverty and providing access to affordable housing. 

Gunderson said in addressing public safety, it’s important to use the right personnel. Instead of training police to handle mental heath interventions, “Maybe we shift some of those overtime resources to a professional that can respond to those (calls) with a prevention mindset, de-escalate some of those situations,” she said. 

Straza said that while he was open to idea of using mental health professionals, he wondered if they would be comfortable in the kinds of dangerous situations often handled by police. And he wouldn’t want to see funding directed away from BPD in order to pay them. 

Both Straza and Mwilambwe voiced opposition to defunding the police, agreeing that BPD is currently “understaffed” relative to the city’s population.  

Mwilambwe said taking money from the police budget would be particularly unwise because the recent criminal justice reform bill passed by the Illinois legislature will result in increased costs for the police department. “And not only that, we might face a situation where we have difficulty hiring because a lot of folks are either thinking about leaving law enforcement, or not thinking about entering law enforcement, which makes it very difficult for us in terms of hiring,” he said. 

Gunderson said that while defunding the police has become a “buzzword,” changes in how services are funded happens all the time. Gunderson said she favored a comprehensive review of all city spending, not just the police budget. “If we begin to look at how (to) better serve our neighbors’ safety and security, in an invest and divest situation, then that doesn’t necessarily mean these things we get so fired up about.” 

Gunderson said the Bloomington Fire Department and other emergency personnel were operating on a “bare bones staff,” representing a threat to public safety. 

“If we had a situation like Normal had recently, they wouldn’t be able to do that,” said Gunderson, referring to the train derailment and apartment complex fire that occurred on the same day, requiring massive emergency response. 

The entire debate can be viewed at pantagraph.com. The election is April 6. 

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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