CHAMPAIGN — A small political battle broke out Tuesday night over a mayoral appointment to a countywide housing board with the pastor of Bethel AME church stuck in the middle.
The city council unanimously approved Mayor Don Gerard's appointment of the Rev. Larry Lewis to the board of commissioners for the Housing Authority of Champaign County, but not before a former housing commissioner who has outspokenly opposed recent actions of the board could again enter his objection.
Lewis is stepping in to a relatively volatile period for the board, which in recent weeks has been weighing its involvement in a city project to level and redevelop the low-income, high-crime Bristol Place neighborhood.
The housing board is being asked whether the countywide authority should give special preference in rental assistance to the Bristol Place residents who would be displaced by city plans to purchase and demolish the homes. The special Section 8 vouchers would be worth an estimated $1 million.
A straw poll last month had the board deadlocked at 3-3 on whether to invite city administrators to officially present their plans to the board.
The missing vote from the 7-member board would have come from chairman Al Anderson, who abstained from a decision because his term ended in July. Lewis will now replace Anderson.
Gerard has defended the project, saying the redevelopment of the Bristol Place neighborhood is an innovative way to rid the area of blight and rebuild attractive affordable housing. The city would be required, however, to make sure that displaced residents do not end up paying more for housing than they already are.
The Housing Authority's vouchers would be a key to providing that required assistance.
"I have no doubt that Rev. Lewis will do whatever the mayor asks of him," said Terry Townsend, a former housing commissioner who has vehemently opposed the project. "Therein lies the problem. We do not want this Bristol Place issue politicized."
But Lewis told the council on Tuesday night that he has no interest in politics. "As a minister, I have no political ties," Lewis said. "My only ties are to God and doing what is right."
Gerard said he selected Lewis for "no political reasons whatsoever."
"He quite simply is the best man for the job," Gerard said.
In other business, the city council green-lighted a $414,418 expenditure to have a consultant design upgrades to Windsor Road on either side of its Interstate 57 overpass. The state plans to rebuild the bridge itself with wider shoulders, complete with bike lanes and sidewalks.
But the state says the city is responsible for where the road approaches the bridge on either side, It's a position city officials do not agree with — they say it would make more sense for the state to complete upgrades to both the overpass itself and the approaches.
In any case, the city plans to complete upgrades to the bridge approaches to match the state's overpass project. City officials hope to secure grant money to pay for about 80 percent of the $2.2 million project, which is expected to begin in April and continue until November.