How long have you been mayor?
Almost a year. I was sworn in on December 12, 2005.
Who or what inspired your desire to seek office?
I became Mayor under unusual circumstances. My predecessor left office unexpectedly, and I was appointed by the four commissioners on Pekin’s City Council to fill the balance of his term. In other words, I did not campaign for the position.
But my interest in serving came naturally. I have spent my career studying government and politics. Pekin has been good to me and my family, and I was eager to return the favor. I thought that my experience as a community volunteer would help me as mayor. And I have had the practical experience of working for a government agency and managing complex budgets. Finally, organizational behavior fascinates me—here was a chance both to see how local government works from the inside and to help improve it.
History played a part in this, too. Everett Dirksen’s first elective office was to Pekin’s City Council and, since my full-time position is with The Dirksen Congressional Center, there is a certain symmetry in my ending up as mayor of his hometown. I admire the qualities that made Dirksen so influential on the national stage—hard work, integrity, openness to change, a gift for leadership, among others. I also have had the privilege in my career to work with outstanding politicians and public servants, from former President Gerald R. Ford and a variety of Congress members to my colleagues on the Council today.
What has been the most challenging issue you’ve faced as mayor?
In the first few weeks, the challenge was simply getting up to speed quickly and listening, listening, listening. I did not have the luxury of a campaign to immerse myself in the issues facing the city. Since then, the greatest difficulty is serving on a fiveperson governing body subject to the rules of the Open Meetings Act which prevents any two of us from discussing city business. (Note: The Pekin City Council recently enlarged its council from five to seven.) Imagine how frustrating it is not to be able to ask a commissioner even a simple question about interpreting a section in the code, for example. Citizens deserve an open, transparent government, but they also deserve effective government. I’m convinced both are possible but that the Act creates an imbalance which hinders effective, responsive, and accountable government.
What is your “pet issue?”
I don’t have one. I’m sensitive to the fact that I was not elected, that people did not have the opportunity to hear my views on issues. So I view my role more as a facilitator of discussion than as an advocate for a particular issue. On occasion, however, I try to express a point of view that others on Council may not have considered. I did so, for example, in opposing the hiring of additional police officers, even though I was outvoted four to one.
What issue are you looking forward to tackling as mayor?
If I have anything to contribute to Pekin’s well-being, it probably lies in the area of strategic planning. With the able assistance of my fellow commissioners and the city staff, we have recently completed a conceptual plan which identifies five broad areas where we need to concentrate our attention and resources in order for our community to prosper. But that is only part of the challenge. Next, we need to devise the plans to reach our objectives. That’s what I look forward to in my remaining months—helping the team figure out how to get from here to there.
Is there a common misperception about you or city officials that you’d like to clear up?
Sometimes people mistake controversy for dysfunction. And our city council has its share of disagreements. But disagreement has value in clarifying thinking, raising options and stirring the pot. Discussion (even argument), negotiation, bargaining and compromise are fundamental to democracy. Be worried if you don’t see those taking place in your government.
What are the keys to a successful future in your area? What can the mayor do to help?
For the first time, Pekin has a mission statement, a vision statement and a list of seven core values. If we are faithful to them, we will be successful. But it takes more than that, of course. Success requires discipline, something that planning helps impart. We talk about success in terms of a prosperous community, a safe community, a strong foundation, a high quality of life and an effective government. Within each of these five areas, we have identified roughly three top priorities. A prosperous community, for example, requires us to develop a more robust economic development function. Providing a strong foundation, frequently referred to as infrastructure, requires us to complete the Veterans Drive Project. An effective government requires us to do a better job of synchronizing the budgetary process with the conceptual plan. Incidentally, the plan also tells us what not to do, such as pursuing economic development on the west bank of the Illinois River at this time.
The mayor’s role is to focus on the big picture, to help create an environment in city hall that allows the folks who actually do the work to succeed, to keep a sharp eye on the allocation of resources, to represent the city with integrity, and to listen. No mayor (or anyone else) has a monopoly on wisdom, so be prepared to change your mind.
What advice do you have for members of the public who want to be part of city decisions?
Be careful what you wish for. Seriously, there are more opportunities than people realize to participate in city government. They range from watching the television broadcast of council meetings, to attending meetings, to contacting your elected representatives, to volunteering for city-sponsored boards and commissions. In Pekin, for example, there are more than 100 slots on various advisory groups. We don’t suffer a lack of opportunities to serve; we lack people willing to take up the task. I am reminded of something Everett Dirksen wrote: “Any answer to the problem of generating the best kind of local government begins with a deep sense of pride in the community and with a sharpening of that proprietary feeling that the community does belong to the citizens. And when that pride has been transformed into a will for action the prospect of improved operations at the local level is already in sight.”
What does your political future hold?
Retirement! I am not a candidate for office.
How do you balance your time between mayoral work with your career and family?
Serving as mayor takes from 10 to 30 hours per week. My employer, the Dirksen Center’s Board of Directors, allows me the flexibility to work around the city’s obligations. So far, the arrangement has worked well. My wife (who is just as active in the community as I am) knows me well enough to tolerate these flights of fancy that I enjoy so much. And I do enjoy the work of mayor.
You are usually seen wearing a bow tie. How did that come to be?
I started wearing a bow tie because I had to go to a black tie event and that meant I had to look at my bow ties. I thought, ‘I have a pretty nice collection of bow ties, I’ll start wearing them.’ I was sworn in (as mayor) wearing a bow tie and the rest, as they say, is history.
What has surprised you most since becoming a city official?
I’ve spent my entire professional life studying government in some form or other. It has always intrigued me. But I was brought up short by a question someone asked me a few months ago. Essentially they wanted to know how my education and career had prepared me for being mayor, probably assuming that more than 30 years in the field gave me a leg up. Wrong. I think success comes from a sincere interest in people, in having had the opportunity over the years to serve the community as a volunteer, in being open to change. Politics on the ground, so to speak, doesn’t require academic preparation. Desire and empathy are more important.
Do you think televised meetings help or hinder council proceedings? Do you wish more people would attend council meetings?
I can’t think of a single instance where televising the proceedings has affected the nature of discussion or the outcome of a vote since I joined the Council. I don’t think that mere attendance at a meeting says much about the quality of participation. IBI