NORTH PEORIA'S TOP 10 - #3 -#10

Staff Writer
Woodford Times

3 DUNLAP HIRES NEW SUPERINTENDENT

The Dunlap School Board hired Dr. Jay Marino as the new school superintendent in November.

Marino will replace retiring Jeanne Williamson. She will have served seven years in the post when she retires next summer.

Marino’s appointment is effective July 1.

“Our kids, teachers, parents, community and staff are going to be impressed with Dr. Marino,” said Dunlap School Board president Bruce Hay.

“He is a servant leader with proven results in doing what’s best for kids.”

Marino was chosen from a candidate pool of more than 50. The board trimmed the list down to six before tapping Marino for the job.

Hay said Marino stood out among the other candidates in one area, in particular, for the school board.

“It was his focus on continuous improvement in student achievement,” Hay said.

Marino is currently the assistant superintendent for learning and continuous improvement in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Community School District.

Marino will move to the area with his wife, Laura, and children, Jessica, Matthew and Grace.

Marino said the search process was a “rewarding” one.

“I’m very excited to be bringing my family here,” he said.

Marino said on the work front, he will focus on teamwork and shared responsibility, shared leadership.

“(Shared leadership) is a new paradigm of school leadership. It’s about bringing people together around a common mission,” Marino said.

“Together, the best decisions are made.”

Marino said he looks forward to leading a growing district.

“It’s a sign of a healthy school district. My first order of business is people — building relationships, creating trust,” Marino said.

“I will be visible, getting to know people and letting them get to know me.”

4 WIDMER STEPPING DOWN

In July Merle Widmer said his passion for public service was waning.

Widmer, 83, a North Peorian, is the Peoria County Board representative for District 11 and serves as vice-chairman of the board. After more than seven years on the county board, he is planning to hang up his political aspirations.

Widmer said he did not plan to seek re-election as vice-chairman in November, and when his term expires in two years, he will not run again.

“I want some down time,” Widmer said.

“My passion is burning out. The work stresses me. It’s pulling me down.”

Widmer, in his public life, has always been outspoken. That quality has endeared him to some, and made him a target for others.

Responding to a question about development, Widmer said the city has done nothing to keep costs down.

“When it came to Growth Cell 3 in North Peoria, the city wanted 3,000 acres for growth. The county wanted to give them 700 acres. The city won. We now have higher costs due to sprawl,” he said.

Widmer, on the subject of Bel-Wood Nursing Home, said he questions the wisdom of the home being run by the county.

He said the administration says $23 million worth of needed upgrades to the facility will not result in higher taxes. Widmer said he is not buying that.

“We’re one of the few counties in Illinois to still have a county nursing home,” Widmer said. “I don’t think we should be in that business ... We spend more time on it than any other issue.”

And, when the topic of storm water runoff, sewers and the Environmental Protection Agency arose, Widmer again expressed his views without holding back.

“We need more leadership in this community with common sense,” he said.

“We need leaders who look forward and take baby steps.”

Widmer said he ran for office in 2000 with a platform that the county needed stricter financial controls. Those controls, he said, are now in place with a financial officer and purchasing agent. 

“Financial solvency was my issue,” he said. “We have ourselves in a good financial situation now.”

The county, he said, has a $48 million fund balance.

He said the county is in good hands with Pat Urich, Peoria County administrator, at the helm. That, he said, makes it easier for him to step down in a couple of years. 

He said he has enjoyed his time on the county board.

“Well, wait a minute. Maybe enjoy isn’t the right word. I’ve willingly accepted my responsibilities. My greatest regret is the way the media turned on me,” he said.

Widmer has been at the center of some high-profile events in his private life while a board member that, he said, the media went overboard on.

One involved a dispute with a neighbor that allegedly included death threats. The allegations never resulted in any charges.

The other involved Widmer allegedly forcing a school bus off the road after he witnessed litter being thrown off it by occupants.  

Aside from what he called “those media  circuses,” Widmer said he has no regrets about being in the public eye. 

But, there are other things he has concerns about.

One is the local Republican party.

“I don’t know if my seat will stay in the hands of a Republican,” he said.

“The Republican Party here is not the Republican Party I knew 20 years ago. It’s more like liberal Democrats.”

And, he has a concern about what is happening with property taxes in Peoria.

Widmer said he is not ruling out leaving the city when his term expires.

“Am I leaving? I don’t know. What we do after the next two-and-a-half years depends on the cost of living here. If sales taxes and property taxes keep growing, we’ll have a big decision to make.”

Widmer paused.

He looked down.  

“We’re short of leaders in this country,” he said. “We’re short of leaders in this community who aren’t driven by their egos.”

5 TURNOUT RAISES QUESTUION OF NORTH PEORIA’S POWER

During November’s presidential election the line to check voter registration was long. The line to get the access code for electronic voting was even longer.

The lines were so long, in fact, at 4:55 p.m., on Election Day that people were standing on the sidewalk waiting to get in.

It was about what one would expect in a North Peoria precinct with a high voter turnout. Except, this was not a North Peoria precinct. It was the gymnasium at St. Bernard’s School in the heart of the East Bluff.

Mike Mitchell, a long-time election judge at Precincts 32 and 33, shook his head as he surveyed the crowd. Asked if it had been like this all day, he said, “At times it’s been worse.”

The vast majority of those waiting to vote were African-American. A couple of the African-American voters upon leaving the precinct said the turnout, was inspired in large part, by African-American presidential hopeful Barack Obama and Jehan Gordon, an African-American candidate for the 92nd District state house seat.

Teawana Eppinger-Williams, an African-American woman, emerged from the gym with a smile on her face.

“I believe history has been made,” she said, proudly announcing she had just cast her vote for an African-American presidential candidate.

But her hope and that of fellow East Bluff resident and African-American Pietro Baker is that history does not stop there. Both said they hoped the high African-American turnout signaled the beginning of a new voting trend in Peoria — one in which North Peoria does not call all the shots.

The political reality is Peoria is a divided city.

South of War Memorial Drive the electorate is largely Democratic.

North of War Memorial Drive the electorate is largely Republican.

The division follows typical Republican/Democrat demographics.

South of War Memorial is where the majority of the city’s minority population and Democratic voters live.

The harsh reality is the electorate there in most elections does not turn out in large numbers. In addition, voter registration numbers, in the past, did not even come close to those in North Peoria.

North Peoria, on the other hand, has high voter registration numbers. It has an electorate that turns out in big numbers. Following typical Republican demographics North Peoria is largely white, well-educated and is home to most of Peoria’s upper middle-class.

Eppinger-Williams and Baker said if Peoria residents living south of War Memorial keep turning out in numbers like they did today that reality can be changed.

Local political observers from both parties said it will be extremely difficult, but not impossible, to unseat North Peoria as the decider of local races.

“African-Americans and Democrats, in general, were an increased influence in this election,” said Mike Phelan, a Democrat, and the Peoria County Board representative covering Peoria Heights.

The big question, Phelan said, however, is whether those new voters will stay engaged and become a force that could rival North Peoria’s dominance at the polls.

“We’ll see in the municipal elections,” retired ICC political science professor, and Peoria County Board member Jim Thomas, a Democrat, said.

Matt Jones, a Republican party activist, said he thinks it is too early to tell if an engaged and motivated Democrat base, south of War Memorial, could rival North Peoria’s voting strength.

“My guess though is probably not. They were passionate voters but very focused. They could, however, have a big impact. That’s why Mayor Jim Ardis reached out to Democrats in his bid to defeat Dave Ransburg, even though he is a Republican,” Jones said.

“The voters in North Peoria are consistent voters without the need for prompting. In the older neighborhoods it takes a lot of prompting and that requires manpower.”

Thomas agreed.

“North Peoria voters will always have a big impact on local outcomes. They will turn out for less visible races in bigger numbers. They see voting as a civic responsibility,” Thomas said.

But, Phil Salzer, a Democrat Peoria County Board member, sees an opportunity to change the voting dynamics around south of War Memorial if the local Democratic Party really works at it.

“Once you get people engaged and they see their vote has value you have turned a corner,” Salzer said.

“(North Peorians) have been very decisive in local races for a long time. They had us outnumbered. I think if we work hard we could turn local races into more of a horse race.”  

Eppinger-Williams and Baker did not challenge the realities about the differences in voting patterns or demographics. But, both said, the residents living south of War Memorial Drive have the ability to change at least the reality about voting patterns.

Both said Obama brought them out to vote with a greater passion than normal. Eppinger-Williams said she is a regular voter. Baker said it had been some time since he voted.

“We want some change,” Eppinger-Williams said, referring to Peoria’s African-American population.

“We haven’t had this kind of choice before. We’re excited about that.”

Baker echoed that sentiment. He said Obama’s candidacy ignited a long dormant interest in politics.

Asked if he will keep voting even if there are no African-Americans anywhere on the ballot, he paused.

“I think so. I need too to make a difference,” he said.

Obama, he said, showed a different side of African-American men. He said too often the only image white people have on African-American men is one of thugs.

“We have to work to change that. We can do that by becoming part of the system,” Baker said.

“Plenty of us are making money. Plenty of us are educated, have degrees. I’ll be back to do my part.”

Eppinger-Williams said changing the reality of African-American voting patterns will require overcoming some racial hurdles.

“The election process is run by white people. Black people are not too trusting of white people,” she said.

“We’ll have to overcome that. We need to build trust on both sides. It’s going to take trust.”

6 PENGUIN TAP CLOSES

“I’m not sure I can talk about this without bawlin,’” Nancy Thornton said in March looking around her.

She was sitting at the first table in the dining room of the Penguin Tap. She was nearly alone in the cavernous room. Four men sat nearby eating pizza, unaware it would be their last opportunity to eat at the landmark Peoria Heights restaurant/bar.

Thornton said she was closing her doors.

“You can thank the damn governor in part,” she said, beginning a series of blunt comments.

“What hurt is, you have to pay $8.50 an hour to people who don’t want to work. No one would do anything I told them to do.”

But, that was only one part of the things that conspired to destroy her business, Thornton said.

There were higher prices for hamburger and cheese. There were unpaid sales and withholding taxes.

There was the fear of a souring economy that has people eating at home more and skyrocketing utility bills.

“The business has been sh**** lately because of the economy,” Thornton said.

“I’m no different that anyone else. It’s the prices of everything, the wages. I hope to sell it. I have to close it.”

Thornton and her late husband, Johnny, bought the restaurant/bar with a partner  April 1, 1976. The Thorntons became sole owners in 1985.

They survived a fire in 1990.

But, the government and higher prices were too much, she said.

Thornton picked at the fingernail polish on her fingers as she spoke.

She spoke of a needed hip replacement surgery, and memory lapses due to a stroke.

She alternated between anger and bitterness at the governor, the bank and AmerenCILCO.

“I put $450,000 of my own money in this place,” Thornton said.

She shook her head as she recalled not so long ago she would see 350 pizzas come out of the ovens on a typical Friday night.

“Now, we’re lucky to do 100 on a Friday night,” she said.

Thornton said not many people knew how bad things were, or that the place would be closing in a matter of hours.

“All I have left are some good memories. The people who still come in here, and know, have been crying right along with me,” Thornton said.

She looked at a clock.

“I’ll be closing the doors for good come 8-9 p.m. It’s not because I want to. I owe sales taxes and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Thornton said.

Asked what she would do after the doors closed, Thornton teared up a bit.

“I’ve got diabetes, high blood pressure and I need a hip replacement. I didn’t expect it to come to this. I’ve tried to sell it, to give it away,” she said.

“What will I do? I’m going to stay home and die.”    

7 LYONS LABELS NEIGHBORHOOD NEXT CRIME ISSUE

In June, Rumors and facts collided in a discussion about crime in North Peoria.

What began as a question about an alleged elusive North Peoria drug pin controlling the drug trade here turned into a discussion about crime and a statement that North Peoria may harbor the next area of “great crime” in the city.

Whether the story of a North Peoria drug kingpin running most of Peoria’s drug trade is an urban myth or real, the story still has legs.

As Peoria County State’s Attorney Kevin Lyons made a presentation on drug forfeiture to the Neighborhood Alliance, a question arose about finding the elusive kingpin.

Lyons was addressing seeking forfeiture on six houses in, and around, the East Bluff on drug charges when Richard Mitchell, vice-president of the East Bluff United Neighborhood Association, said he wondered why the concentration of efforts was confined to the East Bluff. 

“There are drug houses north of War Memorial. There are drug money managers north of War Memorial. How are you going to go after them?” Mitchell asked Lyons.

Lyons never did answer Mitchell’s question, but 5th District councilman Pat Nichting added a little more to the story.

“I want to say a little over a year ago we made a significant bust on North University,” Nichting said.

“I want to say they seized six figures in cash. It was kept pretty hush-hush.”

This is the first information about the alleged kingpin surfacing since 2005.

The story of a North Peoria drug kingpin emerged in 2002, when then at-large councilman Chuck Grayeb and then Peoria Police chief John Stenson told the Peoria Times-Observer they were on the trail of this person. 

In the past several years a combined law enforcement effort involving the Peoria Police, FBI and federal prosecutors has gathered intelligence. 

In 2005, Grayeb said, information led them to yet un-named North Peorians they say are providing the cash to buy large amounts of drugs and distribute them.

Stenson, in the past, also indicated the police believe some of these same North Peorians are running money-laundering operations for the local drug trade.

In the 2007 investigation, Nichting said, investigators kept quiet because they were looking at bank accounts, which is why it was kept low-key.

While Lyons never did offer any information about this case he did launch into a discussion of the area north of the post office on University north to Pioneer Parkway. 

“That area is dicey. It is in a state of flux,” Lyons said. “It is the next area of great, great crime in the city.”

Lyons said as he looks at the area he sees abandoned buildings, an abortion clinic a strip club and an apartment complex behind the Tanglewood Shopping Center that is a harbor for criminals in the area.

The apartment complex behind the shopping center, Lyons said, is a particular concern.

“That complex has lifters in it,” Lyons said.

“They go out walking and lifting car door handles. They look for unlocked doors. When they find one they take change and anything else they can find.”

Lyons added that the concrete barrier running down North University is a barrier to business development in the empty buildings along there.

“A city that neglects areas will find those area’s take care of themselves,” Lyons said.

He said that meant if that area is allowed to continue to deteriorate it will become a haven for crime.

“I’m willing to work on it with the resources I have,” Lyons said.

Nichting said he did not agree with Lyons on his assessment of the area, and said, if Lyons is so concerned with that area, he hopes the prosecutor backs it up with action.

“Clearly drug activity has no ownership of just a certain part of the city,” Nichting said.

“It’s everywhere. We should fight it everywhere.”

And, Nichting said, if Lyons was trying to imply that he was ignoring that part of North Peoria, he is wrong.

“If Kevin is aware of things going on out there, I hope he is vigorously prosecuting them,” Nichting said.

Nichting did find room for agreement with Lyons that the concrete median running along North University was a barrier to business development.

But, again, he said, that is an issue he has not ignored.

“There’s money in the budget for it. But, the business owners out there have to help pay for it. We have to get everyone in line. Some want to pay. Some don’t,” Nichting said.

“Clearly the ability to have ingress and egress is important. But, is that alone going to change that neighborhood? Absolutely not.”        

8 RICHWOODS GETS NEW PRINCIPAL

In May retiring Richwoods High School principal John Meisinger said the new incoming principal — Steve Ptacek — had a couple of big challenges before him.

“His first challenge is getting to know the community,” Meisinger said.

“Secondly, we have a changing demographic at Richwoods. A couple of years ago, we had a 14 percent free-and-reduced lunch population. We now have 25 percent. Traditionally, low-income students have different challenges. He will have to deal with that, but he has the background.”

In fact, according to several District 150 officials, it was Ptacek’s background working with students of all demographics that make him stand out among an applicant pool of about 20.

District 150 superintendent Ken Hinton said part of what made Ptacek such a strong candidate was his varied experience. His background includes working with everything from academically challenged students to gifted students.

Ptacek - then principal of Centralia High School - said he felt as if he had been given possession of an “academic crown jewel.” Ptacek said even in Southern Illinois, Richwoods High School was known as a strong academic school.

Asked what made him term Richwoods a “jewel,” Ptacek said, for one thing, it is the only high school in Illinois, outside Chicago, to offer its student body an International Baccalaureate program.

“Students here will be able to compete with students from any elite school in Chicago for a university slot,” he said.

“This school has proven its ability in academics. When you add the athletics and the discipline being taught it shows you have a well-rounded school.”

He said one of his orders of business is to sit back and listen. Ptacek said he has no plans to rush in with changes.

“I am committed to building a team with parents, students, teachers and administrators ... I cannot create any changes without talking to the stakeholders,” he said.

But, Ptacek said, listening is not the only thing on his agenda.

“We need to challenge these kids,” he said.

“I am committed to looking at every avenue to progress. We are going to push the envelope.”

9 LAHOOD AD CAUSES STIR

In October the use of a photograph in political ads for Darin LaHood, the Republican candidate for Peoria County State’s Attorney, promoted an inquiry by the office of the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office at the request of Peoria Heights Police chief Dustin Sutton.

Sutton requested the state’s attorney’s office look into the matter after the Peoria Times-Observer brought elections ethics law to Sutton’s attention.

State election ethics law may have been violated by using a photograph taken with Peoria Heights police officers in front of a Peoria Heights squad car, now prominently displayed in LaHood’s ads.

The key word here is “may,” because no one contacted at the state level who oversees elections or ethics would say one way or the other.

Three state employees said that call had to come from Peoria County State’s Attorney Kevin Lyons.

The photograph was used extensively in LaHood’s campaign literature promoting the fact that LaHood has been endorsed by the union of every law enforcement agency in the county.

The use of the photograph may have violated Illinois Public Act 095-0880, which includes the following wording:

*  “Governmental entity” means a unit of local government (including a community college district) or a school district but not a state agency.

*  “Prohibited political activity” means:

(1) Preparing for, organizing, or participating in any political meeting, political rally, political demonstration or other political event.

* State employees shall not intentionally misappropriate any State property or resources by engaging in any prohibited political activity for the benefit of any campaign for elective office or any political organization.

* (a) A person is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor if that person intentionally violates any provision of Section 5-15, 5-30, 5-40, or 5-45 or Article 15.

Steve Sterm, an attorney with the Illinois State Board of Elections, would not comment on whether any of the officers violated the law.

He said an opinion on that should come from the Peoria County State’s Attorney or someone with the state’s ethics commission.

Chad Fornoff, head of the state ethics commission, also declined to say whether the officers in the photo could potentially face any legal action.

“That’s a question for a jury to decide,” Fornoff said.

“Whatever we would say would not be binding. It would have to be addressed by the state’s attorney,” Fornoff said.

Sutton said he wants this issue cleared up soon.

“I completely understand and agree with this law,” Sutton said. “This was a union issue.”

Peoria Heights village administrator Tom Horstmann said he would not be contacting Lyons to ask him to look into this situation.

Sutton said he would not ignore the issue. He placed a call to Lyons’ office and said the state’s attorney’s office was seeking more information from him.

Sutton said he did not believe there is a legal issue with his officers. He said the public act talks of “intentional” violation. Sutton said his officers could hardly have done something intentionally if they were not aware of the law. But, he conceded, ignorance of the law is not a justification.

The  photograph in question was taken after the three officers were off-duty, according to Sutton.

Sutton said he does not know who took the photo or if the officers were even aware their photo had been taken and would be used for political purposes.

Sutton said, “My concern is with the law.”                    

In November, the rules changed in Peoria Heights in regards to police officers wearing uniforms or using squad cars in any political activities. 

Peoria Heights police officers will no longer be allowed to participate in election activities while in uniform or use village squad cars in photos that could be used in election campaign materials.

“Our officers while engaged in any political activity will use generic T-shirts with no Peoria Heights insignia,” Sutton said.

“I got burned on it.”

The use of the photograph promoted an inquiry by the office of the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office at the request of Sutton.

Recently the state’s attorney’s office  told the Peoria Journal Star they would not be investigating the matter further.

10 BALLET GETS NEW DIGS

The Peoria Ballet has moved to new digs, and, in the process, tapped some new markets.

Suzie Pschirrer, director of the company, said their move Aug. 9 from 8800 N. Industrial Road to a larger facility at 809 Detweiller Drive has allowed the arts concern to grow, which is something many arts organizations cannot do now with a tight economy.

“We’re hanging in there,” she said.

“We have cut back on expenses until we see what they are. While our space increased, our rent decreased. We are optimistic our cutbacks will not affect services. It’s the luxuries that are being cut back.”

Suzette Boulais, executive director of ArtsPartners, said she is not surprised Peoria Ballet is moving forward even in troubled economic times.

“When people are creative and read the signs, they can grow. Peoria Ballet is good at that,” Boulais said.

“They find clever ways to get the kids interested. They have the right formula.”

Pschirrer said the Greater Peoria Area apparently had pent-up demand for the services they offer. She said that after the company moved from its downtown space to the Industrial Road facility, they saw enrollment jump from 96 students to more than 300 almost overnight.

“When we were downtown, we had one studio. We knew in order for the school to grow, we had to have two studios. The jump in enrollment was because we moved from where people worked to where they live,” Pschirrer said.

“I think a lot of people wanted the training, but it wasn’t convenient.”

Pschirrer said as soon as they moved into the Industrial Road location and enrollment jumped so dramatically, that they once again were out of space.

“We were in desperate need of a third studio. We threw walls up trying to create one. We outgrew the location quickly.”

With an investment nearing $500,000 the ballet company moved.

The result has been another increase in interest.

“On Aug. 9 at the grand opening we saw lots of interested folks from all over the Tri-County area,” Pschirrer said.

She said the company now has no space constraints to deal with. The result is an expansion of class size and the types of classes offered.

Pschirrer said they have discovered a pent-up demand for classes involving pre-teen and teenage girls.

“We knew there were untapped markets out there we could pursue,” Pschirrer said.

“I just hope this location creates more awareness.”

One of classes she wants to create awareness for is a class for dance teams — also known as pompon squads — in  high schools such as Notre Dame, Richwoods and  

Pschirrer said one of the factors helping the company is that many parents see ballet not as recreation, but as an integral part of their child’s development.

“I think, for the most part, parents see it as an educational tool. Our students do very well in school,” Pschirrer said.

“Most of our upper-level students are dancing 14 or 15 hours a week and in rehearsal another 12 hours during the week. That doesn’t leave time to do much more than homework, eat and sleep. It teaches them discipline.”