City council forum scheduled for discussion with citizens

By Eric Chima

Candidates for the Champaign City Council and City of Champaign Township Supervisor will meet in an open forum at 6:30 p.m. in Douglass Library today. The event is the second such forum meant to educate voters before the April 5 General Election.

District One council candidate Gina Jackson is expected to participate, along with District Three candidates Vic McIntosh and Matt Varble and Democratic Township Supervisor candidate Linda Abernathy. J.W. Pirtle, the incumbent in District One, and Vickie Jones, the Republican running for Township Supervisor, are not expected to appear.

The first forum, a town hall event hosted Monday by the Champaign League of Women’s Voters, was dominated by talks of municipal improvements and fair representation of constituents.

Varble, the challenger in District Three, came out aggressively at Monday’s meeting, calling the current city council a “country club” and vowing to be an “independent mind” on the council.

“A lot of times decisions are made before the city council even meets,” Varble said. “We need to rid ourselves of the insider’s network we see today and make customers and citizens our top priority.”

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The two incumbents, J.W. Pirtle and Vic McIntosh, leaned heavily on the accomplishments of the current council, particularly the improvements in downtown Champaign.

“I think my record speaks for itself,” Pirtle said. “You don’t have to go too far from the city building to see something J.W. Pirtle had his hand in.”

Gina Jackson, Pirtle’s challenger in District One, touted her longtime residency in Champaign and vowed to improve communication with residents by holding quarterly town hall meetings in her district.

“We need to go to the citizens instead of making them come to (Champaign) City Hall,” Jackson said.

Pirtle and Jackson both said they agreed on most issues affecting the council. That left the bulk of the forum to issues brought up by Varble, who was the biggest critic of the status quo in Champaign.

Varble attacked the current council for “giving money away arbitrarily” to failing businesses on First Street, balking at implementing smoke-free laws in the city and failing to secure Federal Empowerment Zone status for Champaign – which would provide federal funding for urban improvements.

Pirtle responded to the first charge, saying that money given to businesses was to remodel buildings on First Street and that the area would be improved regardless of whether the business survived.

The other candidates criticized the Federal Empowerment Zone suggestion.

“This issue has been brought up before and I was told (by city staff) that Champaign did not qualify for it, that we weren’t big enough,” McIntosh said.

Jackson said getting more funding was not as important as educating the public about existing opportunities.

“The money and programs are there already, but the people that need them don’t know about them,” Jackson said.

Varble predicted that Thursday’s forum would center on many of the same issues as Monday’s, but that there would be a stronger focus on race relations because it is being hosted in part by Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CU Citizens).

Thursday’s forum will also be the second meeting that Abernathy has attended, but Jones, her opponent for City of Champaign Township Supervisor, has declined to attend any of the debates.

In the first forum, Abernathy was given two minutes to speak because Jones was not present. Abernathy said she wanted to focus on fiscal responsibility in city government and jobs and training for people receiving payments from the government.

Jones was not available for comment.

Carol Ammons, one of the founders of CU Citizens, said Thursday’s forum would be a more informal setting in which the audience could directly question the candidates. It will last one hour and will be open to the public.

The candidates hope that the forums will encourage interest in city government and draw voters to the citywide election.

“(The city council) affects your lives more than any other form of government, but we get the fewest voters,” McIntosh said. “I’d like to see that changed April 5.”