Bloomington Council Candidates Discuss Priorities, Police Funding In Forum | WGLT

Bloomington Council Candidates Discuss Priorities, Police Funding In Forum

Mar 17, 2021

The Pantagraph on Wednesday evening hosted a virtual forum for Bloomington City Council candidates. With contested seats in four wards, eight candidates fielded questions from moderator and central Illinois editor Chris Coates.

Following is the candidates’ responses to two of the questions asked: 

What’s the biggest problem in your ward and how will you address it?

Patrick Lawler, a high school teacher and a part of the People First coalition (that includes several council candidates and mayoral hopeful Jackie Gunderson), is running for a seat in Ward 5. Lawler said one of the biggest issues facing his area is housing. 

Lawler sees a need to increase moderate and low-income housing stock. And rather than being concentrated in “clustered areas of poverty,” he thinks that housing should be spread more evenly throughout the ward. 

“The more we can spread our housing out and have different entry points, the better for everyone,” Lawler said. He also pointed to a need for better residential building code enforcement, citing a fire in a Gettysburg Avenue apartment building in 2018. The building was found to have more than 200 code violations. 

Nick Becker, vice president of a data services firm, also is running in Ward 5 seat. Becker said residents’ primary concerns are infrastructure, public safety, and government efficiency. 

Residents also want low taxes, said Becker, adding economic development is a means to accomplishing that and other goals. 

“We need to see our economy developed to drive the ability to spread the tax base and fund the infrastructure changes,” he said. 

Without a strong economic foundation, “all the other problems cascade,” Becker said. But economic development “trickles into jobs, and housing, and so forth.” 

Ward 7 incumbent Mollie Ward said economic development and housing are among the most pressing needs in her west side district. Ward, who is the director of spiritual services at Carle BroMenn Medical Center and Carle Eureka Hospital, was appointed to seat in October 2020 after Scott Black resigned. 

Ward said home ownership is key to neighborhood stability. 

“It’s one thing to focus on cheap rental housing for people, it’s another thing to build the kind of structures that allow people to have home ownership as a goal,” she said.

Integral to home ownership is employment, Ward said, which means a need for the kinds of projects that help build jobs. Ward pointed to the O’Neil Park project and infrastructure work on Ward 7 roads as positive economic prospects for the area. 

Kelby Cumpston is challenging Ward in Ward 7. Cumpston, a project manager overseeing affordable housing construction, is another People First candidate.

Cumpston said Ward 7 is made up mostly of renters and the primary concern is safe housing. Given the number of historic properties on the west side, Cumpston said the most effective way to address safety is to “increase efficiencies and modernize appliances” in aging buildings. 

Cumpston wants to create programs to reduce energy costs for renters, citing his own experience of living in an “affordable” rental unit, only to have to pay $300 a month in heating bills. 

Ward 9 candidate Jim Fruin said the northeast side district “doesn’t have a lot of needs.” With lot of relatively new development, the ward doesn’t face some of the same infrastructure issues as older parts of the city. Fruin said if elected, he plans to focus  on the needs of the community as a whole. 

Fruin, a real estate agent and retired State Farm employee, said one thing Ward 9 does need is a new fire station. Plans to build one at Airport Road and College Avenue were “superseded” by the Tipton Trails development, Fruin said, and fire department response time to the area is the slowest in the city. 

Tom Crumpler, who also is running for the Ward 9 seat, agreed. 

“We’ve known for some years that the fire department response time doesn’t meet the six minute national standard,” Crumpler said. 

Crumpler, an education professor at Illinois State University, said residents in Ward 9 also care about core services, public safety, and good streets. 

Sheila Montney, left, and Willie Holton Halbert are running for Bloomington City Council in Ward 3 on the city's east side.

Ward 3 candidate Sheila Montney said residents in her near-east side district also express “a lot of passion about the roads.” Montney, a State Farm executive and Bloomington Planning commissioner, said there are “significant opportunities for resurfacing” of streets in Ward 3, especially in areas along Hershey Road. 

Montney described Ward 3 as a large district with a diverse population, whose concerns also include public safety and amenities for children and families. 

Willie Holton Halbert, a People First coalition candidate also running in Ward 3, said COVID-19 is the most significant issue facing residents. 

“It has impacted almost every aspect of our lives,” she said. 

A NAACP leader and retired Illinois Department of Corrections worker, Halbert said economic fallout from the pandemic has led to some residents having to choose between medicine and food. 

Halbert said the city can play a larger role in vaccination efforts within the community. She cited a recent vaccination clinic held at Mount Episcopal Baptist Church where more than 200 residents were provided access to the vaccine. 

What is your response to calls to defund the police?

Cumpston said one way to divest from police funding is to reinvest in hiring social workers to respond to calls like wellness checks and mental health crises that don’t necessarily require an armed police officer.

Cumpston said measures in criminal justice reform bill recently passed by the Illinois legistlature will provide funding for the kind of public safety programs he would like to see. He believes Bloomington is well positioned to be in line for that funding. 

“This is something that, as a downstate city especially, if we had a council that stood up and said this is what our city can do -- I believe fully that we would get those funds and we could implement that program.”

Cumpston said a program similar to CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon or STAR in Denver, Colorado, would reduce the number of police officers needed in the city over time, which, in turn, would reduce the city's pension liability. 

Ward agreed with Cumpston that there was a need to review the role of police officers in responding to needs within the community. 

But she cautioned that any such process would need to be undertaken responsibly.

Ward said among members of the current council, there is “a move afoot” to discuss reducing the budget of police force by 10% “in the next few weeks.”

Such a cut would result in the loss of 20-30 police officers, said Ward, adding, “That kind of move is something that can’t happen without some real deliberation.” 

Ward said measures enacted by the criminal justice reform law, like the mandatory use of body cams, should be allowed to play out before any sweeping changes are made. 

Crumpler said the Bloomington police department has been at the “forefront” of policing, and is already enacting many of the measures put in place by the reform bill.  He cited body cams, mental health training, and diversity training. BPD has demonstrated a commitment to diversity in hiring.

Crumpler said he’s in favor in ongoing assessment and improvement in all departments, including police, and that community groups should be a part of that discussion. 

Fruin said BPD has been very “welcoming” to council members, allowing them to visit the department and accompany officers on ride alongs through different neighborhoods. Those kind of encounters are helpful in understanding both the role of the police and the needs of the community. But Fruin said there’s still a lot to learn before making a judgment on defunding the police.

For now, he doesn’t support the idea. 

“They are stretched and I am not in favor of reducing our police budget, that’s for sure," he said. 

Halbert the issue isn’t necessarily an “either/or” choice between defunding the police or not. It’s more a question of “reimagining of what public safety can look like,” she said. 

Referencing the CAHOOTS program in Oregon, Halbert said roughly 20% of 911 calls were diverted from police to social service workers. 

“If we took out all those calls, then police officers can do what they were hired to do -- to protect and to serve. All of us,” Halbert said.

Montney said that while she’s concerned about sufficient resources for mental health and substance abuse, she sees that funding as necessary “in addition to” funding for the police force.

“I don’t believe we should be looking at the police budget currently as an area to cut,” Montney said. 

Montney said that recent research, including the work of the Bloomington Public Safety and Community Relations Board, has confirmed for her that “we have a very good police force here.” 

The Bloomington police force is understaffed according to some benchmarks, Montney said, but has made a “yeoman’s effort to recruit diversely and mirror the community in their work.” 

Montney has received the endorsement of the Police Benevolent and Protective Association (PBPA) Unit 21 -- the union that represents Bloomington police officers.

Becker, who also has been endorsed by the PBPA, agreed the police budget shouldn’t be cut. 

Becker said he’s had multiple conversations with Bloomington police officers, including interim chief Greg Scott, who’ve told him that developing better relationships is the key to improved police relations with the public. 

Reducing the police budget would result in crime statistics similar to Decatur, Becker said, “where there’s 10x murders and shooting(s).”

“We absolutely do not want to defund and we really need to support our first responders to allow them to help us keep the community safe,” he said.   

Lawler said police are being asked to handle problems outside the realm of traditional policing, like mental health calls and issues related to homelessness. 

“All issues ... that we have in our community (are) because the city council hasn’t had the courage to act on those issues and help actual people,” Lawler said. 

There will always be a need for police, Lawler said, but Bloomington needs to take a more proactive approach to public safety, adding addressing underlying issues like behavioral heath, homelessness, and poor lighting in certain areas, can help to build up the well being of the community.

“We need a new approach to certain things, and reallocating some funds ... that is not a bad idea,” Lawler said. 

The election is April 6. Early voting is underway. 

This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of a candidate's name. She is Willie Holton Halbert, not Horton, as previously written. 

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