ST. CHARLES – During his 20 years on the St. Charles City Council, Mayor Don DeWitte said he tried to follow advice from late Alderman Walter Foulkes: If you have a position and maintain it, nobody can or should fault you for it.
“I hope no one would have questioned my position on any given issue,” DeWitte said.
DeWitte, 59, officially will end his tenure in city government May 6, when those elected April 9 take over.
DeWitte’s tenure included the completion of the first two phases of the First Street redevelopment project; the reconstruction of Fire Station No. 1; and the construction of Red Gate Bridge, the largest public works infrastructure initiative in the city’s history. But he also took heat from residents, particularly after January’s vote on the Lexington Club housing development and how he adjourned that meeting before a resident could talk.
Former Mayor Fred Norris, who also served on the council with DeWitte’s father, said DeWitte has done an outstanding job.
“He had the heart of the community built right into him,” Norris said. “It’s been a real pleasure to watch his successes as mayor.”
DeWitte was elected as 3rd Ward alderman in 1993. The city was on the verge of a significant growth spurt, and downtown was struggling, he said. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, St. Charles experienced a lot of development, especially on the west side. Under Mayor Sue Klinkhamer’s administration, he said, downtown spaces began filling up, bringing the area back to life.
“I like to think our administration picked up from that,” DeWitte said.
City Administrator Brian Townsend said DeWitte set a fiscally conservative tone at City Hall. He said the mayor wanted expenses scrutinized, efficient processes and procedures, and the tax burden reduced or made as low as possible.
DeWitte isn’t afraid to speak his mind, Townsend said.
“He wants to do what he believes is best for the city,” Townsend said. “The results of his leadership speak for themselves.”
Other accomplishments during DeWitte’s eight-year tenure as mayor included the public works facility on Seventh Avenue; the fire department’s administrative headquarters in the Century Station building; the Municipal Center’s river wall and Norris family public plaza reconstruction projects; and the radium removal facility on Riverside Drive.
“He accomplished the one [project] I couldn’t accomplish,” said Norris, referring to Red Gate Bridge.
DeWitte said he is most proud of the city’s sound finances and ability to move forward on such aforementioned projects while weathering the Great Recession.
“I can’t think of anything I would have done differently,” DeWitte said.
Despite what his longstanding critics may say, he said, he never had an ulterior motive as mayor. Fourth Ward Alderman Jim Martin concurred.
“He never pulled any backward stunts that some mayors would do,” Martin said. “He never strong-armed anybody. He’s led the council through some very interesting times. He has a good grasp of how to be mayor, and he’s done a good job.”
Resident Gene Kalley, however, has been critical of the city’s finances, particularly of its use of tax increment financing funds. He voiced his concerns at public meetings but said it felt like his comments fell on deaf ears.
“He wasn’t receptive to public comment,” Kalley said of the mayor. “He showed it when he voted Lexington Club in.”
Many residents publicly opposed Lexington Club, a housing development planned for the city’s west side. They criticized the 6-5 vote taken in January and the few days’ notice that a vote would be taken.
DeWitte said he always felt a residential development was appropriate for the former Applied Composites site. Further, a lower density project wasn’t economically viable, and traffic concerns were unfounded at best and emotionally driven at worst. He said the developer asked that a vote be taken – a sign that the developer was done negotiating.
“A lot of people believe we have the ability to mold or sculpt any project in the form they or the City Council see fit,” DeWitte said.
He wishes the City Council had supported ShoDeen’s mixed-use proposal for the former St. Charles Mall site along Route 38 near Randall Road. He said opponents coerced some to see the issue their way.
Several years later, he said, “the site remains a rotting parking lot with two shuttered restaurants and a strip mall across the street that could have very well been a Whole Foods supermarket.”
Although DeWitte said he has enjoyed being mayor – a role that sometimes required as little as five to 10 hours a week and other times required as much as 20 to 30 hours a week – he doesn’t expect he will miss it.
“I think a change of personalities can always be constructive,” he said.
The next mayor, he said, should be a businessman – someone who can deal with financial issues and has the ability to negotiate with numerous and varied input. As developers submit proposals, he said, maintaining a balance between neighborhood rights and the community’s greater good will become even more important.
On April 9, voters will decide whether John Rabchuk, Jotham Stein, Jake Wyatt or Ray Rogina is best suited for the job.