Smile Politely

15 questions for Tom Bruno

Tom Bruno, longtime council member in the City of Champaign, chatted with me for the next installment of our ongoing series on elected public officials. Here’s what he had to say.

Question 1. 

Smile Politely: What are your connections to the city of Champaign?

Tom Bruno: I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago. I came here as a U of I freshman at the age of 18 in 1972. I attended my undergrad here. I did my first year of law school at North Carolina, and then I finished law school here. When I graduated from law school, I went into private practice and have been practicing law in Champaign County ever since. All of my adult life has been here.

Question 2.

SP: Tell me more about your professional background.

Bruno: When I was right out of law school, I went into practice as a sole practitioner. I had a general practice for a few years and took cases related to family law, real estate closings, and a smattering of criminal matters. But for the last 25 years, I’ve been almost exclusively a defense attorney in serious criminal cases. There have been some DUIs, but mostly criminal cases. I have been practicing with my older son for nearly four years.

Question 3.

SP: How did you get involved with city council?

Bruno: When I was in kindergarten, my father was a member of the Westmont village ward near Chicago. And when I was about 6 to 10 years old, my dad was one of the village trustees of our small village. I learned at the dinner table about city government, local government, and the kinds of issues that towns, villages, and cities deal with. And how to solve problems when your constituents are your next door neighbors and you have police and fire departments and potholes to deal with. So I always had an interest in local government.

When I got out of law school, I maintained an interest in local government as an observer. When a vacancy occurred in the summer of 1997, I submitted my name. I was selected out of a pool of 17 or 18 to fill the vacancy, and I’ve been part of the city council ever since.

Question 4.

SP: What issues have most captivated your attention during your time on city council?

Bruno: I enjoy focusing on what the city can do to stimulate economic development. By that I mean good paying jobs for our community members, which are vital so that we don’t have to unduly burden our citizens with the cost of providing services that people expect — things like snow removal, public safety, and road repair. Those services are an easier burden if you have a healthy local economy and people have good paying jobs.

Specifically, I had a hand in the successful rebirth of our downtown. Back in 1997, it wasn’t nearly as healthy as it is now. I didn’t act alone, so I don’t mean to take sole credit. But I think the city council since 1997 has done a lot to make our downtown the vibrant, successful place it is today. Back in 1997, we would never have dreamed that people would have put tens of millions of dollars into a high-rise hotel downtown. Or that we would have restaurants and entertainment venues that are the envy of downstate Illinois. Those things have improved the quality of life in this entire county. Downtown Champaign took hundreds of little actions. But because we collectively made a lot of good calls and because of the risks we took, downtown got healthier and healthier. And now there’s not much else like it south of interstate 80 in the state of Illinois.

Question 5.

SP: What specifically have you done as a councilmember to implement programs related to economic development, perhaps in the case of downtown Champaign? 

Bruno: The dirty little secret is that the city council is like the board of directors of a large organization. There are nine of us, and our makeup changes from time to time. What makes the city of Champaign work so well is that we have a really good city staff that takes the temperature of the city council on a regular basis and know our attitudes, ideas, and philosophies. They do the day-to-day heavy lifting to implement our value systems. So, when an economic development project comes along, or a policy comes along that will improve our police or fire services, often the role of the city council is to be presented with two or three different options by staff who we have carefully groomed and selected to tell us what our options should be. And then the nine of us give the necessary feedback and the staff implements our decisions. That process slowly moves the massive cruise ship that is city government. One of the reasons we are so successful in Champaign is that we don’t micromanage the work of the city.

The outsider looking in might by surprised by how frequently ideas coming before the city council get passed by votes of nine to zero. A rookie observer might look at that and say, “you’re just rubberstamping whatever the staff wants to do.” But what is really taking place is that we’ve talked to staff one-on-one and they know us  they certainly know me after 17 years on city council — and they don’t spend a lot of time working up a proposal without having a fairly good idea of whether it will prevail or not. As they refine the ideas, they check in with the nine of us about how feel about the solutions. By the time it is finally presented to us, it usually has seven, eight, or nine yes votes. It can appear that they are telling us what to do, but it is much more subtle than that.

Similarly, I will sit down at the bargaining table with the city employees’ labor unions, or a developer, or a bar owner who has a beef about their liquor license, but as I react to those situations I reflect them back to city staff and the rest of the council. So the product that comes out of the sausage machine reflects the collective values of the nine of us. That’s how I would explain to somebody, “what did I do to implement this.”

One example is the parking rates downtown. I don’t think we should subsidize them too much. We shouldn’t be charging something like a nickel an hour because then people could never find parking spots. I’ve made it known that I believe it’s more important for us to always have turnover in parking. I don’t say exactly what I think the cost of parking should be, but the city staff knows that I think we should choose a rate that makes it easier for people to find a parking space.

Question 6.

SP: Besides downtown Champaign, what have been some of the high points of your time on city council?

Bruno: In the late 1990s and early parts of the 00s, we spent millions of dollars to control flooding that was occurring in campus town. Those floodwaters that would affect Green Street annually, when we had the biggest rainfall of the year, had a chilling effect on the development of campus town. Back when I was an undergrad, every time we had a heavy rainfall, all of the businesses on Green Street would have significantly flooded basements and would lose merchandise. We spent a lot of money to deal with the flooding in campus town. Had we not done that, we would not have seen the multimillion-dollar investments that we’re seeing, which allow our university to be competitive on the international market. Aggressively solving storm water problems meant a lot for people’s quality of life in the city of Champaign. We also replaced streetlights when I first got on city council, which improved the quality of life for the community.

Those projects are a balance of how much money we want to spend and giving citizens what they want and deserve. There are those who would argue we should always go for the cheaper solution and those who wish we spent a lot more money, but it’s always a balance between those perspectives.

Question 7.

SP: What have been some of the low points for you during your time on city council?

Bruno: I think we’ve come a long way in demilitarizing our police department. I wish we had been more successful at that earlier. Ultimately, I’d like to have a police department that reflects the community they serve, and I’d like more of our police officers to live in the community. We’ve come a long way. Chief Cobb is great. But there have been some difficult times when I thought we could have done better with the police department. I think we’ve been getting there pretty quickly in the last few years, but that is my reflection from my whole time on city council.

Question 8.

SP: What is it like being an at-large council member? How does your role differ from that of council members who serve specific districts?

Bruno: Well, I only survive on the council if I have the support of the majority of the city. I cringe at council members who don’t think about the bigger picture and consider how the community at large feels. I always think about how things will affect the community as a whole — the more affluent, the less affluent—and how decisions will affect different areas of the city. I will say our system is well designed in that of a nine-member city council, only five of us were up for election in 2013 and four will be up for election in 2015. So we can never have complete turnover.

Question 9.

SP: You’ve talked a lot about economic development in Champaign. What projects do you think still need to take place in terms of economic development?

Bruno: I think there needs to be interplay between quality of life issues and economic development. When we have bars and restaurants that help us retain talent that’s otherwise free to travel to other communities. It’s also helpful that this is a community that’s inclusive, where folks of different ethnic backgrounds and sexual backgrounds all feel welcome and comfortable. That helps us keep the talent that attracts big employers, like DS Volition and Research Park. We need to keep that up, and also to have affordable housing and a low commute time. We’ve done pretty well with low commute times due to the success of the MTD. I like it when we cooperate with them because good mass transit keeps our road congestion down, which keeps down costs of roads and highways as well as commute time.

I’d like to see us do a better job with the ongoing battle that is the passenger rail system of Amtrak. Right now we have three trains a day to Chicago, and I’d like to see that go up to six trains a day. I think we can do that if we work with the communities north and south of us.

I fought pretty hard for a light rail system in 2003, which would have provided transportation from Urbana to Champaign. We had a good start, but some people support the automobile more strenuously than I do, so we pulled back from that idea and didn’t go with it. I think it would have had a great benefit for our community to install a light rail line that could have served everywhere in our community. The city light rail would have ignited development along the light rail line. That’s what has happened in other communities. It would have made us an edgy, cool community that people would have talked about. It would have been good for downtown Urbana. And it would have saved automobile traffic, which is expensive for us as a city. Fewer college students would feel the need to have a car on campus if there were such a system. I would be in favor of not installing parking lots at apartments and letting the market determine if students want to incur the cost of having a car.

I’d like to see us be even more forward thinking about parking. But that’s a tough sell. A lot of people think that the more parking there is, the better things are. But that comes at a steep price. Everyone pays for it in terms of road repairs. It’s not free.

Question 10.

SP: What are your views on the recent controversy surrounding the new location of Central High School?

Bruno: What a number of years on city council has taught is that I like it when people realize that the decision makers have more information at their disposal than casual observers do. I like to think I’m more than a casual observer, but I don’t have as much information as the school board. They have to answer to lots of people about Unit 4. And yet, despite that, I was distressed by the choice of location. I’m not convinced that a fair debate took place about the location. But there are factors that I don’t know. This may be the perfect opportunity for the project to be delayed a little bit while a more robust and refined debate takes place in the community.

I would have wanted to know why the idea of a single high school wasn’t worth pursuing. I didn’t find it satisfactory to hear simply that we’ve always had two high schools. The notion of having a single high school of a large size not only isn’t foreign to me, but it reflects where I went to high school. Having freshmen and sophomores on one campus and juniors and seniors at another campus is another option. But I’m not on the school board, so I don’t have all the information.

I was surprised and also happy to see the vote was as close as it was. I was excited about the idea of a Spalding or Dodds Park location. I heard the park district wasn’t interest in selling Dodds Park, and I was surprised there wasn’t more discussion about that and what’s in the best interest of the larger community.

This may not be resolved until we have an election that changes the makeup of the school board, park board, and city council. Elections have consequences, and perhaps in the April 2015 election, there will be candidates who will offer new views. The public may have a chance to voices its views. 

Question 11.

SP: How would you characterize Champaign’s relationship to Urbana?

Bruno: We must work together. There are differences of opinion from time to time. There are some cultural differences. But we have a lot in common as well. Nevertheless, I never understood the cache of the argument that the two cities should merge. I think that would be a disaster. That would unduly empower Savoy. It’s easy to be on the periphery looking in and not have to worry about taking care of the homeless or the economic activity that’s necessary in a community of our size. We need to work together to the extent that Illinois and Indiana need to work together. The idea of Champaign and Urbana merging is not something I’ve ever given serious consideration to. It just limits choices.

Urbana is suffering through some difficult times right now. We have to help them through that and work cooperatively even though they find themselves in some difficult financial straits.

Question 12.

SP: Would you change anything about how the Champaign City Council works?

Bruno: Not much. I think we’ve been lucky. Of course, we are nominally nonpartisan. There are always people who say, “yes, but you aren’t really.” I beg to differ because I consider myself to be pretty aggressively nonpartisan. When we’re not doing city business, I know I have colleagues who are active in the Republican party or the Democratic party. I don’t do that, though of course I do vote in November elections. The fact that we aren’t labeled with party affiliations helps us to work well together.

We have the advantage of a strong city manager system. Our city manager enjoys the confidence of all nine of us. We don’t have as much power as people think we have, and that’s a good thing. We don’t want to be making 90-degree right or 90-degree left turns every two years. That’s not good for the city.

Question 13.

SP: I know you just said you are aggressively nonpartisan, but how would you describe your political philosophy?

Bruno: That’s hard to do, which is why no one welcomes me into their party. I’m pro-development. I’m socially liberal. I’m in favor of being less restrictive in terms of our liquor licensing. I think we should have a parking philosophy that I would describe as fairly liberal in that we would discourage parking lots rather than mandating their existence. I think we need to take care of the folks in our community who are the weakest and the least powerful. But I also don’t mind attracting business development to our community by giving them incentives. Some of those things are traits you might typically see with a Republican and others with a Democrat. I think I have the freedom to mix and match according to my own personal philosophy because I don’t have to worry about irritating comrades in a political party. That’s the advantage of a nonpartisan city council. My collection of things I care about doesn’t have to match up with what others on council care about.

Question 14.

SP: Who are your political heroes or favorite leaders?

Bruno: I think Jimmy Carter was a better president than most people thing he was. I think he was brutally honest at a time when America needed some honesty and that’s why he only got one term. I think the elder George Bush was a better president than his son. And Ronald Reagan — I didn’t particularly care for him. On the other hand, I think Illinois will be well served by the new governor we elected. 

Question 15.

SP: What are your favorite public spaces in Champaign? Or your favorite aspects of the city?

Bruno: I think we’ve got really cool geography. I like watching the storms roll in from the west. The hair goes up on the back of my neck when I hear people complain that we don’t have mountains or oceans. I like what we do have is pretty cool. I don’t mind living on a very flat piece of land in the middle of America. I like our Midwestern values. I like the people who live here a lot. I have sisters who live on the west coast, and I always think their communities are cool when I visit, but I always look forward to getting back to the people here. We are people who are open-minded and accepting of people who are different from us more than we give ourselves credit for.

I like our downtown. I think it’s good for the soul and good for quality of life. And I like our airport. If I lived 5 miles from O’Hare, it would take me much more time to get home than living 5 miles from Willard.

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