JOLIET – Mayor Tom Giarrante Wednesday went on the offensive against Councilman Bob O’Dekirk, one of his opponents in the April mayoral election, while Andy Mihelich tried to set himself apart from the two of them at a candidates’ forum.
In addition to all the mayoral candidates being at the forum sponsored by the Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce & Industry, 11 of the 13 City Council candidates spoke at the event.
Most of the candidates offered their credentials to the chamber crowd, noting business backgrounds or plans for economic development in the city.
Giarrante, who has heard O’Dekirk criticize the city’s tax increases at past forums, led off his comments saying the city was in “very bad shape” when he took office four years ago.
The mayor said he supported a budget proposal that “included a small sales tax increase and a telecommunications tax knowing it would be an issue in this election. But it was the right thing to do.”
The mayor disputed O’Dekirk’s campaign trail statements that he voted against the tax increase, noting his opponent had voted for subsequent budgets bolstered by revenues from the hikes.
O’Dekirk, who has promised to roll back the tax increases, disputed claims that city budgets have been balanced.
“We are not meeting budget,” O’Dekirk said.
He said the city had to use up $3 million in reserves last year and will spend millions in reserve funds again in 2015.
“The problem with Joliet is not a lack of tax revenue. The problem with Joliet is the culture at City Hall,” O’Dekirk said.
O’Dekirk said as mayor he would market the city and lead creation of an economic development plan to bring more business to Joliet.
Mihelich, chairman of the Joliet Junior College board, urged chamber members to read his “101 Ideas for a New Joliet.”
“If you review for yourself my list of 101 ideas, you’ll see how I differ as a candidate for mayor,” Mihelich said.
Mihelich offered several of his ideas, including development along the Des Plaines River, a facade improvement program for businesses along Jefferson and Collins streets, and moving forward with acquisition of Evergreen Terrace, the low-income housing project condemned by the city.
“We need [Evergreen Terrace] possession issues resolved, not debated,” Mihelich said, an apparent reference to council divisions over the project.
Council District 1
Councilman Larry Hug, an independent insurance agent, pointed to his business experience in making a case for re-election.
“You want to make sure you have representatives who truly understand business,” Hug said. “What can business do for us? I’ll tell you what most businesses tell me. Please get out of the way. Please don’t put up any obstacles. And, we’ll let you know when we want to partner up.”
Terry Cottrell, an administrator at the University of St. Francis, said he has experience in management and team-building that would serve well on the City Council.
“Joliet definitely needs a new vision for the future. That is what my candidacy represents,” Cottrell said. He said he would serve as an “ambassador” to try to bring more economic development to District 1, which includes the Louis Joliet Mall area and Route 59.
Council District 2
Pat Mudron, an insurance broker, said he has been “a self-employed business person in Joliet for 43 years. I’ve lived in District 2 all my life.”
Mudron said he hoped to build more of a “team concept” on the City Council: “I think the City Council needs to work together with the committee heads and with the city manager.”
Roger Powell Sr., a commissioner at the Housing Authority of Joliet, pointed to experience working on budgets and collaborating with other commissioners at the agency to get things done.
“Joliet has been good to me,” Powell said, adding, “What I can give back is collaboration. ... One thing I want to make sure is that we as a people come together and work.”
Brett Gould, an administrator at Lockport Township High School and a commissioner at the Joliet Park District, pointed to his experience at the park district, including widespread support for a tax referendum last year.
“In these economic times, we run a government with a balanced budget and we’re doing a lot of great things,” Gould said. He also said he runs a small business with his wife.
Council District 3
Ray Polikaitis said he has more than 20 years of experience as an accountant and runs his own firm. But the biggest issue in District 3, which extends west into Kendall County, is representation.
“The fundamental issue the voters seem to have is they want someone who is a proactive City Council member,” Polikaitis said. He said he would seek out resident concerns “each and every day for a four-year term.”
Councilman John Gerl, a Certified Public Accountant and finance director for the Forest Preserve District of Will County, said the city four years ago was “in pretty bad shape” but recovered financially while creating 9,000 jobs and cutting unemployment in half.
“You’re going to hear a lot of things about the city, but look at those facts,” Gerl said.
Council District 4
James Foster pointed to his business experience as a union electrical contractor and former involvement in a small day care center in Forest Park, where he lives.
“I’m a firm believer that if you are going to be a council member, you should have some experience and expertise in managing money,” Foster said. He said the city needs “a watchful eye for unforeseen conditions,” noting the growing expense of the city’s transportation center project.
Angel Guzman said District 4 is “ripe for development” along Collins Street and Woodruff Road, but needs someone like himself with marketing experience to promote the area.
Guzman also said the city needs to fix roads, add sidewalks and improve street lighting to make the area safer for residents and more attractive to potential businesses. He also supports hiring more police to deal with crime in District 4.
Councilwoman Bettye Gavin, executive director of the Forest Park Community Center, said she has worked in community organizations for 30 years “because my passion is to improve the quality of life for all residents.”
Gavin said safer neighborhoods is a key issue. “Businesses will not be attracted if the neighborhoods are not safe,” she said.
Phillip Petrakos did not attend.
Council District 5
Councilman Terry Morris, a funeral home owner, said, “I believe the city has moved forward in the past four years, and I believe the chamber has been an integral part of us moving forward.”
Emphasizing that he tries to listen to constituents, Morris said, “I’ve been accused of not saying much – at least not on TV [broadcasts of meetings] – on the council. But I think it’s important to be a good listener.”
Leonard Thompson Jr. did not attend.