Urbana mayoral debate: Prussing and Stratton clear up differences (live blog)
Candidates in the Feb. 26 Democratic primary election for Urbana mayor and city clerk will debate tonight at 7 p.m., and I’ll have your live coverage right here and on Twitter, @patrick_wade.
If you can't make it over to the Urbana City Building, the forum will be broadcast live on UPTV Channel 6 and then rebroadcast throughout the week.
That’s incumbent Mayor Laurel Prussing and her challenger, Les Stratton. The incumbent City Clerk Phyllis Clark will debate with her challenger, Robert Michael Gatsche.
We haven’t heard anything from the city clerk candidates yet, but the mayoral candidates have been anything but quiet. Stratton has been harping on some recurring themes during the past few weeks, and I don’t expect that to change tonight. Here are some of the issues that we have already covered:
- Olympian Drive and road infrastructure
- Boneyard Creek beautification
- Landmark Hotel renovation
- Public safety
To summarize the first three for you: Stratton says all of those projects are mistakes while Prussing says they are key projects to build the city’s economy. Conversely, there is not much the two don’t agree on when it comes to public safety in southeast Urbana.
I spoke to the mayoral candidates this afternoon. Expect Prussing to talk a lot about how she has safely guided the city through a deep economic recession without involuntary layoffs or reduction of core public services.
An easy place for her to hit Stratton would be his inexperience in managing multi-million-dollar budgets and his absence at public meetings regarding the same projects he is now criticizing.
Stratton’s strategy is to hold his own.
“I’m not the experienced debater here, so if I win it would be extraordinary,” Stratton said. “But if I can hold my own, I think I can win the election.”
If you have any comments or questions before, during or after the debate, please feel encouraged to post them below or send me a message on Twitter.
Update 6:54 p.m.
The candidates are here, and we're about to get started. Tonight's moderator is Dr. Sandra Kato from the University of Illinois Office of Minority Student Affairs.
Update 7:08 p.m.
Prussing started first with her opening statement. She mentioned her background as an economist and her experience in government budgeting.
She says the city's finances are one of the biggest problems Urbana is facing right now, but city officials have managed to keep the budget balanced while maintaining employees.
She was also the first to touch on economic development.
"We brought dozens of new businesses to Urbana and will spend $5 million more on streetwork this year, all while carefully balancing the budget," Prussing said.
Stratton described his background in his opening statement. His father, the namesake of Stratton Elementary School, was one of the first black city councilmen in Champaign. Stratton himself was one of the first African-American managers in the Urbana public works department.
What he sees as the city's three biggest issues are crime, economic development and finances.
"The current administration has been ineffective in moving our city forward in a way that residents want," Stratton said.
It's clear early that the candidates don't see eye to eye on Urbana's business progress.
Update 7:15 p.m.
Stratton wants more police officers on the street by cutting into firefighter overtime.
That would be the first thing on my plate," Stratton said. "Make sure the crime in southeast Urbana is addressed and addressed immediately."
Update 7:18 p.m.
Here comes the debate on the Boneyard Creek beautification.
"Beautification of a waterway is a prudent technique for getting economic development," Prussing said.
She thinks it will be a tremendous asset for commerce and enjoyment for the public.
Stratton said the city needs to work on projects like that in closer cooperation with businesses.
"The project in itself is OK," Stratton said. But he adds that the $5 million being spent on the beautification itself is a lot of money and the city needs to look more closely on how that's being spent.
Update 7:21 p.m.
On tax breaks to encourage development:
"If we're going to give a tax break to a business, we have to be sure the business is stable and staying in Urbana," Stratton said.
"Urbana gives tax incentives, and we're very careful about seeing what the return is going to be," Prussing said.
Prussing said employment is going to be a key issue, and the North Lincoln Avenue project (part of the Olympian Drive poject) could be a good job creator by encouraging more development along that corridor.
Update 7:26 p.m.
Touchy subject just came up: Stratton said he wants a chief administrative officer (similar to a city manager) to carry out duties like budgeting and contracting.
He thinks a CAO could have managed the Landmark Hotel contract better.
Prussing thinks that, between she and her chief of staff, Mike Monson, they have it covered.
"I have a chief of staff, I hired a person and called it a chief of staff, so I think it's not really right to be quibbling over the title," Prussing said.
This has been a recurring issue in Stratton's press events and even past mayoral elections. More on that later.
Update 7:30 p.m.
Stratton used part of his time on his next question -- how he views downtown development -- to continue on the chief administrative officer issue. He said there is all kinds of "capital development" across Wright Street that could be drawn to Urbana if Urbana had a chief administrative officer to focus on it.
Back to downtown development, he's a big supporter of filling in vacant downtown sites.
The next question: "Why should Urbana be a second city?"
"Urbana should be the crown jewel of Champaign County," Stratton said. "They were first."
Prussing said she doesn't see Urbana as a second city and sees competition with Champaign more as "sibling rivalry."
"We've had millions of dollars invested in Urbana, and that was during a recession," Prussing said. "So I think we're doing remarkably well."
Update 7:38 p.m.
Getting back to Stratton's plan to add police officers by cutting firefighter overtime: "I think that the people in southeast Urbana would be very thankful for it," he said.
Prussing says the overtime is needed to maintain having three firefighters man every truck and cutting it would be a violation of the union contract. And maintaining the overtime, she said, is cheaper than hiring new staff.
"I think it's wrong to pit the fire department and the police department against each other," she said.
The next question is an important one: What do the candidates want to accomplish in the next four years.
Prussing said she wants to reduce crime, encourage more business and provide housing for those who need it. She also mentioned encouraging programs to ensure early-childhood education for everyone.
"I think all those things are necessary for us to thrive on a community," Prussing said.
Stratton said he wants to encourage "sustainable investments in things that we know we're going to get our money back" during the next four years. He is really staying on the economic development point.
Update 7:41 p.m.
There's a clear difference in the understanding of the numbers on Olympian Drive. See the above link to the earlier story.
Stratton calls it a road to Champaign. Prussing said that evidences a "lack of understanding about how roads work."
"It's a two-way street," she said.
Update 7:47 p.m.
The questions continue to roll in from the audience. Some of the topics we've covered: Olympian Drive, Boneyard Creek, lots of economic development, and Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband. Now, the question is on improvements to South Philo Road.
Stratton said the city should focus on core streets (which would not include this project).
"We need to address our current crumbling streets and put our monies where we drive every day," Stratton said.
Prussing said that segment of road was improved because it was unsuitable for the homes that surrounded it.
"We have very carefully planned out a plan for all the roads, and we try to maintain them," Prussing said.
Update 7:49 p.m.
Just a quick thought. The two mayoral candidates have spent a lot of time the past few weeks attacking each other. This debate is relatively docile. They've toed the line between difference of opinion and outright attack a couple times, but they've stayed very cool throughout the past 49 minutes. Still 15 to 20 minutes remaining.
Update 7:53 p.m.
Back to the Boneyard Creek beautification project. Prussing remains confident that it will attract business to the immediate area.
Stratton says that was not the right approach. The city shouldn't have to attract business, he said, but rather officials should have already talked to the businesses that are there.
"It's $5 million worth of your money," Stratton said. "If it's $5 million of your money, I need some guarantees."
Update 7:58 p.m.
Last question is on bicycle safety. Prussing says the city is adhering closely to its "bicycle and pedestrian master plan."
"We have a very careful plan that we're implementing, and it takes education," Prussing says.
Stratton said he wants to ensure all the bike paths are connected. Closing statements coming up.
Update 8:01 p.m.
In her closing statement, Prussing reminds the public that she's been mayor for eight years and has always been "respectful of the democratic process." She also mentions her experience as state representative and a Champaign County Board member.
"The city of Urbana has continued to move forward despite the challenges," Prussing said.
As confident as ever.
"If you can find a city with a better government than Urbana, I'd like to know about it," she said.
Stratton returns to some of his old points: His "economic development plan" to leverage private investment and his plan to restore city reserve funds. He'll hire a chief administrative officer, and he plans to make sure money is spent on "roads we drive on every day."
"There is a clear choice for Urbana voters in this election," Stratton said.
Update 8:07 p.m.
Stratton was clearly the aggressor tonight. He railed on what he thought were failures of "the current administration." Prussing leaned on her record, her experience and successfully guiding the city through the election.
A few mentions of projects for the future, but this campaign has been mostly about the past.
Update 8:45 p.m.
Sorry I've been away. Deadlines to meet. Here are some of the highlights from the city clerk debate that followed the mayoral debate.
Gatsche said he has spent 35 years in the construction business and wanted to make the clerk’s office more accessible outside of the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. business hours.
“In the construction business, I am used to starting early and working late,” Gatsche said.
He also promised to not serve beyond two terms and to not take a pay raise in his second term.
Clark has been city clerk since 1993 and said she hopes to keep the office as “hassle-free” as possible.
“The city of Urbana is a diverse community, and as such, my staff and I are committed to addressing the individual needs of each person that comes to our office,” Clark said.
One of the more interesting questions for the candidates was what they would do with an unlimited budget.
"Expanding our hours, perhaps hiring more people, would be one way to go," Gatsche said.
Clark said important city documents right now are stored in a closet and they need to be kept safer.
"I would have them put a vault in our office to ensure that our records are safe from now until eternity," she said.
I'm going to wrap up a few things, and I'll be back in a bit with a final update.
Update 9:25 p.m.
I'll use my last update of the night to say that we pretty much got what was billed. There was a lot of focus on what Stratton has already talked about in the past few weeks, and Prussing leaned on her experience.
There was an interesting moment during the debate where Stratton held up a page from the city's capital improvement plan and insisted that there is $2.5 million going into the Olympian Drive project. Prussing insisted that no local money is going into the project and that the $15 million extension will be funded with state and federal money. This has been a recurring disagreement.
I think I've solved the mystery of the $2.5 million, but I'm going to save my theory until I can confirm it with the public works department. There is no dispute, however, that $844,000 is going into the North Lincoln Avenue extension, which is part of the Olympian Drive project.
City officials say that there are some problems with Stratton's promise that he would hire four new police officers funded entirely with what he calls excessive firefighter overtime. Basically, the amount of money it costs to hire new four police officers is much more than the amount the city could cut from its fire overtime budget and still meet its union contract obligations.
I said I'd have more for you on the chief administrative officer issue, and here it is: The hiring of a chief administrative officer has been a common thread through many of Stratton’s attacks on Prussing. The city last had a chief administrator in 2007, when the person holding the position at that time was put on administrative leave and not invited by Prussing to return to city employment at the end of the fiscal year.
Prussing then hired a chief of staff — not a chief administrative officer — and assumed many of the duties herself. Since then, she said, the city has run more smoothly and cheaply.
Opponents of the move — including Stratton and Republican challenger Rex Bradfield — have called it a power grab, and Stratton has said hiring a new chief administrator would be one of his top priorities. He has offered it as a solution to many of what he thinks are city failures.
I think that's about it for tonight. Thanks for joining us, and please, if you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to post them below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message on Twitter. Remember that early voting is already open, and 130 people have already cast their ballots.