Springfield City Treasurer Misty Buscher, who is running for mayor, is calling for greater transparency when the city forgives debts or waives fines.
She contends that her opponent, incumbent Mayor Jim Langfelder, is unilaterally writing off debts without informing the council or the public. The mayor responded that is not the case.
"I'm not saying he's doing anything illegal. I'm just saying it's not a good way for the city to operate," she said. Buscher is calling for passing an ordinance that requires greater disclosure of forgiven debts and would require Springfield City Council approval before larger amounts are written off.
She noted that $243,068 in utility charges owed the city by the owner of the Wyndham Springfield City Centre were written off by the mayor without first getting the approval of the City Council.
But Langfelder said the matter was discussed in closed session with the entire City Council before a compromise was reached with the hotelier who owed City Water, Light & Power.
"The consensus was to get as much as possible. The hotel potentially might go into a foreclosure or worse," said Corporation Counsel Jim Zerkle.
Langfelder said the hotel fell on hard times because of reduced occupancy during the COVID pandemic.
Some of what was owed the city was written off, but the city was able to recoup about $1.2 million, Zerkle said. He said after the mayor and City Council members reached a consensus on how to proceed, city staff negotiated with the developer.
Zerkle said it would not be accurate to say the mayor acted alone.
But Buscher said there are other examples where substantial amounts of money owed the city have been waived without the knowledge or consent of council members. She cited two cases in the last year where property owners with poorly maintained buildings had $42,000 and $45,265 in fines waived.
But Zerkle said in the case of housing violations, city staff will often use the threat of the accrued fines as a means of encouraging property owners to make the necessary repairs. Once the property is up to code, the fines are often waived, he said.
Langfelder said he does not personally involve himself in such cases.
Buscher said she would like to reveal the names of those who have had what they owed the city written off, but she has been told by Zerkle not to do so. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by Illinois Times for a list of all people and businesses with debts forgiven by the city in 2022 had not yet been responded to by press time.
Buscher said she believes the public has the right to know the identities of those catching fiscal breaks from the city. But Zerkle said he believes this sometimes could be interpreted by the courts as an unwarranted disclosure of private information.
He added he believes names can only be revealed if the matter has been litigated in court. Buscher said she disagrees.
Buscher said she has spoken to several council members about introducing an ordinance modeled after one in Bloomington that would require a monthly report disclosing all litigation settlements as well as waivers of claims or collections.
The report would not only be available to elected officials but the general public, she said.
Langfelder said he would not be opposed to such an ordinance but said there is nothing to keep Buscher's office from generating such a report now.
Buscher disagreed, saying that she does not have access to all settlement information from the corporation counsel or CWLP.
She believes no debt greater than $10,000 should be forgiven by the city without first being approved by the City Council.
"It should be transparent whose debt is forgiven," she said. "As a taxpayer, I don't think this is right. Some of my friends, who are business owners, have been really upset that this kind of debt was forgiven for a business owner."
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.