The three Democratic candidates for mayor discussed annexation, transparency and what they would do in their first 30 days as mayor at a Bloomington Press Club candidate forum in the IMU on Wednesday.
The candidates are former deputy mayor Don Griffin, IU Center for Rural Engagement executive director Kerry Thomson and city councilmember Susan Sandberg.
First to speak was Don Griffin, who made a point to discuss diversity, inclusion, accessibility and belonging. He said Bloomington is currently in a mindset of “not seeing color” and stressed moving toward recognizing and celebrating differences.
Specific policies Griffin said he plans to pursue are universal pre-K and discounted college and career programs for city residents. He also praised Bloomington’s abundance of artists and musicians and hopes to retain their talents.
“If they were engineers, we would say it’s brain drain when they’re leaving,” he said.
Next, Kerry Thomson emphasized collaboration, housing and public safety.
She said the city is divided, and promised to work with people before policy decisions were made.
“Solutions should not be done to people; they should be done with people,” she said.
Thomson also referenced her experience at Habitat for Humanity when talking about Bloomington’s housing crisis. When working on projects for Habitat, Thomson said initial responses from neighborhoods were mixed.
“Every single new neighborhood that we went into was contentious,” she said.
Through conversations with residents, Thomson said, the organization was able to improve their projects and help new homeowners be welcomed by the community.
Finally, Thomson emphasized public safety, particularly in areas of substance use and mental health.
The final candidate to speak was Susan Sandberg, who is in her 17th year as an at-large member of the city council. As mayor she said she would focus on public safety, affordability, collaboration and providing essential city services.
She said affordability is more than just housing, referencing a 2018 report she published that highlights residents of Bloomington who are living on the margins. She said the city needs to help residents get good-paying jobs and provide affordable shelter, food and transportation.
Sandberg concluded with an emphasis on collaboration and respect.
“I know what we have in common: we love this place,” she said.
After introducing themselves, the candidates fielded several questions from members of the Bloomington Press Club.
Transparency for the public and press
In response to a question about transparency for the public, the candidates all agreed that changes needed to be made.
Thomson said that she was grateful for local media.
“It’s important that the community knows how to access you, especially in this time when our media is so strained.”
She proposed having a staff member that would vet long waiting periods for responses and public records requests.
“It is problematic when any leader tries to hide things,” she said.
Sandberg said she would like more public meetings between the mayor and city council.
“Those conversations could perhaps be a little more transparent,” she said.
She also said there should be press conferences with the mayor, similar to what happens at a national level.
Griffin said the city needs more people in general, saying city employees are already overworked. He also said the city and county should utilize Community Access Television Services more.
“We need to be a lot more proactive, because there’s this information void out there,” he said.
The first 30 days
Next, the candidates were asked what their priority would be for the first 30 days of their administration.
Sandberg spoke first, saying she would focus on transition work in the period between the election and inauguration, particularly regarding partnerships with IU and the county.
Griffin expressed a similar priority, which he called an “aligned vision” with city department heads. He said he would ask each department to find a “benchmark community” that does better than Bloomington in a certain area, and then strive to be better.
Thomson said the first 30 days of an administration are critical. She said building a good team is important and aimed to initiate a public safety plan due to low staffing levels at police and fire.
A point of contention: leaf collection
The first major disagreement between the candidates came from a question about leaf collection.
Previously a city service, the city council voted to stop the curbside vacuuming service last fall. Instead, the city is encouraging residents to compost and mulch their own leaves as much as possible.
Griffin was clear: he would not bring back leaf collection, saying it would be costly and harm sustainability.
“Being part of a community, sometimes there are individual sacrifices,” he said.
Sandberg said she would bring back leaf collection, saying it falls under umbrella of essential city services that she hopes to emphasize as mayor.
Thomson fell somewhere in the middle, saying she would want an independent audit of the city before deciding, although she said leaves in streets may pose a problem for storm drains.
Will the next mayor continue annexation?
The final question concerned the future of the city’s annexation efforts, which began with Mayor John Hamilton’s administration in 2017 and has been slowed by multiple lawsuits.
Thomson said the city has gone about annexation incorrectly by not engaging the community in its conversations.
“The annexation process has been botched,” Thomson said.
However, she still supports expanding Bloomington’s city limits, particularly if the city can guarantee they can provide the necessary services.
Griffin stuck with the city on the topic.
“Absolutely, annexation will continue,” he said.
He said housing throughout the county is not dense enough, which could be helped with annexation. Still, he acknowledged that bad communication on the topic of annexation has harmed the community.
Sandberg said she voted no on continuing the annexation process when it was brought to the council. She said the proposal was too large since previous administrations had not kept up with expanding city boundaries over time.
Sandberg lamented hostility in city politics, including labeling politicians as NIMBYs or YIMBYs. The terms have become popular ways to describe a public official’s stance on development in Bloomington and across the country, standing for “not in my backyard” and “yes in my backyard.” A NIMBY is someone who opposes development they view as undesirable in the area they live, which can sometimes include multi-family housing and affordable apartments.
“We don’t take the time to listen to learn and to listen to understand,” she said.
Thomson said city politics had begun to resemble national divisiveness, and said the mayor sets the tone for the community. She again emphasized her goals of transparency.
“You don’t have to have a title to come meet with me,” she said.
Griffin said he has been involved in the community for a long time, ranging from his work as a realtor to his time as deputy mayor.
“I’m part of Bloomington's history, and I want to be part of its future,” he said.
Griffin also said he wanted to make Bloomington a place for everyone, including those struggling with mental health or substance abuse.
“We want the message that says ‘Come to Bloomington and you can be better,’” he said.