CHAMPAIGN — Eight candidates vying for three at-large seats on the Champaign City Council made their cases during a forum Thursday night in the council chambers.
Incumbent council members Matt Gladney, Will Kyles and Tom Bruno, who are all seeking re-election in April, are being challenged by Carle pediatrician Dr. Jon Youakim, filmmaker A.J. Christensen, former council member Michael La Due, Champaign Human Relations Commission member Kenton Elmore and former Champaign County Board Chairwoman Pattsi Petrie.
All of them were mostly in agreement on issues of housing, gun violence, economic development, storm-water retention and others. But nuances in the way they answered the forum's six questions set them apart.
Here's what they had to say about some of the issues.
No. 1 issue facing the city
Many of the hopefuls pointed to gun violence as the prevailing issue for Champaign. In 2018, seven people in Champaign and two in Urbana were killed by gun violence. Their deaths were among over 100 shootings recorded in the twin cities last year.
For Youakim, "disrupting the cycle of poverty in our city" is the best way to address rampant gun crime. He said studies show that adverse childhood experiences "lead to increased impulsivity," and he wants to place special attention on children coming up in the community.
Gladney agreed, saying gun violence is "a symptom and not the disease." Targeting the reasons for why people resort to "violent extremes" will lead gun violence to "take care of itself," he said.
Christensen didn't directly point to gun violence as the city's No. 1 issue, instead focusing on the "wide socioeconomic gap," which he said explains many of the problems the city faces, including gun violence. He said "a lot of other problems come" out of inequality and apathy.
Elmore was more optimistic. He said "there are a lot of things that are going right" in the city, and the key to addressing the issues facing it is to "take a holistic approach to everything we do." He said targeting the needs of people in underserved neighborhoods will help mitigate gun violence.
Petrie said she doesn't see the city's issues as problems but opportunities. She wants to focus on the growth of the University of Illinois and "capturing that growth to address some of the other issues." She pointed to flooding, inequity in housing, food deserts and gun violence as the main issues the city faces, and called for economically integrated housing as well as better transit.
Public safety and gun violence are the big issues for Kyles. He said members of the community "have to be able to engage with people who may not look like them," and added that "the conversation will be just that, a conversation, if we don't do something" about engaging with each other.
Bruno said on any given night, "what folks think the number-one issue is depends on the folks you're asking." But he said that the common theme among them is "we all want to see a higher quality of life" and added that he would work toward having "a community that people would like to live in" in the future.
"Critical" for La Due is affordable housing. He said after decades of experience on the council, "the thing that looms largest is the relationship of all the issues to one another," and so "you cannot neglect one" without affecting another.
Housing and development
The question of whether the council should repeal a section of the city code that allows landlords to refuse to rent to convicted felons for up to five years after their release garnered support from all but one candidate.
Bruno said a past felony conviction "should be a legitimate thing that landlords ought to be able to take into consideration" when signing a contract with a new tenant.
All the other candidates said they would vote to repeal the language in the code or study the issue further. Gladney said he was one of three council members who assigned the initial study session on the issue and said "all reasonable people" should be up for discussing a repeal of the code. Christensen, Elmore, Petrie, Kyles, La Due and Youakim all had similar arguments.
Youakim said he would support a repeal on the grounds that "it basically places those who paid their debt to society at the mercy of landlords or homelessness."
On the topic of expanding the city's home-inspection service by implementing systemic inspections of all rental properties, candidates were mostly against.
Bruno called it an outright invasion of privacy, while La Due called it a "difficult recurring question." Gladney worried about the cost and echoed concerns about privacy. Elmore agreed, saying "it's important to look at the resources we'd have to allocate toward that."
But Kyles called the current inspection service a "complaint-driven system" and pointed out that typically, complaints don't come from the north end of the city. The reasons for that are "underlying issues involved in why a person won't tell on their landlord or ask for an inspection."
Petrie, Christensen and Youakim took a middle-of-the-road stance. Petrie said she wouldn't be opposed to it but wants to focus on "how we can do this in an equitable and even manner," especially because it is difficult to engage people to enter their property.
Christensen also said he wasn't opposed to systematic inspections because he believes "some checks and balances are in order to make sure properties are livable and comfortable."
Youakim said he would support systematic inspections, adding that he wants "tenants that may be afraid to have a place and venue they can feel empowered in so they can seek a remedy to their situation."
On whether the council should institute a mandate on the amount of housing that gets built in light of studies that have shown the housing market is oversaturated, most candidates said it would be overreaching.
Elmore said he was against it "just because it unfairly disrupts the concept of an open market," and said that "our community will say" when housing supply needs to slow down. Other candidates also pointed to not restricting the free market.
But Youakim, although he would not support a mandate, said the city should do a "needs assessment" for parts of the community the market has ignored. He said "the free market's job is to maximize profit," adding that the role of government is to "maximize the well-being of the community" including making sure the market doesn't go against that well-being.
Petrie said she doesn't think a mandate would be necessary and believes the city can do more in other ways to alleviate problems with housing. She said she would push for rent control and wants to get "staff to work together to look at a long-range housing plan."
In the same way the city doesn't decide how many gas stations or grocery stores there should be, Bruno said he would be against a similar mandate for housing: "It mispercieves the goal of city government."
La Due also said he wouldn't support a mandate but agreed with Youakim that "we should take a more active role in determining what kinds of housing" gets built.
Gladney said "government shouldn't always stick its hands into things that it might have a good intent for" and added that though there may be concerns about future student projections and occupancy rates, "if there is a downturn in demand, the market will adjust."
Not ruling out the idea, Christensen said he neither supported nor rejected it. He said there's a perception that the "quick-and-dirty excess housing" the city currently has may look nice on the outside "but can significantly deteriorate the housing market" in the future.