Whether and how the Bloomington City Council tackles some of the thorniest social justice issues in the community may hinge on the outcome of the April 6 election.
Depending on the results, up to four new city council members could be sworn in in May. Police funding and reforms, including the Welcoming City immigration ordinance, appear likely to resurface during the next four years, as well as myriad economic inclusivity issues.
Here’s a look at each contested race:
Nick Becker, a vice president for a data services firm, will face high school teacher Patrick Lawler. Ward 5 incumbent Joni Painter is not seeking re-election.
Lawler is part of the progressive People First Coalition, which includes three council candidates and mayoral hopeful Jackie Gunderson. They seek to pull the council further left, joining incumbents Jeff Crabill and Jenn Carrillo who are already there.
On economic issues, Lawler said he wants the city to continue to support the Small Business Development Center of McLean County, which now has a bilingual business advisor. He also suggests the city start a certification program for veteran, women, and minority-owned businesses so that list is ready to go if developers need it.
Lawler said he’s a “strong supporter” of the Welcoming City ordinance that, among other things, could restrict how local police interact with immigrants and federal immigration authorities. Social justice groups have been pushing for that measure for years.
“If you’re on city council, you have an obligation to listen to those groups and be responsive. And I think the same thing when it comes to issues of policing. We’ve had a number of our people in our community say, ‘Hey, we have some issues in our community,’” Lawler said, referring to WGLT reporting showing people of color are more likely to be on the receiving end of police force when it does happen in Bloomington. “We need to acknowledge them and we need to acknowledge the people who are bringing these issues to the fore so we can begin to address them.”
His opponent, Nick Becker, said the city council’s primary focus should be operational — making the city run and function. Diversity needs to be intentional, Becker said. An organization must put in the extra effort to, say, get a diverse pool of candidates if that’s what it wants, he said.
“How the city council impacts that, I don’t know that regulating that is our place. I’m very much for both diversity as the general context and in thought. The more differing opinions you can bring in, and the more differing ideas you bring in, the more you learn, the more you understand other perspectives, and the more you can generate efficiencies,” Becker said.
Becker does not support the Welcoming City concept, believing the existing state Trust Act and the Welcoming America Initiative provide what is needed. He said “the proposed changes that I have seen would severely restrict the ability of the police and reduce the overall safety of the community.”
As for broader police reform, Becker said many ideas have already been instituted within the Bloomington Police Department. The union that represents BPD officers has endorsed Becker.
“Unfortunately, the ‘reform’ efforts I have seen aren’t about working together on these initiatives,” Becker said. “They are focused on restricting the ability to operate and reducing funding. I do not support these ideas and believe that they will have a negative impact on all involved while reducing the overall safety of the community. This is not just my opinion but is consistent with a strong majority of those I speak with throughout the ward. We need to support and work with our police and firemen. If we work together we can improve the relationship between all and make Bloomington an even safer place to live.”
NAACP leader and retired Illinois Department of Corrections worker Willie Holton Halbert will face State Farm executive and Bloomington Planning commissioner Sheila Montney in Ward 3. Incumbent Mboka Mwilambwe is not seeking another term, instead running for mayor.
Montney said diversity is important because it can help the city, through different perspectives, make better decisions. But she said the current city council has spent a lot of time lately discussing social issues. The council recently voted 5-4 for the city to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day each October, a proactive step away from Columbus Day. Historians now hold a general view of Columbus as a brutal man who enslaved the indigenous people he encountered in the Bahamas, and that he played a role in their destruction.
“I found it interesting,” Montney said. “So much passion on both sides, about things that happened 400 years ago that we’ll never truly know the facts for. … I’m really looking forward to helping Bloomington come together in understanding that we have an opportunity for a future that all of us can be proud of. And spending more time in the present and in the future, rather than reflecting back in the sense of making up for things people feel passionately about that happened hundreds of years ago.”
As for police reform, Montney said she’s concerned people are unfairly painting Bloomington officers with a broad brush since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Montney said additional funding can certainly be considered for things like behavioral health and other social services.
“I don’t think relocating the money from the police force now to these other services is where we should start,” said Montney, who was also endorsed by the union representing BPD officers.
Her opponent in the race is Willie Holton Halbert, who is part of the People First Coalition. If Halbert loses, there would not be any Black city council members, despite about 10% of the city’s population being Black.
“I’m not running because I’m an African-American woman. I’m running because I’m highly qualified for this position. Now, I’m proud to be African-American, as each of us should be proud of our heritage. I’m running for all people,” Halbert said.
Halbert said she’s an advocate for public safety. Looking at policing “through a different lens” means involving more social workers and mental health professionals, she said. But that doesn’t have to come at the expense of existing police dollars; just add money to the budget overall, she said.
“Never has anyone ever heard me say anything about Defunding the Police. I don’t believe in that concept. That language is very negative,” Halbert said. “I do promote working together with our police.”
Incumbent Mollie Ward, who was appointed to the seat in October, is the director of spiritual services at Carle BroMenn Medical Center and Carle Eureka Hospital. She faces challenger Kelby Cumpston, a project manager overseeing affordable housing construction and another People First Coalition candidate.
Ward said she wants to create a healthier community across the broad. That means better access to affordable traditional health care and behavioral health services, healthy food, and healthy recreational opportunities.
“It’s time that we as a community begin to look at some of the issues of public safety, particularly around gun violence, as a public health crisis, frankly, that’s literally killing people,” said Ward. “Unfortunately, we’ve already had three shootings this year in Bloomington. And all three of them have been on the west side.” (Since this interview was recorded, a fatal shooting happened on the city’s east side.)
Ward said one way the city can support diversity and inclusion is to codify its values to make sure they’re not subject to the “coming and going of individuals.” She’s a supporter of passing the Welcoming City immigration ordinance; she also supported joining the Welcoming America Initiative.
“It’s not enough to rely on policies that depend on individual preferences and values,” Ward said. “It’s up to the representatives of the people to reach the kind of consensus that guides what then is implemented by (city) staff.”
Her opponent, Kelby Cumpston, also supports the Welcoming City effort. Also important to Cumpston is economic inclusivity. That includes ending the food desert on Bloomington’s west side. A community group is working to build a grocery co-op on Market Street.
“The City needs to do all it can to get involved in that and make sure it becomes a reality,” Cumpston said.
Inclusivity for all age groups is another priority. There are a lot of recreation options for young kids and older adults, Cumpston said. But options for teenagers and young adults are limited. That was made clear, he said, when basketball courts were not prioritized in plans for the O’Neil Park project.
“I haven’t been a teenager for a while, but I feel like a lot of teenagers would not have put ‘walkable paths’ as their amenity choice for a public park,” Cumpston said. “I feel like a lot of what gets designed in this town is based on younger youths and seniors.”
Ward 9 council member Kim Bray is not seeking re-election. Jim Fruin, a real estate agent and State Farm retiree, is running for a city council seat he held until 2017. He’ll face Tom Crumpler, an education professor at Illinois State University.
Fruin did not have a long list of prescriptions for the city to better promote diversity and inclusion.
“There are a lot of plates on the table, in managing business development, infrastructure and social issues. You gotta keep them all moving,” Fruin said.
As for the Welcoming City ordinance, Fruin suggested the Bloomington council consider the version passed by the Normal Town Council in 2018. If there is no proposal that will win a majority of council member votes, then set it aside for six months and take a fresh look later, he said.
“We’ve certainly made some strides in the 20 years I’ve lived here,” Crumpler said. “But now, we want as many voices at the table as possible when decisions are being made.”
On the Welcoming City ordinance, Crumpler said so many versions of the ordinance have circulated over the years that it’s difficult to make an informed decision. Bloomington Police are already following the state’s Trust Act, he said.
“At this point I’m not sure anything else is needed,” Crumpler said.
The election is April 6. Early voting is already under way.
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