Danville Voters Will Decide If They Want A City Manager

Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer

Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer, speaking at a prayer service for city government at Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Danville.

Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

In Danville, an elected mayor runs the city government day to day, and the city council sets laws and policies. That form of government is called mayor-aldermanic or mayor-council government. But a referendum on Tuesday’s ballot would have the city council hire a professional manager to run Danville’s government, and the mayor’s job would become a part-time one.

In the nearly 32 years since Danville switched back to mayor-council government (after 61 years using the commission form), the Vermilion County city has only had two mayors. And those two mayors have different opinions on the referendum.

One Mayor For, The Other Against

Robert E. Jones was Danville’s mayor for four terms, from 1987 to 2003. He became such a fixture in the city’s government that Danville’s city hall is named after him. Jones supports hiring a city manager. In fact, he was one of four former Danville city officials who recorded campaign ads for Moving Danville Forward, the group trying to get the referendum passed.

“Two-thirds of cities our size across Illinois and the country have recognized that bringing educated, trained and professional experience to their towns has produced positive results,” said Jones in one of the commercials. “Danville is facing serious financial problems and cannot wait any longer for serious financial management.”

But Scott Eisenhauer, who has served as Danville’s mayor from 2003 until now, opposes a city manager for Danville. It’s a little awkward for him because, mindful that the referendum might pass and make the mayor’s job a part-time one, Eisenhauer applied for and has been hired as Rantoul’s village administrator, the equivalent of a city manager. He has even agreed to further his education beyond his associate degree from Danville Area Community College, to meet the educational standards expected of his new position. (Ald. Rickey Williams, Jr. is to be sworn in as Danville’s acting mayor for the final six months of Eisenhauer’s term, on November 6).

Eisenhauer said having a hired manager is appropriate for Rantoul. But he said Danville voters prefer to elect a mayor who actually runs the city, and doesn’t just try to carve out a leadership position from chairing the city council and cutting ribbons.

“People want their executive leadership in this community to be accountable to them,” said Eisenhauer. “They want the ability to, every four years, choose that leadership.  They want the ability to make sure that that leadership is accountable and responsible to them.”

Arguments For A City Manager …

But backers of the referendum counter that Danville wouldn’t be losing a mayor, they’d be gaining a professional manager. Doug Ahrens is the organizer of Moving Danville Forward, the group that put the council-manager referendum on the ballot. Ahrens, currently the director of the Danville Sanitary District, spent 28 years as a Danville City employee, the last few as Public Works Director. He said a city manager could help Danville’s government run more efficiently and gets its under-funded pension programs under control.

“We have many challenges ahead,” said Ahrens. “And we believe that having the best of both worlds, both a mayor elected at-large by the entire city as well as a trained professional to manage the day to day operations is the best form of government for our future, and for the future generations here in Danville.”

… And Arguments Against

There were no advocates of the council-manager referendum at a “Community Prayer Service for Our City Government,” held last week at Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church on Danville’s east side. The service focused on prayer and preaching, with almost no rhetoric about the council manager referendum. But in his brief remarks at the service, Mayor Eisenhauer touched on the decisions Danville voters were about to make.

“We need to be mindful of God and God’s will when we go to the polls on Tuesday,” said Eisenhauer, “so that we are electing people to serve, and we are selecting the form of government to serve us, that we know will in fact be right for the people of this community”.

Greater Shiloh pastor, the Reverend Doctor U. Pete Williams, said the prayer service reflected concern about the referendum on the part of many black church pastors in Danville. Danville’s switch to mayor-council government in 1987 changed the city council from where members were elected at-large, to one where they were elected from wards. City councils elected from wards or districts are generally considered more likely to include minority members elected by voters in minority neighborhoods.

The language in Danville’s council-manager referendum specifically states that election of aldermen from wards would continue. But the city’s 1987 change of government also consolidated executive duties in Danville’s mayor, instead of having those duties divided among different city council members under the old commission system. Those duties would be switched to a council-hired city manager if the referendum passes. Rev. Williams said keeping executive power in an elected mayor is important, along with greater minority participation on the city council.

Both Sides Warn Of Possible Unchecked Power

“I’m just saying it blunt,” said Williams in an interview following the prayer service. “The people would not have a voice over who sits over them, other than the alderman who they’ve elected (if the referendum passes). And then the aldermen are controlling the city manager. The people don’t control that. But they do control the mayor.”

Doug Ahrens sees things differently. His argument is that it may be the mayor, instead of a city manager, that needs reigning in under a mayor-council government.  He said that danger would not exist under council-manager government.

“It actually takes away the potential for a single individual who is more popular to push their own agenda without the adequate checks and balances until the next four year votes come up,” said Ahrens. “And for us, there is a higher level of accountability in this form of government.”

The Danville City Council voted in October to set a part-time mayor’s salary for the next four years, if voters approve the council-manager referendum, and a full-time mayor’s salary if they reject it. If the referendum passes, the council will have to determine a salary for a city manager, one that is expected to be higher than what the full-time mayor was paid.

Story source: WILL