Q&A: Boone hopes to bring his personal, career experience to an at-large Peoria City Council seat
Demario Boone says he would bring a unique perspective to the Peoria City Council as a product of the South Side who has worked for Peoria Public Schools and the police department.
Boone is one of 10 candidates running for the five at-large council seats in the April 4 consolidated election.
He says his professional experience as a former officer and the current director of school safety for District 150 has given him first-hand appreciation of the community’s biggest needs.
In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Boone discusses how he’d work to resolve the city’s key issues and what motivated him to run for a city council position.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What inspired or motivated you to seek an at-large seat on the Peoria City Council?
Demario Boone: Well, I think kind of growing up in Peoria, just being a – you know, I’m an ’80s baby (who) grew up in South Peoria. I just saw so much potential in the 80s in South Peoria, so much homeownership. Caterpillar, both my grandparents who I was raised by were employed by Caterpillar; they both retired (from) Caterpillar. It was just this hope and this wonder that I had with Peoria and I fell in love with the city.
Going through school, becoming a police officer, and then later on becoming an officer with Peoria Public Schools, I got to see a lot of change in Peoria – a lot of things that I wanted to fix, a lot of things that I wanted to address. It felt like that applying for City Council, or my candidacy for City Council would be the next gradual step to bring about change.
Well, what do you see as your top qualifications to serve on City Council, and what perspectives do you think you would bring to the council?
Boone: Well, top qualifications: I’m literally in the trenches every day, talking to people, seeing the needs, finding those root cause issues that are affecting us in Peoria. Again, being a lifelong Peorian, watching Peoria – just from my little sliver from the 80s until now – you get to see things that have changed, things that have become blighted, some of the bigger issues that Peoria is starting to now take on. You got to watch those materialize and you get to see that, plan, strategize how to fix those things in the future.
I think that’s what would set me apart from other people that haven’t grown up in South Peoria, that don’t have those experiences every single day as a police officer, going and seeing people at their worst, going and trying to serve families at their worst. Then working at the school district for almost 20 years now, getting those root cause issues: kids at their worst, being able to find out what support services we can put for families. When you do that every day, you kind of have your finger on the pulse of what some of the things that we need to do in Peoria.
When you say that you want to fix things. what would your goals be as a council member and how would you go about fixing things? What changes would you want to make?
Boone: One of the goals that I really want to focus on is crime. Public safety is really, really huge now; it’s a hot topic. Also business development, that’s a big one. Everybody always talks about business development and things like that in Peoria. We need to generate more revenue; we need to get more businesses in here to fix another big issue, which is our pensions. That seems like that’s the biggest thing that we keep kicking down the can (sic). We have to pay this by 2040, and it looks like the mayor wants to see if we can retool some things and push this down the road (to) 2060. But this is going to still be a consistent issue.
I think once we address that crime issue, businesses and people will be attracted back to Peoria. If we are – I won’t say more business-friendly, because we have the same business statutes that East Peoria and other cities have. But if we can try to attract more businesses by trying to help new, young entrepreneurs, things like that, all of these things will lead into getting that revenue for the city. So really, my biggest pillars are addressing crime, businesses, and then of course we have to make sure that development of our city streets, our infrastructure, that has to be key, and being a South Peoria boy again, looking at some of the infrastructure we have (there), we’ve got issues. We’ve got issues, and those need to be addressed.
You touched on a lot of the topics I was hoping to bring up as we continue. First of all, you mentioned your position as the Peoria Public Schools safety director. How do you feel that position has prepared you for city government, and what perspective does it give you on addressing juvenile crime in the city?
Boone: Yeah, because you get to see and witness it right from the ground floor. One thing I did when I took over as director six years ago, we have a team of about 32 officers – we’ll have 32 officers next year, but 31 now – I didn’t want us to just be punitive. I said, “Look, we have to figure out why some of these issues are happening.” It could be something as simple as a student not going to class or falling asleep in class, and an officer will do an intervention, which would turn into, “OK, that student had to stay up late and watch the kids,” or that student had to work a job to help pay for things going on in the home.
So then an intervention from a student sleeping in class turns into a family intervention, and you find out the parents need more money in the home or the parents are getting ready to get evicted. All of this helps stem that root cause, and when you do it so many times and you see the need that families have, I think that gave me that on-the-job training for – I may not be the most business savvy guy; I may not be somebody who’s been on the council for 20 years. But I sure will run laps around you with people service. There’s not anybody that’s going to have a resume with people services close to mine.
As a former police officer, what is your opinion on the current anti-violence initiatives that are in place and how do you think they can be improved?
Boone: Yeah, I think we’re moving on great. The police chief (Eric Echevarria), great guy. He’s very, very progressive in the way he wants to do things. He’s not punitive; he wants to figure out these root cause issues, so I think those things are really good. I think that’s what Cure Violence is hopefully going to do, is identify what are our biggest needs and specific neighborhoods, identify our families with the highest needs and actually go to put services there - and not over-police people.
I’ve spoken about this many times in different interviews about redlining in Peoria, and if you look at those maps of areas that were redlined in the ’50s and ’60s, those maps eerily show today where we have our high crime areas. When you talk about redlining, those are areas that were starved systemically of resources and over-policed, and when you peel that layer of that onion back, that Cure Violence initiative is able to look inside and say, “OK, this is what we need to do. These are the things we need to fix.”
Yeah, police might be one piece of it. Mental health needs to be another piece of it. Making sure that we have sufficient homes in those areas, that’s a piece of it. Making sure that we have affordable homes – and affordable homes doesn’t just mean Section 8 or lower-income (housing). Affordable homes means affordable homes; it means that people can come in the city and live and not be spending over 50% of their salary on rent or mortgages. It’s basically just helping people right at that root so that we can try to foster a better city.
How do you think the city should address its biggest budget concerns, as you brought up earlier particularly the increasing police and fire pension obligations?
Boone: Yeah, those pension obligations, those are required by the state. You have to work with Springfield to figure out this issue; this is not something that we locally can say, “we’re not going to pay,” or “we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.” But also, we need to look at our line items – what are our expenditures, what are things that we can hold off on? – because you know 2040 is going to come up on us really quick and we have to pay. There’s just no ifs, ands or buts about it.
But I think when we address those root cause issues with that crime, and fostering young entrepreneurs and trying to get more businesses here – because when you look at it, there’s only two things you can do: You can either tax your way out of it, or you have to grow your way out of it. And the way you grow is investment in people, investment in businesses, and then I think the city as a whole would generate more revenue to be able to address that pension issue. But it has to be a collaborative effort; it’s not just Peoria. It’s a statewide (problem), and we need to address it as such.
Following up on that, then what do you think the top priorities aside from the pension should be with the city’s budget?
Boone: Pensions, definitely. Crime is a big one. And it should be, you know, our infrastructure. Those are those are really key to grow in Peoria.
When you say your infrastructure, what more would you like to see done in that regard? I mean, obviously, people want to see their streets improved. How does the city go about meeting all these demands?
Boone: It’s tough, when you look citywide and you want to make sure that the budget is right and fit for that. But we have to look at where families are most impacted. Again, I’m a south end kid, born and raised, and looking at the homes that we see down there, the blight that we see, places that could be nice little green spaces, homes that are burned out that are just still sitting there. We need to address those issues; we need to make sure that those issues are OK.
I loved seeing that Western Avenue was redone at one point, and we talked about, “hey, we’re going to put businesses down there.” I’ve seen Western Avenue redone, but I haven’t seen a business or so coming up there. Then also these food deserts, those have to be addressed in the South Side and the East Bluff. So when we talk about infrastructure, we need to fix up the places that are most heavily impacted.
Well, how do you go about doing that then, revitalizing these distressed neighborhoods like you say, and encouraging more business growth and eliminating these food deserts?
Boone: We actually had someone propose having a grocery store on the South End, having a community grocery store. We need to start looking at that and trying to get that off the ground. We can’t force businesses to open up businesses in certain areas, I get that. But we need to look at ways of trying to get more businesses in the South End and the East Bluff, to get more jobs and more homeownership. I think once we start planting those seeds, then the rest will kind of follow and we have to work together on the council to get those things pushed through. But doing it in silos like we’ve been doing is kind of the bigger issue.
I had someone I spoke to that said the difference between city council at-large and city council within a certain district is you don’t have to play man-to-man with that district. City council at-large, you can play zone; you can try to help and affect change in all different areas, and I think that that’s key. That’s where my focus is going to be is, “OK, how can we work together collaboratively?” Because we have to make sure that the South and the East Bluff is successful to make sure that all of Peoria successful, and making sure there’s equitability everywhere.
That’s kind of my main focus and I think if we do that, then we will foster homeownership. We’ll foster growth in businesses and we will be able to get more people to want to come in. I think growing up, you had maybe 50,000 people in the South End of Peoria, and now you’re, what, less than 10,000-11,000 people? That is a huge drop in tax revenue, that is a huge drop in people from that area. I think getting everybody at the table to just pour into these areas will help grow that back to where it was.
So you said, as an at-large member, what can be done to foster business growth, encourage business development throughout the city – to assist these more distressed neighborhoods, but also in downtown and North Peoria?
Boone: I see a lot of young entrepreneurs. A lot of people are making clothing lines; there’s a guy – his name is Jeremy, and he has a catering business that he goes from spot to spot. And this food is so good, I would drive to Chicago to get it if it was in Chicago. I told him, I said, “Why don’t you open up a business?” And he’s just like, “I don’t know, man. I just don’t think I have enough money. I don’t think I could do it here; I don’t know how profitable we’ll be here.”
Looking at other cities, when young entrepreneurs like that want to have businesses, there are other cities that they have training programs or training curriculums for young entrepreneurs and say, “hey, here are all the pitfalls that people go through in the city. These are things that we could do to help you, and this is how the city will help you do this if you put it in this area.” In some cities that’s successful, and somebody like him, I think if he put a restaurant down in South Peoria, I think you’d generate some revenue from everywhere from people going to see that.
So I think we need to make sure we try to get training programs for young entrepreneurs, because there’s just so many here. I’ve got so many shirts I’ve bought from people making shirts. And anytime a new restaurant opens, I go by there and they say, “we can only be open on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays; we can’t be open five days a week because A) we don’t have advertising and B) I don’t know who to contact.”
There needs to be a way to streamline that, and I think if we become more business-friendly in that aspect – because we have the same regulations everybody else has. Everybody talks about East Peoria and how great, we go over there and you see this big strip mall and it’s vibrant and this and that. We have the same regulations they have, but we have to try to foster that here in Peoria. I think if we do that, that will grow that business.
In summary, then what is your base message then to Peoria voters on why they should elect you to the City Council?
Boone: Because they’ll have someone that’s going to be genuinely for them, somebody that is a lifelong Peorian who has witnessed and seen firsthand what families are dealing with, with crime. I’ve actually worked a street in service as a police officer, so I’ve seen it from all avenues and I’ve seen it from all areas. My goal is to try to make Peoria equitable, safer and functional for everyone, not just someone in 61615, but someone in 61605 and someone in 61603, to try to get it as equitable as possible.
And, to make sure that I’m a good steward of the people’s money, because that’s what City Council is for: to make sure that all of their tax dollars are spent wisely, the way they want it spent. And make sure that they’re armed with all the information that City Council will have and some of the public won’t have, about certain issues and why we vote on them. But I will be someone that will be very transparent with that, and I think that’s my main message and goal: to be someone for the people, that spoke to the people and got the message from the people.