© 2024 Peoria Public Radio
A joint service of Bradley University and Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Burress touts Onken’s appointment to Pekin City Council, explains selection process to fill vacancy

Pekin Mayor Mary Burress
Joe Deacon
Pekin Mayor Mary Burress

Chris Onken has been tabbed to fill the open seat on the Pekin City Council, with his swearing in set for the beginning of Monday’s regular meeting.

A health and physical education teacher at Pekin High, Onken emerged from a group of 11 applicants and four finalists to become the choice to fill the vacancy created by Becky Cloyd’s resignation in November.

“He's an educator (and) he's lived in the city for 57 years, so he's a true community leader,” said Pekin Mayor Mary Burress. “Now, he might not have the politics (experience), but he is a leader through his education, through students and parents. He just came out above the others on his community service. He's a very humble man, but just done an outstanding job in his education so far.”

Chris Onken
Chris Onken

Onken will begin serving immediately after his appointment is finalized. He will serve out the remaining 18 months of Cloyd’s term, and he indicated to Burress he intends to run for the seat on his own in 2025.

“In his interview, you could tell that he was a leader, but you can also tell that he listened,” said Burress. “He wasn't all about just himself; he was about team-building, you could tell that that's what he was wanting to bring to the city.

“Also, after the interviews, I did say (that) I don't want someone that has a hidden agenda, their own personal agenda, and (isn’t) ready to work together as a team and lead the city forward. His answer and comeback was, ‘I can't wait to be part of that.’”

While the state statute gives a mayor the full responsibility of selecting someone to fill vacant city council positions, Burress said it was important to her to include the other council members in the process.

“I went to the IML, Illinois Municipal League, and they praised us on how we did it; they said, ‘other cities are doing this, you're bringing Pekin out of the dark ages,’” said Burress. “I told them I wanted to get a policy and procedure written down on how to do this.

“Now the next mayor might come in and might not want to do it the way that I am, but I felt getting the council involved was pulling us all together.”

Burress said each council member was asked to put forth a candidate or two, although one member passed on the option. She said that produced three finalists, with another being the candidate who finished fourth in the three-seat April 2023 election (Jacob Brisbin).

“At the end, we all talked about the four candidates; we graded them. We had questions that were from IML and other cities that we did not know what the questions were going to be – not even myself – before we went into the interview. We asked the candidates those questions, and then we would grade them from one to five, so we had scoring.

“Mr. Onken was the highest of those scoring as well, and that's just how the whole process went. At the very end, it was a full consensus of the (council members) that were there that they thought it would be the best name to bring forward.”

Burress said she feels Onken’s attitude and demeanor can help the city council overcome the turmoil and divisiveness that has plagued Pekin government for more than a year now.

“I feel that he's going to bring a calmness. When he was in the interview, he was very calm, reserved (and) that's the type of person he is, too,” said Burress. “When you watch him coach the girls basketball team, he is calm and reserved but he's got it under control. I think that's a huge plus for the city of Pekin.”

Relocating City Hall

Burress said plans to relocate City Hall to a former funeral home on Broadway Street are moving forward but still in the very early stages.

“We really haven't set a hard timeline. We're getting some engineering drawings going and trying to make some plans,” she said.

In November, the city council approved spending $550,000 to purchase the Woolsey building with the intention of moving some administration departments and the council chambers into the new space. In a memo, City Manager John Dossey said the staff has outgrown the current facility.

“The staff that is in the upper floor of City Hall, most of them will be moved over there because the police department needs more room,” said Burress, who added the Woolsey site has a large room that could be used as a community space. “That will leave the old building to be remodeled for maybe the police department or some – we’re not quite sure what else, but plans are being talked about as we speak.”

Burress used the phrase “the ball is in his court” in regard to a potential downtown land swap with developer Randy Price.

The proposed no-cost deal would see Pekin reacquire parcels on Court Street he purchased from the city last year in exchange for land along the Illinois River where he would build a community gym.

“His attorney is going over paperwork,” said Burress. “If everything is worked out – now there's the word ‘if’ – but if things are worked out, he would then give the land on Court and Capital back to the city, and he is wanting 3.5 acres on 2nd Street, and then he will move his basketball courts there.”

Burress said she doubts the deal will be ready for a vote by Monday.

Looking ahead

Burress is scheduled to give her first State of the City address on Jan. 19 at the Pekin Moose Lodge, at a luncheon held by the Pekin Chamber of Commerce.

“Amy McCoy (Pekin Chamber executive director) came to me and asked me if I would be willing and wanting to do a State of the City to kick off our bicentennial, and I just jumped all over it,” said Burress. “I thought the citizens need to know that there's positive things coming out. What better way to start out our new year than to have a State of the City address?”

Burress said that in addition to kicking off the bicentennial celebration, the address will focus on developing a strategic plan for the city.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.