Prussing defends her record as Stratton repeats his criticisms of it
URBANA — The two Democratic candidates for mayor have not been shy about pointing out each other's weaknesses as a Feb. 26 primary election nears, and they carefully toed the line separating difference of opinion from outright attack again on Friday night.
Incumbent Mayor Laurel Prussing and her challenger, Les Stratton, met in the Urbana City Council chambers for the only scheduled debate before the primary.
Prussing cast herself as an established leader who has successfully guided the city through economic recession without cutting staff or core city services, while Stratton continued to point out what he thinks are missteps in city projects of the past few years.
"The city of Urbana has continued to move forward despite the challenges," Prussing said in her closing statement.
Stratton did not stray from the issues which he has adopted as campaign points during the past few weeks: his "economic development plan" to leverage private investment and his plan to restore city reserve funds. He said he will hire a chief administrative officer to oversee budgeting and contracting, 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.
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.
"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.
But Stratton said the expertise is not adequate to, for one thing, manage contracts like a $1.45 million deal with the owner of the Landmark Hotel. He said the incentives for the owner to renovate and reopen the hotel have been mismanaged and the city did not get what it expected.
He said the lack of a chief administrative officer has also left Urbana behind on some of the businesses that have chosen to locate and build in Champaign.
Prussing did not agree.
"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."
The two fielded a broad range of questions written by audience members on index cards on Friday night. The questions were screened and delivered to the moderator.
They covered the Boneyard Creek beautification project in downtown Urbana, economic development, streets and crime. Stratton said he wanted to put 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."
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, which is used when a regularly scheduled firefighter is sick or on vacation, 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 mayoral candidates shared the night with the two city clerk candidates who are facing off in a Feb. 26 primary election: incumbent City Clerk Phyllis Clark and her challenger, Mike Gatsche.
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.