Challenger’s Tone Turns More Critical as Election Nears | Montelongo Says Spears Has Dropped the Ball on Drainage


DATE: 03/29/2001


PEORIA — It started off harmlessly enough, with Jim Montelongo mulling a run in the 4th District as a way to bring a new perspective to the City Council.

“I want to give back to community,” he told the Journal Star in December, when asked his opinion of incumbent councilman Bill Spears. “I think I could bring some more business sense and thinking to how decisions are made.

Things have changed. Montelongo, 33-year-old owner of a high-tech Peoria business, Advanced CAD-CAM Service Corp., now has critical things to say about his opponent in Tuesday’s election. The computer design whiz says spare is not communicating with his constituents and has dropped the ball on the district’s big issue, drainage problems.

What changed his tenor? Montelongo says be hag received an earful from residents while campaigning door to door.

Communication “is a major problem, people saying, ‘We wish we knew what the hell was going on,’ ” Montelongo said, “As I’m talking to people door to door, that is very important. You need to be in a position where you can listen them and where you can communicate (with) them.”

Meanwhile, Spears, business manager for Plumbers Local 63, is fighting back with criticisms of his own, such as Montelongo’s failure to vote in the last several elections. And Spears, elected in 1997, takes credit for at least making drainage and erosion control a higher priority in the city budget.

“The awareness is now out there,” he said during a tour of flood-prone areas, including Rolling Acres subdivision. “Each year, we’re putting more and more funding into taking care of storm drains.”

The issue has vexed city officials since at least the 1970s, as the 4th District filled in with new residential and commercial development under more lenient drainage standards. Some neighborhoods, built prior to their annexation into Peoria, never had the proper infrastructure installed.

Peoria’s citywide strategy is to undertake a number of small projects each year, about 600,000 is budgeted annually for roe including those that costs with private property owners. Public Works Director Steve Van Winkle acknowledges, however, that the problem is huge and would cost tens of millions of dollars to correct.

“This year, it’s a very big priority, but the problem is, there no easy answer here,” Van Winkle said. “Even though we’re spending this kind of money, are we’re making any headway? The short-term answer is yes. Are we doing what we would logic be doing if we started with a blank sheet of paper? No.”

Montelongo says he has dis- covered outside money and expertise are available for drainage, but Spears hasn’t inquired about them. Spears insist he has contacted various officials but that grants don’t magically appear. The city is obligated to go through the time consuming  process of drafting large scale potentially expensive plans, he said.

Responding to the criticism he doesn’t communicate with residents, Spears says he meets occasionally with neighborhood groups but prefers to wait for invitations. He doubts his opponent’s idea of holding regular meetings would work because residents tend to come out only when there’s a burning issue to discuss.

“I hate to tell him, but I’ve had neighborhood meetings where only five to six people show up,” Spears said.

The incumbent also draws fire for what some civic leaders consider to be an anti-business attitude; Spears last year helped cut Riverfront Development as a separate department, and in 1999 he voted against tax subsidies for a propose Northwest Peoria mall. The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce snubbed Spears in” its list of “recommended” candidates, opting instead for Montelongo, a board member.

“It’s everyone’s concern from the business community that there are definitely issues with our City Council, peers that they’re not giving us the right leadership that we need to help our businesses grow,” Montelongo said.

Spears counters that he has gone to bat for retailers in his district and that his campaign has enjoyed financial support from commercial developers such as David Joseph, Russ Waldschmidt and Les Cohen.

“It’s easy” to pick on the incumbent, Spears says. “I’m not trying to belittle (Montelongo). I guess it’s just one of those things. When you’re an incumbent, a need to expect it. I don’t know how he stands on ‘the issues because he’s never had to take a vote.”

Speaking of voting, Spears says it’s odd that Montelongo is running for public office after, rarely voting in prior elections. After reviewing polling records, he found that Montelongo voted for the first time o last year.

That’s a non-issue, really, ”Montelongo responds. “When I was going to Bradley, did I vote? No. Afterward, I got caught up in my business, just had my nose to the grindstone trying to make this business successful. Did I care about anything else? Probably not.”