What does being 'independent' on the Belleville City Council mean?

News-DemocratDecember 21, 2013 

— Some saw the election of more independents to the Belleville City Council in April as a way to counter the Belleville Good Government Party, which has owned a majority on the council for years.

As the Good Government Party continues to occupy 9 of 16 aldermanic seats and with Mark Eckert in his third full term as mayor, the independent aldermen have shown they do not always vote together.

Now there is even a splintering of sorts among them.

So how has the makeup of the independents on council changed since the election?

Ward 2 Alderwoman Janet Schmidt said she remains an independent but cut ties with the Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville. The coalition is a group of independents who ran together against Good Government Party incumbents and won in six races.

Another independent on the Belleville City Council, Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult, announced a second run for state representative on the Republican ticket. The results of the state election will decide whether she runs for re-election in Belleville; She is undecided about joining the Unified Independent Coalition.

Ward 6 Alderman Jim Davidson, who was appointed by Mayor Mark Eckert of the Good Government Party, said he will run as an independent in 2015 when his term expires. He wants voters to consider him as a candidate and not vote against him because of his party affiliation.

In the eight months since the election, the independent aldermen have demonstrated different ways of being independent.

Some aldermen believe it means voting against the Good Government Party.

Others believe it means casting votes based on independent research and not party lines.

Still others believe it means making decisions based on an agreed platform established by the Unified Independent Coalition.

The independent aldermen also have different ideas on what the term "independent" means, raising several questions:

* Are you an independent if you vote with the majority most of the time?

* Does being an independent on the Belleville City Council mean you shouldn't have any Republican or Democratic affiliations?

* Are you an independent if you belong to a "coalition" of other independents?

Switching sides

Independent and Good Government Party officials alike wonder where Ward 2 Alderwoman Janet Schmidt stands.

Schmidt ran with the Unified Independent Coalition but has since removed herself from the group.

During the election, Schmidt joined the coalition in supporting Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden's mid-term run for mayor. Hayden did not win and will serve for two more years as alderman.

Now Schmidt accuses Hayden of falsely representing concerns over the city's financial health under Eckert's leadership.

Hayden said Schmidt's claims are untrue and her voting record since the election shows she is not a true independent because she sides with the Good Government Party most of the time.

During an October council meeting, Schmidt accused Hayden of exaggerating problems at City Hall to get her to run with his coalition.

"When I was running for alderman I said that it might be a good idea to have a forensic audit," Schmidt said. "That was based on information I was given by Mr. Hayden and other independent candidates and aldermen that there was malfeasance, just rampant within the City Council, that the mayor was spending money hand over foot and independent aldermen were not allowed to know what was going on."

Schmidt said she should have used the word "crooked" instead of "malfeasance," but ultimately believes that Hayden's statements are untrue and she should have verified the claims before joining the coalition.

Hayden said he never questioned the mayor's honesty and did not use the terms malfeasance or crooked. He described Schmidt's accusation that he used the word crooked as "pure acrimonious."

One of the pillars of the six-point platform shared by Hayden and the Unified Independent Coalition focuses on the city's finances.

"What I question is our spending practices and that involves TIF reform," Hayden said. "Why are we giving $200,000 to Kroger and not fixing the streets? I'm not saying somebody is crooked. I'm just saying we're mismanaging."

Hayden said Schmidt owes voters an explanation for disassociating from the coalition and voting against their core issues.

"Every candidate saw the six-point platform," Hayden said. "She's gonna have to answer to the people when she only won by two votes why she is deviating from that."

Schmidt won 316-314 against incumbent Dorothy Meyer, who occupied the seat for 16 years as a Good Government Party member.

On key spending issues, Schmidt's voting record shows that she typically sides with Good Government Party aldermen, helping ordinances backed by Eckert's administration to pass with a 10-6 vote.

Schmidt tends to differ most on tax increment financing issues from the rest of the independent aldermen: Hayden, Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult, Ward 3 Alderman Kent Randle, Ward 6 Alderman Bob White, Ward 7 Alderman Trent Galetti and Alderwoman-at-Large Lillian Schneider.

Such was the case on the vote to help St. Paul's Home with demolition costs for its new $29.5 million senior living center. The council voted 10-6 to reimburse the nonprofit up to $250,000 using tax increment financing money.

Schmidt led the move in August to extend the 0.25 percent sales tax increase for another four years, until 2017. The tax increase, an extra 25 cents per $100 purchase, would have expired this year.

Party politics

Ward 2 Alderman Melinda Hult said voters are likely confused about the "independent" identifier as it applies to city officeholders.

In state and national politics, an independent is usually someone not part of the Republican or Democratic parties.

But in local politics, municipalities such as Belleville place aside the notion of "established" political parties to avoid having primary elections.

Candidates in Belleville do not run as Republicans or Democrats. Instead, those who choose to run together form new groups every year with different names, such as the Good Government Party.

Anyone not part of a registered party, such as members of the Unified Independent Coalition, is automatically an "independent" on the ballot.

Therefore, it is likely that constituents are voting for "independents" without thinking of asking about their national party affiliation.

"People make the assumption you have independent beliefs, about what that word means," Hult said. "It is not meant to mislead anybody."

Hult, a Republican, is gearing up for a second run in November against Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, to be state representative of the 113th District.

Hult lost in the bid in 2012. Her term as Belleville alderwoman ends in 2015 and she does not know if she will join the Unified Independent Coalition or the Good Government Party.

Schmidt said she still considers herself an independent and she will vote as she sees fit. She did not join the Unified Independent Coalition so Hayden could tell her how to vote, and she would not have joined the coalition knowing it would function more like a party.

Yet, Schmidt, a first-time officeholder, also identifies as a "liberal Democrat" and served as a Democratic precinct committeewoman for 12 years.

"I think a lot of their ideas are great," Schmidt said about the Democrat-leaning Good Government Party.

Schmidt said she realized months before the election that she had "nothing in common" with other candidates of the Unified Independent Coalition, which she said are mostly Republicans, but it was too late to change the ballot.

Hayden said he did not ask candidates interested in the coalition whether they were Democrats or Republicans. He said he couldn't care less as long as the person supports the coalition's six-point platform.

Hayden said he is a Democrat who does not believe in the Good Government Party and its control in St. Clair County.

Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson said Hayden is probably upset because Schmidt is being an independent, making up her own mind and not siding with him just because she ran with his coalition.

Davidson believes Hayden and the Unified Independent Coalition operates more like a political party with a platform.

"You can't have a party of independents. It's an oxymoron," Davidson said.

Davidson said he believes in diversity on the City Council, but having different perspectives doesn't mean that some independent aldermen should cast automatic "no" votes.

Some independent aldermen voted against the 0.25 percent sales tax increase extension just so, when it comes time for re-election, they could publicize they voted against increasing taxes, Davidson said.

"When people are voting for the politics, not the policy, then people are screwing up," Davidson said.

Davidson, whom Eckert appointed in June to finish a half term, said he will run as an independent when his term ends in 2015 because voters do make decisions based on political affiliation and not merit.

Davidson believes voters in the April election supported many of the independent candidates simply because the candidate did not belong to the Good Government Party. He wants voters to consider him, not the party he belongs to.

"If you put a tag on yourself, people vote against you and not for you, and what sense is that?" Davidson said. "The idea that you're voting against somebody, instead of voting for someone with the ideals you want, is just nuts."

True independence

Ward 6 Alderman Bob White said he hopes voters take time to research a candidate's position rather than just look at a candidate's political party.

"But it's possible some people just vote for independents because they're not happy with the way things are with the Good Government Party," White said. "But as an independent, it doesn't mean that I vote with them or against them. It means I research what I vote for."

White, who is serving his first term, said his support for the Unified Independent Coalition does not influence his vote.

"We're unified on certain points, loosely," White said. "We work together, but we don't vote as a bloc. As far as I'm concerned, I'm working with everybody on council to do what's right for constituents."

To make a decision on whether to approve a rental housing project aimed at moderate-income families, White said he drove to Springfield, Mo., to see if the developer's oldest project is faring well.

"Lots of people said there is too much rental property in Belleville and worried if it was a good deal or not," White said. "As an independent, I went and talked to people living in one of those developments. That's the difference being an independent: Going out and investigating for myself."

White voted for the housing development. On that issue, Eckert broke a 7-7 tie vote to approve the project.

When aldermen of the Good Government Party vote one way, should the council's independents automatically vote the opposite way?

It was unusual last Monday when the aldermen of Wards 1 and 2 broke "party" lines in deciding whether to grant a use variance so a Cahokia businessman could open a convenience store on Douglas Avenue in an area that borders the two wards.

Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella, a member of the Good Government Party, voted against the variance while Ward 1 Alderman Mike Heisler, of the same party, voted to grant the variance.

The Ward 2 alderwomen also differed: Hult, an independent, voted against the variance, while Schmidt, voted for the variance.

Hayden said he does not expect independent aldermen to vote as a bloc or the same way he does. At the same time, Hayden does not consider Schmidt to be an "independent thinking alderman" because she votes differently than the Unified Independent Coalition ideals.

One of Hayden's priorities, backed by the Unified Independent Coalition, is addressing crime and hiring more police officers.

When the 0.25 percent sales tax increase extension vote came before the council, Hayden, Schneider and White presented four stipulations to guarantee that revenue from the tax extension, an estimated $1.2 million, will go toward hiring more police.

Schmidt did not support the stipulations; the other independents were not unanimous in their support, either. Randle supported only two of the stipulations.

Meanwhile, the four stipulations saw support from one Good Government Party member, Ward 8 Alderman Joe Orlet, who ran as an independent in 2009 and then with the party in 2011.

"I believe myself and the other five who are truly independent have voted to put more officers on the street and hopefully in 2015, we can come up with nine people who feel that way," Hayden said.

Hayden said he will run for re-election when his term expires in 2015.

White said he is disappointed in Schmidt only because he thought she would be more of an independent.

"I don't have a problem with her voting with the majority," White said. "I have a problem with anybody voting with any group all the time. In my opinion, you're not exercising free thinking. You're in a herd mentality."

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

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