Streator Resident Said Ballot Question Started Dialogue

Streator resident Larry Thomas said he will be OK with whatever voters decide Tuesday, Nov. 6.

The city's voters will be asked if they wish to retain the managerial form of government.

And he has his own preference to toss it out, but he said most of all he wants people to have a choice.

This summer, Thomas collected 152 verified signatures on a petition to get the question on the ballot when 115 were required, or 10 percent of the votes cast in the last mayoral election. 

Initially, Thomas declined to comment with The Times for an article published Wednesday on the topic, saying The Times' coverage had been biased, but he agreed to be interviewed Friday.

He said the idea to put the question on the ballot came from customers who came into his barber and cigar shop on Main Street complaining about how the city operates, especially in regard to the city manager.

"The first year (Scot Wrighton) returned, he tries to annex all these people," Thomas said. "He threatens to turn them in and report to the Public Health Department if they don't. What kind of neighbor is that?"

Thomas said the referendum to him, however, isn't about Wrighton's performance, although he admitted it is about Wrighton to others.

He said some, including city officials, have mislabeled his efforts as being aligned with the firefighters union, which has had tension with the city manager during contract negotiations.

The Streator firefighters union has said in a statement it supports the city manager form of government.

If a majority of voters say yes, the city's government will not change.

If a majority of voters say no, the city will go back to the commission form of government. The city manager form will remain in place until after the April election, then a new set of council members are elected and seated.

Voters would then elect a mayor and four commissioners who serve on the council.

At the first regular meeting after the April election, the council designates each member to be either the commissioner of accounts and finances, public health and safety, streets and public improvements, or public property. The mayor serves as commissioner of public affairs. Commissioners are not required to work full time.

Each commissioner is given executive control over those departments.

When Streator had this form of government in the 1980s, commissioners were given first choice of the department they wanted to head based on the number of votes they received, with the leading vote-getter choosing first. The council may establish an ordinance that allows voters to elect the specific positions.

Thomas grew up in Ottawa, and his father was a mayor and commissioner there, and his brother served in politics in Moline.

"I'm sold on having commissioners in charge," Thomas said.

The argument against commissioners is that it puts part-timers in charge of departments they may have no expertise in. Another argument is that it invites politics, fiefdoms and corruption into government, according to Kurt Thurmaier, a professor at the Department of Public Administration at Northern Illinois University.

Thomas said he likes elected officials to be more involved in the day-to-day operations, because it gives them insight to make better decisions. He also likes the idea of being able to call and talk directly to someone he can hold accountable at the polls.

"If you have a problem with the water department, you call your commissioner and he tells the superintendent," Thomas said. "You can't call any of the city council members now, they aren't responsible for anything. They can tell the city manager, or you have to talk to the city manager."

Thomas said he thinks running a city is too much responsibility for one person. While the City Council is tasked with directing the city manager and having the ability to hire and fire the position, Thomas doesn't believe there's enough checks and balances on the post. He also believes the total compensation package of $165,405 for the city manager, which includes benefits, is too much.

He believes in increasing the salaries of commissioners to encourage qualified candidates. The mayor in Ottawa makes more than $70,000 per year, but commissioners in Ottawa make $15,000 per year. Thomas said Streator could offer the mayor $50,000 per year and commissioners $20,000 to $25,000 per year.

"There are plenty of professionals in town that are more than qualified that work with large budgets and manage people," Thomas said.

The Streator Yes Group, which is in favor of the city manager form of government, has said the city manager form is the most efficient. On a Facebook post, they shared Ottawa spends $344,320 per year on a full-time mayor, four commissioners, a city planner, an economic development director and a paid lobbyist compared to Streator's $181,800 for a part-time mayor, four council members and city manager.

Thomas said comparing Streator to Ottawa is not fair.

"Ottawa has a bigger tax base," he said. "Streator should compare itself more to Pontiac, or Marseilles."

Pontiac, with a population of 11,931, has an all together different form of government, operating in the mayor-council form. It also employs a city administrator.

The Streator Yes group said on its Facebook page a city with a budget of $27 million requires the full-time attention of a highly-trained professional well versed in finance, city/state/federal law, grant writing and economic development.

The Streator Yes group has said the city has been awarded $1.7 million in grant money since 2016.

"In our form of government, that person is our city manager, who is hired and directed by the elected mayor and council," the group said on its Facebook page. "This creates greater accountability, transparency, fairness in hiring, and fairness in contracting."

Thomas said cities such as Marseilles, Seneca and Ottawa have operated fine with the commission form of government. He noted people talk about the corruption and the financial turmoil Streator was in before it switched to the city manager form of government, but he said those were different times.

"That's what happened 30 years ago (in Streator), it was the good ol' boys," Thomas said. "That's not the issue everywhere, that's not the issue in Ottawa."

Thomas reiterated, however the vote goes, he is glad he put the question on the ballot.

"At least we started the dialogue in the community," Thomas said. "There's been a lot of talk in the beauty shops and on the streets. It got the discussion started. If it fails or passes, I'm good either way, because at least people's eyes are open. They might listen or read a little more about what's going on."

Source : https://www.mywebtimes.com/2018/11/02/streator-resident-said-ballot-question-started-dialogue/ad8lqtz/

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