Editorial: To the new mayor: Voters gave you a mandate for change, use it

Larry Morrissey claimed such a decisive victory in the April 5 election—55 to 41 percent over Democratic Mayor Doug Scott—he brings a strong mandate for change to the Mayor’s Office. He should begin using his mandate immediately.

Knowing the Rockford City Council, both the Democrats and Republicans will probably team up against the Independent Morrissey to try to keep him from accomplishing much. That’s just how this city works. But, if Morrissey can get some of his agenda through before the Council can figure out what hit them, they may be more likely to ride the wave of change instead of continuing to sink on the platform of the status quo.

And here’s a note to City Council members: voters made clear in the April 5 election that they will no longer stand for “business as usual.” Either ride the wave, or risk sinking in the next election.

Two projects in particular should take top priority in Morrissey’s four years as mayor: improving our public education system and reducing the size of the proposed mammoth county jail. Nothing is more important to our community than building a top-shelf education system, and the city should work with the school district and other area institutions to be a part of that. Additionally, nothing would be more damaging to our community than planting an oversized county jail in downtown Rockford.

Following are the top 10 priorities, listed in order of importance, I believe Morrissey should tackle in his next four years in office:

1. Education—Helping to improve Rockford’s public school system needs to be one of the new mayor’s top long-term priorities.

Our school system is a disaster, and it has been for a long time. It’s clear the school board cannot get the job done on its own. Although there are some extremely caring and highly intelligent people on the board, it just does not have a good track record of doing the right thing on its own. Just look at the recent decision to outsource our custodial services. With the new firm that was hired having trouble with workers pushing to unionize—one quoted in a Daily Herald article said she gets paid $8.70 an hour with no medical insurance after working for the company for 13 years—it appears District 205 has inherited another nightmare.

Mike Williams was about the only board member to stand up against the idea of outsourcing. Everyone else sat quiet in his or her chair, said, “this is something we have to do, there is no other choice,” or left the board meeting in disgust.

We need to return our system to something more along the lines of one of neighborhood schools where all schools are guaranteed to offer equal education. This will help rebuild our communities and reunite neighbors. It can happen. West should still be a high school, and Wilson should still be a middle school. Truancy needs to be eliminated. We rank among the tops in the country in truancy—that’s unacceptable, and the city could help with that.

The city needs to put someone in the position of education and lifelong learning who can develop a good relationship with the board and the superintendent, and the parents, teachers and staff of the district. This person also must work closely with Rock Valley College, the University of Illinois College of Medicine, and Rockford College to help build our area’s institutions of higher learning so they can continue to be some of the best in the country.

Education is one of the core foundations of any community, and ours is fractured thanks to the public school system. We’re talking about our children—our future. Something needs to change within the next four years, and the city needs to be an integral part of it.

2. Reduce the size of the proposed county jail—Reducing the size of the mammoth county jail proposed to be planted in Rockford’s downtown needs to be the new mayor’s other top long-term priority. We do not need a 1,200-bed jail! The federal jail overcrowding lawsuit that was used to persuade voters into thinking we needed such a large new jail should be null and void.

The plaintiffs in that case—Timothy Chatmon and Timothy Chatmon Jr.—have made clear they are not satisfied with the idea of a big jail as a solution to jail overcrowding. The efficacy of the attorney in that case—John F. Heckinger Jr.—has also been called into question. Morrissey needs to bring these topics to light and tell the county that there’s no way we should be stuck with a huge, oversized jail in our downtown.

The jail population is already down to 454 inmates as of early April 2005. What do we need with all those extra beds? The mayor needs to make clear that using the jail to house federal prisoners will not be accepted.

In addition to the size of the jail, the proposed downtown location of the jail would serve as a final barrier between Rockford’s west and east sides. This roadblock will fracture Rockford, destroy East State Street, and send businesses to the burgeoning Illinois 173 corridor and further north into Roscoe—more sprawl.

The jail needs to be stopped or, at least, reduced in size. Alternative programs and night court would be much more effective in reducing jail population problems, as criminal justice expert Western Illinois University Professor Dr. Michael Hazlett proposed. Morrissey should continue to push for such programs. We need a mayor who can work with the county to make sure the proposed jail does not sink the city.

3. Pass and complete the downtown river walk project—This was one of Morrissey’s top priorities in the campaign. Considering he is entering office with a mandate, he should use it to go after what would be one of the easiest projects and one of the most popular projects in his campaign. There is clearly a lot of support for the river walk—voters seemed attuned to the idea and downtown businesses were enthused by the idea. The river walk would be a symbolic accomplishment, something tangible the voters could all see and utilize. Additionally, it would vastly improve downtown business.

4. Connect Rockford to Chicago with rail service—Voters have been pushing for a rail connection to Chicago for at least five years, if not more. Morrissey proposed bringing the rail connection to Greater Rockford Airport in the current election. He must complete the promise.

Morrissey—as a member of Midwest High Speed Rail Association and Illinois Association of Railroad Passengers—has the connections to get the job done and should make rail one of his top priorities. Although bringing the rail to the airport would be sufficient, I believe bringing the rail downtown would be much more advantageous.

Considering the idea of peak oil and where the economy will be headed in the future as a result of peak oil, many experts have suggested that we will see a tremendous change in our transportation system. For example, many experts have said the cost of fuel will mean we will become more reliant on rail systems and much less reliant on ground and air transportation.

The airline business is already in big trouble. Rockford needs to plan for the future. Bring the link downtown, and you can always have a shuttle bus to the airport. Don’t forget, the airport was once abandoned. Especially if the airline business continues to deteriorate, don’t plan on Rockford Airport being there, at least in its current capacity, 20 to 25 years from now.

That’s not to take anything away from Bob O’Brien and the airport! There are a lot of good things going on there, and the airport is definitely something we need to build and grow as part of the city. But, we simply cannot put all of our eggs in the airport basket. We need to create multiple baskets, and downtown Rockford should be one of those baskets. Besides, downtown isn’t going anywhere. It has stood the test of time, and rail service downtown would clearly boost downtown traffic, business and development.

5. Complete the Barber-Colman project—The failure of the Doug Scott administration to complete the Barber-Colman project on the city’s southwest side was one of the main reasons Scott was unable to win re-election. It’s just absurd t

hat the city has not yet been able to get any project started at that location. Scott, in fact, may have blown the most comprehensive plan for the site by attacking the Beloit casino and frustrating developer Ken Hendricks. Morrissey was very critical of Scott for not completing the deal, and I’m sure voters would be highly critical of the new mayor if he, too, fails to deliver on the promise. He should talk to Hendricks and other developers and get the deal done.

6. Remove the downtown Main Street Pedestrian Mall—Another issue at the top of Morrissey’s agenda in the April 5 election was removing the downtown Pedestrian Mall. Downtown businesses clearly support the idea of removing the mall, and it would make good business sense. Get it done.

7. Create a “Task Force on Energy Transition”—Although not a formal part of his agenda in the campaign, Morrissey did talk often about renewable energy and the changing energy climate in the United States and throughout the world. He needs to take the initiative and make Rockford one of the most forward-thinking cities in the country.

Oil is going to run out. It’s a fact that cannot be denied. That means, some day, the City of Rockford will have to function without oil. We need to start putting an energy transition plan together today.

The Rockford area boasts some of the top energy experts in the Midwest and possibly throughout the world. Put them on a task force along with some citizens, business owners and other leaders and have them come up with a transition plan to start moving the city of Rockford from an oil-based economy to one based on alternative energy. Otherwise, the decreasing oil supply will further cripple the local economy and drive an even sharper line between the upper and middle classes in this community.

That’s if we’re not prepared. This task force could create a plan that could be started as soon as next year. That way, maybe Rockford could finally get a leg up on other cities and communities throughout the country by being more forward-thinking. Imagine, for once, that other cities might come here to study how we did something right instead of us travelling around the world admiring other cities.

8. Clean up downtown—The downtown is the heart of any community. Our heart is tainted by what appears to be a group of “professional” downtown beggars who chase away people. Get them off the street! There is no excuse for some of these beggars to be harassing people day after day after day. Granted, some are homeless people who have nowhere to go. But there are some who have a home, and their job is to be a beggar. Yes, that’s their job…to beg for money, food, cigarettes, liquor—whatever they want—and scare away citizens and businesses. Get them off the street and make downtown a more welcoming place for people to start new businesses and frequent new businesses.

9. Evaluate Rockford Mass Transit District—If you talk to almost anyone who relies on public transportation, the Rockford Mass Transit District is a complete disaster. Unfortunately, those who use public transportation on a regular basis are in the minority, and their voices are often not heard. But, considering the rising cost of gas and the changing energy system in this country, it is highly likely that could change within the next 10 to 20 years.

We need to be prepared. There’s no reason Rockford can’t have a top-shelf public transportation system—and we should. RMTD needs to be evaluated and worked into the Task Force on Energy Transition’s plans. Public transportation is the future, and it may not be as far off as we think it will be. If that silent minority suddenly becomes a vibrant majority, whoever is in office when that occurs will be in big trouble without a plan. Plan for the future and, at the same time, make the lives of citizens better today.

10. Clean up sidewalks, streets and neighborhoods on Rockford’s west side—This, again, was one of Morrissey’s top priorities in the campaign. Every time there is an election, candidates always promise to pay attention to the voters on Rockford’s west side. And, every time a candidate is elected to office, he fails to make good on his promise. Morrissey needs to change that.

Morrissey promised to be more active in rebuilding the city’s west side and ensuring they have good sidewalks and streets and safe neighborhoods. He needs to get it done.

The city will clearly face many challenges over the next four years. Morrissey comes into office with a strong mandate and has the chance to lead a city on the cusp of becoming something great. There was an amazing energy in the air on election night. You could almost smell it. People want change, and Morrissey is their chosen agent. He has what it takes to make Rockford great; he just needs to use his mandate to broker a good deal for the voters who put him in office.

From the April 27-May 3, 2005, issue

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