Candidates for Ottawa commissioner touch on several topics during forum

10 commissioner candidates participate in forum

Ten candidates running for Ottawa commissioner shared their platforms during a candidate forum Friday, March 10, 2023, at Crossbridge Community Church in Ottawa.

Ten of the 11 Ottawa commissioner candidates participated in a forum Friday with questions about the Carus Chemical storage facility at South Towne Mall, downtown parking, riverfront development and the prospect of Home Rule, among other topics.

The forum for the April 4 election was conducted at Crossbridge Community Church.

Participants included incumbents Wayne Eichelkraut, James Less, Marla Pearson and Tom Ganiere along with prospective newcomers Plan Commission Chairman Brent Barron, local volunteer and union member Clayton Brown, Starved Rock Marathon organizer Matt Skelly, Real Estate agent Katie Troccoli, Prairie Fox Books manager Dylan Conmy and Playground and Recreation Board Member and city worker Josh Moore. Candidate Frank Miller was not in attendance Friday.

Ten candidates running for Ottawa commissioner shared their platforms during a candidate forum Friday, March 10, 2023, at Crossbridge Community Church in Ottawa.

1430 WCMY radio personality Jay LeSeure selected 10 questions at random to ask each candidate, with three candidates answering each questions in rotation. Candidates had 90 seconds to respond, and those who wished to answer a question could volunteer answers after the first three wrapped up their replies.

Mayoral candidates Daniel Aussem, Robert Hasty and Leonard Newell will participate in a candidates forum at 7 p.m. Monday at Central Intermediate School’s Cafetorium, 711 E. McKinley Rd.

Go to to watch a full video of the commissioners’ forum.

Chemical storage facility

Q: Recently, there have been numerous explosive or chemical contaminant concerns in our surrounding community. How would you address or ensure the safe handling, storage and transportation of potentially explosive or hazardous chemical contaminants to ensure the safety of our citizens?

This question was first presented to Barron, who said Lotz Logistics presented a plan to the Plan Commission to store products from Carus LLC in the South Towne Mall. Barron is the chairman of the Plan Commission.

Barron said the proposal was reviewed by the panel, the Ottawa Fire Department and city staff.

“We had our hearing,” Barron said. “We gave the public an opportunity to stand up and present their concerns. We had our hearing and implemented conditions, then made recommendations to the City Council.”

The next part of that question was directed to Eichelkraut, who followed up Barron’s explanation. He said the city performed its due diligence, and less than 1% of the building is used to store potassium permanganate, a substance involved the Jan. 9 fire in La Salle.

“The EPA was there and he has a sprinkler system, and it’s locked up in a cage because it’s used to cut crack cocaine,” Eichelkraut said.

Less said he understands there are more concerns now after the fire in La Salle, but voting in favor of the special use took place before the fire. He said since then, the fire department at all levels and several different groups have been through the facility, and it’s been monitored.

Troccoli said she does not believe the South Towne Mall should be used to store chemicals in a facility that wasn’t originally built for chemical storage.

“It’s not a matter of if,” Troccoli said. “It’s a matter of when there’s going to be a catastrophe at the South Towne Mall. What’s your plan for the three grade schools, senior living centers and residents on the south side of Ottawa when a fire or tornado rips the roof off of that building? I want to get rid of that from our community.”

Ganiere said he’s been through the building, and about 500 square feet contains potassium permanganate, and it’s only a problem if it comes in contact with an organic substance, he said.

“There are no substances at the facility, and the rest of the facility is used for storing the new containers to put the potassium permanganate in, diatomaceous earth and filter sand,” Ganiere said. “There probably will never be more than 500 square feet of the potassium permanganate there because it goes out just as soon as it comes in, because it’s used throughout the world for clean drinking water.”

Conmy also went on record he believes storing chemicals in the South Towne Mall while government agencies are occupying it and people are moving in and out is a bad idea.

Downtown parking

Q: Police Chief Brent Roalson recently hosted a public meeting at City Hall regarding downtown parking. In your opinion, what needs to be done to improve downtown parking for businesses, residents and tourists?

Downtown residential opportunities, such as apartment rentals, are becoming more common in downtown Ottawa. What should be done by our city government to ensure both local businesses and residential units can coexist in the same environment and thrive downtown without risking issues such as noise complaints or loss of business?

Pearson agreed there is a parking problem that stems from people at the courthouse or employees using the three-hour street parking all day in front of other businesses, but she said there are plenty of parking lots.

Brown said he believes there’s an issue but it’s good businesses are attracting customers, and they all need a place to park. He said it’s important the city come up with a comprehensive plan to take care of the parking issue.

Skelly pointed out having a run on parking isn’t the worst problem a city can have, and while he thinks it’s important to find a solution, it does mean the city has good business downtown.

“We have people who want to come to our town,” Skelly said. “It’s a good problem to have and I think it’s a great opportunity for us to look at it and differently say, ‘How can we solve this problem?’”

Skelly said many places require people to park and walk.

Conmy pointed out the need for handicap accessible parking. He said the parking lot behind Prairie Fox has almost 80 spots in it, none of which are Americans with Disabilities Act compliant.

“We have plenty of customers and just people who walk in town or visit town that need handicap parking that have walkers and wheelchairs, and according to the ADA, there are supposed to be at least five handicap spots marked in parking lots with striped access spots,” Conmy said.

Downtown riverfront development

Q: Please share your vision, as an elected city commissioner, for the development of the downtown riverfront and how you would achieve this vision.

Each candidate expressed excitement for the ongoing project to redevelop the Ottawa riverfront along the Illinois River.

Less said grants have made it possible for the city to build an amphitheater in an effort to develop the riverfront on one side and Allen Park on the other side.

“It’s going to have construction going on both sides of the river,” Less said. “It’s going to be a very exciting time with a lot of beautiful things happening in the community.”

Barron said the plans for the riverfront were put together and developed by the Plan Commission. The comprehensive plan the commission has worked on for years has two versions of the riverfront development.

“One has the amphitheater, civic use with the YMCA and then there’s going to be a commercial-mixed use building on the north edge of the park,” Barron said. “One plan has that building right on top of the park with the street staying right where it does.”

Barron said he prefers the other plan that moves the street, as the one that keeps the street where it is would wall off the view from the rest of the city.

“I want to preserve the riverfront for everybody in this community, not just the people that come in and buy a $500,000 condo and look over the park.”

Troccoli said the docks on the riverfront also play an important role, and she would like the city to find a way to provide fuel for boaters. This, Troccoli said, would bring more people into town.

Conmy expressed the need for the city to make sure the use of the riverfront is mixed in certain age ranges.

“We need to make sure we’re using it for different events for all ages, instead of the same-old, same-old that we get,” Conmy said. “We really need to use it for the whole community.”

Eichelkraut said he would like to see the comprehensive plan fine tuned but he believes it’ll be a beautiful area when it’s finished.

Moore said it also will be important to remember the other parks in the city need upkeep as well.

“Putting all this nice stuff in and leaving eyesores, I don’t think, is the best plan,” Moore said. “But I hope that’s part of the plan of redoing all of the riverfront.

Home Rule, or a city manager?

Q: What are your thoughts on if Ottawa should adopt Home Rule? Or what about a city manager form of government?

Troccoli pointed out both would bring higher taxes, and the city manager form of government may bring somebody to run the local government for their paycheck. City managers don’t always live within the community they work.

Ganiere said he doesn’t believe either is a wise decision and Eichelkraut agreed.

“With the size of the city of Ottawa, you’re either getting someone on their way out or someone that’s been doing the job somewhere else, or you’re getting someone wanting to work their way up and move on,” Eichelkraut said. “So, you’re not getting any consistency whatsoever.”

Opportunities for seniors, teens, children

Q: There is a need for more senior events and facilities in Ottawa, as well as more events and activities for teens and children. What is your vision to provide opportunities for these groups?

Eichelkraut touted the City Council’s record with adding to programs for children, such as the annual fishing rodeo and how the city is working with some other children to build a new skate park.

“As far as seniors are concerned, we have Music in the Park and Music in the Street, and we try to do as much as we can to work with the rec board,” Eichelkraut said.

Pearson said there have been new family-friendly events, such as the Kites in Flight festival, and the new Riordan Pool will have a zero-entry pool, which means there aren’t any steps or a dropoff required to get in.

Less said he would like to see more done with pickleball and other active-adult type sports. He said he’d like to see more programming and maybe see if there’s a volunteer that would show people the ropes.

Moore said he would like to see a senior center and a building for city recreation by itself so the Playground and Recreation Board doesn’t have to rent a place to host events.

”You could have indoor facilities anything, even pickleball,” Moore said.

Ganiere said he learned of an initiative in Princeton called Dementia Friendly City he intends to look into, and see how it pans out for Princeton.

Hospital closures

Q: Streator and La Salle-Peru have recently had their hospital facilities close. How will you, as commissioner, ensure the community of Ottawa continues to have access to a nearby local hospital and local healthcare?

Pearson said Ottawa is fortunate to have OSF as a non-profit hospital with Morris nearby and an urgent care on both the north and south sides of Ottawa, along with a Planned Parenthood.

“We just have to make sure that stays that way,” Pearson said.

Candidates then touched on how difficult it is to get doctors to move to Ottawa and stay there.

Conmy said nurses are a great resource, and Illinois is one of about 30 states that are full-authority for a nurse practitioner.

“Rural communities need to draw in more medical professionals,” Conmy said. “The schools they go to might provide grants and relieve them of school debt on their end, but I think on our end, we need to provide incentives for them to come to our communities.”

Barron, whose wife works in the healthcare industry, said the biggest problem is going to be recruitment of doctors and nurse practitioners to come to this area.

“If we make the community the best it can be, doctors will want to be here and they’ll continue to have a good, vibrant healthcare system.”

City’s role in event planning

Q: What is the role in the city of Ottawa for funding and planning events and in cooperating with other groups hosting events in Ottawa? Do you believe the city government should be more or less involved with these events? Why or why not?

Less said the city withdrew from hosting events itself within the city, but it works with different organizations to add events into the city, such as the Wine Festival.

Less and Pearson discussed how the city has been able to sponsor events and Pearson specifically pointed out public safety is important when planning them.

Brown agreed, and said he would like to see Riverfest return as an event that can attract people of all ages. He participated in Smoketoberfest this year, and believes it was a good addition to the city.

Ganiere said he believes events should be a public-private partnership.

Barron said he believes Ottawa needs to get back to having a dedicated city employee who coordinates special events, which he thinks would prevent things like what happened with Third Friday in 2022.

“That was an organic event that just grew over the last two to three years,” Barron said. “The city didn’t have anything to do with that event. That was one person on Madison Street that developed that whole event and then all of a sudden it was a safety issue that shut it down or tried to shut it down.”

Third Friday eventually came to an agreement with the city and was allowed to operate three nights over the summer.

“If anybody went down to those events last year, you saw an amazing group of people out there on that Third Friday,” Barron said. “That’s what we need to get back to. We need to help people plan without standing in their way.”

Eichelkraut agreed with Barron, and said he thinks Third Friday should have been allowed to host six events.

Canal re-watering

Q: Do you believe the canal re-watering project was economically efficient? Why or why not? And what’s your vision moving forward? What do we do with re-watering the canal?

Ganiere said the canal project was originally going to cost $600,000 and he expected it to reach $800,000. It has now cost $1.6 million today and it still doesn’t work.

Ganiere said he is not in favor of putting any more money into it until the city can come up with a perfect solution to make it work.

Skelly said he loves the concept of having water in the canal and it does a lot for tourism but he agrees with Ganiere. Until there’s a solution, that money should go to other resources.

Conmy said it should stay empty because of health concerns, the smell, and because of the mosquitoes.

Notifying property owners

Q: How would you, as commissioner, handle notifying local businesses or property owners of an upcoming decision that would affect their property? What level of communication do you believe is appropriate for this situation.

Barron said there’s a public posting of a sign on the property, there’s a requirement the adjoining property owners be served with a certified letter and there’s a requirement the Plan Commission post a hearing in the newspaper.

“It’s not sufficient to send a business owner a letter two weeks before a project starts,” Barron said. “So let’s get that clear. I think we can do better.”

Barron said social media can be used to notify the public about what’s being done, and the city can invite people for a meeting.

Moore said not everyone uses Facebook, but the city could at least send letters to property owners.