Q&A: Marc Tiritilli On Why He Never Stopped Running For Mayor | WGLT

Q&A: Marc Tiritilli On Why He Never Stopped Running For Mayor

Sep 3, 2020

Candidate Marc Tiritilli narrowly lost to Normal Mayor Chris Koos in 2017.

Tiritilli, an instructor at Illinois Wesleyan University, plans to challenge Koos again in the spring 2021 election. His interview for WGLT’s Sound Ideas is below. It’s been lightly edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: Why are you running again?

Tiritilli: I said I was running ever since [I] conceded the election last time. There's a lot of things that need to change in Normal, and they’ve needed to change four years ago. Those things haven't gone away. They've actually doubled down on some of them.

We have a significant debt load in the community. We talked about that in [the] last campaign. They're talking about bonding again. They have a Smart Cities initiative. They want to have intelligent streetlights or things like that; Google already provides those things for free. And at the last year's financial meeting, the financial manager said, “If we're going to do that, and we're committed to it, we're going to be bonding again.” They want to do Uptown 2.0 south of the tracks. That's about another $100 million of investment. And we just can't afford to do that now.

So it's not that I'm opposed to projects in particular. It's that the way we've consistently done it has put an added burden on us. So, for the $100 million that was borrowed to do Uptown, $50 million will be paid in interest by the times those bonds are done. I mean, that's just money that's thrown away.

So, a lot of these projects are fairly small; $5, $7, $10 million dollars, if you consider that small, but the point is that can be accumulated in a couple of years and paid cash upfront.

The short answer is that I want to see some different dynamics about how we go about our business. And I want to bring representation back to the council. So many of the people in this community feel like their voices aren't being heard. Whether it's over the mural and Uptown, whether it's the firehouse that was put over at Blackstone Trails, whether it's what's going on with Connect Transit, whether it's just even being able to speak publicly at a council meeting, people feel like they're being excluded from the conversation. And I drastically want to change that, and it needs to happen.

Let’s talk about council dynamics. The Town Council is in a different place than it was four years ago. One of your allies, Stan Nord, is now on the council. What do you make of his tenure so far?

Well, he has done what he said he was going to do. He was going to listen to the people, actively solicit their input, and try and represent them on the council. And he's done that, and he's done it face on into the wind. So that has been a shift.

Some have criticized Nord for detracting from this collaborative culture that has historically existed on the council. If you were elected as mayor, how would you address those relationships?

I agree there needs to be collaboration and then needs to be professionalism. But it doesn't need to be uniformity.

And Normal is in a unique situation where we elect all the council members at-large; there are no districts, there are no wards. So you don't have your particular council person representing you. And then somebody else on the other side of town is someone representing them.

So what happens, and this is what has been part of the problem over the last 20 years, is that you wind up with a monolithic council. Whatever that one attitude was, that's a winner take all. And so now you have all these ideally suited voices on the on the council. And I think what happens is then you drift away from the other voices in the community. And that's been the problem.

I welcome a diversity of thought on the council. I welcome those tougher dynamics. It's a lot messier, but there needs to be give and take. That's why our government is set up the way it is. It takes longer to get through a meeting. It's a messier process, but it's far more healthy. And when you finally do reach a consensus and a conclusion and you get to a vote, then at that point all parties have felt like, 'Yeah, what I thought was said in a meeting, and my voice was represented and so now we've come to a decision, but we can move on from here.' When it's all been one-sided, lockstep, arm and arm, just for the sake of uniformity even sometimes, I think that is terribly unhealthy.

Let’s pivot to COVID-19. What do you think the role of town government should be in pandemic protection?

Really, that falls under county health organizations and getting direction from them. I think the role of government is to preserve the resources and the freedoms that we have.

And so I was really critical of the mayor's actions (emergency orders), not because of the actions themselves, whether or not they're going to work. Nobody really knows the answer to that. But what he did was he used executive privilege and just single-handedly, without any public input, discussion or warning, issued or set up the possibility of citations and fines to businesses to individuals who had no say-so in how that was going to impact them whatsoever.

So those are the types of things that we don't need in a pandemic. We don't need people to get upset that, 'Hey, what is this? I'm being treated unfairly.' That just adds to the frustration.

We need to preserve resources. So now you're tasking firemen with possibly issuing ordinance violations? Or our police force, when they have other things to be worrying about? And, again, during a pandemic, you want to preserve the resources that you have, maintain stability, as much as you can. And so having controversial directives when you don't need to – because there was time to convene a special session of the council and have public input – or to task our officers that are already strained, I don't think that's an effective way for government to lead during a pandemic.

I'll challenge you on that point that the public didn't have input. They elected the mayor, right? Knowing that he has certain powers to do certain things.

That's a fair question. But the mayor wasn't elected with those powers in mind. He assumed those powers in March from a very obscure part of our town code dating back to the 1970s. And it was meant to deal with fast-moving crises like riots. It was during the Vietnam era. And so there's restrictions on “no gasoline in bottles,” like Molotov cocktails. They're trying to restrict that sort of stuff.

It was portioned out in a matter of hours; 48 hours was the maximum limit, then it had to be reviewed, those sorts of things. So those powers were never intended to be used for a slow-moving crisis where you could convene the council and where it would go on for six months.

So while yes, they did elect the mayor, it wasn't with the idea that he would be acting unilaterally. And whether or not we did, the point is he didn't have to. It wasn't a moment of life-or-death crisis there. He thought about this on Tuesday and Wednesday and issued it on Friday. There was plenty of time to call an emergency meeting, issue public notice, solicit public input, and have it done through the more regular channels.

(Editor’s note: Since this interview was recorded, the Normal Town Council voted to keep in place through Dec. 31 new rules limiting crowds near the Illinois State University campus in response to a spike in local COVID-19 cases, mostly among ISU students.)

So that process question aside, what do you think of the actual idea – of prohibiting large gatherings of people near ISU and requiring bar and restaurant patrons to be seated?

Nobody knows for sure if they're going to work. I can think of a lot of ways that people will get around them. Is 10 (people) the right number? We're basing this on science. Is there a study that says 10 is more effective than nine or 11? We don't have that data. So these things are kind of shots in the dark.

The mask restriction is really not much different than what the governor had already issued. If people are standing up, or occasionally they're going to take a drink of water, just like I'm doing here in the studio, now we're going to have people all of a sudden in their face about masks on? Again, the more the government tries to tinker with the process, I think we have unintended consequences where people start getting in each other's faces and getting aggravated, which is not what we want during a pandemic crisis.

During a recent interview with another radio station here in town, you said the Town of Normal was in great financial shape compared with many other communities, but it needed to tighten its belt more to prepare for the loss of revenue potentially coming from COVID, as people shop less or go out to eat less. What sort of belt tightening do you have in mind?

Well, something like the Smart Cities project, where they’ve admitted it’s going to cost them millions and millions of dollars. We don't need to be doing that right now.

The underpass. There is no requirement for us to build an underpass. If we do nothing, Amtrak, Union Pacific, the federal government, everybody is fine with the way Uptown is built right now. We have our reasons for wanting to do something different maybe, but there is no requirement that we move forward on that project.

We're talking about Trail West already, and we haven't even broken ground on Trail East, and those are projects where they're going to dole out millions of dollars in incentives yet again.

Those are the types of things that we need to be restricting. And on top of that, we got to look at our pensions. They funded the pensions less than they had in the past this last go around. So despite 15 years of consistent property tax increases, the funding percentage levels got lower and lower.

So we need to do something different. We needed to do something different long before the pandemic came along. This year is going to be exceptionally tough because they actually funded less than they usually do. And then the investments got locked in at the end of March. That's when the reporting ended. So that was in the bottom of the stock market cycle. So when it comes December, and they're talking about the property tax rate, and they keep refusing to take money out of other resources, like the general fund or away from these projects, to help support the pensions, you'd be looking at an impossible property tax increase, and they have refused to address that time and time again. I've been telling them for five years and they still don't want to listen.

Four years ago, during the campaign, you made some pretty pessimistic projections about town debt and cast doubt on its positive bond ratings. Those have not come to pass. How should voters weigh the last four years and your views then?

Well, the negative aspect of it was the opportunity cost, the money that's been wasted. We're still paying interest on these. Some of the bonds that we have, we do not pay principal on. We just pay interest. We're throwing money away on those things. And they keep saying, 'Well, we have stable streams of income for them. It's based on the hotel-motel tax, or it's based on the sales tax.' Those things have taken a huge drop. So the negative aspects that I was talking about are the liability when something goes wrong. When we have a lot of debt and something goes wrong, then we're in a riskier position, and that has come to pass.

We're not sure where the income is coming from. The $10 million shortfall that they were talking about was before ISU decided that they were going fully online in the fall. They were predicating that on students will be back in full force and our economy will be kind of back up to steam again. So the projections are actually going to wind up worse than that.

If you're elected mayor, there will be times when businesses come before the council and ask for economic incentives, or tax breaks, to either expand or move in. How will you evaluate those?

Those are case-by-case basis. I don't favor the large outlays that we've had in Uptown. If we're going to have an incentive, it ought to be something that people can participate in across the board. So something that was along those lines a long time ago were the facade grants for Uptown. The town made money available to any retailer or any business owner in Uptown that wanted to improve the look of the outside of their shop. That's the kind of incentive I would like to see—something that lifts all the boats, not just a particular favored person.

In terms of incentives a little bit more particularly, you don't give away existing tax revenue. … Now, there is a school of thought that has some merit where, OK, let's say we're gonna base it on future sales tax. There’s nothing happening right now. They're going to develop a place and then generate income, which will generate sales tax. Can they get a portion of that? That's where, if you don't do it, then you've got nothing. If you do do it, you've got something that you didn't have before.

Those are case-by-case. They need to be looked at very carefully. But that's a more palatable incentive if you're going to issue them. But the type where we just say, hey, we're going to take $450,000 away from the school district every year to support Rivian, when they need that money. Their COVID shortfall this year was $500,000. To me, that's absurd. I wouldn't do that.

You were critical of the Rivian tax incentive agreement four years, and you still are. At one point, you even suggested that demolition of the plant would have been preferable to bringing Rivian in and seeing it fail. Is that where you were on this four years ago?

So it's not that I wanted to see them tear the place down.

Even Mayor Koos, when I've talked with him, has said, 'We didn't even have a pin to hang our hat on on the wall about this deal.' They had no idea if Rivian would succeed. And the question was about jobs. And we said, well, we know if they take it down, there's going to be hundreds of jobs for at least a year. That is a huge facility that needs to be taken apart. It would be a tragedy for that to happen.

The problem was, let's say Rivian did fail. Now you have a derelict property and you don't have anybody in position to demolish it cost effectively. The reason why the organization was in to broker that deal was they had all the stuff in there. All the robots, all the forklifts, all the tools, everything that was in that plant, tens of millions of dollars in inventory was still there, so that they could sell it off and make a profit on demolishing the building. That's all gone, right? Rivian got rid of all that. Now if they fold with an empty plant, there's no incentive for any wrecking crew to come in and try and get a profit out of it. Now we're stuck with a derelict building. That's the nightmare scenario. That's when the property taxes tank and the school is stuck.

So that's why I was saying what I did, that you're taking a huge risk. And there's there is a real risk here, and it would be safer actually to tear it down and take a huge risk, if you're not certain about that risk.

Were you wrong about Rivian?

They beat the odds. They really did. I believe they're going to be successful. They're not there yet. But you know, $7 billion can solve a lot of problems. I've worked in industry, I've seen the types of problems that are involved with automation. Money can solve a lot of them.

So they have beaten everybody's expectations. And even when they were here, so going back four years ago, very quickly after talking with RJ (Scaringe) and the other executives in the company, I realized these guys have something going for them. I wasn't opposed to Rivian. Who wouldn't want a successful company with worldwide recognition producing thousands of jobs in the community? I'm not opposed to that.

But what I was opposed to was the deal itself. Why in the world they needed to give up the school district's money to support that. That was the real problem. And that's why I fought so hard. Because even to this day, right, they came in saying, 'We are fully funded through production.' And now they've raised $7 billion beyond that. So tell me again why they need $450,000 from Unit 5 every year? That just doesn't make any sense. To me, that was a terrible deal. The school district's money should be protected for those children. They should not be involved in economic development. That's what I was opposed to.

I'm glad they're here. They're beating the odds. I never said that they couldn't do it. I just said it was unlikely to do it. So I was wrong in my negative projection. They beat those odds. I said they had a slim chance, then they look like they're succeeding.

You've been active in the Illinois Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's School neighborhood campaign against some zoning changes that would allow more businesses to locate at One Normal Plaza. The mayor and town staff say the complaints about those zoning changes overstate what could actually happen, that it would not become a big commercial district, or even add more than a couple of businesses to that area. What is the big deal about those zoning changes to you?

The big deal is that the neighbors don't want it. Plain and simple. It doesn't matter if it's not a large-scale expansion. The point is the people who live there and around there have said, we don't want this. And again, it's an example of the town just not listening.

I was at one of the meetings and the staff said, 'Well, we don't really care one way or the other. This was time for some updating.' Well, you do some digging, and you find out that this project has been in the works for nearly a year and a half. It started out with a particular person in town that wanted to develop a microbrewery on site. That's what they were really opposed to. Now, the microbrewery has looked at and said, 'Yeah, it's just too tough of a sell anyway,' and they're out.

But the town hasn't backed away from the changes on it. So again, you have the people when they find this out going, 'Well, you told us one thing, we're finding something else out,' and that raises suspicion. So it's not a about whether it's a big change or a little change. The point is the people who live in the community are the most concerned about it, they don't want it. So let's listen to them. It's a really great place, and they like it the way it is.

How do you measure what the neighbors want? What number of neighbors is representative?

It's a case-by-case. But when you look at the level of organization that this group put together—I don't lead this organization, they invited me to attend, and I've been to a couple of their meetings—they have 70, 80 people on their email loop, and they've come to meetings, and they petitioned the zoning board and they're very organized. So that's a large-scale resistance for this community, especially for that fairly quiet neighborhood.

So you need to take notice and listen to that sort of situation when that's going on. And, again, it's not that they're asking to throw out the whole thing. There are some good things in that. There's a lot of good things about what's proposed. You know, they're gonna split into four groups. One of them is that the dorms that people have turned into private residences, invested their own money, made them beautiful. And the new changes would actually provide historic building protection for a lot of their investments. And that's a great thing.

It really pivots on just a couple of aspects of one particular zone where they want to allow things like gaming arcades, potentially allow liquor sales, those sorts of things, bowling and billiards, where it might create more noise or more traffic. The problem is that where they want to do that is embedded right in the middle, so it has to go through the quieter spots. So it's only just a couple of lines out of this 52-page document that they're really opposed to, and there's been a surprising amount of resistance from the town to kind of dig in its heels and say, well, we're going to move forward with this anyway and just let the council decide, when it's pretty clear what the residents want. It would be a pretty easy change.

The Black Lives Matter BloNo organization has called for defunding local police departments by 50% and reallocating that money to social programs and other initiatives. What do you think of the Defund the Police movement?

I don't see this as an either-or situation. We need a strong police force in the community. I am in no way in favor of reducing its funding by 50%.

At the same time, we absolutely need to devote money to mental health resources and social programs here. And we do that. In 2016, they raised the sales tax by a full percent. A quarter of that is strictly devoted to mental health initiatives in McLean County. The first big project was the new jail, which is not just a jail, it is a mental health triage facility. And it is a way to deal with patients who are chronic users of the system, and it gave us many more resources. It helped fund the creation of the McLean County Behavioral Health Coordinating Council. So there's all kinds of resources that have been committed to these things. And as the jail project has reached its completion, the money that built that is now continuously available year by year to fund these other projects and even more in the future.

I see the two-pronged approach. You have a strong, engaged police force in the community that has, by the way, been wonderful in this community. If you look back, we have virtually no complaints. We have the Human Relations Commission, in Bloomington they have the citizens review board, and they've had very, very, very few incidents of any to report. So we're doing a good job with police relations here. And that's great. And we need to. And at the same time, we're doing a really good job with mental health in this community. It does not need to be either-or, and I don't I don't see any reason to try and shift money from one to the other.

There's been reporting about people of color being disproportionately hit by traffic stops in Bloomington-Normal. And we've done reporting about people of color disproportionately on the receiving end of force when police use force. Do you think that data should prompt revisioning of what our police departments do in this town?

I think that is wonderful data to have, and that you go back in your view and say, OK, what's causing this? Is there something that we can do about this? And absolutely, I'm in favor of those things.

But I don't see the solution to that set of data as cutting the funding in half. I don't see how that reverses the trend of disproportionately higher number of people of color being stopped. If anything, it could exacerbate it. You create that kind of stress within a department, that lack of morale, you create a different mindset in the officers that you're actually trying to get a better outcome from. So I don't disagree with the data. And I don't disagree that there is a potential problem in those areas. But the answer is not cutting the police force funding and half. Let's look at other solutions.

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