Mayoral candidates meet for first public forum

Business growth, infrastructure, labor unions, Hunter Lake among topics discussed

Springfield needs to create a more “business-friendly” permitting process for construction and improvement projects, and the city should spend more of its money to fix streets, sidewalks and sewers, mayoral candidate Misty Buscher said at a Jan. 25 debate with incumbent Mayor Jim Langfelder.

“We need to streamline our services in city hall,” Buscher, 52, the elected city treasurer for the past almost eight years, said at the mayoral candidate debate at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

The debate was sponsored by Illinois Times, Springfield Business Journal, Midwest Family Broadcasting and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

Langfelder, 63, is seeking a third consecutive four-year term in the April 4 election for a job that pays $130,800 annually. He told the debate audience of more than 300 people that his administration, with the help of federal COVID-19 relief dollars, has put the city in its best financial shape ever after weathering a two-year state budget impasse under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and amid the current three-year-long COVID pandemic.

“During this unprecedented time, I continued city services while protecting our workforce, with zero layoffs or furloughs,” Langfelder said. “We did over $50 million of infrastructure improvements (and) provided $1.5 million in utility assistance to struggling businesses and residents.”

Buscher said she would have devoted more COVID relief funds to the city’s crumbling infrastructure. “Infrastructure has been ignored in our community for way too long,” she said.

If elected, she said she would put in place an all-online system for permitting and business plan submissions.

Businesses say the city is “difficult to do business with,” Buscher said. She didn’t fault city employees.

“It’s the system in place,” she said.

Buscher said she would create a position for a city employee who would keep applicants updated on the status of their permits and plans.

“Currently, we have to have the public search with us and call us and leave messages to find out where that process is,” she said.

Langfelder touted the current computer system that helps keep track of city permitting requests, though the mayor said he is “listening to our business community … to make our services better.”

He said his administration’s accomplishments also include putting in place the ShotSpotter program and installing license-plate readers to pursue criminals.

“I put the city of Springfield in a solid financial position, enabling us to catch up with Springfield’s growth by building the first modern firehouses in over 25 years and the first expansion of Lincoln Library’s services in decades,” the mayor said.

The candidates commented on a variety of issues as they answered questions submitted by audience members and posed by debate moderator Bernard Schoenburg, a retired State Journal-Register political reporter and columnist.

POLITICAL LEANINGS: Buscher, a self-described moderate Republican seeking one of the city’s officially nonpartisan elected posts, attended a rally that Donald Trump held in Springfield in November 2015 after the Sangamon County Democratic Party endorsed her initial successful bid for city treasurer that same year.

Buscher said at the time that she thought Trump would bring a "refreshing change," and that his presidential candidacy helped move her from being an independent to a Republican.

“I voted for the candidate who I thought was going to bring new jobs, job creation, corporations, back to our states,” she said. “I came from a finance background, and it was important to me that we had jobs back in our community. … That person did not govern the way I thought they would.” Buscher said she has Democrats and Republicans “on my team.” But she wouldn’t say whom she voted for in the 2020 presidential race when Trump lost to Joe Biden. She also wouldn’t say who she voted for when Democratic incumbent Gov. JB Pritzker defeated Republican challenger and state Sen. Darren Bailey in 2022.

Langfelder in 2016 didn’t make a pre-election endorsement in the governor’s race when Pritzker unseated incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018, but he said he voted for Pritzker in 2018 and 2022. Langfelder said he is a moderate “Kennedy Democrat.” He said he voted for Biden in 2020. When asked whether he would vote for Biden again in 2024 if Biden runs, Langfelder said, “I would have to wait and see.”

RELATIONSHIP WITH CITY COUNCIL: Buscher said she would work to mend relations with, and communication between, the mayor’s office and the 10 alderpersons when it comes to matters in front of the council. The mayor casts a potentially tie-breaking 11th vote on the council.

Council members “seem to go on a fact-finding mission on most Tuesday nights,” Buscher said. “We need to communicate as an administration what’s on the agenda, why it’s on the agenda, and answer their questions. … I want our aldermen to be empowered to do their job. They are the people who touch our citizens every day.”

Langfelder said he has a “good relationship” with the council that has benefited the city, though he said during the forum that the council blocked some initiatives he favored.

He alluded to a report from Business Insider, a New York-based business and financial news website, that in 2020 proclaimed Springfield the best city in America to live after the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve done that by keeping the council together, as well as our community, during these very challenging and difficult times for all of us,” Langfelder said.

“Direct communication” with the mayor’s office is always available to council members, he said. He added that his deputy mayor calls each council member every week about upcoming agenda items, and there’s a council coordinator who can assist members as well.

WYNDHAM CITY CENTRE: A proposal by New York-based real estate developer David Mitchell to convert and renovate the aging hotel, a downtown landmark, into market-rate apartments, hotel rooms and convention space has been stalled by three council votes denying Mitchell’s zoning variance requests to create more than the 200 apartment units allowed under current zoning.

Langfelder has been frustrated by council opposition to Mitchell’s plans for a $40 million acquisition and renovation of the 30-floor hotel. The mayor said at the debate he would like to see 225 to 250 hotel rooms remain. Mitchell’s latest offer to the city would preserve 125 hotel rooms for convention-related and other clients and create 274 market-rate apartments. The mayor previously proposed Mitchell maintain up to 150 apartments, an option the council shot down.

Buscher said there are some apartments already in the Wyndham, and she doesn’t want to see any more at the site. Downtown vendors worry that a decrease in hotel rooms for conventions downtown would reduce their customer base more than any increased consumer spending from new apartment dwellers, she said.

RELATIONSHIP WITH LABOR UNIONS: Langfelder said union leaders aren’t supporting him this election cycle, which is surprising to many rank-and-file members. But he said he has a good relationship with unions and supports project labor agreements on city-funded projects.

Buscher received more than $25,000 in campaign contributions from labor unions in the fourth quarter of 2022, including from Laborers Local 477 and unions representing iron workers, plumbers and sheet-metal workers. “My relationship with unions is, I’m a woman of my word, and the unions know I’m a woman of my word,” she said.

She said the city hasn’t done a good enough job enforcing project labor agreements and prevailing-wage rules. “Labor knows that I will enforce the rules we have on the books, and that’s all they’re asking for,” she said.

SECOND WATER SOURCE: Langfelder said he supports developing an additional lake as a water source for the city to supplement Lake Springfield, the city’s primary drinking-water supply, during severe droughts. An environmental-impact evaluation of the Hunter Lake proposal is expected later in 2023 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In addition to the Army Corps, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency would need to approve such a project, which has been discussed for decades. Funding for a second lake hasn’t been worked out.

Buscher said she would need to hear more about what citizens want before supporting a second lake.

ATTENTION TO THE EAST SIDE: Buscher said the city needs to spend more, and pay more attention to, improving the care of streets, curbs and sidewalks on the east side, where poverty rates are higher than in most of the city.

Langfelder said he has worked to improve the east side, pointing to council approval of, and city assistance for, the scheduled $38 million redevelopment of the Poplar Place housing site by owner Chicago-based Related Midwest.

NEW BUSINESS PREFERENCE: When asked what kind of new businesses he would like to see come to Springfield, Langfelder said he would prefer to “retain what you have and build upon it.”

He said the city already is working with the health care community to expand and complement its footprint. “You do that across all our industries, with regards to education, energy, and really assess what we have and what would build upon their important assets,” he said.

Buscher said she wants to attract more businesses in the technology sector. “I have a 28-year-old who works in tech, and we have no jobs in Springfield for her, none. That’s a problem if I want my daughter to live in the town I live in.”

Watch the recording of the forum here:
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