BLOOMINGTON — Pressure is building for Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe to fill a vacant seat on the city council, as several residents criticized him for recommending a former council member who lost the same seat in the 2019 election.
The Ward 6 seat, which covers portions of downtown and the west side, has been empty since Aug. 30. Ald. Jenn Carrillo resigned two years into a four-year term because Carrillo was unable to find new housing within ward boundaries.
An email shared to social media by a current council member shows Mwilambwe is considering Karen Schmidt, who served as a Ward 6 council member for 20 years and lost the seat in 2019 to Carrillo by 42 votes, to again represent Ward 6.
The mayor must appoint — and the council must approve — a replacement by Oct. 30.
Mwilambwe was not available for comment Tuesday. A voicemail to Schmidt was not immediately returned.
Schmidt served on the council with Mwilambwe for eight years. She also helped him in his campaign for mayor and appeared in a campaign video for Mwilambwe.
Some residents raised concerns about appointing Schmidt, who was not among the 11 candidates who submitted an application for the seat.
Luisa Gomez, a resident of Ward 6, said she turned in her application for the position but never received confirmation from the city that it was received.
“We put in our applications at the desired deadline that was set for us, but then we were told it was extended for others,” Gomez said. “Now we’re told that someone else who did not follow the procedures is being considered.”
Coretta Jackson, also a ward resident, told council members and city staff Monday that the current makeup of the city council does not accurately represent the city.
“Right now, Ward 6 is not a part of our city because that seat is empty. There have been many decisions made in this room over the past several weeks that do not include the voices of the people of Ward 6,” Jackson said, mentioning recent votes such as a plan to aid flood victims from summer rainstorms, other infrastructure matters, and a vote to increase city manager Tim Gleason’s salary.
Mwilambwe in his email to council members said Schmidt “understands the role of council member and that they make decisions not just for their ward but also the community as a whole.”
Ward 2 Ald. Donna Boelen reiterated that idea at Monday’s council meeting.
“The appointment is entirely the mayor’s prerogative and the ward represents their constituents, but also makes decisions that affect the entire community,” Boelen said.
The mayor also told the council in his email that his “goal all along has been to find the candidate with the broadest amount of consensus amongst council, Ward 6 residents and the community.”
"I have spoken to Karen and she has indicated her willingness to serve but only to finish out the term as she would not run again," Mwilambwe wrote to the city council.
The email was shared to Facebook by Ward 8 Ald. Jeff Crabill, who in the post accused the mayor of wanting to find middle ground between progressives and conservatives on the council because one other candidate did not garner support from conservative members.
“This flies in the face of Democracy,” Crabill wrote. “It is virtually unheard of that after an elected loses their seat, particularly through no fault of their own, that their opponent in the last election would fill that vacancy.”
Mwilambwe did not address at Monday’s council meeting the email or the offering of Schmidt to fill the seat.
He said in the email that Schmidt’s name “has been mentioned to me by several people who believe she would be the candidate who would reach the broadest level of consensus.”
Instead, during his discussion session at the end of Monday’s council meeting, Mwilambwe said: “I just want to mention what is obvious, is that the search for Ward 6 continues.”
Also approved Monday at the Bloomington City Council meeting was an ordinance creating a Welcoming America Commission, which comes nine months after the council approved the Welcoming America initiative.
The commission would serve as an advisory board to the city council and other officials in developing and maintaining the city’s Welcoming America initiative.
The Welcoming America Initiative connects leaders in the community, both in government and nonprofit sectors. It builds on current work by providing methods and approaches to creating inclusive, welcoming places for immigrants. The initiative can also assist in creating policies and reinforce welcoming principles.
The ordinance passed 5 to 1. Ward 5 Ald. Nick Becker voted “no” and Ward 3 Ald. Sheila Montney and Boelen did not vote.
That vote came after a proposed amendment by Crabill that would have added text to the section of the ordinance about membership reading: “The mayor shall strive to the make appointments that are reflective of the diverse nature of our community, including those residents that are first-generation immigrants. The commission is also well-served with community members who have backgrounds in advocating for immigrants.”
That amendment was shot down by Boelen, Becker, Montney, and Ward 9 Ald. Tom Crumpler, with Mwilambwe’s “no” vote as a tiebreaker.
The overall Welcoming America Commission ordinance did pass with a different amendment by Crabill which added one function of the commission to be “to establish indicators that will allow the city to measure how well the community is meeting the Welcoming America standard.”
A resolution increasing the percentage of funding available through the Harriet Fuller Rust Grant program for projects in Wards 1, 4 and 6 also passed the city council Monday.
The resolution increases the percentage that the city would provide for rust fund grants from 50% to 75%. The program helps fund façade projects that aim to make buildings more accessible and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It does not call on the city to spend any more money,” Ward 7 Ald. Mollie Ward said. “This would simply say that people could be reimbursed for up to 75% of their costs. And the other portion of this (resolution) has to do with marketing the program to increase awareness of the program. Currently, it’s had very little use, if any.”
Contact Kade Heather at 309-820-3256. Follow him on Twitter: @kadeheather