MARION — Mayor Robert Butler announced today that he plans to retire Jan. 31. He will advise the corporate authorities of the city of his decision on Monday.
“Deterioration of my hearing has progressed to the point of carrying out the duties of the office in satisfactory fashion is impaired,” Butler said in the press release.
He said it is becoming hard for him to discern what is being said in meetings, like city council meetings. He joked Friday afternoon that he does not want to be on record as agreeing with something he is really against because of his hearing.
Butler is the one of the longest serving mayors in both Illinois and the U.S. He took office in 1963. Among mayors still holding office, Butler is second to Charles E. Long of Booneville, Kentucky.
Butler was first elected mayor of Marion in April 1963.
“I believe the structure and organization of the city and smooth manner in which city affairs are conducted is one of our greatest accomplishments,” Butler said. “The city was in complete and utter chaos when I became mayor.”
Today, Butler said the council is the most professional, best qualified group of people. Butler added that the way the city operates is a testament to that fact.
He said the newly-elected members were seated on the council during the first meeting in May in 1963. The night of his first council meeting, an entire block on the square burned.
“The whole block where the Salvation Army is located caught fire at 5 p.m. the day the new city council took office,” Butler said.
After the new council took office, the meeting was adjourned and they went to help fight the fire. Butler believes it may have been the shortest city council meeting on record.
The fire, which destroyed at least eight businesses, brought to light issues the city had at the time, such as inadequate fire-fighting resources and an inadequate water supply.
The city also was in a financial crisis. Butler said the street superintendent could not get $1.25 credit at a local lumber yard to buy stakes for the city. But, that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Property taxes were high enough that the council did want to raise them, so they had to raise money through sales tax. They could not raise the tax itself. The only answer was to generate more sales.
Butler said they accomplished this by annexing properties with businesses into the city. Taxes began to go up and the financial situation began to improve. So, they began annexing residential properties, too.
“We annexed real estate, which helped some, but it was really important to raise the head count,” Butler said, adding that more people meant more money from the state.
Sales tax collected by the city of Marion was $1.5 million per year when Butler took office. Today the city collects more than $14 million dollars in sales tax each year. He calls sales tax the life blood of city operations.
“It’s interesting. We’ve had several major restaurant chains comes to Marion,” Butler said.
He always is encouraged by their interest because he knows they do their due diligence before approaching the city. They provide jobs, add to the tax base and enhance the sales tax, too.
Butler admits he is pretty conservative across the board — in values, politics, religion and finances. However, he found that sometimes he had to gamble a bit as mayor.
“Early on, I found in addition to being aggressive in promoting the city, I had to take risks. A prime example is Circuit City,” Butler said.
Circuit City had been considering a move to Marion for about six months when officials approached the mayor about meeting with them. They arranged to meet, along with city engineer Glenn Clarida and members of Marion Chamber of Commerce. Circuit City wanted to build a $40 million facility, but needed infrastructure improvements totaling about $2 million and a large piece of land.
Butler said he and Clarida had to commit the money. Clarida asked Butler if the city had $2 million, and Butler said no. He asked Butler if the city had the property, and Butler again said no. They agreed to the deal.
“We went so far out on a limb, it shook the tree,” Butler said.
The city got the funding and real estate and Circuit City built the facility. They were in operation for more than a decade, which was a win for the city.
“I’ve learned sometimes you have take risks. I’ve done it a few times and been on the winning side every time,” Butler said. “A strong business community and a strong city working together produced great results.”
Butler does not claim the results are all his.
“We have to give credit to the community and the people on the city council,” he said.
Butler has served with 25 different city commissioners, and in almost every case, they have been able to work together.
Butler is proud of many accomplishments in his 53 years as mayor of “the hub of the universe” (a phrase he coined). Marion Civic Center, which stands across the square from city hall, is one of them.
The Orpheum Theater on the Marion Square opened in 1922, and was the flagship of a chain of vaudeville and moving picture theaters in Southern Illinois, according to Marion Cultural and Civic Center’s website. Butler said the owners let the theater decline until it was offered for sale for $15,000.
“Jackie Hancock suggested buying it and turning it into a civic center,” Butler said.
The city purchased the building in 1974 and spent another $150,000 to make it useable. I’s first event was Miss Southern Illinois. The venue hosted stars like Red Skelton, Anne Miller, the Vienna Boys Choir and Hartford Ballet, as well as dance, baton and music recitals and high school plays.
On March 10, 1997, the 75-year-old theater caught fire and burned.
Butler wanted to rebuild, as did the civic center board, but the city council was another story. Butler said two commissioners were against spending $3 million to rebuild and the third was on the fence. That’s when another Butler got involved — the mayor’s wife Louetta.
“My wife came down to the business district and invited every business owner to the council meeting. The meeting was packed,” Butler said.
One of the commissioners moved to send it to a vote of the people and it passed. Butler said the council would have voted it down if not for the efforts of his wife, who served on the board of Marion Cultural and Civic Center for 43 years. He also called her his strongest supporter.
"Consequently, when she starts pressing me to retire, I have to pay little attention to her,” he said.
During the interview with The Southern, Marion Police Chief Dawn Tondini stopped in to say goodbye to Mayor Butler.
“This guy gave me a chance I never thought I’d get,” Tondini said.
“I never thought I’d hire a woman to be a police officer,” Butler said. “It was a good decision.”
Butler said society has changed, but he thinks he is the same as he was 70 years ago. He has certain attitudes and beliefs that do not change.
“Everyone ought to have certain truths and values they adhere to,” Butler said. “One problem is a lot of people have values, but cave in to pressure. Maybe that’s one of my faults; I’ve never been one to give in.”
He is humbled by the fact that two or three generations of the same family have voted for him, but stresses that elections must be kept in proper perspective.
“Most elections – win or lose – do not herald the end of the world,” Butler said.
Butler will be succeeded by Commissioner Anthony Rinella.
“I have thought of Marion as a special place. With that in mind, I have tried to help make that true,” Butler said.