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Year 1 recap: DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith discusses challenges, successes

DeKalb mayor hopes to further boost development, public safety

DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith talks about the successes he has achieved and challenges he has faced during his first year in office Thursday at the DeKalb Municipal Building.
DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith talks about the successes he has achieved and challenges he has faced during his first year in office Thursday at the DeKalb Municipal Building.

DeKALB – Since he was first sworn in May 8, 2017, DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith has touted himself as a mayor devoted to economic development and public safety.

He said significant steps forward have been taken on both fronts, such as the work that has been done on the Annie Glidden North Revitalization Plan and the police initiative last fall that led to the arrest of multiple individuals in connection with a string of shots fired incidents in the area.

For his next year in office, Smith hopes to continue this progress with an added focus on improving relationships with state and federal lawmakers.

“I think most citizens are pretty much aligned with what we as a council are trying to do by being the most efficient and frugal government we can,” Smith said. “I hope that nobody looks at my first year and thinks we aren’t responsive. I think I am a much better educated mayor, I think I am a stronger mayor, and I continue to have the energy people might not expect for a 75-year-old mayor.”

City Council reaction

First Ward Alderman David Jacobson, the longest-serving member of the DeKalb City Council, said since Smith took office, there has been a pretty obvious shift in diligence to address issues left unchecked by previous officials.

“I realize there’s still a sector of the community that doesn’t trust what goes on with the City Council, and in some cases that’s fairly and rightfully so,” Jacobson said. “But based on the last few years, I believe this group we have now, including Jerry, not only care about the community but are willing to work collaboratively and focus on the issues to make some really positive headway.”

Second Ward Alderman Bill Finucane feels Smith has brought a renewed enthusiasm to his position.

“That, in and of itself, has had an impact on some of the city operations in dealing with the public and potential businesses coming to town,” Finucane said. “He has made fewer assumptions about how things operate or should operate, and he’s more willing to ask questions of the council.”

Finucane and Smith both serve on the DeKalb Sycamore Area Transportation Study and although the mayor does not come from a transportation background, Finucane said Smith is a very quick learner.

“I think his enthusiasm has rubbed off on the council,” Finucane said. “I think that’s been one of his biggest assets.”

Annie Glidden North

In an election questionnaire submitted to the Daily Chronicle last year, Smith said one thing the city should cut or eliminate spending on is the use of outside consultants.

However, Smith justified the hiring of Camiros for about $84,000 to formulate an Annie Glidden North neighborhood revitalization plan and the hiring of S.B. Friedman for $43,000 to determine whether the city would be able to meet all the eligibility requirements to create a new tax increment financing district.

“To suggest we’ll never hire another consultant or ask for a study is something I don’t think is going to happen,” Smith said. “This City Council and mayor will continue to take a look at the effectiveness of any subject, and those were two instances in which the questions we had to ask were difficult enough and required enough expertise that we just did not have.”

Finucane, who serves as one of two council liaisons for the Annie Glidden North task force, said Smith talks with him constantly about the progress being made and has been very receptive to the ideas that have been generated about how to revive the low-income neighborhood.

Smith said the collaboration coming out of the task force meetings has been fantastic and already is paying off in the form of neighborhood changes such as the changing of streetlights to LED bulbs, parking restrictions enacted by the Safe Streets Initiative and the closing of Welsh Park after sundown.

Lord Stanley’s condemnation

A couple of ongoing criticisms by some members of public have been that the city is not friendly to businesses, and there is a lack of transparency from city staff.

“If there’s anything I’ve said over and over, it’s that we need to let folks know what it is we’re doing,” Smith said. “We need to celebrate our successes and acknowledge our shortcomings.”

That was put to the test when the city unexpectedly condemned Lord Stanley’s Bar and Annex, 142 E. Lincoln Highway, and Common Grounds, 150 E. Lincoln Highway, because of structural concerns in April.

Smith took responsibility for the actions that were taken and admitted that the situation was handled “very, very poorly.”

“I’m not saying that the ultimate decision to put up the condemnation notices was wrong, but I would say that we could’ve done a hell of a lot better of a job,” Smith said. “The timing was not good, and it sent the wrong message.”

The situation did indicate to Smith that there should be a policy discussion on how much tax increment financing revenue should be put toward smaller projects. This will be discussed during Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting at 5 p.m. in the council chambers of the DeKalb Municipal Building, 200 S. Fourth St.

“While we have had major developers step up and put their money where their mouth is, granted those were significant dollars, this council wants to help anyone to engage the city with the utilization of TIF dollars,” Smith said.

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