Mayoral candidates participate in forum

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

Vandalia’s two mayoral candidates last Thursday night offered their thoughts on several key city issues, including economic development, problems with the city’s river intake and the need for a city administrator.

Rick Gottman, who is seeking a fourth term in office, and challenger Brian Stout participated in a candidates’ forum at the Vandalia Statehouse that was sponsored by the Vandalia Chamber of Commerce.
In his opening statement, Gottman touted his experience.
“I feel that the last 12 years as mayor, the eight years before that as an alderman and 20 years as the chief deputy coroner give me the honor and it gives me the education needed to serve this office.
“I want to continue to see the city of Vandalia to move forward in economic growth, retail, manufacturing and distribution,” he said.
“I believe that the history in the city, too, is important, and we must continue to preserve it,” Gottman said.
Stout said he decided to run for mayor about nine months ago.
“Several things were happening I was concerned with, especially many of the job losses, things of that nature.
“I want to lay out a foundation, a solid foundation for strong economic growth that I feel the city of Vandalia is currently missing,” Stout said.
Stout said.
“We need to make sure our small businesses are provided with the tools necessary to make their businesses prosper. My goal is to always let small businesses know that the city has their back,” he said.
“As a small business owner, I know the challenges, and I know that hard work and perseverance pays off. I hope I get the opportunity to show Vandalia citizens just how hard I am willing to work,” Stout said.
On the issue of economic development, Gottman said, “My plan for moving the city forward with economic development is to continue working with Kaskaskia College … and also continue to work with the existing businesses that are here to expand their businesses within our city and our community.
“I am also working with the association that we have put on board the last several months to work with them to recruit jobs, it’s a company that represents the city to bring jobs and market the city,” Gottman said, adding that he would also continue working with local business leaders.
“But, keep in mind that it’s a difficult time in Illinois to bring jobs. But, let me tell you, I’ve been out there, and we’ve been working.”
Stout said he feels the city “must do a better job of retaining and attracting quality employers. The city is regressing in the area of economic development and we need new leadership to move forward."
He said that he would work with business owners and community leaders to develop “a strategic plan to address our economic development goals.
“We must re-evaluate what we’ve been doing and address what needs changed, because it’s clear that our current strategies aren’t effective,” Stout said.
“Under the current administration, there have been several questionable TIF deals that have wasted taxpayer dollars. For instance, Twisters, Letters and Logos, and $75,000-$100,000 for a sports complex, just to ultimately come out and say it was a learning experience,” Stout said.
On historic preservation, Gottman said historic preservation “is very important to our community,” and that he has supported Lincoln Park and “all of the history” in Vandalia.
When the state attempted to close the Vandalia Statehouse, Gottman said he worked with state legislators to fight it.
“I said, ‘We’re not going to close it,’” Gottman said.
“We must preserve our past,” he said, adding that he has worked with downtown building owners on TIF projects to preserve their buildings and make improvements.
Stout said, “I highly consider myself a history buff.
“There’s so much history here. To think what’s gone on on these grounds. They created laws that would change and shape Illinois,” he said, explaining that he would seek out grants “to help us stand out even more among historical communities.”
On the issue of city beautification, Gottman said, “One of my goals when re-elected would be to put together a beautification committee.”
The mayor also said that he would look at using TIF (Tax Increment Financing) dollars for beautification projects.
About dilapidated buildings, Gottman said that getting such buildings torn down “is not an easy process,” explaining that if the city doesn’t have the cooperation of the property owner, it must go through the courts.
About the city’s current process to address eyesores, Gottman said, “I feel the code enforcer is doing what he can to get things done, but there are rules and regulations that have to be followed.”
Stout said that he has thought about a beautification program as he has campaigned around town, and that he would like to create volunteer groups in wards that would help property owners with cleanup efforts.
If the owners don’t want the help, he said, the city needs to have the code enforcer address violations.
“The current administration has had 12 years to create a beautification program. What has taken so long?” Stout said.
“There has to be zero tolerance. We have to hold the home owners and property owners accountable."
On the city’s Kaskaskia River intake, which has been largely unused since its installation, Gottman said that he had just been able to work on setting up a meeting which includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the engineering firm for the project, HMG Engineers of Carlyle.
He said the Corps of Engineers told them how the intake had to be installed, and that he fought it from the start. “We told them, ‘This will not work.’”
Gottman said that he has threatened to stop paying on the federal loan for the project unless the Corps of Engineers can help come up with a solution.
Stout said, “I do feel like we need to ask more questions of HMG. I don’t do a project just because someone is standing over me and telling me to do it a certain way.”
Asked how they felt about the council’s recent decision to increase the mayor’s salary by about $400, Gottman said that he told aldermen that he did not support the raise, and that if re-elected he would give his salary to a non-profit organization.
“I am not running for the money. I am running because I want to make sure we have a good place, a good town to raise our families and a good place that we can call home,” Gottman said.
Stout also said it’s a non-issue for him. “The pay is irrelevant.”
He said that if he’s elected, he’ll use that money to “put together a pro-active plan” with local business owners on promoting their businesses.
Stout said he was at the meeting where the council approved the pay raise, and he didn't hear Gottman make a recommendation not to OK the pay raise.
Gottman later in the forum said that he heard a couple of alderman react when Stout made that statement, knowing that he had made such a recommendation.
Asked about the city again having a city administrator, Gottman said he was an alderman when the decision to shift to that form of government was made. It was a different time, he said.
“We had the money to afford it,” he said, adding that before the downtown streetscape project was started, “I said, ‘It’s going to drain our funds … and it did.
But, he said, “It looks beautiful; I have no regret at all (about the project). But it did drain our funds.”
About 18 months ago, Gottman said, the city had to make tough decisions about finances, including layoffs.
“There were many nights I laid at home at cried because I knew the outcome of this situation. Many nights, I was up all night long wondering how to help these people (who were laid off) and how to move the city forward,” he said.
“When the funds are available, we need to get the city administrator back,” Gottman said.
Stout said that if Gottman believed that the position is so important, the city should have been budgeting funds for a city administrator.
“In the last seven or eight years, all the money that the city has spent on projects that have yielded nothing, look at the money we could have potentially had,” Stout said.
Rebutting Stout, Gottman said that the city “just can’t take dollars out of Motor Fuel Tax or TIF and use it for a city administrator. It has to be out of the general fund.”
To move dollars out of those funds for other purposes, Gottman said, would be illegal, “and I will never do anything illegal or against the law that would jeopardize the city for myself.”
To hire an administrator, he said, would result in five or six more employees being cut, which would lead to reductions in city services.
And, Gottman said, he would do everything possible to prevent services to residents being cut.