The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

November 18, 2012

City history was reborn 25 years ago

KEVIN CULLEN
Commercial-News

This is the 25th anniversary of a momentous year … for me and for Danville.

I became a father in 1987 when Ruth Jensen Cullen, all 6 pounds, one-half ounce of her, was welcomed into the world at St. Elizabeth Hospital. I had never seen such a perfect baby or a more beautiful, glowing new mother.

Meanwhile, city history was reborn. A federal voting-rights lawsuit filed by several local blacks led to the death of the 60-year-old commission form of city government. The mayor-aldermanic form was ordered, with seven geographic wards, 14 aldermen and a mayor with veto power.

I was City Hall reporter for the Commercial-News, so I had a front-row seat. I covered the chaotic last year of the commissioners, and the birth pangs of the mayor-aldermanic government. I wrote reams; vast forests fell to provide all that newsprint. It was dramatic, historic and important … a rush.

The commission system was chummy and unrepresentative. The mayor and all four commissioners could live on the same block. Elected office was the province of white men seeking full-time employment. Not a single minority had been elected in 60 years.

Each commissioner was king of his department, and he kept his nose out of every other commissioner’s business. Every Tuesday morning, an illegal meeting was held so council members could decide in advance who would introduce which ordinance or resolution, and who would second it.

Then they all walked across the hall for a pro-forma meeting, rubber-stamping everything — usually without comment. The only witnesses were a couple of reporters, the city clerk, and the winking beneficiaries.

The federal consent decree of 1987 changed all that. The wards were drawn with boundaries that virtually guaranteed that minorities would be elected, and they were. City council service became part-time, so working people could participate. There was a heady spirit of inclusion, even revolution.

There were no incumbents for mayor, alderman or city treasurer, so 45 people filed for the primary. They were white and black, male and female, business owners, secretaries, union members. Most had no political experience, but lots of idealism and enthusiasm.

Bob Jones was elected mayor that September. He was seen as a reformer, and — unlike his opponent — had never been a commissioner. He and the new aldermen quickly stripped the ex-commissioners of their illegally-obtained jobs as department heads. Neighborhood cleanup and revitalization took off, fueled by an army of volunteers. Areas that had been forgotten for years suddenly had at least two representatives, and two votes, on the council. Suddenly, neglected parts of town started getting new sidewalks and sewers.

The new council included some smart and successful business people, an expert in road construction, a former newspaper reporter, and people interested in historic preservation, the arts, downtown revitalization, utilities, urban planning … the list could go.

There were arguments and bickering, yes, but fresh ideas and progress, too.

I’m glad I was there to write about it, 25 years ago.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at irishhiker@aol.com.