Fact-checking the March 16 mayoral debate

As I wrote in my live blog and my print story following the March 16 mayoral debate, there were several points of disagreement between the two candidates about the facts of Jerry Schweighart’s 12-year record as mayor.

Of course Schweighart and his challenger, Don Gerard, disagreed plenty on arguments of opinion — those are healthy disagreements on which democracy thrives. But in reviewing the audio from the debate, I found three instances where the two couldn’t agree on hard, verifiable facts.

I figured it is my duty to correct the record of things the two said on March 16.

On social services

Gerard: “There have been proposals for (social service-related) intergovernmental programs which have been rejected by the mayor.”

Schweighart: “Well I’d like to know for one thing, when I’m done, of what programs I’ve rejected. ... I don’t know of any grants that I’ve turned down except the (Big) Broadband. I don’t know how that helps our social agencies.”

Fact: Schweighart has recently rejected at least one social service-related grant, but not the one to which Gerard was referring.

The context: The question was regarding what role the candidates feel the city plays to compensate for social services taking hits as a result of the state’s budget crisis.

Gerard argued that it is important for the local government to work with state legislators to bring money back to the local government, and then he delivered the above quote.

He later clarified that he was referring to a Section 8 housing inspection program, where the Housing Authority of Champaign County would have paid the city $44,000 to devote half the time of a housing inspector to inspection duties usually handled by HACC. Basically, the city would act as a contracted service provider, a technique it has employed a few times recently to save a few jobs in the City Building as the budget gap widens.

That program came up during an informal city council study session at the end of last year — Schweighart indicated he was skeptical, but voted with the rest of the city council to let it come to the council during a formal voting session after some of the concerns the council raised during the initial discussion were addressed. That bill has yet to return to council in a formal voting session.

But Schweighart did deny a federal grant that would have provided extra money for underage drinking enforcement. I’ll try not to confuse you with the details, but the Mental Health Center of Champaign County (now called Community Elements) was the lead agency on the grant, which means the money filters down through the mental health center (a social service agency), and it distributes the funds in accordance with the grant. As part of the grant, the city would have received $11,000 for underage drinking enforcement, and Community Elements would get thousands of dollars to address the other, health-related issues related to underage drinking.

Schweighart voted in a majority 5-4 vote to deny the grant. When a few council members changed their minds, the grant came back for a second vote and passed. Schweighart did not change his mind, the second time voting in a 7-2 minority. Gerard did not reference this bill in the context of his above quote.

The initial denial of the Mental Health Center grant was an uncommon occurrence. The council, often unanimously, routinely approves of grants to social service agencies.

On disputed quotes about baseball

Gerard: “As I recall, the mayor’s quote was, ‘Kids in Champaign, hockey is more popular, and lots of kids play soccer, and it’s something you really can’t explain why baseball has fallen off.”

Schweighart: “I keep getting amazed how he keeps adding things that I said that I didn’t say. I had a grandson that played hockey, but I don’t think it’s going past what baseball does, because it’s quite expensive, a lot of travel.”

The original quote, in a February blog post on chicagonow.com: “I would think you would have a pretty big turnout for baseball, but I think you have a bigger turnout for hockey,” Schweighart said. “We have a pretty good Little League circuit here, although it’s down. Soccer has taken a lot away from the little leaguers. It’s just something I can’t explain.”

The context: The question was regarding the role the city should play in supporting healthy child development.

In response, Gerard delivered an anecdote about a friend of his who sees a lot near Centennial High School as a perfect spot for a baseball complex. “That’s precisely the type of thing that I would invest my time in, precisely the type of thing that I would see as for the greater good of the community in so many ways," Gerard said. "The game of baseball.”

Schweighart said that building a park is not something the city does (implying it’s a responsibility of the park district). But he refuted that he ever said baseball is less popular in Champaign than hockey.

Well, he did say that, but the blog post was largely about whether the city of Champaign could support a semi-professional or minor league baseball team.

By the way, Gerard also claimed the blog’s author, Kyle Betts (with whom I worked a few years ago at The Daily Illini), works for the Sun-Times. Betts, in fact, works for the Tribune Company. If you pay any attention to competition in Chicago media, then you know why this is an important distinction. And I’m sure Tribune Company employees would scoff if I let that go uncorrected.

On the source of the pension obligation bond proposal

Gerard: “I brought an idea to the table that was proposed by Chapin Rose in October 2010 on halfwayinteresting.com.”

Schweighart: “I received the exact same proposal that he presented as his budget probably a month before he got it. I never had anyone tell me that this was a good proposal, not even Chapin Rose.”

Fact: The original proposal was brought to the city as early as Sept. 20, 2010, by Craig Walker, a local investment banker.

The context: The pension obligation bond proposal has been a recurring issue on the campaign trail. Gerard has supported it, and Schweighart has rejected it.

Technically, both of the above statements are correct, but the source of the proposal is important for both candidates because it may have influenced how they feel about it.

According to an email he forwarded to me, Walker met with Finance Director Richard Schnuer to discuss the proposal on Sept. 20, 2010. Schnuer has been skeptical of the proposal, and just a few weeks ago recommended to the city council that the issue be dropped. The council unanimously agreed, and most of the information the mayor has formally received on the topic has been from Schnuer and the actuaries that are advising him.

Gerard has been pointing to an Oct. 11, 2010, Chapin Rose blog post about using the method to address the state’s pension situation. Gerard believes the Rose blog post makes the proposal sound like a good idea, so Gerard included the plan in a budget scenario he has used as one of his main campaign points.

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