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Q&A: Pekin Mayor Mary Burress discusses work environment at City Hall, division on city council

Pekin Mayor Mary Burress
Joe Deacon
Pekin Mayor Mary Burress has been on the job for just over three weeks now, and already a lot has happened under her watch.

New Pekin Mayor Mary Burress has been on the job for just over three weeks now, and a lot has happened already under her watch.

Last week, Burress attended the funeral for fallen Pekin Police Department officer Daniel Graber, saying she witnessed the community's ability to pull together in difficult times.

Yet, turmoil still surrounds City Hall. Police chief John Dossey has taken on a dual role as acting city manager following the removal of interim city manager Bruce Marston.

The city manager position is one of three key leadership roles Pekin still needs to fill, and clear factions have developed among city council members.

In the first of their regular quarterly interviews, WCBU reporter Joe Deacon talks with Burress about her efforts to bridge the divide and guide Pekin through its issues.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mary, you've been on the job as mayor for a little less than a month now. How are you adjusting to the role? Are there parts of the job that you did not anticipate?

Mayor Mary Burress: It has been truly an honor to be mayor. It's been a little over a month — under a month—– but, you know, with the tragedy that we just had with a fallen officer, I have seen how the community pulls together, from all businesses to the high school. Every one of the students got to stand out and watch the officer go by, and it was beautiful for our city — just the connection and pulling it together. So that has been a humbling experience. Other than that, I've hit the ground running and we're already accomplishing quite a few things.

When we spoke during your campaign, you said you wanted to bring Pekin city government together and be a unifying force. But it still seems that there's clear factions and divisiveness on the city council. What can you do to overcome this divide and address the city's best interests?

Burress: I'm still working on that, and yes you can still see it. But I try very hard to pull us all together, and I think if everybody realizes that we are in this to do what is right for the City of Pekin, I think eventually we will be able to come together. We've had some, quite a few things that have hit us from day one and there have been tough decisions. I feel if we all take a deep breath, calm down, we will get accomplished (and) we will come together.

We’re already starting (and) it's working. City Hall’s morale is already lifted; they love seeing me come in there. I'm the type that, I go by and I say "good morning" to everyone, and I think people see that as a way of communicating better. They love that they have leadership now, they have a direction. So it's already starting to come together — not quite finished, but it's starting to come together.

As you alluded to, already in your tenure the council has removed Bruce Marston as interim city manager and appointed police chief John Dossey to fill that role temporarily. How critical is it to get a permanent city manager in place as quickly as possible?

Burress: It is crucial. Like I said, we're starting to pull together, we're starting to go in the right direction. But without a full-time city manager, we just can't quite get there. Chief Dossey already has his hands full, but he was willing to step up to the plate to do what is right for our city. He shows great leadership and we just chose that he would be the best to fill in.

We did put a time limit on it of July 24. I think that if anybody’s been listening to our meetings, you will hear that I am already out headhunting. I have three excellent candidates that I am just talking to personally, and I challenged the council the other night to do the same to get someone in here. Let's talk to everyone and get a good city manager that will finalize the forwardness that we need to bring the city together.

You've mentioned that morale at City Hall is up. The human resources report that WCBU obtained regarding Marston’s removal indicated reports of a toxic work environment, and we've seen for a while now a lot of flux among senior leadership positions. Is this ongoing, and how difficult does it make it to attract people to these vacant positions that the city needs to fill?

Burress: Well yes, there was that issue that we did have. With a new interim city manager in place now, not just the acting city manager that we had for the 10 days, the people that work under the finance director — because Mr. Marston went back as finance director — they will no longer report to him. They will report to the city manager, so that has calmed people down. It has calmed the attitudes down that they don't feel that it's a hostile work environment, as much as they did feel it.

So it is helping, and once the (full-time) city manager is in place — we've asked the new one, or the interim, not to be hiring anyone. Just keep the ship running, keep operations going, and then the new city manager will be able to hire the people that he feels best fit that. So with putting those people under the manager versus the finance director has already calmed the waters as well.

What positions still need to be filled? What are the most crucial, aside from obviously the city manager?

Burress: The city manager, HR (human resources) director, EDC (economic development consultant). Those are some of the three crucial ones that need hired right away.

What needs to be done to eradicate this perception of a toxic work environment within Pekin government to attract people to these positions?

Burress: Good leadership from the top down. That comes from, first and foremost, the city manager. That city manager needs to know how to communicate, pull the city together. Show what the city has to offer to get good people to apply and want to come to work for us.

At the last city council meeting you voted against creating a new Historic Preservation Code, a measure that ultimately passed. Why were you opposed to this code and committee?

Burress: I just feel that we need to listen to our options a little bit more. I think we need to slow down. I feel that we're trying to incorporate too many, too large of a district. We need to get something established first and then maybe work out to a little more. We didn't have a clear picture on what it was going to be: Was it just the facade (or) was it, you know, if there is a hardwood floor, it has to be put back to the exact kind of hardwood floor? We knew none of that. So I just thought, "No, we need to know more before this code is passed." So that's why I voted against it.

But with it being approved now, do you still see that there can be a benefit from it?

Burress: Oh, absolutely there will be a benefit from it. I just felt that we need to just know a little bit more before we go in and vote on something that we really did not have all the details.

Regarding the Arcade and Tobin buildings and Tazewell County’s plans for a Justice Center annex: It seems steps are being taken by the city council that are preventing the county from moving forward. Are you concerned at all that Tazewell County leadership could abandon their plans and look to move elsewhere outside of Pekin?

Burress: I'm very concerned. I feel that we need to work with the county; we are the county seat. We have to do what is right to keep Pekin our county seat. And yes, I have talked to people — it's not just merely a threat. They are looking elsewhere, and we've got to stop that. There are certain people that want to be a roadblock, and we have to learn how to keep businesses in town and work together.

The county asked Pekin to vacate a portion of Elizabeth Street to construct a ground level passageway between its properties. But the council rejected that request by one vote. Do you foresee any way to resolve these issues between the city and the county?

Burress: We are going to try our best to start working with the members that voted against it on why. Our city engineer (Jodie Esker) spoke up that it would be a benefit to vacate it and give it to the county. It would then be their responsibility instead of the city, taking care of all the road, the sewage, everything that runs through there. So she did try to say that it would be a benefit to vacation it over to the county.

The three, I believe, that voted against it — we had to have a super majority, so that means all but one would have had to vote for it. So we are working hard to try to figure out why they don't want to work with the county, and what the issue really is.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Two Pekin city council members, Becky Cloyd and Lloyd Orrick, voted against vacating the portion of Elizabeth Street to Tazewell County.

Obviously, there's a lot of opinions and attachment to the Tobin and Arcade buildings, and these are county-owned buildings. Do you see the potential of trying to save them as a roadblock to the county moving forward with what it wants to do? Obviously, the county would need to take these buildings down to build its annex.

Burress: I had said when I was running that I don't want to see another old building tore down. But the county owns those, and unless we can ask them to save the facade of the Arcade building — the Tobin building has already been deemed that it is damaging and they are going to probably be tearing that one down. So, to save the facade of the Arcade building, I think would be wonderful and that's what I said in my campaign. We don't own that; we can ask and even pray that the county would do that for our beautiful city. I don't know that that is even been brought forward to the county yet, but that's what I said and that's what I really will hold to

Where do you stand on developer Randy Price's plan to build a community gymnasium near these Tobin and Arcade sites?

Burress: Well, we are talking to him some more with the new city interim manager; he and I had a discussion yesterday that we will try to sit down and talk to Randy and see a little bit more of his detail on what he wants to do and when he wants to start things. So we are working with him as well; there's been a little bit new development, so stay tuned to that — and Randy Price will be part of that.

Is this an either/or situation? I mean, can the gym and the annex coexist, or does it have to be either the gym or the justice annex?

Burress: I think that if each one of them, maybe we'll call it “tweak” their plans a little they can both exist. But the county has to have the street. They have to have the 300 block of Elizabeth to connect to the Justice Center.

One of the major infrastructure projects Pekin is pursuing is upgrading Court Street. Our understanding is that the plans are kind of stalled because a handful of property owners — largely out-of-state corporations — have balked at giving the city the easements needed for the project. What options are available to move this plan forward?

Burress: Actually, I think there's about three that are holding things up. We are moving forward. We had a conversation the other night that if these companies don't want to move forward, we can go through the court system. It will hold it up somewhat, but we are still out trying to talk to those corporations to see if they will be willing to work with the city. It's a little sad; some of them — we’ll just say there's been some that have been given TIF money and they don't want to turn around and work with the city. I would hope that they could all understand that it takes both of us to work together to get a wonderful, much needed project done.

When you say work through the court system, wouldn't that be very (time consuming) and cost-prohibitive almost?

Burress: Well, if we don't have another option, it could take up to two years. And the citizens of the city of Pekin need to realize that it's not just the city wanting to do what they want to do. We have to have cooperation of those businesses, so yes, it could take up to two years.

Pekin is working to create a bicycle and pedestrian master plan. What are your thoughts on why this master plan is needed? What it should include, and how it can be implemented?

Burress: Well, I think that anytime you can connect city to city — and that's what we are trying to do, and I think it's a wonderful plan. We've got part of it started and we're just going to continue on and what makes the city grow as well.

Obviously, you're seeing a rise in bicycle and pedestrian (traffic) in the city. Is it really necessary to make sure that this is accommodated, then?

Burress: I believe so, yes, I really do. We see more and more of it, like you said, in our city and it attracts more people, too. They ride for miles and miles and miles, and why wouldn't we want them to go right through our city?

What else would you like to discuss that we haven't touched on? What other plans or projects do you have coming forward?

Burress: Well, I have already talked to four different businesses that are wanting to come to the City of Pekin. I think that was part of my campaign, too, is to make Pekin more business-friendly. For only being on the job a few short weeks, I am thrilled that they are already reaching out to me and I can't wait to make our city grow. I just can't wait.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.