3 candidates vie for Ottawa mayor position

Mayoral candidates answer questions from The Times

Ottawa City Hall

Three candidates – incumbent Daniel Aussem and challengers Robert Hasty and Leonard Newell – are running for Ottawa mayor in the April 4 election.

Aussem was elected mayor in 2019, defeating Julie Johnson, at that time.

In 2023, the mayor’s salary was $65,499.

The Times asked questions to each of the three candidates. The candidates participated in a forum March 13.

What projects and programs aren’t currently on Ottawa’s agenda that you believe need to be?

Aussem: We need to build a new sewage treatment facility on the northeast side of town. We need a new fire station on the South Side and north side, phase two of the Madison Street parking, new user-friendly website, Peck Park improvements – tennis and pickleball courts, splash pad, ice skating rink with a chiller so it can be used all season and a dog park.

Hasty: One program that our community needs to be working on is the Volunteer Program, which was suggested at a town hall meeting last year. This is something that I plan to resurrect and build upon to help create community and pride in our city. This idea, which I’ve named Ottawa Cares will pair those looking to help with those in need of help; whether it’s an elderly couple needing help with lawn maintenance, a not-for-profit needing volunteers for an event or simply helping with the maintenance of our many gardens and parks. I see Ottawa Cares as being an example of what sets Ottawa apart from other communities and truly makes us the Friendly City.

I believe one of the best opportunities we have to promote Ottawa to tourists is in the proper development of our riverfront. This space should not only be a park that’s open to the public but can convert into a private ticketed event space. This way we could hold events that would draw tourism from five separate urban areas; Chicagoland, Rockford, the Quad Cities, Peoria, and Bloomington/Normal. As mayor, I would see to it that our plan for the riverfront has the vision to make that happen.

Newell: I would like to develop a plan for a field house/sports complex that our citizens could enjoy. This would draw team sports and participants from other communities to Ottawa. Our geographic location makes our community an ideal setting for such a complex to be developed. I would like to see the music and arts community embraced and enhanced. Ottawa’s location makes it a prime place for artists to perform as they travel from other larger communities. A gardening program should be developed encouraging production of food. This could also extend to a gardening beautification program. Botanical knowledge will prepare citizens for food reliability issues future generations may face.

What is your view, and what can be done, on the parking situation on Ottawa’s downtown?

Aussem: We are planning reconfiguration of a parking lot on Columbus Street and additional parking on Madison Street. There (was) discussions on these projects at the March 16 budget workshop.

Hasty: I believe that Chief Roalson has done a great job recently in trying to resolve the parking situation in Ottawa’s downtown. I would encourage him to continue the path he’s developing and see what the outcome is. In addition to that, we need to start researching how we can build a parking structure downtown. That would accommodate not only downtown parking but the overflow caused by a developed riverfront.

Newell: It would be in our best interest as a community to work together to solve these issues. The Court Street parking situation was a poor decision made by the current Mayor and council. There has been talk of expanding Washington Park and removing parking in that area. I believe we need those parking spots. We will eventually need to find a location for a parking structure. Electric vehicle charging stations need to be installed.

What would you do as an elected official to aid the fire department in achieving its goal of getting a new station and meeting its hiring goals?

Aussem: We are in planning stages of building a new station on the South Side and exploring potential locations for a north side station. We have been hiring as much as we can and we are hoping to be able to increase the staffing levels in order to reduce overtime costs. We have also applied for grants through the federal government to help fund new stations.

Hasty: Nobody wants to talk about it but the only way to permanently achieve the station’s hiring goals would be to compensate the firefighters more in line with what they can receive from other cities. This is going to take a comprehensive overhaul of their current compensation agreement; something I would like to do. The fire chief has an updated comprehensive plan already written for the station. I would like to take his plan, compare it with other similar plans, match the priorities with feasibility, and then work aggressively to see it through.

Newell: Correctly staff our first responders to meet our increasing call volume, give our first responders the manpower necessary so they are not forced into mandatory overtime, create a fire department apprenticeship program that encourages our youth to become first responders in the community and develop a plan and location for a North Ottawa Fire Station.

What will you do to protect Ottawa’s murals? Do you believe they play an important part in Ottawa’s tourism? How will you promote the art community?

Aussem: The murals are an asset to our whole community not just tourists and remind us all of Ottawa’s wonderful heritage. The murals are owned by the Ottawa Visitors Center, a private not for profit group and not by the city. The committee entered into long term leases in order to display the murals. As ownership of those buildings change, the status of those leases may also change. The city provides funding for the murals to the OVC through Hotel/Motel tax revenues. The murals and an active art community definitely attract visitors.

Hasty: I full-heartedly believe that public art not only helps the morale of those living here but is also a point of interest for tourists. The reality is that our current murals cannot be seen as immortal or permanent. We’re already seeing the wear that years and, in some cases, neglect has caused. They will all eventually succumb to time or there will be a need to develop an area differently. As mayor, I plan to establish an Arts Committee that will be tasked with not only doing everything possible to maintain the murals we have but to also add additional installations of both two and three-dimensional art to our downtown. These will be installations that will vary in duration. Some may only last three months, six months, or a year and then will be replaced with something else. Having a culture comprised of consistent changing and new art will help keep the energy of our downtown alive and make it easier to let other art go when it’s time.

Newell: We should encourage the scenic drive through Ottawa to Starved Rock. We should promote our history with guided tours and embrace the scenic beauty Ottawa offers visitors. Technology and social media have changed our society. We must embrace new technologies by hiring staff that have expertise in these fields to promote Ottawa to the world.

How would you describe the city of Ottawa’s working relationship with its downtown merchants?

Aussem: The city continues to support all businesses and we strive to improve the downtown historic district. The city’s partnership with Special Events continues to drive thousands of tourists to our Downtown in hopes to increase foot traffic for local businesses.

Hasty: I believe that the relationship between the city of Ottawa and its downtown merchants can be summed up by business owners receiving a one-week notice from the city that their business would be temporarily, and in some cases permanently, disrupted by the redevelopment of Court Street. This was done with no input from the downtown business or property owners and it illustrates a lack of care or concern on their part. As someone who has built a business and reputation by promoting and encouraging our downtown businesses, as mayor, I will change the culture of City Hall and we will become a city that empowers and strengthens our downtown businesses.

Newell: There is always room for improvement. It would be in our best interest to work together for the betterment of the community. It appears the current administration favors certain businesses. I believe in a level playing field for all.

Where do you see Ottawa in the next 10 years?

Aussem: We are very blessed to live in a small community that always steps up to help each other. I believe we will continue to see increases in the area population. As we continue to expand our outdoor recreation areas, we will see an increase in visitors to the area as well. I believe that the riverfront amphitheater will also increase tourism in the area.

Hasty: I think the future of Ottawa is literally being decided right now. If we don’t seize on the opportunities that are sitting right in front of us then I fear we will become just another small, forgotten town. If, however, we properly take advantage of opportunities like the Riverfront, then I believe that in ten years Ottawa will be the Must-Go summer destination for tourism and weekend getaways. We will become a great place to not only work and live but the place to visit.

Newell: I would like to see Ottawa be an entertainment destination for music, arts, sports and tourism. My vision includes developing bike paths and trails to foster outdoor activity. Gardening and restaurants should be encouraged. We should develop our waterfront to meet the needs of our citizens and visitors. I see Ottawa having recreational activities for all and a amazing quality of life. Developing these amenities will attract quality employers who want happy employees.