Rockford voters will choose a new mayor April 4. Mayor Larry Morrissey decided last year he wouldn’t run for re-election, after 12 years in office.
Democrat Tom McNamara, Republican Brian Leggero, Independent Ronnie Manns, and Independent Rudy Valdez want your vote -- if you live within the City of Rockford, that is. The four have participated in several public forums in the days leading up to the election, including a packed hall at Rockford University.
Meet the Candidates
Republican Brian Leggero is a Rockford native: he spent 26 years in the music industry in California and now runs an internet services company back in his hometown. Leggero says he wants to be mayor so he can “restore pride” in the city and “give every resident a voice in the community.”
Independent Ronnie Manns visited his mother in Rockford in 1991 after wrapping up his career in the Marines, got a job, and never left. He has his own logistics business. Just as he “served and protected the American people” during his time in the Marines, he says he looks forward to “serving and protecting the people of Rockford.”
Democrat Tom McNamara is probably the most familiar candidate to Rockford residents. He’s an alderman and an insurance agent, and his father was mayor of Rockford from 1981 to 1989. McNamara says his city’s battles with crime and neglected neighborhoods inspired him to run for mayor. He says he’s the candidate who can provide the “bold, new, inclusionary, and collaborative leadership to lead us out of this.”
Independent Rudy Valdez moved to Rockford from Chicago in 1987 and established himself in management and education in the aerospace industry. He says his management skills paired with his experience serving on boards will help him help the city rise to its potential. He says the city needs a strong and proven leader, and he has the experience to bring people together.
The candidates for mayor rank crime among their top issues, if not the top issue. Ronnie Manns says he’d like to see cameras in crime hotspots, monitored by police. He says that’s a cheaper solution than other technologies being recommended, such as a gunfire-tracing system. Manns says hiring additional police officers in Rockford or the county should not be priorities. He says it’s smarter to use the current police force better.
Brian Leggero calls hiring more police a knee-jerk reaction to crime. He says police need to be used more efficiently, with more of a focus on violent crime instead of victimless crimes. Leggero’s crime-fighting plan includes restoring street lights to areas where they were removed by the city, encouraging concealed carry of fireamrs, and making police scanner traffic available to the public again.
Rudy Valdez says the city needs to get its police force back up to full strength before talking about adding more officers. He says the police chief and sheriff work well together and have brought more county deputies in to patrol Rockford. He’d rather see money spent on prevention, pointing to a program in Elgin he’d like to replicate. He says it’s a social service unit made up of social workers instead of sworn officers. They ride along and help deal with cases involving mental illness, domestic violence, and substance abuse.
Tom McNamara says crime is the biggest issue in Rockford, and he’d like to see more officers hired. But he’d also like to see the current officers used more effectively. He says that’s why City Council doubled the police department’s budget for training and is looking into advancing technology. McNamara says a more holistic approach needs to be used to prevent recidivism and youth crime. He points to a new Rockford Housing Authority police unit as a good collaboration because it’s paid for by the RHA.
Business and Development
The next mayor of Rockford will help decide the future of projects started under the current administration -- and gets to come up with some of his own. Brian Leggero opposes a planned downtown hotel and conference center that is up for a vote before city council next week. He says “Rockford city government should leave projects like these up to the private sector. We must support a process that is thorough and inclusive to all instead of being negotiated between the mayor and a few special interests.”
Leggero says he wants a thorough review of the city’s Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, districts because he thinks they’ve been poorly managed. He says regulations need to be reviewed to make the city more business-friendly.
Tom McNamara says that, as a city council member, he saw that TIF districts were not being used properly, so he brought in objective professionals to review them. As for small business opportunities in the city, he says it calls for a more personal approach. He wants economic development staffers assigned to new businesses and businesses that want to expand so they can be helped directly throughout the process.
Rudy Valdez says it’s important to think big – and long-term. And that means regional collaborations. And Valdez says that means more business. Valdez says the recently-approved indoor city market is a good idea, but it took too long.
Ronnie Manns says he’d like to go about revitalizing the city in another way: He wants more money in citizens’ pockets so they can spend it in their community.
Attracting and retaining ‘The In Crowd’
What makes a city hip and attractive to the rest of the world? Its ability to attract and retain young people. Rudy Valdez says he talks with young entrepreneurs, and they feel ignored by their city government. He says it’s time to pay attention to their needs. He says the city could use a business liaison to work with them. Then he’d work on changing some ordinances to ease burdens on businesses.
Ronnie Manns has something he calls the Made In Rockford plan. Under it, the city would find ways to support creative young people while they develop their ideas and businesses.
Brian Leggero says innovation is important; he says he just spoke with a young man who wants to start a school for writing computer code. But he thinks solving the city’s most basic problems is the real key to attracting young people to Rockford. It’s back to crime, high property taxes, and schools.
Tom McNamara says there are a number of things the city has done to make the city more appealing to young people, including the pedestrian-friendly Smart Streets program to improve connectivity between neighborhoods. He says the city still needs to invest more in neighborhoods and the downtown area and develop more creative home ownership programs. Most important, he says, it’s time to start trusting young people and put them into leadership positions.
Democrat Tom McNamara, Republican Brian Leggero, and Independents Ronnie Manns and Rudy Valdez are all running for Rockford mayor on the April 4 ballot. One of them will replace Independent Larry Morrissey, who decided not to run after three terms as mayor.
Thanks to WREX and Rockford University for access to the audio system during the debate.