Divided Pekin City Council votes to oust the city manager. The mayor is ‘extremely disappointed’ while a rival calls it ‘a good step’
An upheaval in leadership gripped the City of Pekin on Monday night as City Manager Mark Rothert was fired by a split vote of the City Council.
Mayor Mark Luft said he was “extremely disappointed” by the move, while council member Becky Cloyd said she’s “optimistic it’s a good step toward change.”
Following a 75-minute executive session to discuss the matter, the divided Council voted 4-2 in favor of Rothert’s ouster. Luft and council member John Abel cast the dissenting votes, with Karen Hohimer absent.
“I would prefer not to share a lot of things that came to light tonight, we were not made aware of,” said Luft. “Council member Hohimer, Council member Abel and myself were left out of this process by the other four council members. So we’re still trying to process what just happened.
“They basically said we were irrelevant in this process, so I’ll let them explain why they did what they did.”
Cloyd said there were “multiple moving parts” that prompted her and colleagues Dave Nutter, Lloyd Orrick and Rick Hilst to move for Rothert’s dismissal.
“There were issues that predate me that really were never dealt with properly,” said Cloyd, who joined the Council in April of last year. “Unfortunately, leadership starts at the very top. With issues within the council, we are working toward remediating those.
“In any relationship, it’s difficult to go through those first steps but we are optimistic that this is a good step toward change.”
Rothert did not attend the meeting but issued a statement after the outcome, saying his removal “was not the ending I had desired, but nonetheless it is the will of the majority of the city council as it sits today” and calling it his “highest honor” to serve as Pekin’s city manager.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed each day of my job, even on the most challenging ones. I couldn’t have worked with a better group of staff members who fought every day for work that often went unnoticed,” the statement continued.
“Together, we modernized every department of the city; created financial stability with the largest cash reserves it has ever had; and were able to envision and work on projects that would make the community an even better place to live. I no doubt believe that the community is far better off now than it was [four] years ago when I started.”
Finance director Bruce Marston, who filled the role of responding to council questions during the meeting, was appointed the interim city manager by the same 4-2 vote. He declined to comment after the meeting.
“I’m extremely disappointed. I’m still trying to soak all this in; it’s been a very long week,” said Luft. “Being a community member myself and not just the mayor, I would hate to ever see us take a step backwards. But I know that we will recover and continue to move forward.”
Earlier Monday, Abel said the four who voted to fire Rothert have been pushing for a “complete regime change” in city government. He said the situation produced a “toxic work environment” at City Hall that prompted several department heads to resign.
Cloyd and Nutter have announced plans to run for mayor in 2023. Luft, who also represents the 91st District in the State House but lost his primary race against Travis Weaver, said he has not decided whether or not to seek another mayoral term.
Asked if what transpired Monday would impact his decision, Luft said, “It could. Sure.”
Cloyd dispelled suggestions on social media that Rothert had mismanaged city funds or done anything to put the city in a position of legal liability.
“Absolutely not, there was no criminal activity or anything like that,” she said. “It truly was just a decision to part ways.”
Several public speakers spoke in support of Rothert, including Amy McCoy of the Pekin Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Pekin executive director Heather Robertson.
“Residents, business owners and city staff deserve the highest level of competence from their leadership. Our community’s image is at stake,” said McCoy. “I think it’s important that personnel matters are dealt with confidentially, with discretion, with civility, and with professionalism. Unfortunately that’s not been happening and it’s creating an environment of mistrust and disgust, even.”
Robertson delivered an impassioned plea that prompted Luft to call for a standing ovation.
“Did we forget, in all the whisperings in the hallway and all the backhand conversations, that we were talking about an actual human?” she asked. “As I grieved today and questioned what it looks like to be a leader in this community, that’s all I could think about. We’re talking about real people. We’re better than this.”
But not everyone who spoke felt Rothert should be retained. In her public comments, Ann Witzig said she felt the leadership change was necessary.
“I think that some of the good things that have been said about the city manager are true. But you can be all of those things and not be able to manage the finances and everything that needs to be done in a city,” said Witzig.
Rothert had served as city manager since November 2018. He previously spent five years as Peoria County's assistant county administrator.
Luft said that while he’s disappointed, he remains hopeful the city will move beyond the moment.
“That’s what we’ve always done here and that’s always been the goal,” he said. “This will be a rough one; I think this is a major blow to the community. But we are a very strong community and we’ve worked very hard to get here, so we’ll continue to move forward.”
Cloyd said she agreed with Luft that Rothert’s removal marked a sad day for Pekin.
“Anytime that you have to sever a relationship with someone that you’ve spent time with and been with, that is difficult to do,” she said. “But sometimes it is best to just part ways.”