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Q&A: Mayor Ali discusses next steps for anti-violence programs, passenger rail service to Chicago

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali

Peoria mayor Rita Ali says the Cure Violence program may still be an option the city considers for a community-based approach to reducing gun crime.

Although the City Council narrowly rejected spending $25,000 on a Cure Violence assessment, the Peoria City/County Health Department has picked up that expense.

Ali says that could lead to Cure Violence being included as part of the request-for-proposals process the city will use to select an anti-violence initiative for American Rescue Plan Act funding.

In her latest monthly conversation with reporter Joe Deacon, Mayor Ali offers her thoughts on the RFP process and the ongoing anti-violence efforts, as well as other topics. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Instead of approving the Cure Violence assessment expense, the City Council opted for seeking Requests For Proposals regarding violence prevention efforts. What do you see is the advantages or disadvantages of this approach?

Mayor Rita Ali: Well, we have about $7.9 million in funding, both state and from the Federal ARPA funding. So I think it's a good strategy to put out an RFP to get funding – and as a matter of fact, there may be a proposal for implementation of Cure Violence (with) the fact that the Board of Health (Peoria City/County Health Department) is paying and conducting the Cure Violence assessment. If the assessment comes back that Peoria is a viable community to implement this program, it's very likely that the board of health or health department will be an applicant to apply for some of that funding to actually implement a Cure Violence Program within Peoria.

As a matter of fact, one of the requirements for the RFPs that's going out – the initial one is going to be for $700,000 and ARPA funding; the future ones will be dependent on what the requirements of the state agencies, DHS (Department of Human Services) and DCEO (Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity) have related to that funding – but we are requesting evidence-based programming. So those programs that have already been proven successful somewhere else, like a Cure Violence that has outcomes that are the types of outcomes that reduce violence and they've been proven to work and other communities across the nation or across the world. So that's key, is that we're looking for evidence-based initiatives.

So with the health department taking over and funding the assessment for Cure Violence, how does this work into how the city handles it with the health department doing the initial groundwork?

Ali: Well, the fact that the city voted twice not to pay for the $25,000 assessment, of course, was disappointing because it was something that many of us – the police chief, the public health administrator, myself, and community groups – wanted the assessment to be done. But we have to move on from that because it didn't happen. But fortunately, the (PCCHD) picked it up, and there were other community groups, organizations, religious organizations, that stepped forward to say, “if the city doesn't pay, we’ll pay.” So I was pleased that the board of health did that, that we're able to move forward, not ruling out Cure Violence implementation in Peoria. There's going to be a committee, a committee filled with citizens who represent different organizations across the city, and they're used to rating proposals for funding. The Community Development Block Grant committee is the one who will actually look at these proposals and make recommendations to the city council.

This issue proved to be very divisive around the horseshoe and in the community. Do you sense a growing tension among council members and other civic leaders?

Ali: Well, you know, I hope that that changes. There is some tension, and some of that tension resulted from the community wanting to be involved in the process. My position is the community has to be involved in the process; they have to have a voice (and) we have to listen. So there is some tension around that, but I hope that we are moving toward better relationships, better communication, and working together effectively, because that's the only way that we're really going to provide solutions for gun violence reduction in Peoria.

The city has a job opening posted for a Safety Network Manager. What will this person's role be, and what will the role of S-NET be going forward?

Ali: So, that position title will be changed. There's still a need for the position within the police department, and there's some outreach involved. Because we're not using “S-NET” anymore, even the group, the Safety Network group moves forward – not as a city initiative, but as a community initiative as it was, but using the name “Safety Network.” We will continue to meet on the second Friday of every month at the Peoria Public Schools Administration Building at 9 o'clock (a.m.); the public is invited to attend those meetings.

But again, that position will be modified in terms of the name. Some of the duties are going to be very similar, but it’s outreach to the community, supporting police community relations. Being a part of the team of the police chief; that's what it was always designed to be. So we just dropped the (S-NET) name. The city has to make a decision on what it wants to do with the trademark: it can cancel it, transfer it or keep it and just not use it.

Talking more about that trademark, the S-NET, what seemed to be the largest hurdle or confusion about what all transpired with the trademark?

Ali: Well, just the ownership. The fact that three years ago that I actually created a trademark for a “Safety Network,” and then as we met as a community group, that's the name that we used. Again, it wasn't a city commission; it was a community group. I had spoken with legal (department) and gotten the green light to move forward as we were. But it was legal (department) that actually advised me: to make sure that there was no perceived conflict because I own the trademark, that the city should – was I willing to transfer it, and I gladly transferred it. Well, maybe that was a mistake, that I transferred it to the city. But I did to avoid any perceived conflict. So now we won't use that name. Unfortunately, it was, I think, it was a beautiful name, but to avoid any conflict (and) perceived negativity, I've dropped it.

While homicides seem to be down from last year's record pace, we're still seeing significant amounts of non-fatal gun crimes, like shootings and armed robberies and car thefts. What do you want to see done to cut down on all of these types of crimes?

Ali: I would say in all of those areas, in terms of shootings, all of those areas are down; not just homicides, but shootings are down when we compare with the same time last year. But what happened was, we saw a period of time, a very short period of time when there were numerous homicides and a huge spike in shootings within a concentrated period of time, like a two-month period. So that was concerning, because we certainly didn't want that trend to continue.

Again, it's going to take not just the police, and the chief can tell you that. It's going to take the community and the police working together. Using that Tip 411 (hotline), that has been great because the community is stepping up to say, “we want these people that are doing these things to be caught,” and what is happening by those tips being poured in: People are getting caught. People are getting caught and taken off the streets, and that's what has to continue.

I think it’s the new equipment that we have: the LPRs, the license plate readers. It’s the joint work between multiple police agencies. It’s the community stepping up; now we have the school district resource officers, through an agreement between the city and the Peoria Public Schools, that when we have on these Friday nights and Saturday nights, we have all these kids, teenagers mostly, out in the streets and large groups, along with the police will have some school resource officers who know many of these kids (and) the kids know them, they'll be walking the streets and they'll be assisting. So it's really going to take all of us together: the community-based organizations, the service providers, the police, the community leaders, the faith-based organizations, those street interventionists – everybody really working together to get a handle on this situation.

Police Chief Eric Echevarria has been on the job for about a year now. How would you assess his performance, particularly in terms of violence reduction?

Ali: I just gave him an A-plus overall in his job performance. He hit the ground running; actually, he hit the ground before he actually got accepted to the position. He started calling around, meeting people, finding out information. He wanted to know whether this was a good fit for him as well as a good fit for the city. And, you know, he's provided the right leadership, got support from his team; internal support is really critical, and then the support of the community, because he's very community-centric in his work. Having his team knock on doors, meet with the community, attend events. He's everywhere. I mean, you go out (and) it's like, “he's here, he's there, he's everywhere.”

Yes, Chief Echevarria is what we need at this time, and he's providing the right leadership – and he's providing information to the public. He's going to create a dashboard through a web presence that people will be able to look on the dashboard and see what happened last night. He did that in Elgin; he's bringing a lot of the things that they did in Elgin to Peoria.

Projections for a Peoria-to-Chicago passenger rail route suggest it will cost $2.5 billion and may take up to 10 years before it's operational. That's a long time and a lot of money. So why are you still optimistic that it's going to happen?

Ali: I'm very optimistic. The feasibility study, it took much longer than we thought it would but it finally got done. We've had prior feasibility studies that basically said, “there's not enough ridership; you can't go forth with this.” But this study showed that there was strong interest in the community, with over 31,200 people (responding). I think 93% saying that they would use the service. The ridership (study), based upon five trips every day, showed that there would be strong ridership for a Peoria-to-Chicago (route) with all the stops in between.

So basically, we have the viability in a study, and we've met with Amtrak, we've met with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). So we have a green light, really, to move forward to the next step, and that next step is getting accepted into the Federal Railroad Administration's Corridor Identification Program. The RFP is coming out this fall; we're already preparing to respond to that in a very competitive way, and we believe that we're going to be accepted. We're going to put forth the best effort, because once you get into that Corridor Identification Program, you're part of the federal government's pipeline for funding.

Another important milestone that happened is that the state of Illinois – IDOT, Illinois Department of Transportation – is adding Peoria, the rail line, to its passenger rail program. So this fall, Peoria will be added to the State of Illinois’ plan for passenger rail.

You mentioned the next step is getting into the Corridor Identification Program. What happens beyond that, and when can we start to see this really becoming a reality?

Ali: Once we apply for the program, which will be this fall, sometime – I would suspect within six months later, by the end of June or earlier; it could happen in April or May of next year – they're going to identify those corridors that were selected for the program. Once they do that, they actually give you funding. You get your initial planning funding (and) you start working on the development of your corridor with the federal government. You're working hand in hand with the FRA and moving your project forward.

Of course, it's a lot of money. But there's a lot of (federal infrastructure) money available. It's not all spent in one year; it's over a period of years. I'm just really excited that it's a possibility for us, and it's becoming more of a possibility for us. Yes, it will take time; we won't be riding the train probably five years from now. It may take seven years, (or) it may take a couple years longer than that. But we have to start now for it to happen a few years down the road. So now's the time for it to make the investment in terms of putting forth the work to move this project forward, and we're committed to that. We are totally committed to that. We have a lot of partners along that route in Morris, Illinois; La Salle-Peru; Joliet; and even Utica, where (Starved Rock) State Park is.

What about from the other end in Chicago? Have you heard much from what the terminus might be and their willingness to be part of this?

Ali: Well, Chicago is always welcoming people to come to their city. We haven't had a lot of communication outside of IDOT; we have our partners who are IDOT representatives that are in the Chicago area, and they communicate more with the Chicago folks within the Amtrak or the passenger rail arena. So, no opposition. They're always happy for people to come to their city, either for work or recreation, sports, you have it. And the same way with it's a two-way street. We want people to come to Peoria from Chicago, from Morris, from La Salle-Peru, from Utica. So it's not just a one-way rail line; it's two ways.

Not long ago, the public works department showed off the preliminary plans for turning the Adams and Jefferson Street corridor (downtown) back from one-way traffic to two-way traffic.What do you see as the benefits of this project?

Ali: The benefits, for one: it was designed originally, the one-way streets, to get people in and out of the city quickly, and it has proven to work effectively that way. We want to slow down traffic; we don't want to move people in and out quickly. We want them to actually see and experience downtown Peoria. So by having two-way streets – and it's been proven through studies and done in other cities – that it actually slows people down. They take a look at the businesses that are located there, maybe some of the environmental features, a park or what have you. But it slows people down to actually enjoy the environment, enjoy the features of a downtown community. So that's what we expect will happen with this change, and we look forward to it.

Not totally tied into the two-way conversion but being considered also is Fulton Plaza, and how it's kind of gone into disrepair but now they may want to reopen it back up to traffic. What do you see the advantages of that?

Ali: I think it just provides another artery to kind of get around downtown. I remember when it was open; I remember when they closed it. Did I have a preference? You know, I enjoyed I think both ways. I think it provides another avenue if it's open. Especially with OSF headquarters now being right there, that perhaps it will open up traffic and open up another artery downtown. When it was closed up, it was very park-like; there were a lot of people working downtown at that time, so they would be able to sit outside and have a sandwich and things. But over time, I think, as the work population moved from that area, then the upkeep was not there anymore. So I like the idea about opening it back up.

The city recently announced the Peoria Equity Accountability Program, beginning with a digital directory of businesses owned by women and minorities. What do you see as the goals and benefits of this program?

Ali: The goal is actually to – not just for construction projects, but for all projects and work within the city – to provide more opportunities for women and minorities, and actually more requirements. So by certifying this – the state has a certification program for women and minority (owned) businesses, but the city does not. But now we do; through this, we will actually certify. There's an opportunity coming up – I don't remember the date, but it said Peoria Public Library – for businesses that are owned by women and minorities to come there and provide some paperwork and sign up and become a city-certified women-owned or minority owned business.

I think it provides a better tracking system for us to provide equity in terms of the services that we provide, make sure that we're more inclusive. We adopted the program similar to what was done in Champaign; they've been very progressive in regard to minority and women vendors. So I'm really proud that we've taken on this important initiative.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.