The upcoming municipal election in Urbana might be more interesting than first appeared.
If elections are supposed to be about real issues — sadly, many are not — Urbana residents might be in for a treat during the next seven weeks.
Les Stratton, a retired Urbana city employee, is taking on longtime Mayor Laurel Prussing in the Feb. 26 Democratic Party primary, and he's waging an issue-oriented campaign. The winner will face Republican Rex Bradfield in the April 9 general election in this Democrat-dominated city.
Given Prussing's celebrated status in Urbana politics, she's the frontrunner. But Stratton has a series of bones to pick with the mayor concerning her governance, and he's provoking an interesting — and useful — discussion.
Stratton again last week questioned the wisdom of the city's $1.4 million investment in the Landmark Hotel at Lincoln Square. Prussing wasted no time in striking back at Stratton and one of his supporters, Tod Satterthwaite, the former Democratic mayor of Urbana whom Prussing ousted from office.
Although the details of the hotel deal may be complicated, the issue really is not.
Prussing and council members took a big financial risk in the hope of a big gain, subsidizing the renovation and opening of the privately owned hotel. Their hope is that the hotel will be a success, providing a boost for Lincoln Square Village, the downtown and the city as a whole. But the track record at this location is one of failure, and the risk is real.
Stratton's entirely reasonable point is that the city has unwisely invested a considerable sum of taxpayer dollars in a financially risky venture.
The Landmark Hotel, formerly the Urbana Lincoln and Jumer's Castle Lodge, opened Nov. 30, but not at the level that was initially anticipated. Xiao Jin Juan, the hotel's owner, has said all 128 rooms and full amenities will not come on line until this summer.
Both Stratton and Prussing make valid points, and voters will just have to decide for themselves the side they'll take. They also must bear in mind that the jury is still out on if the hotel will ultimately be the success that justifies the city's big risk.
Stratton has other complaints as well. He's not the only one who chafed at the mayor's unilateral decision not to hire a chief administrative officer, an official municipal position. The chief administrative officer is supposed to run the city on a day-to-day basis, requiring deference from the mayor. Prussing chose not to defer to anyone by assuming the responsibilities herself.
Prussing disputes the notion that she actually fired former chief administrative officer Bruce Walden, insisting that he was not invited back to work after she placed him on administrative leave. But however one parses the language, she clearly threw him out on his ear.
It's equally clear that there will be no chief administrative officer if Prussing is re-elected. She likes the current arrangement just fine. Voters who think the city would be better off with a chief administrative officer should take that into consideration.
Stratton acknowledged that he plans to raise new issues in future weeks. That's great: The more, the merrier.
But he should remember that for every punch Prussing takes, she delivers two.
She's made it clear that she resents Stratton's criticism, characterizing him a Johnny-come-lately to policy issues and asking where he was when the decisions he now condemns were made. As is her wont, Prussing went out of her way to point out Satterthwaite's role in the Stratton campaign and demean her opponent by saying, "I get the impression I'm running against Tod."
This is what an election is supposed to be: A good, clean fight that focuses on real differences on important issues and gives voters a clear choice. So let's have more of the same.