Editorial— SIU’s Budget Woes and Local Elections: The Connection Between Two Big Local Stories

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It’s possible to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, or really just One, with the two big local stories
Chris Wissmann

It’s possible to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, or really just One, with the two big local stories of the past week.

Back on March 29, SIU system president Randy Dunn and Carbondale campus chancellor Brad Colwell released devastating news about how they intend to steer the school through a financial crisis caused by a governor who refuses to sign a state budget. Then, the local consolidated elections took place Tuesday, April 4.

Interest in the elections appeared unprecedented. A bounty of great candidates ran for school board in Carbondale Elementary School District Ninety-five. (Natasha Zaretsky, Catherine Field, Carlton Smith, and Gary Shepherd won seats, while Grant Miller, Lisa Marie Smith, Christopher Payne, and Stephen Compton did not.) For the first time in memory, a contested race for Carbondale Township Road Commissioner resulted in candidates forking out money for advertisements and yard signs. (Bradley Lam defeated Russ Kramer in that race.)

The cause for concern came in the race for Carbondale City Council, where incumbents Carolin Harvey and Jessica Bradshaw retained their seats, while former city manager Jeff Doherty also won. Incumbent Lee Fronabarger lost his seat.

The problem isn’t with who won and lost.

A city of this size, with so many well-educated citizens, should generate more than four council candidates, and inspire far more voters to come to the polls.

People could draw at least two conclusions: One, voters were satisfied by all of the choices, and didn’t feel the need to cast ballots or run for council; or Two, voters didn’t like any of the choices and didn’t feel the cost of running for office was worth the effort.

During the 1990s, I tried to recruit someone to run for city council or mayor. He was a respected local businessman in the community, popular with students, and politically active his whole life. He was a shoo-in; the city could have cancelled the election and just anointed the man.

Unfortunately, in Carbondale, the mayor earns only $9,000 a year, and councilpeople receive $4,200. Those salaries haven’t changed since 1998.

As I saw during my ten years on the city council, if Carbondale’s elected officials take their jobs remotely seriously, even under the city-manager form of government, the mayor’s position is more than a full-time job, and councilpeople will work a minimum of twenty hours a week.

My recruit ran the cost/benefit analysis and decided that the workload wasn’t close to worth the compensation. As a result, the city lost out on his desperately needed leadership. No doubt this scenario has played out too many times since.

Thus, the Carbondale City Council needs to significantly increase its pay. A good mayor, even with a city manager to run day-to-day operations, is well worth $35,000 a year, and councilpeople $15,000.

Per state law, no changes to the pay of elected officials can take effect until after their current terms expire. As a result, technically, council members and the mayor would not give themselves a raise, but whomever wins in subsequent races.

And that might not be the people who vote for a pay increase— such an action is likely to provoke the electorate to angry anti-incumbency. In addition, the city’s union employees will use the situation to demand their own three-hundred percent pay increases. Furthermore, voters should not want candidates running for office just for the money.

These disadvantages, however, will prove more than worth the cost if the result attracts more candidates whose qualifications and visions inspire greater voter participation.

For all the hoopla about how Donald Trump’s election has inspired women to participate in politics— evidenced in January by the massive rally in Washington, D.C. and its local sister version— there’s trouble on the horizon if the consolidated election serves as past to the prologue of the 2018 state election.

About 1,500 persons attended the local women’s march on January 21. Barely more than that— 1,848 of 13,795 registered voters, or 13.4 percent— turned out to cast ballots in the Carbondale City Council election on Tuesday.

True, Trump wasn’t on the ballot, literally or by proxy, and many of the issues that have activated the political left, such as abortion rights, don’t get addressed at the local level.

Trump’s thuggish personality and asinine ignorance have certainly thrown gasoline on the progressive fire. But that flame must burn equally hot for more banal forms of evil, like Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who can do just as much damage to this state as any president can do to the nation.

Rauner has refused to sign any state budget until the General Assembly first passes his Turnaround Agenda, which in no small part would destroy labor unions in Illinois. Meanwhile, social-work organizations that contract with the state and public universities have received only a small portion of the funding that once came their way, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican occupied the Governor’s Mansion.

The biggest, most public result: SIU’s Carbondale campus will need to cut $30 million from its budget, on top of a $20 million reduction from earlier in the year. In his March 29 message to the campus, chancellor Brad Colwell stated that layoffs are certainly necessary to chop out that much money.

Sucking so much cash that quickly from the local economy will leave nobody in Southern Illinois unscathed. Even people who don’t directly work for SIU— doctors, lawyers, retailers, cosmetologists, accountants, and restaurateurs, from Harrisburg to Murphysboro and down to Anna— end up serving SIU employees and students. In that sense, all of us work for the university, at least a little, however indirectly. Now we can all get ready to kiss goodbye revenue from the sale of all those goods and services.

Rauner and his Republican enablers in the General Assembly better inspire the same voter backlash in 2018 that so many progressives are promising Trump in 2020. That, however, will require the electorate to change the rather pathetic voting behavior exhibited this Tuesday.


People need to start voting in every election as if their livelihoods depend on it. Because they do.