You can find someone with an opinion on about everything Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert has done since he first took office in 2004, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe he cares deeply about the city or who can argue that he doesn’t work hard on its behalf.
He drives down streets at 4:30 a.m. to note which streetlights are out. That is real commitment. It is also something he could trust his people to do.
Usually when the boss is focused on the small stuff, you worry it is because he can’t or won’t deal with the big picture. We can’t say that about Eckert. He sweats the details, but he also seems to be on top of the larger issues and scanning the horizon for the next challenge.
Challenger Dallas Cook has a lot of good ideas. We like his focus on taxpayers receiving value for their dollars, his distrust of tax increment financing as an economic development tool, his desire to make public works projects more systematic and economical, his thoughts on making the city safer, his desire to again give the city’s youngsters a place to cool off during the summer.
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But there are serious questions about his ability to get things done.
We discussed crime in his neighborhood, but we didn’t hear about any leadership to do something about it. We heard about his frustrations as an outsider elected Belleville City Clerk, but not about his ability to find common ground and compromise. His attention has been on getting elected in the city and then the county and again on the city.
We just aren’t convinced at age 31 that Cook’s yet learned the art of politics or the mechanics of melding idealism and pragmatism. We’ve seen too much petulance and not enough statesmanship from him. Other public service will someday get him there.
Eckert at age 61 has 13 years of history and experience as mayor. He may be at the most effective stage of his career and is not trying to climb a ladder. He knows where the bodies are buried and he knows the paths forward, including grooming candidates to replace him.
He appreciates the importance of solid schools. He understands the draw Belleville can have on those seeking a historic home walking distance from downtown dining as well as the new subdivision with a retail center nearby. He understands the city’s true power is its people, their volunteer spirit, their resiliency and their relationships.
We look around town and see a downtown that is manicured and vibrant at night. We see two relatively new retail centers that are thriving and once crummy ones that are dramatically rebounding. We rarely drive Main Street without passing a cop and have more green places to take the kids and walk the dogs.
We’ve had plenty of disagreements with Eckert over the years, particularly regarding the city’s many tax increment financing districts and their impact on property taxes. We’ve seen a change in how the city does business, being smarter about tying incentives to a business’s own growth or using small sales tax districts rather than relying on property taxes for 23 years, or 35 years.
We’ve also been unhappy with the city’s housing code enforcement, from constitutional concerns to potential civil rights issues and uneven enforcement. The city can address crowding without knowing who’s shacked up or how occupants are related. But we understand the desire to keep criminals out of apartment complexes where moms are trying to raise kids or elderly are seeking a safe haven.
We are concerned about the slow progress of the Hofbräuhaus and very concerned about the departure of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, but neither of those issues belong at Eckert’s doorstep. He’s seeking a path forward through situations handed to the city and seems best suited to getting it there.
For those reasons, we believe Belleville would be better off with Eckert serving another term as Belleville mayor. And because we believe in term limits, we believe this should be his last term.