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Newcomer garners most votes in race for Peoria City Council at-large seats

Peoria City Council candidate Dr. Bernice Gordon-Young
Tim Shelley
Peoria City Council candidate Dr. Bernice Gordon-Young led the way in the Tuesday, April 4 consolidated election. She earned the most votes of any candidate with 8,918.

All three incumbents on the ballot and two new faces will fill the five at-large Peoria city council seats up for grabs in Tuesday's consolidated election.

Newcomer Bernice Gordon-Young received the most votes of any candidate, with 8,918. The other new council member, Mike Vespa, clinched the fifth and final open seat with just over 6,100 votes.

Gordon-Young is a behavioral health expert who believes her 28 years in the field give her a unique perspective and skill set for the council.

“I am someone who has been in the trenches. I know Peoria. I know these families," she told WCBU in a February interview.

Gordon-Young said clearing blight from disenfranchised areas, introducing more mental health resources and expanding programs like mental health co-responders within the police department could improve public safety and provide an environment for Peoria to expand and grow economically.

Vespa is a Peoria County assistant public defender and said tackling violence is his number one priority. He’s also an advocate for police transparency measures and opposes a moratorium on new recreational cannabis dispensaries. He believes the sales of legal cannabis could play a role in strengthening public safety.

“If there's going to be use, and there is, then it can help fund our fire departments, police departments, basic city services," he said in a February interview with WCBU. "So yeah, I mean, I disagree with some of the current thoughts."

Incumbents Kiran Velpula and John Kelly won re-election, bringing in vote totals over 14%, with Zachary Oyler earning another term, with 13.5%.

Kelly begins his second term as an at-large city council member. He considers the use of a state statute to offer real estate tax abatements on the construction of single-family homes as a major past accomplishment.

Kelly believes changes in education and making the city more attractive to investors through regulatory reform could be helpful in reducing violent crime.

“We don’t concentrate on making life easier for those people who are already here,” he said in a December 2022 interview with WCBU. “They’re already paying taxes, they’re already hiring people, they’re already serving the community. There’s tremendous wealth creation that’s available in our community right now.”

Kelly also said public works needs and looming pension obligations are priorities.

Velpula returns for a full term after being appointed to the council in 2021 to fill the vacancy created by the election of Mayor Rita Ali. The assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria told WCBU he wants to make the city a “health care destination” in a February interview.

Talent retention is another priority for Velpula. He believes investing in bringing in more small-to-medium businesses presents an opportunity to address pension and budget issues.

“Innovation is the key. We have to think out of the box,” he told WCBU in February. “Sometimes it fails; not everything will be successful. We need to be mindful because we are also investing the taxpayers’ dollars as well.”

Oyler wins another term, making this his seventh year as an at-large Peoria City Council member. In a December 2022 interview, Oyler told WCBU that being a “watchdog” for taxpayers is among his priorities. This includes avoiding taxes or fees as a solution to Peoria’s pension obligations.

“We need help from Springfield,” he said. “We have to get all of our public safety unions, as well as our legislators around the state (and) local municipalities, all in the same room talking out of the same playbook that this is a gigantic issue and it will eventually bankrupt local municipalities.”

Oyler said a “bigger picture” approach is needed to balance Peoria’s desire to expand downtown development, while also removing blight and improving conditions in impoverished neighborhoods. He said he meets regularly with landlords to brainstorm ways to improve Peoria communities.

In total, 11,341 ballots were cast in the city council at-large election, a voter turnout of around 16%. You can find the complete results here.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.