During Tuesday’s debate between Normal Mayor Chris Koos and challenger Marc Tiritilli, the two candidates found themselves in a familiar place: The upcoming April 6 election marks the second time they've faced off.
Back in 2017, Koos won his fourth term by just 11 votes over Tiritilli, who works at Illinois Wesleyan University.
But this year, besides the usual issues facing municipalities -- such as leadership on financial matters and economic development issues -- the candidates also are in a microcosm of a U.S. political landscape scarred by a divisive presidential election, the COVID-19 pandemic and a society facing a long history of police brutality.
At its core though, Tuesday’s hourlong forum, moderated by WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker, found the candidates asking voters whether they are satisfied with the town’s current leadership, or do they want change.
“I believe the people of Normal deserve someone with my experience, leadership and proven dedication to the community to guide us through these troubling COVID-19 times,” said Koos.
Decades as a small business owner, and as mayor, have taught Koos fiscal discipline, he said. As a lifelong member of the community, and as a U.S. veteran who served in Vietnam, public service to Normal is a driving philosophy behind his life’s work, he said.
Koos said over the past few years, under his leadership, the town has attracted new ventures, most notably Rivian, that expanded the tax base and created new jobs. And, for his entire tenure, he said his focus has been on essential services to Normal residents, improving transparency in government, and securing economic growth.
Tiritilli said he’s running for mayor again because he wants better priorities for the town. He decried an increase in taxes over the past two decades, and the increasing burden of public pensions. And he’s critical of Normal’s debt load.
He said his background in science and education, as well as time as a firefighter, make him a thoughtful leader who can handle crises. “I have a problem-solving mindset that I can bring to this office,” he said.
“The biggest problem facing this community isn’t Uptown, it's representation. Uptown will still be here no matter who is elected. What we need to do is find a better way to pay for it,” he said.
Tuesday’s event, at the Illinois State University Alumni Center in Normal, was hosted by WGLT along with the McLean County League of Women Voters, the Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP, and ISU's Center for Civic Engagement. Last week, the same organizations hosted a debate for Bloomington’s mayoral race.
Both Koos and Tiritilli said they believed their opponent’s heart is in the right place, and intended to serve Normal honestly. But they did criticize each other.
Tiritilli argued Normal’s government, under Koos’ leadership, locks out opposing points of view. “Voices that dissent are squashed,” he said, adding he wants to represent people who have been on the sidelines.
Koos criticized Tiritilli as spending the year of the pandemic focused on potholes instead of the health crisis. He claimed Tiritilli is not very business-friendly, and opposes many business deals that have been successful for Normal in the long run: “He’s a very transactional person, and doesn’t think strategically,” said Koos.
COVID and response
Schlenker asked both candidates what they thought was the most important issue facing the Bloomington-Normal community.
Koos said COVID-19 has rocked the community and continues to impact it. But Tiritilli said divisiveness surpassed even COVID.
Koos said Normal residents' lives have been upended -- from their health to social interaction and their livelihoods. Residents have lost jobs, or found themselves struggling and underemployed, he said.
“We have to be able to help as government as much as we can -- partnering with the state and the federal government to get relief to people, to get them back on their feet, to get our economy back to normal, to get their lives back to normal,” said Koos.
Koos pointed to Normal helping harness that government assistance -- by distributing $500,000 in rent relief to residents in need, and $450,000 to dozens of businesses adversely affected. He said moving forward, making sure the community is inoculated with COVID vaccines also should be a priority.
Koos noted he formed a communitywide COVID task force last spring, reaching out to a variety of community leaders to create a unified effort to combat the pandemic's impact in Normal.
Tiritilli took a different approach in his answer.
“COVID is a crisis. But it is not the most important issue facing this community,” he said. “The most important issue is division,” he said, criticizing Koos for his leadership during the pandemic and his use of emergency powers and executive orders.
Tiritilli said Koos and the town council's focus on pandemic restriction violations were disproportionate and didn’t make a difference anyway. He said focusing on stopping large student parties where hundreds gathered unmasked last spring, and calling out restaurants such as Joe’s Station House Pub this winter for ignoring restrictions, simply divided the community -- and had no impact on the community's overall health.
“That has led to uncertainty in the community. It upset residents and businesses alike, because of the way we were going about these things,” he said. And there were no COVID spikes, despite those interventions, he said.
Koos said Tiritilli mischaracterized the use of emergency power, noting it had only been used a handful of times in the past year, with 48-hour limits, until adopted by the council as a whole.
The two candidates also were asked to describe their priorities for accelerating economic growth and investing in infrastructure.
Koos said having a sound infrastructure is key to recruiting businesses to Normal, and to encourage existing businesses to expand here. “We need shovel-ready projects,” he said.
“You’ve got to have those basics under control, and believe me they look at that,” he said. But additionally, businesses desire a vibrant community. Normal has been recognized nationwide because it is safe, innovative, welcoming, and has great schools, he said. “Those are the pieces of the puzzle you need,” said Koos.
Tiritilli said Normal’s current leadership offers preferential deals and incentives that are unfair. He also said Koos creates ambiguity and problems with intergovernmental relationships.
“We need to have a more level playing field,” he said, criticizing the nearly $2 million incentive given to Portillos when it brought its Chicago-style eatery to town. Tiritilli said in essence, such a deal, has other restaurant owners paying their competition’s taxes.
Instead, Tiritilli said he supports the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council’s proposal to create packaged, standardized incentives -- prearranged, rather than negotiated piecemeal.
But Koos said he also supports that EDC proposal. It sets clear rules for businesses, and lets them know the possible incentives, making it easier for a business to consider a community; they are growing in popularity across the nation, he said.
The candidates also sparred over property taxes.
Tiritilli blames rising tax rates on Koos. But the incumbent said the rise is because, over the decades, the state has significantly cut school funding. About 65% of a Normal homeowner’s property taxes go toward Unit 5 schools, he said.
COVID wasn't the only national issue of 2020 that had a local impact. After police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., a national movement of protests and marches for racial and social justice swept the country, including in central Illinois.
Police reform became a major issue. Led by Black lawmakers, Illinois recently passed a major criminal justice reform bill. On Tuesday, the mayoral candidates were asked about their views on police reform and how they see the new state law affecting the town. The legislation includes developing new statewide rules for police accountability, expanding police training, and more.
Tiritilli said when he thinks about police reform, he considers improving morale within the police force, and improving law enforcement pensions. "We still need to have a strong police force,” he said.
But how police interact with the community is important, too. “If there’s a systemic problem, we should address it,” he said. As an example, he mentioned a 2017 ISU study that found racial disparities in Bloomington-Normal's traffic stops.
Some groups have proposed shifting some funding from police departments into mental health and social service areas. But Tiritillis said Normal shouldn’t choose between police and mental health spending. Both are needed, he said.
Koos said for police reform to move forward, training is key. He applauded the Normal Police Department for already prioritizing high levels of training, noting NPD has gained national recognition for excellence in that area.
Because of the state’s continued funding cuts to mental health and social services, police have been forced to become first responders in many mental health issues, said Koos. For that reason, he said Normal voted to dedicate a portion of its sales tax to mental health in the community to help take some of that burden off police.
Schlenker asked,“How should the mayor and council help police build trusting relationships with the community?”
“The mayor and council, their role is to set policy. They're not there to micromanage the police,” said Tiritilli. Instead, he said they should lead through community engagement. Tiritilli said NPD has almost no citizen omplaints against its force, but there's always room for improvement.
Koos said the mayor and council actually have a very important role: “That is by listening and by talking to the public and understanding what’s going on in their community,” he said. Koos said he’s approached the issue by talking to individuals, and groups such as NAACP, Conexiones Latinos, and others about police treatment of minorities.
Asked about a possible police shortage in the future, due to declining morale given the national climate and new state rules, both candidates said that’s not an issue in Normal. Candidates continue to be attracted to the community, they both said. Koos added that Normal has worked with local minority organizations, and NPD has worked hard to make more minority police hires.
During the forum, the two candidates fielded questions from Schlenker, and those submitted by WGLT listeners and members of the event’s co-sponsors.
Questions sought views on the town’s relationship with ISU and its students, as well as the government's role in addressing the community’s health inequities, homelessness, and racial and social justice issues.
The consolidated municipal election is April 6. Early voting has started. Voters seeking more information about the Normal mayoral race and others, can visit Election 2021 - WGLT Voter Guide, or the McLean County website.
There's no subscription fee to listen or read our stories. Everyone can access this essential public service thanks to community support. Donate now, and help fund your public media.