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Caught In The Middle, Sister Cities Chair Defends Program's Work

Ryan Denham
Darren Sampson, chair of the Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities Committee.

The chair of the Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities Committee said Tuesday that he doesn’t want the recent controversy surrounding Mayor Tari Renner to distract from his organization’s good work.

Renner is facing an Illinois State Police investigation into his recent trip to Japan to celebrate Bloomington’s 55th anniversary as a Sister City with Asahikawa. Renner has denied wrongdoing, and it’s not clear what the investigation is focusing on. The city of Bloomington purchased Renner’s airfare for the trip and airfare for his partner, Margot Ehrlich, who was an official delegate on the trip. Ehrlich reimbursed the city for her airfare soon after the purchase, records show.

Renner has faced questions over his response to criticism over the trip. He has lashed out in strong language against those critics, even while defending the merits of the Sister Cities trip itself.

Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities Committee chair Darren Sampson said it’s been a little frustrating to see his program’s name associated with the controversy.

“I haven’t been interpreting what’s been going on as negative for the Sister Cities mission and what it’s trying to accomplish,” Sampson said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. “Publicity is good. Not necessary all publicity (is good). If I can lend any clarity to what’s been in the news, or conversations about what we were doing over there (in Japan), that’s what I’m here to help out with.”

Sampson defended the value of the Sister Cities program, even as the loss of automaker Mitsubishi Motors has broken one strong connection between Normal and Japan. The Sister Cities relationship predates—and outlasted—Mitsubishi’s manufacturing presence in the Twin Cities.

The Sister Cities program is funded in part by the City of Bloomington, Town of Normal, and private donations. With the exception of the mayors on the trip and Sampson’s own airfare, all of the 32 official delegates on the 55th anniversary trip paid their own, Sampson said.

“I had to pay for my wife and my children, and we saved up a few months to do that. Everybody who participated, including committee members, all paid for their own trips,” Sampson said.

The Sister Cities program—perhaps best known for its student exchanges—is a valuable cultural connection for Bloomington-Normal, he said. Sampson himself studied in Japan while a local high schooler.

“These are the folks we’d want to see leading our governments and corporations with that broad-mindedness,” Sampson said. “That’s really where it starts. It starts at home, with these small programs, that allow people to invest in themselves. Hopefully they receive just as much out of it as they put into it.”

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Sampson:

GLT's full interview with Darren Sampson from the Sister Cities committee.

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.