DeKALB – Two of DeKalb’s mayoral candidates traded barbs on whether funds the City Council committed to spur economic development within the city have been misspent.
A vocal critic of economic incentives, 1st Ward Alderman David Jacobson said his two-year stint on the City Council had shown him how DeKalb has wasted money on projects that he believes have had no discernible benefit.
Jennifer Groce, the former director of Re:New DeKalb, an organization that received a lot of those funds, shot back at Jacobson’s assertion.
“I’ve grown a little tired of the words and insinuations that all of the projects that I have been a part of are mismanaged or a misuse of city funds,” Groce said. “I do not see a downtown project that finished ahead of schedule and under budget as mismanagement or misuse of public funds. ... I think that’s investing in our urban core I think that’s investing in our city.”
The comments came at a public forum Thursday sponsored by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and local media at the Egyptian Theatre. Mayoral candidates were given two minutes for opening and closing statements, as well as three minutes to answer pre-submitted questions or elaborate on their platform.
At a previous forum, Jacobson said it would be a conflict of interest for DeKalb’s mayor to work at Northern Illinois University. All of the mayoral candidates have some connection to NIU. John Rey earned a master’s degree there, while Jacobson manages an NIU fraternity house.
Both Groce and Mike Verbic work at NIU and both said there is no conflict of interest.
“It will be a benefit of our city to work at NIU while serving as mayor,” Verbic said. “The opportunity to work alongside fellow DeKalb residents, NIU students, instructors ... can provide insight in DeKalb’s greatest economic engine.”
Verbic touted his successes on the DeKalb School District 428 board, on which he served as president. While on the board, he was employed at NIU as an instruction media systems technician, and recused himself from certain votes.
Groce said her job as a research associate for NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies has added to her knowledge of the city’s different services and issues. Instead of viewing NIU as a conflict, it should be viewed as an asset, she said.
But in order to lead the city effectively, Jacobson said, the mayor needs to be accountable to the residents.
“There is some conflict there. We do have to work in strong partnership with NIU, but the city should be leading that partnership,” Jacobson said. “But we have to stop letting them make the decisions and force our residents and our business owners to cope with those decisions. It’s not a sustainable way of doing business.”
John Rey, a community leader who sits on the city’s economic development commission and Re:New DeKalb’s executive board, was largely above the fray. Rey said he would use the city’s economic development commission more creatively.
“I would see the economic development commission containing resources and individuals that can contribute in a significant way to the planning of projects early on, to formulate a project before it becomes an issue the City Council is seeking support for,” Rey said.
By comparison, the candidates for alderman from the 2nd and 4th ward spots were relatively tame in their statements.
In the 2nd ward race, Stephen Clark said the city needs to focus on core services, such as fire, police, street maintenance, and water. Bill Finucane highlighted the need for improving the city’s aging infrastructure, including re-purposing city hall after the police department moves into its new station.
In the 4th ward, James Mitchell said the City Council needs to halt the development of Irongate – a proposed neighborhood with more than 1,000 units that would be built in the northern part of DeKalb – until the various empty lots located throughout the city are built on. Robert Snow said he would be careful on how DeKalb uses its various incentives, and that the council should focus on existing neighborhoods.