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Election 2021: Normal Town Council Candidate Priorities

Normal City Hall

The job of a Normal Town Council member doesn’t pay much. It comes with a lot of headaches. It takes a lot of work to listen to residents and translate that into policy. Yet nine people are running for election to three positions on April 6.

The trio who win will have to do their day jobs as well, and any council candidate has only a limited amount of energy and time to serve the public and a lot of buckets to pour that time into: constituent service, infrastructure, business development, race and diversity, affordable housing, budgets, and on and on.

Council candidates
Normal Town Council candidates Donna Toney, Scott Preston, David Paul Blumenshine, Karl Sila, Steve Harsh, Kevin McCarthy, Chemberly Cummings, AJ Zimmerman, and Brad McMillan.

This story is about which bucket each candidate wants to fill with the most significant part of their effort.

There are basically two groups of candidates: those who want the town to actively shape the future, and those who think the town has done too much shaping.

Steve Harsh is one of the latter. He is critical of an activist mindset for any council member -- and the actions of the council in recent decades in particular.

"Giving bucket loads of money to outside business to come in and directly compete with other like businesses, for one thing. Millions of dollars going out the window there," said Harsh.

Harsh said he also has negative feelings about the use of consultants to study policy choices and would work to stop that.

"To make a decision that these people were elected to make on common-sense decisions. But that they feel it gives them the credibility to go ahead and spend the money to do the projects that they want to do, that they want to force on the community, as opposed to letting the free enterprise system work," said Harsh.

Another candidate in the camp of those who want to focus only on the basics is Donna Toney. She said the council should reduce its attention on things she thinks can wait, and pay attention just to services.

"The elderly are really the taxpayers. We all pay taxes, but they've been putting in for years. And my thing is, their water needs to be straight, OK? We are human beings and our pores are open so anything can come through that," said Toney.

Toney said she would spend her energy listening to residents to make sure the community as a whole has a voice to address problems.

Karl Sila said his biggest effort if elected would be “analysis of what he thinks is appropriate” for the town to do.

"I'm good at looking at, 'OK, is this really needed? Is there a better way to handle it?' And so on," said Sila.

Sila also is in the government minimalist band of candidates who has questioned several council decisions over recent years -- both big and small.

So is David Paul Blumenshine who helped lead a trip to the Washington, D.C., protest that became the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Blumenshine has not responded to WGLT contacts about his candidacy or the protest.

The other set of candidates emphasize tech development, growing the economy, and improving the quality of life.

Incumbent Normal Town Council member Scott Preston said it does take work to actively manage the future of the community and to keep it what he called the "best downstate community." For Preston, that means doing things that will keep a strong economy, good schools, amenities like the Constitution Trail, Uptown, and parks.

"Making sure that we're doing everything that we reasonably can to provide safe and health opportunities for the people of Normal and the businesses that locate here to be able to operate their daily lives in a way in which they are comfortable," said Preston.

Preston said the town's record of protecting taxpayer dollars is strong. That also sets him apart from the slate of government-minimalist candidates.

Preston said the recent double whammy of a train derailment and fire in derailed train cars, and an apartment building fire on the same day, is an example of the town doing what citizens cannot.

For another candidate, the biggest emphasis is constituent service. AJ Zimmerman said he wants to take the temperature of the town on a frequent basis.

"I want to listen to what the town, the constituents, the residents and business owners have to say and address concerns to the extent that those concerns are appropriately presented and thorough discussion is had about the alternatives and steps to be taken to address those concerns," said Zimmerman.

He also emphasizes economic development, saying that means not just bringing in new businesses near Rivian or growing small business, but making sure small businesses have help during the pandemic.

Brad McMillan said infrastructure, social issues, and business development all need energy and work. But for him, the opportunity to be a council member is a chance to be an ambassador for the community.

"To be a part of a leadership team that helps attract new business to the region. Working with the Economic Development Council and the chamber. I think these things are interconnected because if you grow the economy you are going to have more resources coming in to pay for the needed infrastructure," said McMillan.

McMillan said town infrastructure does need attention.

Kevin McCarthy has been on the council for nine years. And he said if people have been watching, it’s clear economic development is his priority. McCarthy said auto industry changes and town efforts to bring in Rivian have paid off in a robust realty market and increasing manufacturing employment.

"Our housing starts are up. Developers are coming to us, three in just the last six months, asking for final plats to start building new developments in Normal. This is all really important stuff for me. For the resiliency and vitality of our future, that is where it is," said McCarthy.

McCarthy said economic development means stimulating not just the jobs of today, but the jobs of the future. If voters return him to the council, McCarthy said he wants to work on smarter infrastructure because that will shape the future. McCarthy said that requires front-end investment in things like communitywide 5G access point design standards, so companies find both Bloomington and Normal predictable.

He said the town also will have to decide on the next generation of intelligent traffic light signaling upgrades on state routes. Choices made now will have long-range implications for autonomous vehicles, so the town needs to plan, said McCarthy. But he said all that pales compared with how the town manages information and makes it accessible to citizens.

"So, any resident can interact on their water bill or their garbage information and garbage pickup to be able to report, access, get a response very simply at a very low cost. And that's really what we are concentrating on, that technological innovation piece," said McCarthy.

The final candidate on the list of those running also favors managing the future and is pro-business development.

But incumbent Chemberly Cummings said she would put the bulk of her energy in a new term focused on social justice issues if voters choose her. Cummings said that emphasis goes hand in hand with infrastructure and includes things like affordable housing programs.

Cummings said she prefers the term "equitable diverse housing" because the word "affordable" evokes the idea of complexes and siloed developments for lower-income residents. Cummings said expanding some town programs and making communities of color aware of them will help.

"Where you have more of the quote-unquote affordable housing mixed in with market rate housing. It allows people the opportunity to even get encouraged to go into home ownership. It's those types of things we need to start to do and make our community more inclusive in that way," said Cummings.

Cummings said a combination of zoning and incentives can address the lack of moderate- and low-income housing over time. For instance, she said some communities require certain percentages of mid- and upper-end developments to be reserved for affordable housing.

Cummings said programs to address social justice are important because for many years racial disparities were not a part of the town conversation at all.

In Normal, residents can vote for three of the nine town council candidates on April 6. Early voting is underway.

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.