With Stan Leach choosing not to run for re-election this year after 12 years in office, a pair of city-council members are seeking to replace him. Although the election is nonpartisan, there's a clear choice among the candidates politically. Pat O'Brien, a Democrat and an eight-year veteran of the city council, will face off against Don Welvaert, a Republican with four years' experience on the council, in the municipal mayoral election Tuesday, April 5.

But party affiliation matters less the more local the office gets, and without hot-button issues such as abortion or gun control on the table, municipal candidates from different parties often look similar.

Not so in Moline. While Welvaert believes the city should be an active player in promoting economic growth - through incentives and by having its hands in major developments - O'Brien is playing the role of populist. He promises referenda when the city plans to construct a new building, a "mayor's night in" to make city government more accessible, and an economic-development policy to support Moline's neighborhoods and existing businesses.

One difficulty for voters in this election is that both candidates primarily look backward to differentiate themselves instead of looking forward. But while they don't offer much in the way of specific plans, there are plenty of disagreements from the past, and a good sense of their philosophies of city government.

Both candidates talk about the need to increase the city's property-tax base through economic development and how critical it is to develop a Western Illinois University campus and technology corridor near downtown Moline. But in terms of their priorities and approaches, the two are strikingly different.

Pat O'Brien

O'Brien has served two terms as alderman representing Moline's second ward. A common refrain in his campaign is open communication. He said that city government gives people plenty of opportunities to express their opinions, but "I don't think we always listen to what they're saying."

To address that, he supports a "mayor's night in" - perhaps starting out weekly - to allow people to come to city hall and tell him about their concerns. "I do think it's intimidating for people to come to city hall," he said. He also supports roundtable discussions with neighborhood and business groups with the goal of making all neighborhoods in the city viable. "We need to make every single neighborhood in Moline a place people want to move to," he said.

O'Brien thinks the city shouldn't be in the business of assisting greenfield development, as it did in annexing and shepherding the Case Creek development south of the Quad City International Airport. "The city does a lot with brownfield development that I support," he said, but undeveloped land doesn't need the city's assistance.

He also wants to connect with homegrown businesses to see if the city can do anything to improve their situations instead of giving incentives to out-of-town companies. To that end, he supports more stringent criteria for economic-development incentives. "They always come with their hand out," O'Brien said at a mayoral forum last week. "Our hometown businesses have never asked for anything," he told the River Cities' Reader.

But O'Brien admits the city has limited resources in that area. A municipality's most powerful economic-development tool is tax increment financing (TIF), and he concedes that "I don't think the city has an appetite for any more TIF."

He said he plans to invite business groups to city hall, asking, "What do you need? What's your main complaint?" Expansion of the city's façade program is one possibility, he said; Welvaert also supports that.

But while O'Brien has made communication and open government a key element of his campaign, he's short on specific solutions. For instance, he said the city's taxes and fees are driving people out of Moline, but he won't promise that he'd lower the property-tax rate. "I don't know you could commit to doing that," he said. He also said he wouldn't support increasing the property-tax rate.

O'Brien believes the City of Moline has spent too much money on new buildings, particularly a $12.5-million new library at 3130 41st Street. The city is contributing $10 million of the cost. O'Brien favored alternative sites, either adapting vacant commercial buildings or renovating the downtown library. "The library was an optional building," he said. "We could have invested our money more wisely."

He supports bringing any new building the city wants to build to a voter referendum, and he believes that the community will make better decisions than the council and won't just shoot down any proposal that comes before it. "If the demand was there and they could see it, they'd support it," he said.

O'Brien also said he doesn't think the city's new downtown parking ramp was a good investment. "Here in the rural part of the Midwest, I don't think people use them," he said of parking ramps.

O'Brien believes that these projects are symptomatic of the city spending too much money. "We're kind of spending beyond our means," he said, citing the city's $92 million in bonded indebtedness. "I think the city should not be above $50 million in debt." Furthermore, he said, the city's cash reserves are too low.

Even so, he didn't offer areas in which the city could cut that would free up money to reduce its debt load. He does support an energy audit for all city buildings.

He also said he believes the city always seems to find money for projects; changing the city's spending habits is mostly a matter of changing priorities. "We can always find money for something a certain group wants," he said.

When asked about the primary differences between him and his opponent, O'Brien cited background, again ringing his populist bell. O'Brien works for Bethany for Children & Families, and Welvaert is an executive at MidAmerican Energy. "He comes from a different culture," O'Brien said.

Don Welvaert

While O'Brien focuses on communication, Welvaert puts his emphasis on economic development.

"We've run out of room," he said. "We're landlocked." Hence, the city needs to make better use of the land it has. To that end, he supports the city's active role in developing the Western Illinois University campus and a technology corridor, such as working to re-locate two existing businesses.

This hands-on pro-development philosophy can be seen with the Case Creek development. The city annexed the land, reached agreements with nearby municipalities, and "we've rounded up the developer," Welvaert said. "The city has done a lot of the legwork. I think the city needs to plant the seeds."

Welvaert cited six projects that he's supported in the past four years: the new library, Case Creek, the parking garage, Bass Street Landing, the aquatic center, and major improvements to city parks. He suggested that O'Brien simply doesn't support city subsidy of new development, no matter what it is. "My opponent has voted against every single one of those except the swimming pool," he said. "The city needs to be the initiator. I do not see that in my opponent."

Welvaert said his development philosophy is not based on the number or types of jobs a development creates. Instead, he said, if the city requests things from developers that they had not planned on doing - such as extending a particular street - "the city should participate in the cost of improvements." Hence, he said, he might support incentives for retail development, even though the jobs don't pay well. "Each project needs to stand on its own," he said.

But, he added, incentives are only appropriate if a development meets a need in the city. If a developer were to approach the city with a request for incentives for a new hotel, for example, he would probably not support it because the current supply of hotel rooms is more than adequate.

On the city's financial situation, he said the city is not overextended in terms of debt. "We're comfortable," he said, but added that the city is approaching the maximum level of debt it can handle.

He stressed that enhancing revenues through economic growth is critical, but said he'd prefer making cuts instead of increasing the city's property-tax rate in the short run. He warned that future budget cuts would reduce city services, "period." Still, he said, "I would prefer the cuts in services" to increasing the property-tax rate.

As for O'Brien's proposal to bring any new city building construction to the voters, Welvaert scoffed. "The citizens of this community elected their officials" to make decisions, he said. "It would just bring the city to its knees. It takes all the responsibility away from the council and the mayor."

He also criticized O'Brien for his stance on the library, saying it represented an inability to develop workable solutions on the part of his opponent. While the city explored multiple sites for the library, both the downtown and Avenue of the Cities options had significant structural problems. "I haven't seen solution one from my opponent in the past four years," he said.

Welvaert has also faulted O'Brien for not being a leader in terms of advocating for Moline in the state or federal capitals. Welvaert attended recent lobbying sessions in Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Illinois, while O'Brien did not.

In addition to the mayoral race, the April 5 Moline city election features three contested aldermanic races. Kent C. Breecher and Kathleen A. Snodgrass are running for alderman at large; Andria L. McDermott and Michael T. Carton are competing for the Ward 2 seat, and Michael Crotty and Crystal R. Stillwell-Gabriel are running in Ward 6.

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