Mark Kern, Mark Eckert back competing candidates for Belleville city council
After Mark Kern was elected as St. Clair County Board chairman in 2004, he chose then-Alderman Mark Eckert to replace him as mayor of Belleville and since then, Kern has remained in his post as chairman and Eckert as the mayor.
But this year, Kern and his mother, Barbara Kern, have donated $15,600 to a political action committee, or PAC, formed for three Belleville City Council candidates who have criticized Eckert’s administration in glossy fliers mailed to residents in the weeks before Tuesday’s election.
Mark Kern, who donated $5,600 on March 19 to the group, could not be reached for comment about why he’s supporting the slate of anti-Eckert candidates. The News-Democrat left messages with Kern’s office on March 20 and March 26. Kern attended the March 25 St. Clair County Board meeting but he could not be reached for comment after the meeting.
Barbara Kern, who donated $10,000 on March 1, declined to comment.
“That’s mind boggling. Why?” Eckert said of the Kerns’ financial support for Bryan Whitaker in Ward 1, Randy Randolph in Ward 2 and Chris Rothweiler in Ward 6. “I’ve not had anybody come to me and tell me from anybody higher up in office telling me that they’re upset with the city government.
“I was very surprised that there seems to be a coordinated effort to show dissatisfaction with the city.”
Eckert said he and his wife Rita have donated a total of about $300 to fundraisers for Hazel, Duco and Gaa.
Whitaker, Randolph and Rothweiler, who are all Democratic precinct committeemen in St. Clair County, are supported by the political action committee called Friends and Families for Belleville, according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections. This is the group that received the donations from the Kerns and paid for the campaign fliers critical of the Eckert administration.
Along with the $15,600 donated by the Kern family, the Friends and Families for Belleville group has received a $2,000 donation from Rothweiler for a total of $17,600.
None of the other candidates in the competitive races have created a political action committee or campaign committee required to file records with the State Board of Elections.
The Friends and Families for Belleville campaign fliers attack Eckert and the City Council on a variety of issues, including the loss of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the number of police officers on staff and economic development.
“Why didn’t they fight harder to keep St. Elizabeth’s here in Belleville?” Whitaker said in a campaign flier.
The hospital relocated to a site off Interstate 64 in O’Fallon in 2017.
Eckert defended his administration’s effort to stop St. Elizabeth’s from leaving and said he went to Chicago twice to argue against the plan that would allow the hospital move. He also said he has asked the hospital’s parent group to give the city the land where the hospital buildings were demolished and asked the hospital to help fund a municipal swimming pool to replace the one closed in 2012 and then demolished in 2015.
Randolph said in a campaign flier residents are “feeling less safe in their own neighborhoods because there are fewer police patrols.”
Eckert said the city has hired 17 new officers in the past year to replace officers who have retired and that the Patrol Division is “fully staffed.”
Rothweiler’s flier said “our mayor has cut the all-important economic development director’s job to a part-time position.”
“That’s not true,” Eckert said of Rothweiler’s flier.
Here’s what the City Council approved in January:
As part of a one-year pilot program, the city created a new department called Residential and Commercial Development Services and it has three divisions: Housing and Code Enforcement; Building and Zoning, and Economic Development and Planning. The Health, Housing and Building Department director’s position was eliminated.
Annissa McCaskill was named the interim director of the Residential and Commercial Development Services Department in addition to her current position as director of Economic Development, Planning & Zoning. She was given a one-year stipend of $10,000 to raise her salary from $79,624 to $89,624.
The pay raises given to McCaskill and other employees totaled $35,000 but compared to the cost of the salary, benefits and taxes for hiring a new housing department director, the city expects to save an estimated $67,500.
Here’s a ward-by-ward breakdown of the Belleville City Council candidates in competitive races:
Schneider is the Ward 1 candidate not receiving support from either Kern or Eckert.
Schneider, who served on the council from 2011 to 2015, said she spent $136 for fliers and she is reusing signs from a previous campaign.
In commenting on the $17,600 raised by Rothweiler, Whitaker and Randolph, she said, “I don’t have that kind of money.” Schneider said she was surprised by the amount of money being spend in a race that traditionally has a low voter turnout when the mayor’s seat is not on the ballot. For example, in 2015 there were 448 votes cast in Ward 1 for a turnout of 13.56 percent.
“I am running to represent the people of Ward 1,” she said in her candidate questionnaire. “People should vote for me because I’m honest and hard working.”
Whitaker, who is the assistant director of the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency and 911 system, declined to comment on questions about Kern’s support for his campaign.
“I can assure you that no person or group is controlling my efforts to become elected the next Ward 1 alderman,” Whitaker said in an email. He added that Friends and Families for Belleville has supporters from various political parties.
“My desire is to be part of the change that gets Belleville back on track and returns us to the Belleville I know we can be.”
Hazel, who is the Ward 1 incumbent who defeated Schneider in 2015, said he believes Kern told Whitaker, Randolph and Rothweiler to run for City Council.
“We don’t need county-style politics brought into our City Council for whatever personal reasons that they have to be doing that,” Hazel said. “Many of our opponents are promoting fear unfortunately with little substance.
“My focus is to the citizens of Ward 1 and not for any other outside reasons.”
Mike Buettner, the Ward 2 incumbent who was elected in 2015, noted that he and Schneider are the two candidates not receiving support from either Eckert or Kern.
“If they want someone who is truly independent, that would be me,” Buettner said. “If they want somebody that’s going to be answering to political bosses, then they should vote for my opponents.”
Buettner said he expects to spend less than $500 on the election.
Randolph, who is an operations manager for the St. Clair County 911 department, did not respond to questions about Kern’s support for his campaign.
City Clerk Jenny Gain Meyer signed Randolph’s candidate petition form filed in December. She declined to comment on the race.
In his campaign flier, Randolph said, “Our alderman has never been around until now — election time.”
Buettner said whenever someone contacts him about a problem, he has worked on the issue.
“Anytime anybody calls, I try to do as much as I could,” he said. “I try to do the best I can.”
Duco said she is opposed to the “very negative” tone of the campaign fliers she has seen.
“I don’t like the negative talk,” she said. “It’s not how I want to do anything.”
Duco said she is campaigning with Ward 2 Alderwoman Jane Pusa, who was elected in 2017 and appointed to the post in 2015 after the death of former Alderwoman Janet Schmidt.
A campaign flier from Rothweiler called Gaa, the incumbent alderman in Ward 6, as Eckert’s “hand-picked yes man.”
Gaa was appointed to the post in 2017 after former Alderman Paul Seibert resigned his seat to take his late wife’s place on the County Board.
“The current members of this administration are asleep at the wheel — standing idly by while other communities blow right past us,” Rothweiler said in his flier.
Gaa said he thinks the fliers from Rothweiler, Whitaker and Randolph are not “explaining the whole story. They’re just kind of picking and choosing what they can find that makes people look bad.”
“I’m very disappointed in all the negativity and attacks that my opponent is doing,” Gaa said. “I am running a positive campaign and it’s not in my personality to do negative attacks and that’s the way I’m running my campaign.”
Ward 6 Alderwoman Mary Stiehl, whose term expires in 2021, signed the candidate petition form for Gaa while Seibert signed the form for Rothweiler.
Mark Kern and Barbara Kern both signed the candidate petition form for Rothweiler, who has a campaign sign on the yard at the Kern family’s home off Lincoln Street.
Bob Sprague, chairman of the St. Clair County Democratic Central Committee and the former Belleville city attorney who resigned his post in 2012 after serving over 30 years, also signed the candidate petition form for Rothweiler.
Sprague could not be reached for comment.
The Friends and Families for Belleville statement of organization papers filed with the state were labeled with a fax number from “Sprague and Urban,” which is the name of the law firm where Sprague works in Belleville.
Rothweiler said he did not know why Mark Kern is supporting him. “I can’t speak for him,” he said.
“I think we need to make some changes,” Rothweiler said in an interview. “What we’ve been doing is not getting us forward.”