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Racial Justice and Equity joint commission chairs update Peoria leaders on efforts to bridge gaps

Peoria City-County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity co-chairs Tim Bertschy and Mary Peterson stand at the podium in the council chambers as they present the commission's 2023 annual report during Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
Joe Deacon
Peoria City-County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity co-chairs Tim Bertschy and Mary Peterson present the commission's 2023 annual report during Tuesday night's city council meeting.

The co-chairs of the Peoria City-County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity on Tuesday outlined their efforts to develop strategies for closing inequity gaps from decades of structural racism.

Mary Peterson and Tim Bertschy gave a presentation on the commission’s 2023 annual report during the city council meeting.

“Much work has been done and progress has been made in many areas. The groundwork has been laid for progress,” said Peterson. “Progress should be measured about the movement toward the goals, and not just when we get to the goals.”

The 28-page report focuses on efforts of the commission’s eight working sub-groups targeting specific areas: child and youth development, economic development and jobs, environment and climate, health and human services, housing, information technology, justice, and transportation and mobility.

“Our 2023 report doesn't rehash all the findings we made in the ’22 report. Instead, what it addresses is the way that we've begun to address this. It addresses causes, not symptoms; we're talking about on a high-level basis, what our strategies are that we're going to begin to implement in each of these areas,” said Bertschy, noting the goal is to develop strategies and solutions that align with the city’s strategic plan.

Council member John Kelly reiterated his belief that a focus on inequity may be misplaced.

“I emphasize the fact that if we continue to treat symptoms without addressing causes, we're just going to continue to have the symptoms. The causes, perhaps, are unpopular, OK? But it is the causes that we need to go after,” said Kelly.

Peoria City Council member John Kelly speaks during a presentation by the co-chairs of the Peoria City-County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity during Tuesday night's city council meeting.
Joe Deacon
Peoria City Council member John Kelly speaks during a presentation by the co-chairs of the Peoria City-County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity during Tuesday night's city council meeting.

“Let me just read a sentence here: ‘Decades of structural racism, from redlining and job discrimination to disparities in education, criminal justice and beyond, have created our current situation.’ I agree with the first part of that sentence [but] I disagree with the second part. Disparities are symptoms; they do not create anything. They show us that there's a problem, but they don't create the situation,” said Kelly.

Peterson said the findings in last year’s RJE report found vast disparities in a number of areas.

“Some of the areas: life expectancy, income and employment, housing, vehicle ownership, educational obtainment, involvement with the justice system, access to technology, and proximity to environmental risk,” she said.

Mayor Rita Ali said the RJE’s initiative is taking on a complex problem, and incremental steps toward solutions are noteworthy.

“This work is critically important work; the disparities that are based on race are undeniable,” said Ali.

Bertschy noted that achieving results in reversing racial inequity will take time and mean overcoming numerous challenges.

“One is the enormity of the issue that we're trying to address. It's not something that was created 10 years ago or 20 years ago. It's an issue that was created 400 years ago, and we're dealing with the legacy of that,” he said.

“This is going to be slow progress, without doubt. For some folks, undramatic developments over a long period of time are not what they would hope for; they would hope for a dramatic turnaround, and we all know that that's not possible either. But again, we're confident that we've begun to make progress.”

Police to lease space in township office

Prior to the council meeting, a special Peoria Township meeting resulted in unanimous approval of an intergovernmental agreement that will allow the Peoria Police Department to lease unused space in the township office building at 427 W. Main St.

“We've been operating out of half of the building [and] over the course of the last few years, I've been working diligently to get that space to where it is a usable space,” said township supervisor LaTrina Leary, adding, “I think will be a great fit for the township, and not only that, a win-win for the community.”

The police department intends to use the location as the base for its behavioral health co-responder program.

“We were in the middle of trying to negotiate a different location that wasn't really following through. We were running into some hiccups, and when we saw this spot, I said, ‘This is the perfect place. It's by the township; it's in a central location,'” said Police Chief Eric Echevarria.

“It's going to be a great spot where we'll help bring a little bit more life, if you will, more of a presence on the police side.”

Echevarria said the social services unit already has hired a director and one clinical social worker, and the department is are in the process of hiring a data analyst and an administrative assistant.

Gas station violations

The city is seeking to broaden its enforcement capability for imposing penalties against gas stations that violate motor fuel tax provisions.

“We've been struggling with certain receivables from a group of commonly operated gas stations,” said corporation counsel Patrick Hayes. “In dealing with and being concerned about the aftermath of the insolvency or sale of those operations, we felt that some strengthening of the penalty provisions for the gas motor fuel tax license would be in order.”

The council received and filed the first reading on a proposed ordinance to amend the city code that currently only allows penalties to be licensee operators. The concern arises when a business is owned by one person or entity, but operated by another.

The changes being considered would extend penalties beyond licensee operators to the station premises, placing eligibility restrictions on stations that have their license revoked to apply for a new license.

“There's essentially two components. One is if a motor fuel tax operator, if they don't timely pay their fees, not only license fees but also taxes due to the city, we can revoke their license. If the license is revoked, that revocation will affect that operator's ability to operate gas stations within the city of Peoria for four years,” said Hayes.

“If an operator license is revoked, that site could be prevented from having another gas station operated on it for one year. At the time of revocation, we can determine whether that element of the penalty will apply or not.”

Council member Chuck Grayeb said the action was overdue.

“Unfortunately, we have too many businesses that are not concerned about Peoria,” he said. “They don't have any loyalty to Peoria or to the neighborhoods within which they operate, and they cause no shortage of problems for our community. This is a huge step forward.”

The item will come for a vote at the June 25 meeting.

In other business, the council:

  • Voted to defer for another 30 days consideration of a breach of contract action against GFL Environmental regarding the delayed construction of a new landfill.
  • Agreed to spend more than $800,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to fix the section of MacArthur Highway between Moss Ave. and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
  • Authorized two stormwater drainage projects estimated at about $330,000 apiece — one on Donald Drive and one on Ronald Road.
  • Appointed council member Andre Allen as a deputy liquor commissioner.
Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.