JOLIET – The mayoral debate without the mayor proved to be more controversial in the build-up than in reality.
Mayor Tom Giarrante’s decision to skip Thursday’s event – the only forum focusing on the three candidates for mayor – with the claim the arena was being stacked against him was the subject of much debate in the past week.
The debate itself was more civics than politics as Councilman Bob O’Dekirk and Andy Mihelich, board chairman of Joliet Junior College, answered almost two hours worth of questions submitted on Facebook and by people attending the event.
Giarrante himself was not mentioned much, although O’Dekirk did bring up the mayor a few times during the night.
“It isn’t easy to sit up here,” O’Dekirk said in his closing remarks. “As you can see, one of us chose not to come.”
Among the questions posed to the two challengers was whether one should step down so as not to split the opposition vote against Giarrante.
“Wouldn’t that be exciting to have a coin flip up here right now?” Mihelich answered. But, he declined the offer.
O’Dekirk said Joliet should have a run-off system to prevent candidates from getting elected the way Giarrante did in 2011 when nine people ran for mayor.
“The mayor was elected last time by 26 percent of the vote,” he said. “I think you can see by the way he governs that he only thinks about that 26 percent.”
About 100 people attended the debate at Cantigny VFW Post 367.
One of the big topics of the night was the city’s planned acquisition of Evergreen Terrace, the low-income housing complex condemned by the city.
A federal trial underway now will determine what the city has to pay for it, and it could be anywhere between $14 million and $23 million.
“The city of Joliet needs to take possession of Evergreen Terrace,” Mihelich said.
He said the city’s plan to sell bonds to pay for the acquisition appeared viable. But Mihelich said the city needs to do more for residents that would be displaced by redevelopment of the housing complex.
O’Dekirk repeated his often expressed criticism of the city for not having a detailed plan for what to do with Evergreen Terrace.
“I want a plan before we spend another $15 or $20 million,” he said. Noting that public housing is typically run by housing agencies, O’Dekirk said, “I don’t know of one city that has bought public housing and runs public housing.”
Both candidates said they would be champions for economic development.
O’Dekirk said Joliet basically relies on CenterPoint Properties and retail developers around Louis Joliet Mall to create new business in town.
Saying Joliet needs to initiate economic development, O’Dekirk said, “It’s only going to be done when the city aggressively markets itself. That starts with the mayor’s office.”
Mihelich pointed to his experience as a former administrator at Joliet Junior College, where he worked on economic development and training, and said the city needs to develop certain areas, including the interchange of Interstate 55 and 80.
He also said the mayor should visit with major employers “to make sure they are not leaving the city.”
Paying for city services
Both candidates said they supported more police and beefed-up snow plowing services.
But neither had a specific answer for how they would do it without raising taxes.
Mihelich, who wants a freeze on property and sales taxes while not dipping into reserve funds, said the mayor would “need to have a hard conversation with the city council to see what kind of activity they would want to eliminate to balance the budget.”
O’Dekirk, who criticizes the mayor for supporting past tax and fee increases that O’Dekirk voted against, noted the city budget has been balanced the past two years. While the 2015 budget calls for spending $8 million in reserves. O’Dekirk called that “only a projection.”