Q&A: Mayor Renner On How Online Vitriol Scares Some Away From Local Politics
Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner’s second and final term ends this week. Mayor-elect Mboka Mwilambwe will be sworn in Saturday.
Renner recently reflected on his eight years in office on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. This transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
WGLT: Recently, we have published obituaries about some of your predecessors, Judy Markowitz and Rich Buchanan, who passed away. We have been asking a lot of people about what they thought of their tenures, who they were as people, what they accomplished. How do you want your eight years to be remembered?
We certainly made lots of progress. I believe on lots of fronts.
There's some things I wish I had … I'd have regrets, not because there was an opportunity that was missed, but that we didn't make more progress. And that is for a stronger anchor in downtown. We've had lots of progress in downtown in many, many ways over the last eight years, and a renewed energy, certainly in downtown, and proper signage and parking issues, lots of things. And the Route 66 Visitors Center, the Convention and Visitors Bureau coming downtown, etc.
But I would like to have had a some sort of hotel-conference center that would replace the Front and Center building. And that's something we just weren't able to make happen. The council at the time did not want to take the risks that were necessary on the two waves of proposals that we had. And then we had one proposal that was just absolutely dead on arrival, couldn't be seriously considered.
But I think that would have been really very helpful in being a game-changer in our downtown. But I'm hoping that that still will happen. Because we have a great downtown, lots of assets. And we're not taking full advantage of it. But certainly we made some progress there.
And generally speaking and promoting infill development and smart growth, rather than sprawl and the very expensive policies, and I would say irresponsible policies, that fly in the face of sustainability, as well as creating a multimodal city sprawl policies, I hope do not show their ugly head anytime in the near future or perhaps even ever again. I hope we've made some progress there
But certainly one of the things that we can make progress in that I think is going to be very difficult to go back on is blowing open the doors to City Hall. When I first ran, I use the metaphor of City Hall surrounded by windows, so not only do you not have to fight City Hall, but anyone can come in and look inside, no matter where they're from, no matter who they are in the city and see what they're paying for.
And so we certainly had, for example, very quickly we went from having an “F” from the Illinois Policy Institute of Chicago that rates local governments in Illinois to an “A plus” and 100%. And we've gotten transparency, online transparency, other kinds of awards.
And we've had, of course, the Bloomington 101 (program), I’ve had mayor of regular mayoral open houses, and try to do as much as we can to listen to citizens and understand that we it is their government, and they should have a very important voice.
But related to that are several hundred board and commission appointments. Eight years ago, other than the Human Relations Commission that had a few token people of color, frankly, and a couple of gay and lesbian people, the rest of the boards and commissions were pretty much part of the, you might call the old guard or the good old boy, good old gal network. And they didn't look like Bloomington. They were middle aged or older, white males and females. Nothing wrong with middle aged white guys, I'm a middle aged white guy, but you need more diverse inputs to make proper decisions and to begin to groom and shape leaders for tomorrow, people who can be your city council members and your mayors or your state representatives or your congressmen and women, of tomorrow.
So now we do. We have people—gays, straights, people from east side, west side, people of color. I just had a week ago someone approved who was barely 22 to the zoning board. These are the kinds of things that are really important to have diversity, so we make better decisions and are more reflective of our community. And I think we made a lot of progress there.
And certainly in terms of our city's finances, and that's not just me, obviously. It's also our current city manager and the City Council stepping up to the plate on many of these issues. So we're reprioritizing money towards streets, infrastructure, improving 911 dispatch procedures, so that we really try to promote public safety. In law enforcement, we've had, I think, lots of progress in terms of a Police Review Board, as well as funding police and fire pensions, as well as body cameras. Many things. Improving the morale of police officers and at the same time trying to make sure that there's a greater increased accountability as well.
And again, the list kind of goes on and on. The main things are open government, smart growth, smart development, emphasis on downtown, older neighborhoods. The older neighborhoods also, of course, they benefit disproportionately from the Administrative Court that we established seven years ago. We can haul people in within a few days, 48 hours, 72 hours, if they’ve got dilapidated buildings or apartments. And there was no accountability in the past. The police were frustrated with this. Historic preservationists were frustrated with that. And we’re in a totally different world right now.
Those are the major takeaways. And I hope some of those that movement continues under the new mayor and council.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you expect not just the next mayor to face but maybe the next couple of mayors to face?
I think the biggest challenges are the kinds of challenges we have at the national level and state level. And they've reared their ugly head many times here locally.
There’s people using social media, sometimes disguising themselves pretending to be journalists, who are poisoning the political environment. And that's not just on the right; there's some on the left. We've just seen much more of it locally on the right, with just really vicious, nasty stuff.
And I when I came in, I was still stupid and naive and thought, “Oh, I can reason with people.” Well, that was just ridiculous. It's not the case. And there are just many people who just want to stir the pot and be nasty and vicious and get attention. And there's nothing you can do about it.
That I think is the biggest challenge that that this mayor or others and people at the national level, our entire country, has to come to grips with things like this.
How do you think that you've changed personally over these eight years? What does 2021 Tari think of 2013 Tari?
I was hopelessly naive. In some of the ways that I've mentioned in terms of thinking that I could reach maybe not everybody, but almost everybody. That was absurd. I never thought that I could please everybody. Don't misunderstand me. But I certainly thought that if I just sat people down, and we work through some of the evidence, we could at least walk away and realize that there are some common goals we can work toward.
And unfortunately, that's not the case. I pretty much always had pretty thick skin. But you have to have rhino hide on steroids. And that certainly has developed. And I’m certainly wiser in terms of a perspective on things. I'm less likely to overreact. Although I’m nobody’s softie, I don't think, but I think that I’ve certainly changed in many ways. I've always been self critical. And I think I'm even more self-critical now than I was eight years ago, for sure.
I remember back in 2017, you took a leave of absence for medical reasons. You've never really talked about why you did that publicly. I've interviewed you a bunch of times before and after that, and I certainly I certainly noticed a change. After that you were you were a lot more controlled in your rhetoric. You seemed a little mellower to me. Granted, Tim Gleason took over a city manager not long after that. So that probably helped a little bit.
That helped that helped enormously.
How did that period of time change you?
It was a month. It was September of 2017. And let's also be clear: You're never not mayor. It's not like I didn't get texts and emails and phone calls every day. It's just I didn't chair the council meetings. And I didn't do the media interviews. And that gave me a little bit of time also to refocus and repurpose some of my efforts in my some of my work at Illinois Wesleyan as well, which was critical.
But I think it is in many of the ways that you've talked about it. It was definitely a time where, comparatively speaking, I was able to step back a little bit and try to gain a little perspective.
But the one of the biggest changes though, about a year after that, was of course the arrival of Mr. (Tim) Gleason. To say he’s a breath of fresh air is an understatement. And some of that is not just because he's good, but because with the first city manager I had, it's hard to believe that that I didn't blow my brains out for five years, frankly. Not because that somebody was evil, but just a city manager is supposed to do what they're told. That's the whole concept of all of the various city manager forms of government. They are not supposed to be a check on the mayor. Anywhere. That's inconsistent with the International City/County Management Association’s code of ethics. They are not supposed to drag their feet, study their navel, before they can take a step. Those were unbelievably frustrating and aggravating years.
We still made progress. But it was clearly in spite of the previous city manager, not because of anything that he did.
Being an elected official in Bloomington is interesting because not only are you being compared to other cities in Illinois and across the country, but there's literally a city next door to yours that people can always hold you up against and say, “Well, why does in Bloomington do it this way? Normal does it this way.” Or, “Look what Normal is doing. Why isn't Bloomington doing that?” Did that ever annoy you? How did you handle that?
Of course, sometimes when people do things it would annoy me. Maybe not that comparison per se, but sometimes when it was skewed. That part’s the easy piece.
You don't make decisions in a vacuum. You have to branch out. And this is one thing that was frustrating to me in my entire time as mayor, but especially in the first four years or so, is trying to get the city council to think in more broader perspectives, to go to the Municipal League, to go to the National League of Cities. I don't know what I would have done if I didn't have the equivalent of a Rolodex of a half-dozen mayors I could just call up on any given issue and talk to them about things, and they would do the same to me.
The comparison between Normal and Bloomington sometimes is understandable. But let's face it: Normal is a critical partner to us. They've made has had great success in many areas, including obviously the revitalization of their Uptown. But Normal in terms of its size is basically about the number of residents of three of our nine wards plus ISU. So there are going to be some issues that are not going to be identical in both communities. And that is something that is easier to understand if you have a broader perspective outside of Bloomington-Normal. …
It was frustrating to me when people seem to have tunnel vision or try to operate in the silo. And they were doing little to nothing to get any broader perspective and sometimes wouldn't even talk to their colleagues across Division Street in Normal. And that was a frustrating to aggravating for sure.
This past election, we had a lot of incumbents who chose not to run again. Can you speak to the challenge of getting good, qualified people to run for local office? And what are some of the barriers?
I think one of the barriers is obviously the time and commitment. That is very difficult. That hasn't changed.
I think one of the things that has changed, and I don't know that this weighed on others in deciding whether or not to seek re-election, but I don't know how it couldn't have played some role, and I don't know about the school board. They're not under quite the microscope like the general-purpose city governments...
Which is interesting because of the amount of money they control, you think they would be or should be.
Right. Absolutely. No question, although it is obviously focused in one policy area rather than in a general-purpose government where you've got to deal with lots of things and make broader trade-offs.
But certainly the extent to which people are not just criticized—you got to have thick skin—but absolutely, consistently savaged in sometimes just idiotic, beyond irresponsible ways.
One of the candidates I was hoping would run for mayor who did not said that essentially, “There's no way I want to deal with stuff like that.” I kind of laughed about it at that point. I was used to being savaged. But not everybody is, and not everybody can adapt. And especially in my case, there are two times where people seemed to go over the line and include either my son in conversations or somebody who I cared about in ways that were just idiotic and over the top. And if they can beat me up is one thing, but if you touch people that I care about, then I take the gloves off. And then also many people said, you know, two times you did probably speak the truth and yet you got savaged for it. I don't want anything to do with that.
The hostile environment is just very, very difficult. You could potentially put your family and others and loved ones through some things that are just way beyond uncomfortable.
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