Metro-East News

Kern, Cook snipe at each other at Belleville chamber forum

During a candidate forum that at times became contentious, St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger Rodger Cook gave their pitches to a crowd of about 150 people, for why they should be elected.

At times they interrupted each other and spoke over each other.

Cook spoke about how St. Clair County missed out on millions of federal dollars to help with upgrading levees around the metro-east because Democrats didn’t want to follow federal bidding guidelines.

Cook also spoke about his recent trip to Washington, D.C. and how he spoke to former intelligence officials, and government staffers. He said he learned the county shouldn’t give up on eventually landing the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency because of issues at the selected site in St. Louis.

He said MidAmerica Airport will never make money.

“We can’t afford to keep losing millions of dollars,” Cook said.

Kern argued the airport financials are improving and, questioned the sources Cook mentioned.

“Nameless people in Washington really aren’t real, and what they’re talking about really isn’t real,” Kern said.

Kern touted the new joint-use agreement between the county and the Scott Air Force Base.

Kern reiterated that having MidAmerica operate helps protect Scott Air Force Base from the base-closure process as well as agreements to keep development from encroaching on the base. He said the base brings a $3 billion economic impact to the local economy every year.

Kern also argued if the county ever closed the airport, the county would have to pay the federal government $300 million to $400 million as part of a grant assurance agreement signed in the 1990s, and the bond payments on that debt would be higher than the cost of running the airport. He added passenger service is growing at the airport and is moving closer to breaking even.

“MidAmerica Ariport is strong, and is going to be stronger,” Kern said.

Kern also touted the $750 million in infrastructure improvements, work going on along the East St. Louis River Front, a new ramp from the Martin Luther King Bridge to southbound Illinois 3.

He said the Front Street work that is planned will open up hundreds of acres on the East St. Louis Riverfront for economic development. That project is being done with a public-private partnership.

Kern also touted the 70 percent save rate at St. Clair County Animal Control, which he said he wants to work toward being no-kill.

He touted the work with Madison and Monroe counties to fix levees in the area, helping to prevent higher flood insurance rates, when the federal government said it would take 45 years to complete.

“We worked with Republicans and Democrats and solved the levee issue,” Kern said. “In January or February of next year … we’ll complete the project and make certain people aren’t buying unnecessary flood insurance.”

Cook criticized Kern for not using federal money to help fix the levees.

Cook alleged that Kern didn’t want federal funding because “you wouldn’t have control to give it to the people you want.” Cook added, “That’s the kind of stuff we’ve got to end, and we’ve got to have competitive bidding … When we get something from the federal government for our people, we need to use it for our people.”

Kern said $24 million in federal money made available went toward the Mel Price Lock and Dam.

“We told them to ‘take that money and put it in the Mel Price Lock and Dam,’” Kern said. “The Mel Price Lock and Dam is still the most dangerous part of this levee system and it hasn’t been fixed by the federal government. We took our money and fixed our levies. We want them to take their money and fix deficiencies they created.”

Cook defended his tenure as Belleville mayor, a position he lost when Kern defeated him in the 1997 election.

He said he cut positions when a budget was going to be in deficit.

Cook said he helped defeat discrimination in hiring practices toward females and African-Americans, where their applications weren’t considered.

“I ended that, and I’m proud of that,” Cook said.

Kern countered that Cook did nothing to end discrimination as a police officer.

“Mr. Cook was a patrolman for 12 years and was silent as a church mouse, never said a word was going on,” Kern said. “He stood by and watched it ... and did nothing as 12 years of patrolman.”

Cook said when Kern became mayor, Kern increased expenditures by 32 percent.

Kern said Cook didn’t fund pensions during his time as mayor. Cook interrupted and said, “That is a lie.”

Kern responded, “It’s my turn now … We know who the liar in this group is.”

Kern also tried to tie Cook to local radio show host Bob Romanik.

Cook, however, said he’s stood up to Romanik when the talk show host insulted Cook’s family.

“Bob Romanik hasn’t given me one penny. … Nobody but the people will I represent,” Cook said.

Kern responded: “I don’t cut deals with guys like Bob Romanik, because I don’t have to deliver for him when the day is done.”