BELLEVILLE — Challengers Phil Elmore and Joe Hayden criticized Mayor Mark Eckert during a debate Tuesday night at Lindenwood University-Belleville.
At one point, Elmore, a Ward 7 alderman, accused Eckert of telling residents to "F-themselves."
The audience murmured a collective "ooh" at the attack. Eckert reacted with a surprised look and both arms slightly raised and turned to Elmore.
During a discussion about roadwork on McClintock Avenue in east Belleville, Elmore said when he brought the dire need up to Eckert, Elmore said, "he told me to go tell the people on McClintock to go F-themselves."
Eckert said he is "really disappointed" in Elmore. "I don't appreciate at all you telling people I told residents to F-something," Eckert said. "That didn't happen. That's a lie. I'm very disappointed in that character."
Infrastructure repairs to McClintock Avenue are currently under way. "Mr. Elmore what you don't know is the city engineer and I applied for money four years ago, and it's just now coming in," Eckert said. "You never asked. You never once came to my office and talked about it."
In addition, Elmore accused Eckert of overstating his accomplishments including bringing two new shopping centers to Belleville -- Green Mount Commons at the intersection of Illinois 161 and Green Mount Road and Belleville Crossing located on Illinois 15 at Frank Scott Parkway. Elmore credited former Belleville Mayor Mark Kern, current St. Clair County Board Chairman, with bringing those developments to the city.
However, Eckert disagreed and said it was the work of his administration.
The audience chuckled at the last question, when the moderator asked the candidates to identify the best and worst leadership qualities in their opponents.
Eckert and Elmore answered the question by speaking about character in a general sense. Hayden, a Ward 5 alderman, said he would try and answer the question.
Hayden said his opponents both deeply care about Belleville and he admires them in that way.
Then Hayden said the mayor "micro-manages" and has a lack of trust in others, and Elmore lacks consistency and a firm position on issues.
Hayden said he's always been consistent and believes "the city of Belleville has everything it needs but is lacking the proper leadership."
About 350 people gathered to hear the 90-minute debate between Eckert, Elmore and Hayden in Lindenwood's auditorium.
The debate moderator -- award-winning BND reporter and author Beth Hundsdorfer -- posed questions to each of the candidates about crime, infrastructure, economic development and leadership.
The candidates made opening and closing statements. They also had two minutes each to respond to each question and time at the end of each topic for rebuttal.
The candidates briefly touched on a topic popular with Belleville residents and BND readers: building a new municipal pool.
Hayden said Eckert has known for seven years the city pool was not going to last and did not plan ahead to replace the pool or build a water park that would draw residents into the city.
Eckert said closing the pool was a tough, financial decision and the city probably should have closed it long before he became mayor. Still, the city is looking at possible partnerships with other cities and to see if the city could afford it. He said the city will have a pool again, but he doesn't know when.
Elmore said it was heartbreaking to close the pool because it affects residents' quality of life, but financially, the city loses money in the operation. He echoed Hayden's sentiments that Eckert failed to plan ahead.
When asked about crime, Hayden described the city as "not safe." If elected mayor, he said he would make "police the No. 1 issue. You can have the parks. You can have the library, but if you don't have a safe city, you have nothing."
Eckert, who shook his head at some of his opponents' comments about crime, said he doesn't think the city is unsafe and would like to hire more officers, which may be possible with revenue generated from video gambling terminals.
Elmore said the city needs "to think outside the box" to make Belleville a safer place to live, including adding more police officers, installing surveillance cameras and encouraging neighborhood watch groups. "Neighborhood watch is an essential tool to Belleville," he said.
Eckert said he also supports neighborhood watch groups. "The Police Department needs eyes and ears, and they need partners," he said.
When asked about rental properties, Hayden said the city has enough multi-family units and doesn't see the need for anymore.
With Lindenwood University and the city's close proximity to Scott Air Force Base, Elmore said, "rental property is something we have to deal with on a daily basis."
However, he said he would like to see more uniform enforcement of the city's code and is in favor of working toward new development.
Eckert said the city is comprised of about 36 percent of rental properties. "Multi-family is not all bad, but it has to be monitored," he said. "We have landlords who have taken advantage and not reinvested in property or kept up on property."
In regards to bringing economic development to the city, Hayden said the time is now.
"We need to revitalize the city, and we need to revitalize it now," Hayden said. "...We have to find ways to get people to move into the city of Belleville. You have to be proactive."
The audience laughed after Hayden said, "If signs actually voted, 'For Sale' would be winning the mayor's race."
Elmore said the amount of for sale signs across Belleville is "staggering." He said the city needs to "go out and find business," especially companies interested in locating along Belleville's economic corridor -- Frank Scott Parkway, Illinois 15 and Green Mount Road.
In addition, he said the city needs to improve its reputation.
"We have a horrible reputation of being business friendly, and we need to change the reputation," Elmore said. "It doesn't have to be give away the whole ranch in TIF (tax increment financing) money, but if it's incentive money, what's the incentive for us?"
If elected, Hayden said he would ensure the city is run more like a business and would track closely how the city spends its money.
Eckert said new businesses are coming to Belleville like Ruler Foods, which is expected to bring $70,000 in new sales tax revenue to the city every year. In February, the city approved giving Kroger Co. $200,000 of TIF money to build a Ruler Foods at the site of the old Bel-Air Bowl if the business invests at least $2.9 million.
"People come here, because they see improvements and that's why they are coming," Eckert said.
When businesses leave, he said it's often a decision made at the corporate level.
During his closing remarks, Eckert asked attendees to "take a look around and look at what has happened the last eight years" including the addition of Lindenwood University to the city's landscape and the revitalization of downtown into a "vibrant" area.
"We have a lot of things we have accomplished and I'm proud of my staff," he said, adding his two opponents do not have the experience he does managing budgets, employees and union members.
If elected, Elmore said he would listen to residents and assist them and emphasize teamwork in his administration. "There's too many politicians with their own agendas and not enough common sense," he said.
Hayden closed with a quote from the late Democratic Sen. Robert F. Kennedy paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, "Some men see things as they are and say 'why?' I dream things that never were and say 'why not?'"
The candidates are running in the city's first three-way race for mayor since 1997. In that election, two former Belleville aldermen, Mark Kern and Tom Mabry, ran against incumbent Rodger Cook. Kern won and served until 2004, when he was elected chairman of the St. Clair County Board. He appointed Eckert, who was an alderman at the time.
Eckert, of the Belleville Good Government Party, was elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2009, in an uncontested race.
Elmore, an independent, ran for Ward 7 alderman in 1995 and lost by 22 votes. He was elected for the first time in 2009. If Elmore is unsuccessful in his bid for mayor, then his time on the City Council is up.
Hayden served as Belleville alderman from 1993-97. Eckert beat Hayden in 1997 for Ward 5 alderman.
Hayden, an independent with the Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville, was elected again in 2011.
Hayden is running for mayor in the middle of his alderman term, so if he loses, then he will have another two years as alderman.
The debate was sponsored by the BND and Lindenwood University-Belleville.