News Local/State

Urbana Mayoral Candidates Debate Crime, Economy

Rev. Evelyn Burnett Underwood, Alderwoman Diane Marlin, and Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing in Monday's debate at the Urbana City Building.

Rev. Evelyn Burnett Underwood, Alderwoman Diane Marlin, and Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing in Monday's debate at the Urbana City Building. Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

In the first debate for Urbana mayor, the three Democrats - all women - focused on two main themes - crime and policing, as well as business development and taxes. For the first time, three women are running for mayor, with incumbent Laurel Prussing, the city’s first female mayor, seeking a fourth term. Her opponents are Alderwoman Diane Marlin, and Rev. Evelyn Burnett Underwood.

Prussing hopes to hire as many as five more police officers for the city.

But in Monday’s debate organized by the League of Women Voters of Champaign County, Prussing was also asked to address a report by Illinois’ Department of Transportation, showing a disparity with police stops of African-American drivers in Urbana.

“We’ve made some changes on how we deal with traffic stops," she said. "We’ve lowered some fines. We don’t want it to be a hardship on low income people. But I think the real problem is a crime problem of the four murders that were committed in Urbana, which was unheard of.”

Prussing says it’s a mistake to focus on the racial disparity of traffic stops, because there’s a bigger disparity in the number of murders. Three of the four deaths in 2016 involved African-Americans.

Policing in Urbana was also brought up by another candidate for mayor. 

Underwood is a former member of the Urbana School Board who unsuccessfully ran for Champaign County Circuit Clerk four years ago. The associate pastor at Champaign’s New Free Will Baptist Church took issue with the structure of Urbana’s citizen police review board, which doesn’t include subpoena power.

“A lot of people didn’t like that in the beginning," she said. "I still don't. And one important thing, is that the council and the mayor changed the whole rules, and allowed Champaign people to be on it now.  And a lot of people disagreed with it, but that is the rule now.  If I were mayor, it would stop.”

In an arrangement that allowed members of the audience to submit questions to the candidates, all mayoral candidates had ideas for boosting Urbana’s economy.

Prussing touts the fact Urbana has added or expanded more than 100 businesses in the past four years. 

About 60 people fill the Urbana City Council chambers (and part of the lobby) to watch Monday's Democratic mayoral debate.

Photo Credit: Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

Alderwoman Marlin, who’s been in office since 2009, wants to make it easier for local businesses to reinvest in the community. But she also says Urbana needs to be open to new ideas for downtown, including a group now hosting arts-themed ‘First Friday’ events:

“The "Imbibe Urbana" events over the last few months, I think, are a great example, of people starting and bringing something new to Urbana," she said. "Reinvigorate our festival. The (Urbana) Sweetcorn Festival needs to be reinvented. It’s worn out, and tired, and needs something new.”

Underwood says Urbana is "dying" from an economic perspective.  After Prussing touted a $25-million renovation deal in the works for the now-closed downtown Urbana Landmark Hotel, Underwood showed concerns with the new deal, making reference to the hotel’s former owner.

“Before I put some more money down that black hole, I would go another way with that dilapidated landmark hotel and what happened to that other gentleman," she said. You know, I wouldn’t go that route.”

Alderwoman Marlin also says a key to community development is filling Urbana’s vacant chief administrative officer position, which has been unfilled since Prussing fired Bruce Walden from that position a decade ago.

“This will help the mayor, the city council, implement the policies that are passed," she said. "It will provide coordination among employees – and another channel of communication with the public.”

All candidates are looking for ways to expand the tax base.  Mayor Prussing says Urbana now has a higher tax rate than Champaign, but that’s due to her city’s ongoing court battle with its two hospitals over their tax exemptions – and a pending decision from Illinois’ Supreme Court.

“I’ve led Urbana through some very tough times," she said. "We first got hit by the recession, then we got our largest property tax payer to stop paying taxes.  So we’ve had to be very creative.”

About 60 people crowded in the Urbana city building council chambers and lobby to watch Monday’s 90-minute debate. 

The winner of the Feb. 28 Democratic primary will take on Republican engineer and land surveyor Rex Bradfield in the April 4 municipal election.