Village administrator hopefuls meet the public

RANTOUL — The three candidates for Rantoul village administrator — Mark Lynch, Tonya Rufus and Rick Snider — spoke about their background and answered questions at a public forum last week at Rantoul Township High School.

One of the candidates — Lynch — has since been dropped from consideration. (See related story.)

Following are the candidates’ responses at the forum.

Opening statements

Lynch was raised up on a farm near Bloomington and said while growing up, he never saw himself in a position where he would be a candidate for a village administrator post.

Lynch started his working life as a semi truck driver and mechanic.

“But in my 30s, my mother became ill. She still lived in Illinois. I had lived in Kansas, and at that point, she encouraged me to go back to school,” Lynch said.

Lynch had owned a business that he sold, earned an associate degree in pre-law, a bachelor’s degree with a double major in political science and philosophy and a master’s degree in public administration.

Lynch worked as IT director for Illinois State University and was then hired as city administrator in Hillsboro, Wis. After a four-year stint in Alaska, Lynch “tried to come back to Illinois” to be closer to family but found the commute from the Bloomington area to northern Illinois was too long. While Lynch lives in Alaska, he and his wife own a home in Stanford, Ill., where she stays for part of the year to be near family.

Rufus serves as director of planning and development for the city of Harvey, where she has been employed since 2008.

She previously worked for the village of Round Lake as director of community development.

Rufus earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public administration and earned a degree in property management online.

She said small towns such as Rantoul remind of her college days at Iowa State University.

Rufus said she lost her mother in 2013 and her fiance in June, which prompted her to begin writing a book, “Pushing Through Pain.”

Snider serves as Champaign County administrator.

Born and raised in Illinois, he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1986 with a degree in computer science, worked for Motorola in Schaumburg for about 10 years and did consulting work for about 13 years.

Snider accepted a position with the city of Gallup, N.M., where he eventually took over the General Services Department. Snider said his responsibilities ranged from IT to purchasing to utility customer service, facilities and in charge of the vehicle service shop for a 500-vehicle fleet.

Snider said Gallup is next to the Navajo nation. While there, he earned a master’s degree in public administration.

He accepted a post with Champaign County about 18 months ago. Snider said there has been “some uncertainty in my position” due to a recent county referendum.

What led you to apply for this leadership role in the village of Rantoul?

Snider said he explained some of that in his opening statement — due to the uncertainty going on with the Champaign County position.

“I really do like the community here,” Snider said. “I think that with my experience in Gallup I would be able to make some contributions in Rantoul. We went through some economic development challenges there. Gallup sits in McKinley County and is regularly listed among the 20 poorest counties in the United States.

“There are a lot of social challenges because of that. I dealt with a lot of those personally. I also like the environment of a smaller town. I like municipal government. There’s a certain rationality with cities that might not be at the county level. I have a background in technology and community services.”

Lynch: “This is home. This is where I grew up. It’s where I have family. It’s where my grandchildren are.

“I’d been looking for something for some time, especially Central Illinois, in a professional organization.

“This one looked like a great opportunity. (Rantoul) is very professionally run. I’ve watched a lot of the recorded city trustee meetings. The meetings are well done. I found (the city) attractive.”

Rufus said she applied because Rantoul is a small community and there is a lot of room for growth — residential, industrial development. “The housing starts need to be revitalized,” she said.  

Rufus said she “loves rebuilding. Who does not want to see a project they started come to fruition?”

She said she is “very open. I have an open-door policy. I believe any problem can be solved. It may not be solved that day, but it can be solved.”

Rufus said the people she has met in Rantoul have been “very professional. Those are the types of people you want to align yourself with as a leader.”

She said she also believes her leadership style will allow the village to see things from another perspective and that she knows because of her experience in village government that she can do that.

How would you describe your leadership and management style?

Rufus: “As a manager you have to ensure that your staff is progressive. I set goals. I would like to have study sessions with the staff.”

Rufus said goal-setting sessions would be held in November for the following year to make sure the village is meeting the needs of the community and said officials need to be pushing each other at a professional level.

Snider: “Leadership and management are two different things. The leadership style that I espouse is to lead by example. You need to ... inspire people to follow you.”

Snider said it is important to set goals and to communicate well with people.
“I like to have a participative organization. The people who are doing the jobs usually know best how to get the job done, and they know what the problems are,” Snider said.

From a management perspective, Snider said, “that’s talking about efficiency in the job. It’s important to develop metrics to measure things as we progress.”

Snider said he likes to delegate where he can, likes to have smart people working with him and doesn’t like to micromanage.

Lynch said he has an open-door policy when it comes to the public and trustees. He said he believes every member of the community can provide valuable input that can be used.

“I really focus on the management side of things,” Lynch said. “I focus more on the people and staff. I don’t micromanage. I can if I have to,” he said.

“What I’ve done in every organization I’ve worked in is I’ve built an extremely functional staff that can get the job done, and they enjoy the job that they do.”

Lynch said he received a text message the day of the forum from a former co-worker who thanked Lynch for believing in her when he hired her for a city clerk position.

“You were great to work for,” the former co-worker texted. “I always appreciated the honest advice you gave me at times.”

What do you perceive as the village administrator’s role in working with the mayor and trustees?

Lynch: “Ultimately the administrator’s role is to implement the policy that (the trustees) adopt. The voters elect them. They stay in touch with their constituents.
“Obviously not everyone agrees, but they come to a consensus of where they want to go. Sometimes an administrator gets a bad rap because people look at them and say, ‘Look what they’re doing.’ That’s not what we want to have happen.”

Rufus said she would ensure that staff is obtaining the information that has been established by the elected officials.

She said it is important to ensure that residents’ needs are properly addressed.

Snider: “The classic model of government is you have an elected body representing the people working with an appointed administrator.

“It wouldn’t be a really good model if it was just a one-way communication. I think the administrator needs to understand the desires of the trustees, board members.

Many of those folks have other jobs. They may not have the time to work out and research everything.”

Snider said he would work with staff to address policy options “so they can make an informed decision on behalf of the citizens.”

Describe your 30-, 60- and 90-day plan for the village of Rantoul

Snider: “It is coming up on budget season. I will get a handle on where we are financially. The first 30 days I would work to understand the village’s finances and establish personal relationships with the staff.”

During the first 60 and 90 days, he said he would start planning for the budget for the fiscal year that starts in May.

“I would want to find out how our financial systems work, to pull together information for the board,” Snider said. “I would assess what kind of staff talents are and what kind of challenges we face. It’s important, if I’m going to ask people to do things for me, to ensure that they have the proper resources.”

Lynch said “getting acquainted as quickly as possible with the budget” would be his first priority.

“I would start (working) with the department heads as early as possible. Probably day one, the mayor, and then the trustees. I would meet with each one to see what their visions are for the community and what long-term goals have already been put in place.”

Lynch said he has helped put together several comprehensive plans. “I’ve always found them valuable in the end. Sometimes you find data that you don’t expect,” he said.

Lynch said he would meet with community leaders and private business leaders as much as possible.

“One goal would be to try to make it clear to developers that we want them to come to Rantoul. If a community wants jobs and economic development, the goal is to work with those developers.”

Rufus said the first 30 days will be spent on research and getting to know staff, determining the foundation of the town and what the board’s and mayor’s goals are.

“The first 30 days, you can’t implement a plan if you don’t know what the foundation of a community is,” Rufus said, adding that within the next 60 days she wants to know what developments are on the table and any problems the staff has.

“Budgeting, you have to understand what goals have been put in place. You have to ensure that residents are part of the (process),” Rufus said. “You have to make sure that your finances are in order and programs will also be beneficial for the residents.”

The village is (experiencing) and will continue to experience both residential and non-residential growth. Please briefly describe your experience in economic development in a municipal environment.

Rufus: “I have worked for five municipalities in my career. I have worked for affuluent communities, for less-affluent communities, multicultural communities with various socio-economic issues.

“In Rantoul ... housing, commerical and industrial development are the areas where you have a need to make sure they are properly inspected.”

Rufus said it is important to have a good inspection program and that residential and commercial developments take place in a healthy environment. It is also important to see an increase in single-housing development.

Rufus said she rode around Rantoul and said there are developers who are interested in the community — developers “who are looking to move to towns just like Rantoul,” which would provide an improved tax base.

Rufus said she has experience in doing away with dilapidated properties and improving housing starts.

Snider said in Gallup, he was a member of the business improvement district and worked with downtown business people. He also helped form an arts and cultural district, which “turned out to be our particular niche in the economy.”

“Gallup is the center of a lot of creative aspirations,” Snider said. “There’s a tremendous amount of jewelry and painting and other types of creative works” as well as a major tourist attraction.

Like Rantoul, Gallup has its own electric utility. He spent a great deal of time working with business leaders and state representatives.

“One of the projects I initiated was the development of redundant fiber-optic network facilities” so Gallup would not  cut off from the world in the event of an accident. Previously, only one line came into town.

“As far as housing, if we don’t have a healthy community, we’re not going to be able to attract people,” Snider said. “I think if you have good schools and a good quality of life, people are going to want to come here.”

Lynch: “Economic development comes back to my very roots and some of the reasons why I came to have a knowledge of local government. That came in a period when I owned several businesses. I have experience from the private business side of the table.”

Lynch said when he was a business owner, he became frustrated with the community allocating so many resources to attract new businesses but not doing much to support existing ones. “They’re both very important,” he said.

Lynch said he was instrumental, when working in Hillsboro, Wis., in bringing in 17-19 new businesses in a 20-month span to a community of about 1,500 people. He did that through the use of tax increment financing districts.

Lynch said he has been involved in similar development in stops in Kansas and Alaska.

What would you like to see happen with Rantoul National Aviation Center?

Lynch: “I would like to see a multi-billion dollar facility that would bring a thousand jobs to the community,” a statement that drew applause.

“I don’t know if that’s what we will see, but that would be great, right?”
Lynch said he would work on a lot of ideas. He has a background in stock car racing. A facility for stock car races or some type of regional hub for an airline facility are among the possibilities for the aviation center.

“The Chicago airports are landlocked,” Lynch said. “They don’t have room to expand, and they’ve been looking for outlying areas to expand some of their air traffic to.

This might be a little far south, but I think you might have a little key piece.”

Lynch said a partnership with Amtrak to make Rantoul a transportation center would also be attractive.

Rufus: “When I first saw the site today, I thought, ‘Wow! This would be a great tourist attraction,” that would add jobs and increase the tax base.

“You have to think about a school that would train individuals to fly planes. You have the area and facilities. You can build on the historical role that would bring more people to town and provide more houses for people going to the (flight) school.”

Rufus said the most important aspect is job creation in that area. “Yes, we all want economic development; we all want jobs.”

Snider said Rantoul is in an attractive area with a number of nearby assets.

“It’s really in the middle of the country,” he said. “If you were to fly out of Rantoul, you could be anywhere else in the country in a couple of hours. Three major interstate highways run through the area. Several national railroad lines run through the area. That would seem to support some type of logistics.”

Snider said he wants to bring jobs to town that can pay a wage to support a family. “On minimum-wage jobs, you just don’t do that,” he said.

He said he would also like to see Rantoul take advantage of the “tremendous talent and resources” available at the University of Illinois.

Describe your experience in working with diverse populations

Snider said he spent most of his life in “fairly diverse” Chicago. “You have a lot of different ethnicities,” he said. “There are many challenges because of that in understanding each other and working together.”

Snider said he dealt with some of that during his career with Motorola and during his consulting days, but it was nothing compared to his time in Gallup. In 1990, Gallup’s population was primarily “white Caucasian.” By 2010 that had changed to 44 percent Navajo descent, 33 percent Hispanic and the rest Caucasian.

“It was kind of a challenge for the city, dealing with the rapid change,” Snider said. “Many people have moved to the city from the reservation because they wanted to take advantage of the amenities. The reservation is very limited in terms of basic things like electricity and running water. People would drive 60 miles to Gallup to take care of their families, their animals (for) their water needs.”

Snider’s staff was about one-half Navajo, with the majority of the rest of Hispanic descent.

“I’m not from either of those traditions,” he said. “Learning to work with those folks, understanding their needs, their family relations, religion, sometimes played a role in working with (the) people. I think it made me a more well-rounded person. I think the most important part of this is you start respecting people and listening to people. I think the biggest challenge is opening up and letting people tell where their concerns and needs are.”

Lynch said the word “diversity” means a lot of things — not just ethnicity. “I want to say to any people watching this, when I was young I would never have anticipated I would be sitting on a stage doing what I’m doing,” Lynch said. “I suspect if you would talk to the mayor or trustees, they would say the same thing. Young people are our future. I wanted to include age as part of (the diversity discussion). Lynch said he has been involved with youth in the past.

“(Regarding) ethnicity, I think everyone was raised with this word ‘race.’ I don’t believe in that (word) any longer. I believe that we’re all part of the human race. I don’t look at a person’s outward appearance.”

The city of Whittier employs 20 people. Lynch was recently involved in the hiring of an assistant city manager, and he said he didn’t know until “way after the selection process that she was Hispanic. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t look at people that way.”

Lynch said he has a great deal of experience working with different tribal groups in Alaska. “I know probably over 10 percent of my community is Samoan, another 10 percent is Filipino and another 5-10 percent is some form of Hispanic background. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.”

Rufus said her first experience of being a leader in a diverse environment was in college. The Iowa State University president decided individuals from each of the residence halls should sit on a policy-making committee, and Rufus was elected committee president. Rufus said she was initially concerned that she was the only African American on the committee, “but the people in the residence halls elected me president, and I felt honored by that.”

Upon leaving Iowa State, she worked in low-income housing developments. In Round Lake, she estimated there are more millionaires per capita than some of the cities in California. “I have worked with people of all ethnic backgrounds of socioeconomic descent.”

In Harvey, there is an entire block of people of Indian descent who have built $400,000 and $500,000 homes. Next to city hall fly the flags of most of the ethnic groups that have moved into town.

“It doesn’t matter where you are and where you go and what you do, as long as you treat people with love respect and kindness, you get that in return,” Rufus said. “It’s about your heart on the inside, and that’s very important. I’ve mentored children of all different ethnic backgrounds. I served on an intercessory prayer (group) in my church,” and she is an active member of the Order of the Eastern Star.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Rufus: “Here in the village of Rantoul. I’m just being honest. I said earlier I was looking for a change. I was looking for a life change.”

Rufus said when she was much younger and first got out of college, her career moved “rather fast because I was smart, I was young, I was eager. Now I’m looking for stability. I’m at a different place in my life. Being uprooted and moving in five years, no one has time for that. I’m looking to grow in a place where I could possibly raise a family. I don’t have any children. The possibility of adoption is there.”

Rufus has a goal of completing a PhD, and with the University of Illinois being so close, it would be a good opportunity to work for the village and complete the degree.

She said she has learned a lot about the village of Rantoul and believes “the village of Rantoul can teach me a lot as well.”

Snider said moving back to Champaign County “was not a stepping stone for me. I told them I will be here until you were sick of me or I was dirt.”

Snider said he loves the Midwest and the people. “I have had an opportunity to live in some amazing places — New York state is amazing culturally. New Mexico is unlike any other place. When it comes down to it, this is home for me, and I plan to be here for the long term.”

Lynch said he hopes he is in Rantoul in 10 years. “I’m probably closer to retirement than the rest of you. I would (hope) to still be in the area somewhere. Ten years from now I’ll have three grandchildren graduating high school. I intend to be here for that.

“I’m coming back to be home — kids, grandkids, the whole thing.”

How has your leadership improved the organizations you have worked for, and how do you see and measure your success?

Lynch: “I believe everywhere I’ve worked has seen improvement in one way or another. When I (move to a community), I become part of the community. I will be 110 percent Rantoul. I will be your biggest cheerleader. I will bring improvements in any area I can see they are needed.

“Measuring success: The easy thing is to see it by the results on the ground. I’m a realist. What I measure is how successful are the businesses? How successful are the residents? I think it’s important to have jobs across the board — some low-paying jobs, some middle, sustainable jobs that families can exist and make a career on” and some higher-paying jobs. “Success of the residents, success of local businesses and success of the schools (are important).”

Rufus: In 2003 when Rufus went to work for Harvey, there was a complete turnover in the town. “The city did not have adequate building-permit application forms, didn’t have residential forms so you could tell when your house was built, when the last time someone put a roof on the house.” Rufus said she rebuilt that entire department and has mentored many people through a work program.

Rufus said her first summer there, she was given 15 young girls to mentor that summer. “We transformed the entire department. There were forms; there were processes. It was a total transformation of the entire department,” Rufus said. “The biggest thing was changing the lives of the girls. That’s how you measure (success) is the change you make in a community. Yes, you want to implement new businesses and increase our (tax base), but your biggest accomplishment is when you change the lives of the people.”

Snider: “When the profession of public administration began in the early 1900s, most of the administrators were engineers. There was a lot of civil engineering projects going on. That’s changed. There are still a lot of engineers involved. We’ve also seen growth in people who have greater understanding of social issues. I like to solve problems. When I was working in Gallup, one of the first jobs I had was overseeing public utility service.”

Snider said there were eight women working in the department, and several of them were related. The working environment “was difficult. It took a while to sort out the issues. One of the best things I did was to establish an environment where people could focus on the work, could be good public service people.”

Snider said Gallup had a problem financially with people being delinquent on paying utility bills due to Gallup being an economically challenged area. It affected the city’s ability to deliver services. Working with the town council, he developed a new collections ordinance that was compassionate but firm. The delinquencies were reduced by about 70 percent in six months, and the number of utility shutoffs were reduced.

As candidates for administrator, have you interacted prior to applying for this position with any members of village staff, past or present? If so, what was the nature of the interaction?

Snider said being a county administrator, he has come in contact with a number of Rantoul officials. “Some people may have seen me here talking about the sales tax referendum. I met with the Exchange Club (and) Rotary. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with your mayor, have met with your (previous) administrator, worked with Rebecca Motley on economic development issues.

“I have also talked with Greg Hazel, the public works director. He’s a member of our Champaign County GIS consortium. I have had some interactions with staff. I’ve also been impressed with the people I’ve talked to. I see people who are very good at what they do.”

Lynch said he had not interacted with any of the village personnel prior to applying. “But I have been streaming village videos of board meetings,” he said.

Rufus said she had not met any village personnel, either, prior to applying but since then “everyone has been professional, has been more than courteous, accommodating. They’re very talented, very smart and intelligent,” she said.

What is your knowledge of and views on usage of community development block grants for low-income blighted areas to stabilize neighborhoods, and should they be used for economic development?

Rufus: “Community development block grants can be used for economic development. You can use them for housing revitalization. We have used them in the past for fixing roofs, doing home-improvement projects of low-income (people), to remove blight, for demolition, for street repair, road improvement, to resurface alleys and streets. In the time I’ve been in the city of Harvey, we’ve obtained over $13 million in grants. That includes CDBG, IKE grants, home grants. Throughout my tenure, CDBG monies can be used as an economic development tool.

“The one thing about CDBG, writing the grant isn’t the hard part. There’s part of the grant that you get audited. You can’t be one penny off,” she said. “You have to be very meticulous in using those funds. You must use the proper bidding process as established by (Housing and Urban Development).”

Snider said he has limited experience with the CDBG program. In Gallup, there was one segment eligible for infrastructure improvements, including roadways, curb, gutter and sidewalk. “I know that we spent a lot of time in terms of compliance,” Snider said.

“With our housing authority, we found what happens if you don’t do a good job with compliance. It all ended up satisfactorily.” Snider said he anticipates CDBG grant money would be put to use for economic development purposes.

Lynch said his experience goes back to 1990 with block grants — the first one being to update an aging sewer. “We don’t use them very much in Alaska,” Lynch said.

“We just got an application, and we’re looking to see if it’s something that we want to do. It’s important to look at the grant requirements, and for want of a better term, whether it’s worth the trouble.”

Describe the most challenging financial decision you have had to make as administrator, especially if it was one you didn’t want to make, and how did you do it?

Lynch said he is fortunate to have worked in communities that have been sound financially. He has not had to do it, but the most challenging would have been to reduce staff. “I haven’t had that happen to me personally, and I trust I never will (have to),” Lynch said.

Rufus said Harvey has experienced a great deal of financial troubles beginning in 2011-11 when 30 administrators were required to take work furloughs for reduced work weeks. “It was very difficult to put our union staff on furlough because you have to go through negotiations.”

The city also had to lay people off, many of them “great employees” who were relied on to help provide for their family.

The city also had to increase its water rates by 100 percent due to poor financial decisions by the previous administration. Business license fees had to be increased.

They hadn’t been increased in 10 years.

“When you have a good work ethic and a good heart, you go home and you pray about it, and you come back and you talk with your staff and are honest with them,” Rufus said. “Sometimes as managers, you make decisions you don’t want to have to make.”

Snider said the most difficult situation he has had to deal with professionally involves the Champaign County Nursing Home. “It’s not just a challenge based on finances,” Snider said. “It’s got human challenges as well. We’re talking about an institution that’s been here for 150 years that provides for a very vulnerable population.

“You worry first about patient care ... but also that the employees are taken care of and that  you don’t jeopardize the county’s finances.”

Snider said he has begun being more transparent providing information about what the nursing home census is, ... and trying to make our decisions on facts and not just our hearts.”

dhinton@rantoulpress.com
 

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