Some familiar faces line up to vie for a seat on Belleville council

News-DemocratJune 21, 2014 

AP GRAPHIC

— Though the Belleville municipal election is 10 months away, residents are beginning to line up to vie for one of the eight open City Council seats.

Some, such as Phil Elmore, a former alderman and mayoral hopeful, believe the April 7, 2015, election will tip the majority holding on council from the long-ruling Belleville Good Government Party to those who call themselves independent.

Elmore will run for alderman of Ward 7. The other mayoral hopeful in the April 2013 election, Joe Hayden, will run for re-election in Ward 5.

Others say they are running simply because they're tired of the bickering between the ruling Good Government Party and independents currently on council.

Nine of the 16 aldermen currently on the council are members of the Good Government Party. Terms are up for five of them; none of them have said whether they are seeking re-election.

Mayor Mark Eckert, who leads the Good Government Party, said he does not know at this time who the party will put up against these independent challengers. He is interested in hearing from those who want to run for alderman positions.

It is too soon to think of the April election before the November general election passes, Eckert said. This sentiment is shared by many across the political spectrum.

The filing period for the April election is from Dec. 15-22.

Nevertheless, some familiar faces, known for their work in the community, are stepping forward to be on council for the first time amid speculation that some incumbent aldermen might retire from their council seats. They include Alex Enyart and Joe Hazel in Ward 1, Rick Ortiz in Ward 6, and Roger Wigginton in Ward 8.

Here's what is going on at this time in each ward:

Ward 1

Incumbent Ward 1 Alderman Mike Heisler said the April 2015 election is too far off for him to say if he will seek re-election.

Heisler, a member of the Good Government Party, was appointed in 2007 to finish the term of the late Wayne Saeger and he was elected in 2011. Heisler works in retail supermarket management.

The April 2015 election will be the first affected by redistricting.

New ward map boundaries approved by the City Council in May 2012 mean that parts of the city that used to be in Ward 7 are now in Ward 1.

Lillian Schneider, who was elected in 2011 to represent Ward 7, has been serving as an alderwoman-at-large, since the new ward map went into effect last year.

Schneider, an independent, said she plans on running for alderwoman of Ward 1 in 2015. She works as a self-employed house cleaner.

Other possible candidates for Ward 1 include Joe Hazel and Alex Enyart.

Hazel said his campaign is in the preliminary stages but residents have asked him to run for office and he intends to run.

Hazel is president of the Oakland Neighborhood Watch Association and has lived in the ward for 12 years. He works as a material damage appraiser for Country Financial.

"I love Belleville and I like being involved," Hazel said. "I've been involved in the neighborhood and things going on in the city and I do have some concerns and I feel that I would be an asset to the council."

Hazel said he will further explain why he is running and what issues he hopes to address at a later time.

Alex Enyart said he is interested in running only if Heisler is not.

"I think Mike Heisler is doing a heck of a job," Enyart said. "I live in Ward 1 and I have two great aldermen right now."

Enyart, 28, said he would run because he thinks there needs to be younger people and more progressive voices on council.

"I think we need fresh ideas and I think I'd be able to offer that," Enyart said. "I was pretty instrumental in getting leaf burning banned and I think it's something that has helped the city greatly in terms of air quality."

Enyart also has proposed to allow residents to raise hens in their backyards -- something he feels is popular with younger people.

"The city is getting older and the only way to get Belleville growing and popular is to make it an attractive place for young people to move and start families," Enyart said.

Enyart said his legal background will be beneficial while serving on council, which writes and passes laws. He is an associate with the Suarez Law Office PC in Collinsville.

Enyart also is working on the campaign to re-elect his father, U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville. The senior Enyart faces state Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, in the general election in November.

Ward 2

Incumbent Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult said her plans for re-election to the Belleville council is dependent on her success in the November general election.

Hult, R-Belleville, is running for the 113th District Illinois Representative seat against Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea. Hult lost in 2012 to Hoffman for the state representative seat previously held by Rep. Tom Holbrook.

If Hult wins this year, she will resign from the Belleville council.

Hult is on the Belleville council as an independent. She won against Toni Togias in 2011.

The News-Democrat did not hear from any interested candidates in this ward.

Ward 3

Incumbent Ward 3 Alderman Arnold "Gabby" Rujawitz said he does not know if he will seek re-election.

Rujawitz, of the Good Government Party, is serving his second term on City Council. He won in 2011 in an uncontested race.

Rujawitz retired as a Belleville police sergeant after 39 1/2 years with the Police Department.

The News-Democrat did not hear from any interested candidates in this ward.

Ward 4

Incumbent Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson said he does not know if he will seek re-election.

In an interview about independents on council in December, Davidson said he would run as an independent in 2015 when his term expires instead of with the Good Government Party.

Davidson said then that he believes voters in the April 2013 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.

Davidson was appointed to the Ward 4 seat vacated by Dean Hardt, who was elected as Belleville city treasurer in 2013.

Davidson is a retired Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center warden and is an adjunct professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Lindenwood University-Belleville.

The News-Democrat did not hear from any interested candidates in this ward.

Ward 5

Incumbent Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden said he is running for re-election.

Hayden lost a bid for mayor in a three-way race against Mayor Mark Eckert and Phil Elmore in the April 2013 election.

Hayden, an independent, ran with other candidates with a shared platform under the United Independent Coalition for All of Belleville.

Hayden said it is too early for other UIC candidates to announce if they're running.

"All I can say is I am running and that the UIC plans to have candidates in all eight wards supporting the UIC platform in 2015," Hayden said. "These will be all independent thinkers as proven by current votes whereas we vote by conscience and what is best for their ward and city."

Hayden said other UIC candidates will announce as they are ready, most likely after the general election is over in November.

For now, one of Hayden's challengers might be Tara Rujawitz, a deputy clerk in the St. Clair County Circuit Clerk's Office.

Rujawitz said she is considering running against Hayden but will not know for sure until later in the year.

Rujawitz also is a Democratic precinct committeeman. Her grandfather's brother is Ward 3 Alderman Gabby Rujawitz.

Ward 6

Incumbent Ward 6 Alderman Paul Seibert said he does not know if he will seek re-election.

"That's a long time away," Seibert said of the 2015 election.

Seibert, 83, is the council's longest serving alderman. He will have 37 years on the council, under four different administrations, by the end of this term.

Seibert said the city has changed a lot in this time and he, too, has aged. It has been years since he retired from the St. Clair County Highway Department, but he's staying busy.

"Being an alderman is a full-time job anyway, if you do it right," Seibert said.

Seibert, a member of the Good Government Party, won in 2011 against Robert White and Richard Munie. White ran again in 2013 and won in Ward 6.

If he runs, Seibert will see a different challenger in 2015.

Rick Ortiz, who owns R O Communication, a marketing and web site business, said he is familiar with the longtime alderman.

"When we moved in, he and his wife got us signed up to vote," Ortiz said. "That was 18 years ago. He's a good guy."

Ortiz said there are aldermen from all political factions on the council who he respects, but he believes there are adversaries in both the Good Government Party and group of aldermen who say they are independents.

"I'm running as an independent and I really mean independent," Ortiz said. "There are some independents gaining office and that's great -- there's a variety of voices. But I don't like the contentiousness and the adversarial nature of what's going on at City Hall. The pendulum swung kind of far."

Ortiz believes the best way for him to help fix things is to participate in the community and on council.

"I think the key to Belleville's success is focusing on its essential core," Ortiz said. "I think we have great neighborhoods. We need to invest, build in the middle, with what we have instead of build out on the peripheral."

Ortiz has held several roles where he was involved in promoting the city, such as working as the director of Belleville Main Street for three years. Campaigns such as shop Belleville First help the city, but Ortiz believes residents also need to "volunteer Belleville first and enjoy Belleville first."

"In other words, think community first," Ortiz said. "This is our town. It's easy to sit here and complain that Belleville doesn't have this or that. Well, it never will if we don't invest here. Ten years ago, Belleville didn't have sushi and now we do. Ten years ago, we didn't have outdoor dining and now we do."

Ortiz is part of the group of people working to save the historic Meredith Home building from demolition and he worked on www.projectbelleville.org, a website dedicated to the cause.

Ward 7

There is no incumbent for Ward 7 because Lillian Schneider, who was elected to the seat in 2011, was designated alderwoman-at-large this past year due to redistricting.

Phil Elmore, a former Ward 7 alderman, said he is "very decided" in wanting his old seat back.

Elmore did not vie for re-election as alderman in 2013. Instead, he unsuccessfully ran for mayor against incumbent Mayor Mark Eckert and Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden.

"I already miss serving the people in my neighborhood and ward," Elmore said. "I can't wait to be back. There's a new section in the seventh ward and I've already been visiting with people there."

Elmore, an independent, said the makeup of the City Council has changed greatly since he was first elected when council members were all from one party. Now there are nine aldermen from the Good Government Party and seven who say they are independent.

"In 2009, when I was elected, there were two of us with an open mind to look at different things even though we couldn't accomplish much if there was a dispute," Elmore said. "It's getting more and more balanced every year."

Elmore said he expects the 2015 election will sway the majority in favor of independents.

"It'll be healthy for Belleville," Elmore said. "The Good Government Party will not own the majority of the council after April 2015 and I support that."

Elmore said he will remain an independent candidate and not join Hayden and the Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville.

"I won't be part of the Joe Hayden army or the Mark Eckert army," Elmore said.

Victoria Weygandt, a lifelong Ward 7 resident, was defeated in the April election by Trent Galetti, a relative newcomer to Belleville politics and the ward.

Weygandt ran with the Good Government Party and Galetti ran as an independent with Hayden and the Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville.

Weygandt said she does not know if she is running and she is considering her options.

"I'm thinking about it seriously because I have people asking me to," Weygandt said. "I haven't made a full-hearted decision. I just don't know yet."

She is a member of the Belleville Library Board.

Ward 8

Incumbent Ward 8 Alderman Joe Orlet said he still needs to discuss his plans with his family before deciding whether to run for re-election.

Orlet, a member of the Good Government Party, is a retired sales agent who has lived in Belleville for about 65 years.

Regardless of Orlet's decision, Roger Wigginton said he will run for office as an independent.

"I'm so recognized in the eighth ward and people know they can come to me," Wigginton said. "I'm a good listener and I know I can continue to be a strong voice in the city and represent west Belleville very well."

The west end of town almost has to market itself like a separate entity because it is so far from downtown events such as Art on the Square and Oktoberfest, Wigginton said.

Wigginton's five-year term on the city's Zoning Board of Appeals recently ended when Mayor Mark Eckert decided not to re-appoint him.

"Since I'm certainly not on the Zoning Board anymore, I have time," Wigginton said. "Running for alderman is just the next progression in being involved in west Belleville. I talk to tons of people. All I need to tell them is I'm interested in Joe Orlet's seat and word will spread like wildfire."

Wigginton ran for a Ward 8 seat in 1997 with the Belleville Progressive Party ticket that backed former Mayor Roger Cook.

Wigginton owns the Don Rodgers clothing store, leads the West Belleville Promotional Committee, acts as president of the Family Hospice board and is on the development committee at Lindenwood University and the executive committee of the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce.

He previously was on the city's Planning Commission and Library Board.

The ward might also see the return of Catherine Kreher, who was alderwoman from 1999 to 2011. She is a member of the Belleville Library Board.

"I've been asked to run by several people," Kreher said. "At this time I'm considering it."

Kreher lost to Orlet in 2011. That year, Kreher ran as an independent because the Good Government party kicked her off their ticket and chose Orlet instead.

Before that, in 1999, Kreher won with the United For Progress Party, which opposed the Good Government Party.

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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