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Peoria's mayor urges city council to move on from S-NET trademark debacle, and refocus on anti-violence efforts

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali holds a press conference about anti-violence initiatives and her Safety Network program in Peoria City Council Chambers, July 19, 2022.
Tim Shelley
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali holds a press conference about anti-violence initiatives and her Safety Network program in Peoria City Council Chambers, July 19, 2022.

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali said the conversations around the council horseshoe about her trademark of the term "S-NET" and that group's meetings have become a distraction from the real issue of the violence disproportionately impacting Peoria's Black community.

In a Tuesday press conference in Peoria City Hall's council chambers, the mayor said politics, personalities, and a "media frenzy" have derailed the conversation's focus.

Members of the city council, including at-large councilmen Zach Oyler and Sid Ruckriegel, charge S-NET hasn't operated transparently over the past year. They also allege impropriety with the mayor's previous ownership of the trademarked term "S-NET," and the trademark's transfer to city ownership this past March.

Ali said S-NET's meetings weren't kept secret from councilmembers, and the trademark transfer was OK'ed by the city's legal counsel.

"Some of the accusations out there are pretty darn hurtful when it comes to issues of integrity," she said. "So I stand on the premise that even related to the trademark, that nothing has been done illegally, nothing has been done unethically."

The mayor said her anti-violence working group is dropping the name "S-NET" and will instead go by "Safety Network" going forward. The group, which began meeting privately in July 2021, includes Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria, City Manager Patrick Urich, councilmembers Andre Allen and Denise Jackson, and members of other local government bodies, including Peoria Public Schools, the Peoria Park District, and the Peoria City/County Health Department.

Beginning this month, the Safety Network meetings held on the second Friday of every month at the Peoria Public Schools administration building are open to the public. The mayor said those meetings will remain open to public participation going forward, but as a community work group, their conversations aren't subject to the Open Meetings Act.

WCBU has asked the public access counselor of the Illinois Attorney General's Office for a determination on whether the Safety Network's meeting are, or should have been, subject to the OMA.

"The Safety Network is a community initiative and not a city-controlled initiative. It is committed to community-based solutions for gun violence reduction. And we must return to the focus to addressing the real problems that we're faced with, without any distractions," the mayor said.

She said she chose not to form the Safety Network as a city-appointed commission, because it would be a "pretty darn big commission" with more than 50 members. Instead. she said she wanted to talk about violence with a "manageable group of people."

Now that relationships and trust are formed among the core group of Safety Network stakeholders, she said it's now time to engage more people and bring them into the conversation.

Ali said the city's Black community is disproportionately impacted by gun violence, citing Peoria Police Department statistics showing 93% of homicide victims and 98% of shooting victims in the city from Jan. 1 through July 18, 2022 were Black.

"This is why the Black community in Peoria must be engaged. This is why we must listen to their cries for help. This is why the chaos must stop. This is why we must return to the important work," Ali said. "These are the numbers that we cannot ignore. And this is not just a Black problem. This is a community problem. This is a city problem. And it's going to take a committed leadership, a committed city, a commitment of resources to really turn this thing around."

The proposal to spend $25,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) COVID-19 relief funds on an assessment conducted by Cure Violence was twice blocked by the city council on narrow margins. Ali said the council should take heed of the Peoria NAACP and other Black community leaders irritated and angered by some of the recent discussion around the horseshoe on anti-violence efforts.

"I want to see reconciliation within our city council, and between the council and the Black community. And it won't happen overnight. It will begin with a demonstrated commitment," she said.

Ali suggested sensitivity training may also be beneficial for the city council's members for discussions around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The Peoria City/County Health Department is set to fund the Cure Violence assessment following Monday night's Board of Health meeting. The health department previously presented the gun violence issue to the council as a public health issue, in support of the assessment.

"Cure Violence is a highly effective evidence-based intervention and the assessment offers us the heavy data collection piece before moving on any intervention," said a health department spokesperson in an e-mail.

Ali said she considers the Cure Violence assessment a dead issue in council chambers, but she's hopeful the city council will fund the implementation of Cure Violence following the assessment.

The Peoria City Council is set to meet Tuesday for a policy session on violence reduction funding. This follows a rare Saturday council executive session held July 9.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.