Normal Town Council members confronted their poor working relationship and the lack of trust between them head-on during a contentious retreat Friday.
The friction that has been bubbling up between newcomers Stan Nord and Karyn Smith and the rest of the council since the April election boiled over during the retreat, which was ostensibly focused on strategic planning. Instead, the first two hours of Friday’s session were punctuated with raised voices, accusations of dishonesty, and various airing of grievances.
“You’re on the verge of chaos,” the retreat’s facilitator, Lyle Sumek, told council members.
When asked whether he meant the council or the town, he replied: “Probably both.”
Friday’s discussion began with several Town Council members, including Kevin McCarthy and Kathleen Lorenz, criticizing Nord over a Facebook poll he posted Thursday. It says the “Normal Town Council will be voting on raising property taxes," asking his followers what they thought. In fact, council members will be voting on the 2019 property tax levy. They could raise taxes, lower taxes, or not change them at all.
“You represented a perspective and laid it on all of us,” McCarthy said. “And I don’t appreciate you acting like you represent all of us.”
“You threw the rest of us under the bus,” Lorenz added.
McCarthy said it was part of a pattern of misinformation from Nord. He also said Nord’s attacks on Connect Transit leaders were disrespectful. The transit system and its board have faced criticism over route changes, fare hikes, and their impact on people with disabilities and others.
“You’re making statements that are not true, because you want that perspective to be out there, because you oppose what (the transit board) is doing. You’re misrepresenting the beliefs and the motivations of that board,” McCarthy said. “And you’re misrepresenting the actions of this (council) at times, when you make statements like, ‘I got tired of seeing petitions come in front of this (council) and get ignored.’ That is not true.”
Nord defended his Facebook poll. He reiterated that he was elected because his constituents did not feel heard by the previous council—and that he wants property taxes to go down.
“This is what I ran on. This is what I’m doing. I’m doing it for the people, because I believe in Normal,” Nord said. “I want generations to come here. It’s not because I don’t like Normal. I’m more passionate because I love Bloomington-Normal.”
Smith, who was elected with Nord in April and remains a close ally, criticized a remark from Town Council member Chemberly Cummings earlier Friday about how rarely Cummings agrees with Nord.
“We are not here as the Deep State to undermine what you have done,” Smith said, raising her voice. “We’re here because people voted for us because of the positions we took. We’re doing our best to represent their voices. Period.”
Much of the tension goes back to the April election. Nord and Smith won, and Lorenz was re-elected, unseating former Town Council member R.C. McBride (also WGLT’s general manager). Longtime council member Jeff Fritzen decided not to seek re-election.
Smith recalled Fritzen and McBride’s last council meeting on April 15, when the council voted on resolutions of appreciation and commendation in their honor.
“If I could vote no to keep you on here, I’d do that,” said Koos, who had supported McBride and another candidate, Dave Shields.
That slight was a sign, Smith said, that it was going to be an uphill battle to work together.
“Oh, so we’re gonna have the red carpet rolled out for us,” Smith said.
Speaking to Nord and Smith, Lorenz said it “feels at times that … both of you are still battling me on the campaign trail.” Lorenz said Nord had told her point-blank that he doesn’t trust her.
“If we are not trusting one another, we’ll never get through that minefield for the betterment of this town,” Lorenz said. “That’s really bothered me since you said that to me this summer.”
In response, Nord said Lorenz had upset him during election by campaigning on his block—even stopping by his house while his wife was home.
“I didn’t know it was your house,” Lorenz said.
“Yes, you did,” Nord said. “Bringing my family into this is something I took personally. That was crossing a line. … That’s a line that’s gonna take time for me to get past.”
Cummings, who recently announced plans to run for Illinois House, said she did not like how Nord and Smith have portrayed themselves as the “saviors” of Normal.
“There was no uphill battle,” Cummings said. “When you come in and attack and belittle the work I’ve done, I have a problem with that. I take that personally.”
More recently, McCarthy said Nord fractured their relationship by lobbying for—and then voting against—a plan to reduce the amount of advance time needed to speak during public comment at Town Council meetings. McCarthy, Lorenz, and Mayor Chris Koos said they all spoke with Nord and agreed with his suggestion to cut that advance time down to 15 minutes.
But at the June 3 meeting, Nord and Smith switched gears and proposed the town allow residents to give as little as 1 minute’s notice to speak. (The 15-minute version passed.)
“You want to talk about breaking trust. You asked me to support you and I said yes, and you threw that out the window. Why? Because it was politically expedient? Because I gotta tell you that’s what it feels like,” McCarthy said to Nord Friday. “You threw us all under the bus.”
Nord said his changing view on the issue was prompted by concerns about the logistics of staff collecting public-commenter names with the original 15-minute limit. Smith said the incident was perhaps part of a learning curve for new council members unfamiliar with agenda-setting.
“This was not something that was premediated,” Nord said.
Retreat facilitator Lyle Sumek asked the council members to make a commitment to improve their working relationship.
“I’m going to work to make sure I’m not questioning motives, and (I’m) questioning issues,” said McCarthy.
“(For me) it’s the realization that I need to choose my words carefully,” Nord said.
If they don’t fix it, Sumek said, they risk running into stalemate on important issues. Koos said he’s already seen that as he tries to find a Connect Transit board appointee—and people are reluctant to do it given the conflict surrounding the agency. McCarthy said a local CEO recently asked him whether his company should expand or invest in Normal, given the uncertainty on the council.
“They’re really watching,” Lorenz said.
The mood lightened later Friday as the Town Council steered back into its strategic-planning discussion. They carried cordial, productive conversations about setting objectives related to the future of Uptown, cultivating a strong and diverse economy, and strengthening ties to Illinois State University.
“I have some hope we’ve found a corner and may start to go around it,” Lorenz said.
The Normal Town Council’s next regular meeting is Monday at 7 p.m.
.@NormalILL council outlines 3-5 things they want to see in town in 15 years. Chemberly Cummings says she wants the town to be a progressive destination with true diversity and inclusion, continuity to be a model community and takes pride in that.
— Eric Stock (@EricWGLT) October 31, 2019
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