Camille M. Gibson was appointed to fill vacancies in the Peoria City Council twice, in December 1988 and again in January 1990. In May 1991, she was elected to her current at-large seat. She is chairman of the Public Safety & Social Responsibility Committee, liaison to the Civic Center Authority, the PHA, the Human Resources Commission, and Peoria Township, as well as serving on numerous committees and task forces. She has served on the Peoria Zoning Commission and is active in many neighborhood development groups, housing efforts, youth organizations, and other not-for-profit organizations. A Bradley University and University of Illinois graduate, she is currently a history instructor at Bradley while nearing completion of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois.
The night your appointment to fill Dan Gura’s Peoria City Council seat was approved was the night former City Council Manager Tom Mikulecky handed out copies of his resignation. By nearly all estimates, Peoria city government was not running smoothly at that time. Have things changes? How and how much?
I think things have changes considerably. I was not entirely familiar with what led up to Mr. Mikulecky’s resignation. I knew that when I had been on the council for five months, from December 1988 to early May 1989, these was certainly a great deal of dissension – some of which, frankly, I didn’t delve into. I really don’t know what led up to it.
Things weren’t running very well from an organizational standpoint. Government was very cumbersome; there was no communication between departments, and no comprehensive approach to many significant problems. We had a rather antiquated organization that probably looked very much like the system of the 1950s, with the advent of the council-manager government. Things have changed, and while we still have significant problems and bumpy spots, we have revolutionized many of our ways of doing business.
When Mr. Korn first came to work with us, he looked around and said, “Don’t you have a voice mail system? How do you communicate with one another?” At that time I was writing long memoranda – stream of consciousness thinking, really – because I could not spend hours on the phone trying to reach people and waiting for them to call me back, since I was teaching at Bradley. So I would just keep a running list of all the things I wanted to discuss with the staff and give it to the city manager every few days, which was pretty silly. We did get our voice mail system and we did start talking to one another; that’s just one of the changes. We are trying to look at most issues in a holistic way, but we have a long way to go.
You have built a reputation for neighborhood advocacy, yet are known as a strong supporter of business interests. Would you comment on the relationship between the two?
I think there’s a definite compatibility. We need to enhance our business opportunities, make Peoria a good place for business investment, and create a comfortable business climate. On the other hand, we don’t want to be only an industrial, manufacturing, financial, or medical center, which sees its workers go home to a suburb at night. Peoria needs to be a good place to work and do business and live.
We need to keep our neighborhoods strong. We have some beautiful older neighborhoods, and if we can solve our perceptions of crime and quality of life issues, they represent wonderful opportunities for low-to-moderate income people to own property rather than rent. We must do this in order to preserve the architectural heritage of our community.
The Council recently approved a utility tax increase at a time when the sentiment across the nation is for lowering taxes, not raising taxes. Do you feel the City had any good alternative?
No, not a good alternative. We could have done nothing, which is what some people favored. I think that would have been a mistake. We must have a plan to manage our growth rather than continue what we were doing – paying high subsidies to developers for annexation. That type of approach is not cost effective. It is a “catch as catch can” system with no plan, and you end up with haphazard urban sprawl. We have experienced enough of that already.
It is not an easy decision to support higher taxes, but I regard this as more of an investment in the future. Certainly, I would in no way support raising taxes for the purpose of enhancing the general fund or for operations. But these revenues are earmarked for a specific purpose.
How do you respond to the criticism that the recent tax increase, earmarked for infrastructure development on the city’s northern border areas, amounts to a subsidy for private developers?
In effect, we were already bribing them to annex. We have good examples of how expensive it can be. If, however, we do not grow, we are going to be charging our residents more and more for basic services in the future; to be cost-effective we must expand our borders.
We can’t afford to become landlocked, because it’s always more expensive to redevelop in the inner city than it is to expand. If we are to have the funds to redevelop – something we desperately need to do – we must expand our perimeter. Our expenses in this regard are not really subsidies to developers, but investment in infrastructure which will permit development.
There are those who still feel that the City of Peoria should own the water company, as many of municipalities do. Will we see another attempt on the part of the City to move toward purchasing the water company?
We only have the opportunity every five years because of the terms of the franchise agreement. I favored exploring the idea of buying the water company because I saw, as many others did, the necessity for planned growth; and buying the water company was one possible avenue for achieving that. Frankly, I like our current approach much better. For one thing, it will allow us to go into areas not served by Illinois-American. I think sewer extension is a preferable alternative in the long run.
Whether this issue will come up again, I have no idea. Illinois-American Water is seeking another rate increase. It has been proven that we pay among the very highest water rates in the United States. It is getting very, very expensive. I will be interested to see what justification there is for this. It is entirely possible – if this trend continues and there is no good explanation for why we are paying so much – that the issue of buying the water company may resurface. Yes, we have a very good service, and we do not – as so many communities do – run the risk of running short of water during a drought. But water is expensive here, especially for business usage.
What other initiatives can be undertaken to help stem the flight of people and money to suburban areas?
We must deal effectively with our crime and safety problems, as well as our perceptions of crime. I live in an older neighborhood myself, and according to crime statistics it is probably one of the safest neighborhoods in Peoria. Yet I have people ask me why we are still there, and wonder if it is safe to come to my house. That is absolutely ridiculous. I have no intention of leaving.
We have many good neighborhoods in our city. We need to combat our juvenile problems, as well as our problems regarding the abuse and mismanagement of rental property.
Do we have a serious Section 8 housing problem in Peoria?
We definitely have a Section 8 housing problem, but that’s not the only problem. The Section 8 program encompasses about 1,200 units out of about 19,000-plus rental units in the City of Peoria. Sometimes Section 8 takes the rap for other abuses and mismanagement of rental property.
The landlord registration and inspection fee is a hot issue at present. Opponent see is as another intrusion of government into private enterprise. How do you view it?
To begin with, this is not a new issue. Back in 1988 and 1989, several council people – myself included – and numerous neighborhood residents produced a document called “The Neighborhood Task Force Report.” At that time I’m sure it was regarded by many as another exercise in futility that should be put on the shelf. We took it very seriously, although we put it together in a few weeks. It was created with input from renters, social agency representatives, and police and fire personnel. Former Police Chief Al Andrews was a tremendous help, as we tried to get to the bottom of our problems. Most concerns centered around the abuse of rental property, juvenile delinquency, drugs, gangs, domestic violence, noise, and litter. Most of these issues have only grown worse since, despite our efforts.
At that time, we felt that is we are going to deal with these situations and take back our neighborhoods, we must come to grips with what was happening to our rental property. Too often there was an absentee owner, who did little more than collect the rent, and who often could not even be located. Sometimes the property would be in trust or in the hand of a bank receivership. Much of this happened because of the economic downturn of the 80s. Nobody was really minding the store.
Situations existed where property would be rented to a family and, a few weeks later, the extended family would move in. Often the extended family extended itself all over the neighborhood – creating parking problems and sometimes abandoning junk cars. There were also problems with unsupervised kids and public drinking. It only takes one such situation in a block to start driving owner-occupiers out. I would suggest this is the late 20th century definitely of block-busting.
More and more of these properties tended to become rental, with landlords buying them and getting what they could our of the properties while not keeping them up. Owner-occupiers would flee, and those who couldn’t leave – because the property value dropped so low – tended to become intimidated and afraid to do anything about their situations. They basically become prisoners in their own homes – particularly elderly people. This is happening time and time again.
We’ve also had a system where the property owner or landlord could sell on contract-for-deed, not register the contract, and deny any responsibility – a situation where no one is accountable.
It all comes down to responsibility. There are many excellent landlords who maintain their properties; some of them are victimized by tenants who vandalize or don’t par. But particularly in our older areas, we have some who have exploited the systems at the expense of the neighbors and the city. As the assessed valuation goes down, the tax base goes down. The bad landlords are the only ones who a reaping the benefits of this system.
I would also say that while landlord registration and inspection may be viewed as an intrusion on private enterprise, rental property is commercial property. It is the only commercial property that is allowed, without question, to exist in residentially zoned areas. It operates 24 hours a day, and the operator, so to speak, is absent. There’s no responsibility. If it were a business establishment where clients were annoying everyone else, the owner would find himself in serious trouble.
Rental properties receive numerous police calls. This costs the city money. If you talk to our fire chief and get statistics regarding the number of fire calls to rental properties as opposed to owner-occupied — with the same type of housing and same income levels – is double. We have a serious problem and our city and its people are suffering because of it. It really needs to be addressed.
Landlords who refuse to make repairs to unsafe electrical wiring or heating systems contribute to many fires, especially during the winter when there are a significant number of fire calls. Sometime last December, a woman and her children lost everything in a fire, and she said on television, “I told the landlord the wiring was giving off sparks.” It happens too often. There has to be safety inspections or we’re going to end up with another houseful of dead children like we did in 1989.
In my opinion there is every reason to establish this accountability. The landlords have not policed themselves, rather, they are on the defensive. Some of the officers of the landlords’ association are the worst offenders. We have one – I will not mention his name – whose name has become an adjective in the West Bluff for a particular kind of dwelling that no one wants to live next to. These houses are the reason why numerous people are moving from the area.
We have seen businesses move from the inner city to the suburbs in recent years. What are your views on this?
I think we can and should encourage businesses to reinvest in the central city, and in some respects we have been successful. Part of the move of businesses our of the central city is natural. Business will follow population.
We are getting some businesses to come back to the neighborhoods. One of the first was the Auto Zone on Western Avenue. It was the first new construction built on the South Side in years. Also, a new grocery store will be going into the old Miracle Mart. This is going to be a boon to that area because they haven’t’ had a grocery store in recent times. There’s the new strip mall on MacArthur. A developer is working on a retail project on the near North Side in the Abington-Jefferson area.
Even though this type of development is difficult, it can and must be done. Frankly, the city is going to have to assist. There have to be some incentives provided. But it is happening – Campustown, for instance. It has had some problems, but most of them are clearing up now. It’s been a great boon to the area. There is a process underway for a Main Street business plan. Some of the buildings there have been vacant for year; one of them was the corner of Main and University, where some enterprising young men started One World Coffee and Cargo, and now have expanded into the next building. That’s quite a place. There will be more, if we can successfully address our security problems. Businesses will come back to the inner city.
Several years ago you stated you were dead-set against the city and making any more business loans. Has your opinion changed any? Under what conditions and in what way should the city use public money to attract business development?
I’m still dead-set against making business loans in the way they were being made at that time, because frankly we were being used. Often, it was just business people saying, “How much can we get?” or, “we’ll pack up and leave.”
The original purpose of the loans was job creation and, for the most part, that wasn’t happening. We weren’t creating new jobs; we were spreading them around a bit perhaps, but it wasn’t true economic development. We can probably do more in the way of redevelopment incentives for businesses through services. For instance, we should assist in site preparation in the older areas of the city where we have all sorts of interesting things buried in the ground, which must be removed prior to construction. That’s one aspect that makes redevelopment so terribly expensive.
By fronting some of that, we can facilitate development. We could abate some fees, streamline the permit process, improve the infrastructure, or relax some parking requirements.
Has there been substantial progress in the years you have been on the Council in working with developers and city staff to expedite development projects and eliminate red tape, etc.?
I think it’s been substantial, at least in the last two years. The Chamber of Commerce and the Community Growth and Development Committee held several forums concerning the main stumbling blocks and what could be done to alleviate them, and we have been successful in many ways. We had a tremendous problem with our building inspection department, with backlogs and unprofessional procedures. We have taken care of most of that.
We have relaxed some of our more stringent landscaping requirements. It’s important that we have appropriate landscaping, particularly when commercial areas abut residential areas, but restrictions can become so rigid that they don’t even make sense. Also, we have become more flexible in our approach to signage, which is always a sticky point. There will always be those who want as few requirements as possible, but we must maintain reasonable standards.
Five years ago there were a host of proposed developments for downtown Peoria, many of which didn’t materialize: a downtown mall, a baseball stadium, a gambling boat. In your estimation, how did Peoria emerge from all of that?
Actually, I think we came out of it very well considering what I perceive to be the future of the riverfront – not that we handled it well, because we didn’t. We were lucky because, in my opinion, the gambling boat is in its proper place. No one knows what the future of gambling is going to be in the State of Illinois as it is at the mercy of the state legislature, which must deal with Chicago’s interests. It would be a serious mistake to depend, to any great extent, on those revenues always being there in the future. I would not want to count on the presence of gambling for fundamental economic development. We need to build on more solid ground.
As far as our riverfront itself, we have an excellent plan – a plan done with a great deal of public input through open forums to give people the opportunity to express their concerns. We need to have a riverfront to draw people, not necessarily for commerce, although that would be fine, but also as a place to meet – a focal point. We have begun that.
I was amazed last summer at the number of people gathering at The Landing – the music, the booths, the restaurant, and that’s just a start. This is just a natural offshoot of the entertainment complex that we already have in the Civic Center. People will go downtown, and they will go at night; it is perfectly safe. The downtown area has a great future, not only for entertainment, but also for living accommodations. Once we have people residing in the area, and once we stabilize our neighborhoods on the fringes of downtown, retail will return.
Economically ,things have dramatically changed for Peoria over the past decade, in a positive way. How do you see the future? How do you view the continued labor strife at Caterpillar?
Certainly we are far less dependent on Caterpillar than we once were economically. But to the outside world, Peoria still means Caterpillar to a great degree. Peoria and Central Illinois owe a lot to Caterpillar’s efforts over the last 50-plus years. This labor strike is very unfortunate, particularly for Peoria’s image and the perception that other business interests may have when it comes to locating here.
On the other hand, if you look at the total picture, you will see such manufacturing entities as Keystone, which recently won an award for its participative approach to labor relations. You see other companies that have been capable of working our their labor problems, Komatsu Dresser for one.
Even the City of Peoria has taken a different approach to labor relations with what we call the Team 2000 labor approach, which is a competitive management mechanism. We are on the verge of breaking some ground in this area. When I came on the council we were in a totally adversarial mode. Relationships between our unions and city administration, frankly, weren’t much better than between Caterpillar and the UAW. When one of the Council people would have a project or a new idea, it was always, “Well we can’t discuss that right now; we’re in negotiations.” At one point I asked, “When aren’t we in negotiations?” And the answer is “never.” We have gotten beyond that now. The beginning was the labor management healthcare committee which has done many things to improve the healthcare plan. That has spilled over into other projects as well.
The Caterpillar labor situation is unfortunate for all concerned, but many positive things are happening, also.
City Manager Peter Korn has had a somewhat rocky tenure. How would you assess his performance and his future?
There is no such thing as a perfect city manager, city councilman, or mayor. Peter has had some problems and some, frankly, have been created for him by others. I think the Team 2000 approach, the participative management atmosphere that we are trying to bring about at this time, has been a help to Peter, and he has participated in that to a high degree.
It’s a truism that the most efficient method of government is dictatorship. It is not the most effective, however. We all have a lot to learn. I never agreed that we should terminate the city manager. I felt, and still believe, that it is unnecessary. I am very willing to work with Peter to help him overcome whatever problems may exist in the future.
What do you see as the most pressing concern for the future of Peoria?
I am particularly concerned about our escalating juvenile problems and I have been trying to spend time in dialogue with the school district, the judiciary, and the state’s attorney’s office. We have significant problems in this area that are contributing heavily to our crime and safety issues and our neighborhood problems. We must find a way to intervene or we are going to be hatching another generation of gang members, teenage mothers and drug sellers. Offenders are being apprehended at a younger age.
The future of our youth worries me, because they are our future. Due to various social problems ,we are reaping the whirlwind, so to speak, and the situation will become even worse. This is a crisis the entire community is going to have to face.
Does the business community actively participate in local government?
Businesses are becoming more participative. Often I have felt that the only time we hear from business leaders is when they are angry or upset. We would welcome ongoing constructive criticism and advice. We have an excellent business community. Its future and the city’s are intertwined.
As I have attempted to point out, there is a direct correlation between business and the stability of neighborhoods. There is a primary connection with juvenile problems, crime, and education, because to do business here, businesses need an educated and responsible work force. We can supply that only if we have a stable community.
Transportation is important for growth and economic health in any metropolitan area. The news for Peoria has not all been good, with setbacks in air service, a somewhat dim prognosis for passenger train service, and no guarantee of funding for proposed Peoria-to-Chicago highway. What is your assessment of Peoria’s prospects?
Transportation is a very real problem and I have high hopes for the Peoria-to-Chicago highway, but that’s pretty far in the future, at best. Trying to establish a rail shuttle between Peoria and Bloomington-Normal is worth pursuing. We have to do what we can, and assess our options in a realistic manner.
As far as the airport, unfortunately many decisions are not under our control, due to problems that various airlines are experiencing nationally. We need to keep the pressure on Washington to get the best air service possible. In the meantime, we must keep improvising, running shuttles to major airports.
I’m particularly concerned about not only our exterior transportation, but bus service within Peoria. We have just experienced cutbacks. What’s coming out of Washington looks like more of the same. We’re going to have a difficult time employing our lower income citizens – and keeping them employed – if we do not have appropriate transportation to get them to and from places of employment. This is a most serious concern, and I continue to urge the city council to sit down with the Mass Transit District and look at what we can do to run appropriate services to and from various places of employment.
There were indications that your decision to seek reelection wasn’t an easy one. Why did you decide to run again? Might we even see Camille Gibson run for mayor?
There are several projects I am involved in that I would like to bring to fruition. One is community-cased policing. I want to se its full implementation throughout the city. We are just not getting it off the ground. I am terribly concerned about the juvenile problems that affect our community wellness. I intend to continue working on these issues and see if I can bring about a higher level of governmental cooperation.
The primary reason I considered not running for reelection is the tremendous time commitment. I have devoted virtually the last six years of my life to council matters, and put my own profession on hold. I have not as yet completed my dissertation, although the end is in sight. That is the main reason I thought very seriously before I committed myself and my husband to another four years, if I am elected. After a great deal of discussion, I decided that it was worthwhile.
Do I consider myself councilman at-large? Yes. Councilman for life? No. I am not a professional politician. Politics is not my life.
I don’t derive my identity from being in office. A run for mayor is most unlikely. I have never given it any serious consideration.
Is there any closing point you would like to make that we have not covered – something about which you feel strongly?
The absence of dialogue among various units of government locally has become more apparent to me in recent years. This has had an adverse effect on some very crucial issues.
Up until last year, there was virtually no communication between School District 150 and the City of Peoria; only marginal communication with the Park Board and, except for the landfill committee, almost none with the County.
Remember, the County of Peoria encompasses the judiciary and prosecutor’s offices. It’s ridiculous to charge the city with cleaning up crime, apprehending criminals, and enforcing public safety when the other half of the process is under another jurisdiction.
We need to be talking to one another a great deal more. We certainly have an excellent rapport with the Sheriff’s office, but much more needs to be done. Fostering such cooperation is my highest priority should I be reelected. IBI