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Q&A: Pekin Mayor Burress says city council needs to work through its ongoing personality conflicts

Pekin Mayor Mary Burress talks into a microphone in the main studio at the WCBU newsroom.
Joe Deacon
Pekin Mayor Mary Burress says that despite ongoing conflicts between some city council members, she's confident the city can still get its business done. She says the council has full confidence in John Dossey as the full-time city manager, despite a split vote on approving his contract.

As Pekin kicks off its annual Marigold Festival later this week, city leadership remains hindered by fractures seemingly driven by personal differences.

At its most recent meeting, the city council formally hired police chief John Dossey as its permanent city manager. But two council members voted against approving Dossey's contract, and a third abstained.

Pekin Mayor Mary Burress admits the action stands as another example of the ongoing council divide. But she insists she's trying to bring the city together.

In her latest regular quarterly interview with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Burress discusses why she believes the vote to hire Dossey was not unanimous.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Pekin has now officially hired John Dossey as its full-time city manager, but the city council vote on approving his contract was divided. Why do you think his hiring faced some opposition?

Mayor Mary Burress: I do have to say I do have a divided council. But I think that some of them thought that maybe we should take a different approach. But in the majority of the votes, we saw the leadership that Mr. Dossey had shown within the last three months. He's done an outstanding job for us; he has pulled a team together, and everybody saw it from the very beginning. Morale was up, the team was being pulled together. He didn't just go in there and say, “I'm the leader, this is how it's going to be.” He listened to everyone, and our city has been so divided, we needed that. He was the perfect choice.

Are you concerned at all that he might see the lack of unanimous approval as the council not fully supporting him in his new role?

Burress: I'm glad you brought that up, because no. He has spoken to them and said that, “I hope I prove you wrong, that I am the right candidate and we are going to move the city forward.”

You mentioned that there's a division on the city council that's obviously been there for some time now, and this seems to be another example of the fractures on the city council. In our past conversations, you’ve said you want to bring people together – but it hasn't happened yet. To what extent are the ongoing personal disagreements making it hard for Pekin to get things done?

Burress: You know, it is. It is very hard. I did say I wanted to pull everything together. I'm trying really hard to understand their point of view, but to have them listen to my point of view as well. This past Monday night's meeting was a perfect example of the division that we have, but the great forward step that we are taking for the city of Pekin with Cullinan Properties coming into town and a new (city) manager. So we are we are making great progress, even though there is some division.

But these personality conflicts, those don't seem to be going away. I mean, there's obviously been a rift among some people. So how do you overcome them?

Burress: Like I said, I just keep pushing forward to try to do what is right for the city of Pekin. They have their opinion as well, but we cannot let personalities make our decisions for us, our differences. We have to do what is right for the city of Pekin, And I keep pushing that forward that this is what we need to do to move our city forward.

If it continues to be a deadlock, though, is Pekin going to stall? Are things still going to get done?

Burress: I think we're going to get things done. The people that vote with me is wonderful. Some of them haven't voted with me and I keep telling them that, “It's OK; let's just not come to a standstill. You can have your difference of opinions, we can vote differently. But we don't have to sit up here and argue.” We need to try our best to pull this city together. I think we are getting there; I really feel good about it.

Why did you change your mind in deciding to choose Dave Nutter as the mayor pro tem instead of Karen Hohimer?

Burress: Well, she was my first choice. I really thought that (she) and I together would be able to move the city forward a little bit. I talked to other council (members); they did not agree with that. But I still … I was told one thing, that it would just go through consent agenda and — first of all, we didn't have to vote on it. Then it had to go through consent agenda, and unfortunately, I did not have the support.

So I spoke with Karen and I said, “Let's try to pull this council together. Who can we get that everybody will listen to as well, has been here and help move this city forward?” His (Nutter) name came up. He first told me “no;” I did go to him at first. That's why I went to Karen as well, too.

It seems Dave kind of may be serving as the swing vote on many issues at this point.

Burress: He is, he is. But that's OK as long as we don't sit up there and, shall I say, air our dirty laundry.

With Dossey moving into the city manager position, what steps are being taken to hire a new police chief?

Burress: He (Dossey) has been working on that. He's got one of his people that he is really wanting to promote to that. I don't know that I can really say right now. But he's got some time to move his department forward, as well, to a new leadership. He's been our police chief for eight years and he's very proud of what he has done, and we are too. We have an outstanding police department, as safety is probably No. 1 in our city. So he doesn't just want to make a hasty decision, so he will be announcing fairly soon.

You mentioned earlier the loan to Cullinan Properties. What benefits do you see in the city giving a $5 million loan to redevelop the former Bergner’s in East Court Village?

Burress: This is a wonderful step forward. The city of Pekin does not have much retail at all. This is Cullinan’s property. It will bring revenue into our town, bring tax dollars into our town, bring sales tax dollars into our town. We have to bring the people to shop in Pekin, instead of going to East Peoria, coming to Peoria, going to Bloomington or Springfield. Because right now – I'm guilty, too – we are giving our sales tax dollars to another city. So it was the best thing to do for the city.

We've had some people say, “You're giving the city away;” no, we are not. We made– once again, Mr. Dossey pulled his team together; every department head had a say in this contract. That's the kind of leadership that he does. That's what he brought to the council on this Cullinan property, is that we are not giving the city away. We have steps in place that will protect our interest as well.

So this will be bringing in three retail businesses, from what I understand. What's the timeline on when these stores could potentially open?

Burress: Well, first of all, when we first started talking, there was three letters of intent. Now, there's going to be two contracts signed (and) they have until Dec. 31 to have the third one signed, which they're already saying it will be the end of September. So things are moving forward fast. Next spring, they will start in on doing some of the remodeling and then in 2025, I believe they're wanting to have some of the businesses open and up and running.

We've heard the city may be considering a land swap with Enviro-Safe and Randy Price, where Pekin would reacquire the property near the Tobin and Arcade buildings in exchange for some land possibly near the riverfront. Is this a realistic possibility, and how does that benefit the city?

Burress: It is. We have not brought Mr. Price back yet because we are doing a land study on the piece of property that he wants now, to make sure that there's no tanks underground, that the environment is clean to sell to him. So I know they're working on that; they wanted it done by the Sept. 11 meeting. I'm not quite sure if that's going to be done. But that's the holdup right now, is: we are trying to make sure the piece of property that he is wanting to bid on is clean and available for him. It is available to sell; we just don't want to sell anything if it's not environmentally safe.

But this would possibly then entail reacquiring the land near the Tobin and Arcade buildings that he purchased not too long ago, and then would that assist Tazewell County in the potential development of a justice annex?

Burress: That part is true. He did say that he would be signing that back to– it would have to come back to the city, and then the city would have to then see if the county would still want it.

What actions is Pekin considering to address its problem with homelessness?

Burress: Oh, that is an ongoing question. We have had numerous meetings with [(Phoenix Community Development Services]. We have had numerous meetings with businesses downtown. The police chief, fire chief, we've all been together trying to figure out exactly what we can do. We have another meeting, now it's not until October, but – all I'm saying is they're working daily on trying to figure out what is the right thing to do, and what can we do? It is a problem in downtown Pekin.

So what might some of the solutions or possibilities be?

Burress: They are looking for a new place for, like, a day shelter that (people) come in and they can shower, get food. They're looking for another place for that that is not quite in downtown and bigger, so that will maybe help them out. The fire chief is actually going down and talking to some of the homeless and seeing, “What can we do for you? Do you want to be moved on to another place?” Some do, some don’t. There are businesses in town that are actually trying to help them get GEDs, help them with jobs; they have put some of them to work. So we are trying to get them out of the point of being homeless.

The historic preservation commission has faced a great deal of turnover over the past few months. And we've heard that this has gotten to political. What do you see is the Commission's primary role and how it should be addressed?

Burress: Well, it was very focused on (just) two buildings, and that should not be the whole job for that commission. It just got to the point where the commission was, they were actually doing things without coming to the council. So we had to put a stop to some of that. They should be there for all of downtown and to preserve our buildings.

The problem is, if you make the restrictions too tight, then people aren't going to be able to afford to buy an old building downtown. Like I said when I was campaigning, I didn't want to see another building torn down. But unfortunately, at that time, I'm certain I said that we don't own that the Tobin building and it's owned by the county. Unless they want to sell it, we can ask and even pray that they save the façade – and I almost certain that's exactly what they're doing.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.