BELLEVILLE — The city's three mayoral candidates fielded questions on crime, economic development and more Tuesday during their first candidate forum this election season.
Incumbent Mayor Mark Eckert, current Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden and current Ward 7 Alderman Phil Elmore all addressed how they would reduce crime in their opening statements before about 175 attendees.
Elmore, an independent, said it would be difficult to hire more police officers in this economy, so city leaders have to think outside the box. Surveillance cameras are "very obtainable" and have more reach as a way to get more eyes on the street, Elmore said.
Eckert, of the Belleville Good Government Party, agreed that crime is a concern and he is proud of the work by the Police Department. During his administration, the city hired an additional officer and put six more officers on the street by taking them out of the west end police substation.
The city is currently working to get an improved computer system, shared with the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, which will free up officers' time, Eckert said. The city is also looking to use law enforcement students to do menial tasks.
Hayden, an independent with the Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville, said the city is no closer to having more police officers, squad cars and equipment under Eckert's tenure and said the city has to change its budget priorities to focus on crime as the city's number one issue. One of Hayden's ideas is to use auxiliary officers for events such as festivals to free up the city's police officers.
Residents also wanted to know how the candidates would bring retail into the city.
Eckert told residents that if they want to know what he will do if he's elected, they should look at what he has already done. He pointed to the revitalization of downtown and called Lindenwood University the "new shining star" in Belleville because of its growth.
The city has to continue to make itself attractive to businesses and maintain relationships, Eckert said, and recent interest from Kroger building a new grocery store is a good sign.
Hayden said the city should use a business assistance program to back loans that will help small, local businesses instead of helping established companies like Kroger. Instead of giving Kroger about $200,000 in tax increment financing, the city should use the funds to fix roads, Hayden said.
Elmore said that because the city is giving Kroger incentives, the city should have at least asked Kroger to build a store where the city needs it. Also, not only is it important to attract businesses to the city, city officials have to retain businesses.
One resident asked for an update on the "hole" left downtown after a fire near Jackson and East Main streets.
Eckert said a lawsuit supported his actions for tearing down the building for safety reasons but the city is waiting for a court ruling on the issue of responsibility for cleanup. He's hoping the site will be cleaned up before the Art on the Square event in May.
Elmore said that he is frustrated the buildings were torn down before the city got permission from the owners of the building. Elmore said he asked for a fence to be erected around the site during the lawsuit and will also see whether the "hole" could be filled in the meantime.
Hayden said the city should have never torn down the building in the first place and that the mayor should have just closed down parts of Main Street to keep the public away so he could get an expert opinion and permission from the building owners.
Residents also asked about hiring more minorities and restoring civility at public meetings, but the surprise question of the night was a residents' inquiry on how the candidates would handle statewide decriminalization of medical marijuana.
Hayden said he is against such legalization because the last thing the city needs is something else that could add to the city's crime problems.
Eckert said he would determine how he stands on the issue after getting advice from local experts on the pros and cons, and also explore the city's options as a home rule city.
Elmore said he would seek guidance from medical experts and law enforcement and also weigh the actions of surrounding communities.
After the mayoral candidates spoke, Trenton Galetti and Victoria Weygandt, the candidates for Ward 7 alderman in the April 9 election, also answered questions.
Galetti, an attorney who has lived in Belleville since 2006, is aligned with Hayden's Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville. In his opening statement, Galetti said he and other coalition candidates believe crime is important, but his main issue is how the city taxes its residents and spends such tax revenue.
Also along the lines of the coalition, Galetti said improvements to streets in the ward could be paid for by TIF money instead of given to businesses like Kroger.
Weygandt, who has lived in Ward 7 for about 35 years, is aligned with Eckert's Belleville Good Government Party. She said she became involved in her neighborhood watch after her mother and aunt were murdered at a hair salon in 2005.
Weygandt said that though crime is important, she is not afraid to go out in Belleville. The police cannot be at every corner so she encourages residents to help out. Part of her focus for the ward is the Carlyle Avenue corridor because it concerns her that businesses have moved out.
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at email@example.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.