About three dozen Carbondale residents braved the recent winter weather to attend a city council candidates forum Thursday, Feb. 28 at the Carbondale Civic Center.
The forum featured the five city council candidates in the municipal election April 2. They are incumbents Tom Grant, Navreet Kang and Adam Loos, along with challengers Lee Fronabarger and Jerrold Hennrich.
They are vying for three open seats.
Questions were chosen by the partnering community groups, which included Women for Change with partners from the Shawnee Group of the Sierra Club, the Carbondale Community Solar Working Group, the Green Party and the Carbondale NAACP. Also included were some citizens' questions that were submitted in advance.
Do you support the city's absorption of the park district, as reflected on the upcoming advisory question on the ballot?
All five candidates supported exploring the idea, with most citing the park district's limited funding methods and duplication of services as the main reasons. Fronabarger, a former member of the council, said it would be a "giant step forward." Kang, who once served on the park board, said the city "can do a better job." Loos added that the conditions of Carbondale's parks "range from poor to disgraceful."
How can the city do a better job bringing property owners into compliance with the ordinance against overgrown grass and weeds?
Grant suggested reducing the time residents are allowed to comply, adding that gardens should be exempt. Kang said property owners have seven days notice before the city sent a contractor to mow, and that charges ranged from $75 to $120. He suggested that part of the problem could be with the contractors, who are limited in time and resources.
Loos pointed out that weather conditions, especially during rainy periods, sometimes prevent homeowners from keeping grass under the 8-inch maximum.
"We should find out why they are not in compliance," he said. "If they're just being jerks, we have a solution. But maybe they need help."
Fronabarger suggested residents use the See-Click-Fix application on their smartphones to report violations to the city more quickly and easily, and suggested that the council explore a youth program for mowing those yards before the bids go out this year for the mowing contract.
How can the city reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and achieve greater energy efficiency, and would you commit to the city using 100 percent renewable energy sources?
Hennrich suggested installing solar panels on either side of the railroad tracks and using vacant property to encourage urban farming. Kang said, "We have to be careful about spending tax dollars, but we have to do something," adding that he would "be happy" to commit the city to working toward using only renewable energy.
Loos said he would make that commitment as well, and suggested installing solar panels between spaces in city parking lots. "We need more state incentives," he said.
Fronabarger said he would encourage citizens to lobby their state representatives to extend the solar energy tax credits that will expire soon. He also suggested using alternative fuels for city vehicles and pursuing grants that would help fund the move toward renewable energy sources.
Grant agreed with Hennrich's and Loos' suggestions to install solar panels along the railroad tracks and in parking lots. He noted the city had received a grant to replace all lights in city buildings with energy-efficient ones. He also said he would make the renewable energy commitment. "It's just a matter of setting priorities," he said.
What role, if any, should the city play in helping SIUC overcome its challenges?
Both Kang and Loos agreed that SIUC's enrollment decline would probably continue for several reasons, including the rising popularity of community colleges and larger cultural changes. Loos also mentioned the "dysfunction at SIUC," saying that it was up to the state, the board of trustees and the administration to address those challenges.
"Carbondale should focus on figuring out what life will be like with a smaller university," Loos said.
Kang said resources should be focused more on vocational training than traditional university degrees. He also said making the city safer, with more cameras and better lighting, would make the city more welcoming to students, and that he believed the university should allow freshmen and sophomores to live outside the campus.
Fronabarger agreed that making neighborhoods safer and enhancing the downtown area would make Carbondale more welcoming, but also suggested "shared service spaces for startup centers" would help keep SIUC graduates in Carbondale and diversify the economy.
Grant said Carbondale should invest in more jobs "outside of SIUC and health care," and suggested "creating an innovation lab," "trying to grow opportunities for new businesses" and "attracting businesses that can use SIUC students as interns."
"It's no secret that SIU has its faults," Hennrich said, adding that the city should be more encouraging to businesses in general and stop focusing on all of the "reasons why we can't do things."
Will you support summer programs to hire Carbondale youth?
All five candidates cited a lack of funding as the reason why these programs hadn't been initiated.
Loos suggested businesses could share the cost. Fronabarger, Grant and Kang said the city should look for grants to fund those programs. Hennrich suggested that by cutting the number of police officers, the city could afford to hire 50 youth for 20 hours each week during the summer.
"We have too many full-time police officers, more than double the number that other cities our size," Hennrich said. "We can find the money we need right there."
Many people in the audience applauded his suggestion.
Concerning water pollution threats, what is your position on using coal tar in pavement application and lawn fertilizers that contain phosphorus, and what are your suggestions to reduce harmful runoff into Cedar Lake?
Fronabarger said many of these problems would require help from the state, but added that the city should monitor its Cedar Lake water supply more closely and increase ecology programs in the local schools.
Grant said he supported bans on coal tar and phosphorus fertilizers, adding that the city should close "loopholes in the rules" concerning runoff into Cedar Lake. Hennrich said he supported bans on dangerous fertilizers.
"We have some of the best water around, and I will fight to keep it that way," Grant said.
Kang said the city must do a better job preventing soil erosion and runoff problems and agreed with Grant that Carbondale has great water quality.
Loos made specific suggestions about collecting storm water in ponds and concentrating on green infrastructure in order to reduce harmful runoff, including using plants that can absorb certain chemicals. He also pointed out that most of the property around Cedar Lake does not belong to the city, so the city cannot prevent some of the problems with nearby farms and runoff that affect the water quality.
"We can't promise what we can't deliver," he said.
What should the city do to address the safety of children walking to Attucks Park and/or Thomas School in the northeast part of town, especially considering the death of a child walking on Wall Street last August?
Fronabarger said the city should pursue grants for safe sidewalks for children walking to and from schools and that he would push for "clearly defined crosswalks." He also said educating the public on pedestrian safety should be a priority. Grant said he had talked to the city manager about a proposal for a series of crosswalks and that it was currently under consideration.
Hennrich encouraged citizens to get these items of concern on the city council agenda in order to force votes. "Leadership must be accountable to its citizens," he said.
"It's a tragedy to lose a child," Kang said. "We must have crosswalks with blinking lights. These measures are in order." Loos argued against installing speed bumps. "If we want calmer streets, we need narrower streets," he said. "Our streets are too wide. Narrower streets will make drivers slow down." He also suggested "low-cost measures to narrow the streets," such as putting planters along the edge and conducting traffic studies to see if that and other simpler measures could slow traffic.
Would any of you -- who are all white, older men -- be in favor of changing to a ward system of representation for Carbondale to encourage more diversity on the council?
Grant pointed out that Carbondale used to have a ward system, but "went away from it." He said he encourages all interested parties to get involved in municipal elections. Hennrich said a community discussion on that topic was in order. Kang argued against a ward system, saying that it encouraged council members to focus too much on local ward issues and not enough on issues that affect the entire community.
Loos said that he was "enthusiastically in favor of a ward system," and encouraged the public to work to get it on the ballot. He said some are against the ward system because it would give SIUC students too much of a voice in municipal matters, but that he was not one of them. "I don't fear the electorate," he said.
Fronabarger said he supported a hybrid system, electing four representatives from four quarters of the city and three at large. "But it's up to the citizens," he said.
If you had to cut $1.5 million from the city budget, how would you accomplish that?
Hennrich returned to a topic he had introduced earlier and said he would start by cutting the police force, which he says is about double what it should be for a city the size of Carbondale. He claimed that by cutting the number of officers, the city would also get some relief in its growing pension obligations.
Kang said he would defer some capital improvement projects and use employee attrition -- not replacing workers who leave their jobs -- to save money.
Loos agreed with Hennrich that savings could and should be found by reducing the number of police officers, adding that pensions for some city workers are also a problem, "thanks to the state." However, he pointed out that simply reducing the number of police officers would not necessarily reduce the city's pension obligations because of the complex formulas used to calculate pensions and municipal contributions.
Fronabarger and Grant agreed that pensions are a huge financial problem because of recent changes in state law, referring to Public Act 96-1495 that took effect last year, allowing pension funds to compel the state comptroller to withhold state tax revenue that traditionally goes to cities in order to cover those obligations.
"I agree that if the state doesn't change its laws concerning pensions, this problem will grow," Fronabarger said, adding that to cover a shortfall of $1.5 million he would put a hold on equipment purchases, postpone capital investment projects and cut employee hours, "perhaps with job sharing."
Grant agreed with Fronabarger that pensions are a major problem, saying that the city could cover a large shortfall in the short-term, but that pensions "are not a sustainable situation" for Carbondale.
Thursday's forum was part of Women for Change's 2019 voter initiative, "Vocal with our Local," which aims to educate voters, increase turnout, register voters and share up-to-date polling information.
• The forum was sponsored by Women for Change with partners from the Shawnee Group of the Sierra Club, the Carbondale Community Solar Working Group, the Green Party and the Carbondale NAACP. Women for Change was founded by Ginger Rye on March 16, 2017, after her grandson was killed by gunfire near her home on the northeast side of Carbondale.
Coverage of a second forum featuring the city's mayoral candidates will be featured in next week's issue.
For more questions and answers from Thursday's Carbondale city council candidate forum, visit carbondaletimes.com.