ONARGA — State Sen. Shane Cultra acknowledged Wednesday that he ran a campaign office out of a public building owned by the Town of Normal, but said he had been told doing so would be all right.
That's not quite the way Normal's city manager remembers it.
Since then, however, Cultra has moved his political office out of the building in downtown Normal.
Cultra, a Republican from Onarga, is engaged in a primary election contest with state Rep. Jason Barickman, R-Champaign, in the newly drawn 53rd Senate District.
Since June 2011, Cultra has operated an official satellite office out of the building at 104 W. North St., Normal. Under terms of his lease with the town, Cultra pays $1 a year in rent and also is responsible for all utilities and maintenance costs, plus any build-out expenses. The space, according to Normal, once had been an office for former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Crete. Halvorson had a similar arrangement with the town.
Cultra's lease specifically prohibits using the office space for political purposes.
"Licensee agrees to not conduct any partisan political activities or campaigning from the property. This prohibition shall not prohibit official state senate activities," reads the lease.
But Cultra said he talked to City Manager Mark Peterson about using another part of the building as a campaign office, and paying for it. He thought he had an agreement to do so.
"Here's the story," Cultra said Wednesday. "On December 27th, I went in and talked to the village manager, Mark Peterson, and told him that I wanted to use part of that office as a campaign office. He told me at that time that it wasn't a problem. He thought that it would be all right and that he would give me a separate lease.
"At that time, I told him I didn't have a copy of my original lease and I would like a copy of that too. He said he would get me both copies. Subsequently he found out that the city did not allow any campaigning on city property. He informed me and I moved out."
Peterson, however, said there was "a misunderstanding" between him and Cultra about who was doing what.
"Senator Cultra stopped by and said, 'I wonder if I could use that back section for my campaign office.'
"I said, "Well, your lease prohibits campaign activity there. I don't know if you can do that by statute anyway.'
"He said, 'Oh no, as long as I have a separate entrance I can do it. I checked into all that and it can be done. So, can we do it?'
"I said, 'Well it's doable, but it would require a separate lease. You'd have to somehow divide that into a separate lease. It could be done, but it would have to go to our city council and I don't know whether they'd approve it.'
"And he goes, 'OK.'
"I told him he might want to talk to our city attorney about it and get something drafted up. I don't remember the exact details, but that was the essence of it. And that was the last we heard from him."
A few weeks later, Peterson said, he heard that Cultra was using the back section of the building for his campaign.
"I got a call that there was campaign materials in there. I checked it out and found there was a campaign office in back room. He had built a partition wall. It didn't go all the way to the ceiling, and there was a little doorway you had to go through.
"I said to his campaign aide there, 'Hey, you can't do this under the lease.' And the guy said, 'Oh yeah, Shane checked it out and it's OK and that's why he had this wall built.'
"And I said, 'No you can't because the lease covers the whole building.'"
Cultra called Peterson later that afternoon.
"I explained the details of the lease. And he said, 'I thought you said it was OK.'
"'I said it was OK, but you need a separate lease agreement and it would have to go to the council.'
"He said, 'When you said it was OK, I thought you were going to take care of all of that.'
"I said no. And then he said, 'My mistake. I will clear everything out immediately. I apologize. I clearly misunderstood.'"
By the next day all campaign materials were out of the building, Peterson said. He believes Cultra used the building as a campaign office from Jan. 14 to Feb. 6.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, The News-Gazette obtained a letter from the town to Cultra, sent by certified mail on Feb. 6, advising him he could not run a campaign office from the building.
"The Town Staff has received an inquiry regarding your use of 104 West North Street for partisan political activities," wrote Corporation Counsel Steven Mahrt. "Please be advised that under Section 12 of the lease agreement such political use is not allowed."
Cultra used Facebook to promote a Jan. 14 open house at the office. He admitted using it as a campaign location.
"I did for a while. I have to admit I did, but I did on the premise that I had a separate lease. I never signed anything, but (Peterson) told me it was coming," Cultra contended.
While he continues to use the downtown Normal site as his Senate office, Cultra's campaign office has moved a few blocks west to a location on U.S. 51.
"It's actually a much better location, trafficwise," he said.