A closer look at what's really going on with the Peoria City Council furor over violence interruption
Since late May, the Peoria City Council has kicked a $25,000 assessment from outside violence-interruption group Cure Violence Global around the horseshoe, over and over again.
Some on the council accused Mayor Rita Ali and her working community group Safety Network, or S-Net, of pushing the Cure Violence assessment without clear transparency of their process.
The measure failed not once but twice in the council’s agenda by narrow margins.
Councilmen Zach Oyler and Sid Ruckriegel attended the Mayor’s S-Net meeting last week questioning the group’s integrity. They raised concerns about Mayor Ali’s S-Net trademark, which she transferred to the city this past March.
Several community groups are supporting Mayor Ali and the Cure Violence assessment. They spoke ahead of an unusual Saturday morning Council Executive Session discussing some of the potential legal ramifications of the recent controversy behind closed doors.
One of the dozen in attendance, Vice-President of AFSCME Local 3464 Anthony Walraven, was frustrated at the council’s comments over the assessment price tag, which would have used federal COVID-19 relief dollars earmarked for violence reduction.
“When if that same amount of money could be spent to finance someone’s real estate deal…it would have been done in a heartbeat. I know in my heart that there is nothing anyone is going to say here today that is going to change any minds on this horseshoe," he said. "But I want you to know I don’t just speak for myself … I speak for hundreds and hundreds of members in organized labor in the city of Peoria who are tired of being demonized as public employees for the failures of this city council to execute responsible leadership.”
In an interview with WCBU last week, 2nd District Councilman Chuck Grayeb said the issue wasn’t Cure Violence, but a lack of transparency around S-Net's private meetings over the last year.
“They promised to provide minutes of their deliberations to the council as is the case for all other city commissions," Grayeb said. "I think it was a mistake to not follow the Open Meetings Act, especially when out of those minutes would come something that was unwisely placed on a consent agenda to approve an expenditure of an excess of $15,000, which requires council approval. And we could have been a lot further along if some people had been tuned into what the process should be, to keep it legal.”
During the June 28 council meeting, Mayor Ali assured members she approached the city's legal counsel on the matter, and was told a working group without a quorum of council members present could be held privately.
That explanation surfaced again during a NAACP Peoria branch press conference held outside city hall on July 7, where NAACP Vice-President Sherry Carter-Allen criticized the six Peoria city councilmen who voted against the Cure Violence funding.
“And even after the city’s legal department affirmed S-Net that the meetings were in fact deemed legal … criticisms from council members continued," she said. "And the six (council members) irresponsibly and quickly voted down a mere $25,000 for the Cure Violence Assessment.”
Council members' concerns would shift to the Mayor’s S-Net trademark issued in July 2020. In March 2022, Mayor Ali transferred ownership to the city. Mayor Ali told WCBU a January 13 discussion with the legal department cemented S-Net’s bi-monthly meetings as legal, and also addressed the trademark issue.
“She [Chrissie Kapustka] did say in that meeting though, she said her attorney colleague noticed that there was a trademark associated with S-Net. He had looked it up and saw that I owned the trademark. She said that to avoid any perceived conflict of interest would I be interested or willing to turn over the trademark to the city of Peoria. And I said absolutely, no cost," the mayor said. "Although I had paid several hundred dollars…I had no cost, there was no financial interest on my part. There was no prior usage of it for any payment. So they put together the paperwork and it was transferred to the city of Peoria.”
NAACP Peoria branch president Pastor Marvin Hightower spoke at last week’s press conference about those S-Net meetings, and how Cure Violence was recommended.
“We have met for over a year and had many presentations before coming to a consensus on Cure Violence. Cure Violence was presented by Monica Hendrickson, who is our Peoria City/County Health Administrator, who said gun violence is a health crisis," Hightower said. "We trusted her to guide us through COVID, but you did not trust her with gun violence prevention. Our Police Chief Echevarria backed her after saying that they needed the help and that they welcome the help.”
Public discussion and media attention of Cure Violence led to many Peorians taking notice of S-Net. One of those citizens is Marc Anthony Porch, urban consultant at Performing Open Hearts, a nonprofit whose “focus is on the next generation and their families, today and tomorrow” using creative solution-based initiatives in Peoria.
“So we were automatically like ‘Hey! How come these guys didn’t reach out to us? They’ve been reaching out to us for violence interrupters since CeaseFire," Porch said. "So when we spoke to Mr. Grayeb about it he said, ‘You know Marc, you’re right. We know the type of work that you, Carolyn, Creston, and others have been doing in the community. Why do we need an outside group to come in and do something when we already have people doing this and things of that nature?”
On June 28, Porch and Chicago resident Caroyln Vazquez presented the city council with Project Amani, which means peace and tranquility in Swahili. Vazquez focused on a Chicago program called Safe Passage, which created secure routes for families and children before and after school. That program could work well in Peoria, Vazquez, Porch, and President of Performing Open Hearts Creston Coleman told WCBU in an interview.
“They are the people of the community, so they are basically paid for that time. So it’s like a bus driver, a split shift. Maybe a couple of hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the afternoon. They are trained to report, to de-escalate situations," said Vasquez. "A lot of them are actually members of the community. So they know who these people are. Why do I need to come in and really make the assessment, it’s about I think providing clear leadership in how to handle it. The community is saying they’ve had enough.”
Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood made a Facebook post expressing his frustration on June 29, a day after council voted down the Cure Violence assessment a second time. Harwood said there's been a lack of council action over the last 36 days, since voting the first time on Cure Violence.
“From that city council meeting two people have died. ‘While we’re going to sit back and see what happens.’ I’m done being quiet about it. I’m in a position where I shouldn’t be quiet about it. It’s not only taxing to myself and my staff and the police department. I’m talking about violence as a whole. It’s taxing to a community as a whole as violence is a contingent thing," Harwood said. "It breeds violence. It just breeds violence. We have to stop at some point and speak up.”
Grayeb said Cure Violence could still gain his support, as well as Project Amani, but the programs would need to follow a standard Request for Proposal (RFP) process through city government.
"I believe ultimately all 11 of us are very much in favor of implementing some violence interruption programs, plural, in the city of Peoria," Grayeb said. "We have to do it the right way and we have to have a level playing field, so that all who are interested may apply after an RFP process.”
Former 1st District councilwoman Denise Moore told the council ahead of the Saturday executive session she was missing time with her grandchild to be there, but she was compelled to speak out after seeing news coverage with some members saying they were unaware of S-Net.
"If they don’t know something that everyone been knowing about for more than a year, then maybe it is time for them to move on to some other venture.”Denise Moore, Peoria City Council member
“And I thought ‘Oh my God! How many of the meetings in the eight years occurred while I was on this council that many of you weren’t there. There are commissions now that many of you don’t show up to and they’re public. More than a year people [have been] meeting. There are no secrets in this town," she said, eliciting laughter from members of the small audience in council chambers. "You can’t keep a secret. The fact that people said ‘I don’t know about these.’ So, I’m saying to people who are listening and who are in this room … if someone is telling you they didn’t know and they’re on this council — you need to think about that because if they don’t know something that everyone been knowing about for more than a year then maybe it is time for them to move on to some other venture.”
Mayor Ali believes the council can still work together to pass these initiatives, but time is of the essence.
"We’re going to make progress. I am very optimistic about many of the things that are taking place in our community. And you know I feel really good about the direction that we’re moving. So the council we’re gonna have to come together and work together, and respect one another. Respect one another," she said. "Treat each other with respect. It is a two-way street, as Carl Cannon would say. And we have to be the role models and practice that. And not make false accusations and not try to splinter the council for political reasons.”
Mayor Ali in her interview with WCBU says a community group will secure the funding for the Cure Violence assessment — and that it could happen fairly soon. She said she wasn't at liberty to discuss which group may put forth that funding.
The council will meet again for a Special Policy Session regarding gun violence on July 19.