During an evening that included a few heated exchanges in front of 275 people at Lindenwood University-Belleville, Mayor Mark Eckert and City Clerk Dallas Cook faced off Tuesday night in their final debate before the April 4 election.
At times during the debate Cook and Eckert interrupted each other, including when they were talking about the amount of money of budgeted for the city clerk’s office overseen by Cook.
Eckert, 61, has been mayor since 2004 while Cook, 31, has been city clerk since 2013. Eckert served on the City Council before he took the mayor’s office and Cook is trying to follow the footsteps of his father, Rodger Cook, who was mayor in the 1990s.
Cook kept coming back to his central issue of promoting public safety, and again said he would appoint a new police chief.
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Cook said he believes the officers in the department do an “amazing job,” but wants the department to be proactive.
“We have fine men and women in the police department,” Cook said. “I don’t want to see us react to crime. I would like to see us stop crime.”
I don’t want to see us react to crime. I would like to see us stop crime.
City Clerk Dallas Cook
Cook said the police department is top heavy with too many assistant chiefs and other command staff.
“It’s all about the men and women who are out there patrolling the streets. That’s what keeps us safe,” Cook said. “When criminals see a police car they don’t commit a crime. More cops on the streets means more safety.”
He said he doesn’t have any personal problem with Chief Bill Clay, but said it was time for fresh ideas.
“After a certain amount of time being chief, and being mayor, it’s time for a change,” Cook said. “I don’t think I’ve been negative toward Chief Clay. I don’t know him.”
Cook said he would hire someone from inside the police department, but would not disclose who his chief would be.
During his opening statement, Eckert defended the police department but said there is always room to improve.
I think the Belleville Police Department does a fabulous job. My job as mayor is to support them ... We have to give them the tools and we have to get behind them.
Mayor Mark Eckert
“I think the Belleville Police Department does a fabulous job,” Eckert said. “My job as mayor is to support them ... We have to give them the tools and we have to get behind them.”
Eckert also defended Clay and said the chief has done a “great job” administrating the department. Eckert added Clay is in the community and has a lot of training and education.
Eckert said it would be “a mistake” to not keep Clay.
“We have to trust the people who are educated,” Eckert said.
“It takes you a long time to build these relationships,” the mayor later added.
Eckert said the police chief and assistant chief are allowed to put together the leadership team they need.
“I believe we have the best police department today we’ve ever had as far as educated, well-trained, enthusiastic, focused-on the job and community as a whole,” Eckert said.
I felt good about tonight. I’m running on my record.
Mayor Mark Eckert
Cook gave an example of why he doesn’t feel safe in his Lucinda Avenue home. He said that a group of suspects tried to break into one of his neighbor’s homes about 12:15 p.m. Sunday.
“Now it’s noon on a Sunday,” Cook said. “Who does that? And where were they arrested? Right in front of my house where my four young children are playing outside.”
Moderator and BND Reporter, Beth Hundsdorfer asked the candidates about what would they do with St. Elizabeth’s Hospital campus, as the hospital opens a replacement location in O’Fallon.
Eckert said the city fought hard to keep St. Elizabeth’s in town. He said redevelopment is possible citing Lindenwood University now at the former Belleville West site.
“I’m really optimistic about redeveloping the St. Elizabeth campus,” Eckert said.
During Eckert’s opening statement, he touted the new shopping centers that have opened in town and there are renovations taking place at other shopping centers.
Cook said good infrastructure is key to attracting businesses in town, and said money should go toward public safety, sidewalks and streets.
I will work for the people. I don’t want any perks with this job. I know we could do so much better and we will.
City Clerk Dallas Cook
“That’s where your money should go and business will come after that,” Cook said.
The debate also touched upon the upcoming sales tax referendums in St. Clair County for public safety and school facilities.
Belleville would get an estimated additional $900,000 a year for 12 years for police and fire if the public safety tax is approved.
Cook asked if there was a guarantee the money would lead to additional police officers.
Cook said there should be no more new taxes, as voting “no” on the referendums is needed to avoid scaring away business from Belleville.
“When is our government going to figure out, we don’t want to give you any more money,” Cook said. “How is anyone going to live here?”
Eckert pointed out every municipalities’ sales tax rate would go up if the referendums are approved.
“It’s a countywide (tax); everybody’s taxes in O’Fallon, Shiloh … will have higher taxes,” Eckert said. “If you want to run to Missouri that’s your (choice).”
Eckert said if there are going to be additional officers in town, there needs to be revenue.
“It has to come from somewhere,” Eckert said. “You can’t just wish for new officers. You have to pay for them.”
Cook also commented that tax increment financing districts should not be used for as incentives for developers.
“We gave a billionaire money to move ... down the road,” Cook said, referring to a deal that helped Walmart move to Green Mount Commons.
Eckert defended the deal saying Walmart worked with the city to build the shopping center first before receiving incentives. Walmart could have gone to a location near the intersection of Lebanon Avenue and Green Mount Road in Shiloh, he added.
The shopping center, which is a business district in which shoppers pay an extra 1 percent sales tax, generates $1.25 million in sales taxes a year for the city.
“They had to build it, pay their taxes and they would get a rebate,” Eckert said.
In his closing statement, Cook said he would want term limits for mayor and City Council members at two terms each.
Cook also commented on heckling that came from the crowd.
“This a good example of the rudeness and bullying,” Cook said. “It’s sad that a 31-year-old has to tell you that.
“I will work for the people,” Cook continued. “I don’t want any perks with this job. I know we could do so much better and we will.”
Eckert said he has accomplished a lot during his 12 years as mayor, such as upgrades to the waste water treatment plant which could help attract businesses.
“We have made a great deal of progress,” Eckert said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done together to move this city forward.”
In interviews after the debate, Cook and Eckert both said they were pleased with their debate performances.
“I think it went good because I was able to focus on the three most important things that we need in our city is to focus on public safety, streets and sidewalks and I think that’s what it’s all about,” Cook said.
“The mayor is for more taxes but he doesn’t believe things are unsafe so he’s contradictory in his statements.”
Eckert said: “I felt good about tonight. I’m running on my record.”
He said he appreciates the support he’s had for the past 12 years and the “great volunteer spirit” of Belleville residents. Eckert said he wants to be re-elected because there is “more to do.”
Debate organizers gave each candidate a portion of the tickets and then directed supporters of each candidate to separate sides of the Lindenwood theater.
Cook criticized the noise coming from Eckert’s supporters.
“The behavior of the mayor’s supporters is embarrassing,” Cook said. “I guess in their club that’s funny to them.” He called it “bullying and rude behavior.”
In response, Eckert said, “I’ve never been a bully” and he would “never condone that.” He added that in political debates, “people have a lot emotion.”
The BND reached out to members of the debate audience for their views.
Dave Etling, 59, has lived in his entire life in Belleville and sat on Cook’s side of the auditorium.
“I’ve seen the cronyism all through the years and it’s got to stop,” said Etling, who lives on East D Street. He backs Cook because “he’s got a younger, outside vision. Yes, he’s city clerk but he’s still in as an outsider.”
Leigh Sindelar, who lives near Roosevelt School, said she supports Eckert.
“I support him because I think he’s done a great job for the city,” Sindelar said. “I have listened to both candidates and I feel that Mayor Eckert is doing the right thing.”
Sindelar said she thinks that Eckert is “more involved” in the community as compared to Cook.