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Peoria Mayor Ali defends violence prevention grants, and how Safety Network meetings are structured

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says she doesn't have any problems with how programs were selected for the second round of violence prevention funding through the city, but she’s open to taking a closer look at the process.

A scoring system used by the Community Development Block Grant commission ranked the 26 programs that applied, with the top six initiatives being awarded a total of $1.4 million.

Among the programs selected for funding was a Peoria Public Schools program built around violence prevention education, literacy and counseling services.

While some city council members raised concerns and skepticism over how the dollars were allocated, Ali said she doesn’t believe the scoring system is the issue, noting the council approved the process in advance.

“I think that the real concern was that there were some organizations that applied that didn't make it to the top of the list, and that's what happens through a competitive process when you have a scoring process that’s competitive,” Ali said in an interview with WCBU. “There was some concern over granting funding to another government body, yet that other government body was an eligible entity.

“Looking forward, the council can make a decision if they decide as a whole not to fund other government bodies," she said. "But we haven't done that in the past. We work with the health department; we provide funding for different joint initiatives or initiatives that we think will improve the community. We've done that in the past with Peoria Public Schools.”

While the PPS program that was awarded $300,000 drew scrutiny for its literacy component during council discussions, Ali noted it received the highest score among all the applications.

“We know that violence has been shown to be younger, that we're experiencing younger people carrying weapons or using weapons,” she said. “The schools are our partners, and we definitely want to work with them and work on joint programming to support violence prevention.”

Another concern raised in council chambers focused on holding agencies accountable to ensure the initiatives receiving funding are producing effective results in curbing violence. Ali said there will be an evaluation process, but it’s too soon to tell as of yet.

“The programs that were funded the first round, there hasn't been time for them to really be fully evaluated to actually show some outcomes,” she said, noting many of the initiatives chosen for the original $700,000 in awards initially had to address administrative expenses.

“It takes time — most of those programs have not even been active for six months," she said. "So, once we get to the point of six months in or a year, we want to be able to know what's going on. We want to see incremental progress, just keep updated in terms of how the funding is being used and whether it's making a difference and making an impact.”

The violence prevention grants are funded through a variety of state and federal programs. That includes $700,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds, $500,000 from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and a separate $300,000 workforce training grant, also from DCEO.

Ali said she’d be open to the council holding a policy session to consider revising the process for awarding the grant funding in the future.

“I think it should be reviewed if there are concerns, and I think that there's always an opportunity to tweak a process and look at who the eligible entities are, to look at where the most points are given,” Ali said. “If are there smaller organizations that are being shut out because they're smaller organizations — we require an audit, some smaller organizations are concerned about that. But we have to be fiscally competent and compliant.

“This is funding that comes from the federal government and passes through the city's ARPA funding, so we do require the financial audit," she said. "There's some organizations that didn't qualify last time, but they joined with another organization that was eligible, and then that organization would be their fiscal partner. So that's how they were able to apply this time around.”

Safety Network meetings

Ali admits she has deliberately organized the Peoria Safety Network as a community initiative as opposed to a formal city commission as a way to avoid bureaucratic requirements.

“It's a group that I did assemble and it's expanded, but it does not fall under the Open Meetings Act because it's not a city formal commission,” Ali said. “It's really a private group that I've left open for the public to attend (and) I've thus far left open for the media to attend. But the barriers or restrictions sometimes get in the way.”

Ali freely admitted the difference allows S-Net to circumvent the need to post an agenda and to abide by other open meeting rules.

“Absolutely. I mean, there was a lot of critique there with regard to S-Net and control,” she said. “There were individuals that wanted more control, and that's really not what it's about. It's about the community being empowered to work to support the efforts of the police to reduce gun violence in our community. And it can't be hampered by unnecessarily — it was getting, I think, too divisive, and so I just needed to remove it from under that veil.”

Ali likened the meetings to past regularly organized community discussions.

“It's similar to the Monday Morning gatherings that used to take place at Ward Chapel AME Church, pulling together community members that wanted to provide support, whether it was violence or whether it was other needs that the community had,” she said. “They would come together as kind of a roundtable, and that went on for a very long time. It was actually a weekly meeting.”

Ali said she feels the S-Net meetings have been productive, with between 50 and 70 people typically attending each month.

“They find value in networking; they’ve found value in sharing resources, they’ve found find value in the referral processes that take place,” she said. “We actually come together to share information (and) to receive information on how things are going.

“So the police typically provide a report terms of the updates on Tip-211, updates on the shootings or homicides that are taking place, the car thefts that are taking place," she said. "Then we're looking at what can the community do to play a role in reducing the gun violence, and that's really our focus.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.