Eckert removes 'shocked' Belleville businessman from board

News-DemocratMay 24, 2014 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com Buy Photo

— After five years on the city's Zoning Board, a west Belleville businessman believes he was not reappointed by the mayor because of political retaliation and because he was too vocal.

Roger Wigginton said he was not reappointed to the Zoning Board of Appeals when his term expired this month in part because he supported another candidate for mayor in the April 2013 election.

Mayor Mark Eckert said his decision to appoint another person, instead of Wigginton, is not political.

Eckert said, as mayor, he could recommend removing a Zoning Board member at any time, so why wait a year after the election to retaliate?

"It's not retaliation. It's just rotating people," Eckert said. "His term was up and I decided to give another person a chance."

Wigginton said there is nothing he can do about the mayor's decision, but he plans on staying involved.

"I will continue to move forward and be very vocal," Wigginton said. "I will continue to ask the tough questions. I will definitely be very proactive. If things are wrong, I'm going to point them out."

The Zoning Board reviews cases where applicants wish to use a property in a way that is different than specified in the Zoning Code and therefore asking for a special use permit, a variance or a rezoning.

After reviewing cases based on factors in line with state zoning guidelines, the Zoning Board makes recommendations to the City Council, which ultimately decides whether to permit a use.

The City Council voted on Monday to approve a new mayoral appointment to the board, Patrick Sullivan, and to reappoint two members, Dan Nollman and Don Rockwell.

No aldermen commented on Eckert's recommendations at the meeting.

Eckert said Sullivan was an attractive candidate because of his age, 32, and his occupation, attorney for the St. Clair County Public Defender's Office.

Eckert said it is rare to find younger people interested in serving on voluntary public boards and Sullivan's legal experience would be beneficial on the Zoning Board.

The makeup of the seven-member Zoning Board should vary in aspects such as age, gender and geographical representation, Eckert said.

Wigginton said he was "shocked" to learn his services were no longer needed in a letter from the city.

The letter from Eckert, dated May 1, states: "In the interest of further cultivating community involvement, I intend to appoint a new member to the Zoning Board of Appeals from the city's west end. Considering your long-standing commitment to the city, I will certainly keep you in mind for other service opportunities if you are so willing."

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden said the mayor could have done more to thank Wigginton, such as recognizing him with a plaque, as to not discourage future volunteers.

"I think it's a cold way of dealing with people," Hayden said.

Wigginton said he supports Sullivan, who grew up in the west end of Belleville, as a replacement.

But Wigginton questions why he was removed instead of Nollman and Rockwell -- when both men have served at least as long as Wigginton did -- and the board lacks representation of the city's west end.

Wigginton owns Don Rodgers Ltd. clothing store at 6727 W. Main St. on the city's west end and serves as co-chairman of the West Belleville Promotional Committee.

Eckert, a Good Government Party leader, appointed Wigginton to a five-year term on the Zoning Board in 2009.

In a January 2010 interview with the News-Democrat, Wigginton praised Eckert as "Mr. Belleville" and said that on a scale of one to 10, he'd give Eckert's first five years a "strong eight" rating.

But by 2012, when Eckert sought a third full term as mayor in a three-way race, Wigginton was behind Phil Elmore, an independent and a Ward 7 alderman at the time.

Leading up to the 2013 election, Wigginton said he previously supported Eckert but grew to question the mayor's stance on crime and economic development.

Eckert defeated Elmore and Hayden in the 2013 mayoral race.

"Roger Wigginton was an outstanding member of the Zoning Board and he was very deserving of reappointment based on his years of experience," Elmore said. "It wouldn't surprise me if some vindictiveness could (have) partially been involved."

Aside from politics, Wigginton said he believes he was not reappointed because of the questions he asked zoning applicants.

Wigginton, Hayden and Elmore say it appears there is a discrepancy in what questions Zoning Board members are allowed to ask.

Elmore says it's not the Zoning Board's place to judge a business' acumen, but Zoning Board members and aldermen are just trying to do as much fact finding as possible on behalf of residents.

"When we're charged as aldermen to do what's best for our neighborhoods but we don't ask enough questions, we can upset a lot of people in our neighborhoods," Elmore said.

The same applies to the Zoning Board, Elmore said, and losing Wigginton's experience and voice of the west end is a loss.

"He just has a long history and passion on doing what's right for Belleville that is unwavering," Elmore said. "He lives and works in that area so you can't have anybody with more concern for Belleville than Roger Wigginton."

Hayden sees the Zoning Board as a first line of questioning that helps the City Council make a decision. The board should ask about a business owner's background and plans, Hayden said.

"Their purpose is to get into the nitty gritty of what the application is all about and do the deep research ... so I have no problem with the types of questions being asked," Hayden said. "To me, that type of dialogue is good for all those involved."

Eckert said his decision not to reappoint Wigginton is not because of Wigginton's questions at Zoning Board meetings.

But, Eckert said the confusion over what questions are allowed could be a consequence of leniency in allowed questions at past Zoning Board meetings.

His administration, however, is moving toward keeping questions asked at Zoning Board meetings more focused and appropriate to the venue, Eckert said.

Emily Fultz, the city's director of Economic Development and Planning, said the city's Zoning Code and state guidelines are very specific on the five or six factors Zoning Members should consider depending on the type of case before the board.

Some of the factors include how the request compares to the existing designation for the property and what is recommended by the comprehensive plan; how the request will affect neighboring properties and the character of the area; and if the applicant caused the hardship or if the issue appears elsewhere in the city.

The scope of the Zoning Board is narrow whereas there is more leeway for aldermen to ask questions at a City Council meeting, Eckert said.

An applicant's business plan or financial history, for instance, are not issues that should be considered by the Zoning Board, Eckert said.

Those questions are more appropriately addressed at council meetings and by staff members when a business is actually requesting financial incentives for a development agreement, Eckert added.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

 

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