Debt forgiveness becomes a campaign issue

click to enlarge Debt forgiveness becomes a campaign issue
The owner of the Wyndham Springfield City Centre had $243,068 in utility charges waived by the city, which Mayor Jim Langfelder said was discussed in closed session with the entire City Council before a compromise was reached.

In recent weeks, Mayor Jim Langfelder's opponents have focused their criticism on the administration's deals to write off city debts without council approval or public knowledge.

First the decision to forgive $243,000 in CWLP charges to Wyndham City Centre came to light, and then Illinois Times reported that $42,000 in fines incurred by politically connected Springfield lawyer George Petrilli were forgiven.

The newspaper has filed a lawsuit seeking a full accounting of all debts waived by the city during 2022. City Corporation Counsel Jim Zerkle has said releasing the names of those whose debts were forgiven would violate the privacy of the individuals involved.

But Don Craven, an attorney representing the newspaper, said the documents being sought are clearly public record under Illinois law.

Mayoral candidate Misty Buscher is pushing for an ordinance that would require that the City Council vote on whether debts of $10,000 or more are forgiven. She added she would also require a public monthly report listing all debts written off by the municipality.

Buscher said Langfelder is unilaterally writing off debts and not informing the public.

"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.

In 2022, Petrilli, who was fined more than $46,000 by the city for failing to maintain a dilapidated property over an 11-year period, paid $4,050 and had the remaining $42,000 in debt forgiven. He later donated $2,500 to Mayor Jim Langfelder's reelection campaign.

City officials said the debt was written off after the politically connected lawyer brought the house up to code and was issued an occupancy permit. However, after Illinois Times inquired this month about the circumstances of the occupancy permit being issued, a city inspector went to the property at 820 N. Sixth St. and revoked the occupancy permit, saying the building was unfit for human habitation.

"It smells rotten that somebody could have the money to make a campaign contribution like that and is getting debt wiped off the books," said Madeleine Doubek, executive director of Change Illinois, a political reform organization.

Langfelder said he returned the $2,500 donation to Petrilli after an Illinois Times reporter inquired about the donation.

"If he wouldn't have got caught, he wouldn't have returned the money,' said Ald. Ralph Hanauer, Ward 10.

Hanauer said the mayor's handling of debt forgiveness reflects a bigger issue: a lack of transparency by the current administration. Craven agreed.

"There are times in Springfield city government, where they do things according to the Freedom of Information Act. You ask for something and you get it. And then there are times when you ask for something and it gets shredded," he said, referring to a controversy that occurred during Mayor Mike Houston's administration. "There's no level of consistency."

Craven said it appears the mayor, or his legal staff, is attempting to delay the release of a comprehensive list of those whose debts have been forgiven by the city until after the April 4 municipal election.

In an email to Illinois Times after the newspaper's story on Petrilli was published, Langfelder said, "... I thought it was ridiculous that you had to go to court to file a claim for the release of the information. It is my understanding that the information you requested was already public through the administrative court process."

Langfelder then directed his administration to provide Illinois Times with a list of people who have had their debts forgiven, including debts associated with building code violations and parking tickets.

However, the paper continues to seek the names of all CWLP customers who have had their debts erased as well as all settlement agreements involving the city's legal department where a financial obligation to the city was reduced.

The most notable CWLP customer to have a debt forgiven is the Wyndham, which had $243,000 taken off its utility bill.

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, Corporation Counsel Zerkle said.

"Put yourself in the shoes of a little old lady who lives on East Jackson. If she can't pay her utility bill, she gets hit with late fines and she can't get those wiped out," Craven said. "From her standpoint, as a percentage of income, that's a bigger debt to her than what the Wyndham owed. It's a question of simple fairness. Who's making the decisions on what debt gets wiped out? And what is the standard?

During a recent City Council meeting in response to a question from Hanauer, CWLP chief utility engineer Doug Brown said the Wyndham situation is an anomaly and that there aren't any other comparable cases.

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at

About The Author

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

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