URBANA — With less than seven weeks remaining before a primary election, a Democratic challenger for mayor says an open-records request has deepened his disapproval of the city's handling of the Landmark Hotel deal.
It is a talking point that Les Stratton has repeated since he launched his campaign last fall, and he says he is preparing to press Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing harder during the weeks leading up to a Feb. 26 Democratic primary election.
On Wednesday, the attacks grew even more pointed, and Stratton hinted at more campaign talking points in the weeks ahead.
"The ability for the city to recoup its $1.45 million is in doubt," Stratton said on Wednesday of the city's agreement with the owner of the Landmark Hotel.
That is the amount of money city officials plan to give to the owner, Xiao Jin Yuan, as reimbursement for some of the project costs by the time the work is done. Stratton said the documents he received after a Freedom of Information request show that Prussing and city officials fumbled the deal and were too lenient with Yuan.
The hotel — formerly the Lincoln Hotel and, before that, Jumer's Castle Lodge — partially opened in November, but Stratton said a partial opening is not good enough. He is worried the city will end up spending more money than it originally planned on the 89-year-old building.
"The Prussing administration has mismanaged this project from the beginning," Stratton said.
Stratton has attacked Prussing on the project before, and the incumbent mayor has responded by saying the owner encountered unanticipated renovation issues but has set the business up for success.
On Wednesday, her comments grew sharper as she defended the project.
"This is a guy who comes swooping in and wants to be the mayor, and he has taken no role at all in forming these projects," Prussing said. "Everything we do is open to public participation."
All along, city administrators have said, Yuan is in full compliance with the reimbursement deal, and Prussing said that Stratton should stop "brow-beating" the hotel owner.
"We have a contract; we made adjustments to the contract as we needed to," Prussing said. "Any big projects, you're going to see adjustments to it."
The original deal set a November 2011 deadline for the hotel's opening. Miss the deadline, city officials said, and Yuan would be considered in default of an initial $650,000 loan from the city and he would have to repay that money.
When it became clear the hotel would not open before that date, city officials revised the agreement to give Yuan until Dec. 31, 2012, to open. They also changed the timetable for $800,000 worth of reimbursements, making an extra $400,000 available to Yuan on the spot.
City officials defended the adjustments as necessary following unanticipated complications with the renovations.
Former Urbana Mayor Tod Satterthwaite, who has been present at Stratton's campaign events, called city officials' explanation of the adjustments a "rambling narrative," and said there is nothing material to support their leniency with Yuan.
Satterthwaite has drawn some of Prussing's criticism, too. "Tod seems to be doing most of the talking," Prussing said on Wednesday.
"I get the impression that I'm running against Tod," Prussing said.
Satterthwaite said that he has no official role with Stratton's campaign and that he is "just helping out."
Both Stratton and Satterthwaite have said that at the heart of the Landmark Hotel issue is Prussing's refusal to hire a chief administrative officer. He said city code requires a top administrator to work alongside Prussing, and that she has commandeered city government.
Prussing said she spent a year and a half trying to replace the last chief administrator, who was not invited to return after being placed on administrative leave in 2007 following what she called "unprofessional behavior."
Instead, Prussing hired a chief of staff in 2009.
"I think (Chief of Staff) Mike Monson has done a great job, and I think the council agrees," Prussing said. "We are spending less money on administration, and we are getting better results."
Stratton on Wednesday said he's got "some more press conferences" lined up before the Feb. 26 primary election.
He said he expects to speak on the $7.9 million Boneyard Creek beautification project under way in downtown Urbana "and its validity to where we are right now."
He may also make an issue of the Olympian Drive road project in north Urbana, and he said he believes "funding for the project could be put off for a number of years without us getting too involved."
Prussing on Wednesday said his comments are coming too late.
"He showed no interest in the Boneyard Creek; he showed no interest in Olympian Drive," Prussing said. "And now he's the expert."
Voters will choose Prussing or Stratton as the Democratic candidate for mayor during the Feb. 26 primary election. The winner's name will go on the ballot for the April 9 election, when voters will select between the Democratic candidate and Republican Rex Bradfield.