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Benton City Hall is shown.

Note: This story has been updated to include City Council Candidate Brandon Overton. The Southern was initially unable to interview Overton, after receiving incorrect contact information from the city of Benton.

BENTON — Voters in Benton will have plenty of candidates to choose from this April 2, as they select four city councilmen and a mayor.

Just two incumbents, Mayor Fred Kondritz and Councilman Don Storey, are seeking re-election. Kondritz is challenged by Roy Simpkins, while Storey will compete with eight other candidates for Benton’s four City Council spots.

The elected mayor will appoint those four winners to oversee four areas of city business: Accounts and Finance, Streets, Public Health and Safety, and Water and Sewer/Public Properties

Kondritz is a one-term incumbent who came to the mayor’s office after a long career as a pharmacist and pharmacy manager. In his first four years, Kondritz said, he cleaned up the city with expanded trash service, and oversaw the construction of a new City Hall, a new police station and a new wastewater treatment plant.

“The previous administration had gotten a five-year warning from the EPA,” Kondritz said, to fix the old plant, replace it, or shut it down.

“It has made a major difference in our ability to recruit businesses to Benton,” Kondritz said.

If re-elected, Kondritz will continue lobbying state and federal legislators for funds to update town infrastructure, he said.

“I’m a full-time mayor, in a town that needs a full-time mayor,” he added. “I’m proud to say I’m 24/7.”

Kondritz is facing Roy Simpkins, a longtime custodian at Rend Lake College who also DJs at local weddings, bars and events under the name “Rockin’ Roy.”

“I don’t have anything against the current mayor,” Simpkins said, “but I have some ideas that I think can help the community. I want to give people another option.”

If elected, Simpkins said he hopes to build on Kondritz’s progress in attracting new business to Benton, cleaning up the town, and addressing dilapidated properties. Simpkins also advocates online live streaming of City Council meetings.

Among commissioner candidates, Don Storey is the only incumbent. He’s a retired coal miner, finishing his first term on the City Council, where he oversees public health and safety. Speaking with The Southern, Storey touted his work on behalf of Benton’s police and fire departments.

“We’ve got a brand new police station that’s paid for, we’ve joined the state’s drug task force, and I got a K-9 unit that didn’t cost the city a dime,” Storey said. “At the fire department we’ve got a brand new ladder truck, and we’re getting ready to remodel the station.”

If re-elected, Storey hopes to expand Benton’s school resource officer program, and add a fireman to the department, he said.

Lee Messersmith brings a background in education, leadership development and small business to the City Council race. Born and raised in Benton, Messersmith now owns Cycle1 Cycle & Strength Studio, and mentors high school students who aspire to start their own businesses through the Franklin County EDGE Program.

If elected, Messersmith plans to expand city support for small business development, and create new spaces and activities for local kids.

“The biggest issue I’ve seen in Benton is that the leadership has lost residents’ trust,” Messersmith said. “The leadership of Benton needs to share a cohesive, big-picture vision: ‘This is who we are, and this is what we’re about.’”

Several candidates cited transparency as a key issue. To Chris Sawyer, it’s fundamental.

“Transparency equals responsibility and accountability, and that equals trust,” said Sawyer, a self-employed landlord and property owner.

Sawyer, who has lived in Benton since 1999, suggests using radio and online live streaming to involve more citizens in City Council meetings.

As an entrepreneur with no family or financial ties to city government, Sawyer said he’ll be a fresh voice on the council, who can set his own schedule and make himself available to constituents. Sawyer is particularly interested in overseeing the water and sewer departments at the city, he said, citing a strong relationship with Benton’s water superintendent.

Like Sawyer, Tom Carter called transparency a focus of this year’s election.

“FOIAs, I believe in them. Credit cards, we need to limit and monitor their use,” Carter said. “We also need to make sure the city keeps audio of all regular meetings, to share with the public.”

Carter, a lifelong Benton resident, worked for the city for 32 years, supervising its wastewater treatment plant, a role in which he said he saved the city millions of dollars.

After retiring, he helped expose violations of the Freedom of Information Act by the city of Benton and the Benton Municipal Airport Board.

If elected, Carter said he hopes to add more time for public comments at city meetings and ensure all transcripts of meeting minutes are shared with the public as searchable PDFs. He hopes to oversee the water and sewer departments, the same area he once worked in.

Cathy Garavalia is an active community volunteer who brings a diverse background to her first campaign for public office.

Now retired, Garavalia taught child development at SIU Carbondale, ran a rape crisis center in Mount Vernon and then became a project manager for commercial construction projects around the country.

If elected, Garavalia would like to see the city make better use of tax increment financing, or TIF, to improve Benton infrastructure. She also plans to address neglected, run-down housing, and make the city website more informative and accessible.

The only woman in the race, Garavalia said she’s “not running on gender, but not running away from it either,” and cited her ability to work with many different types of people.

John Mohr enters the race with 24 years of experience working for the Illinois Department of Corrections. Currently a correctional officer, Mohr was born in Franklin County and has lived there all his life.

If elected, he said he’d like to see the city’s departments run more efficiently, and would prioritize cleaning up old construction.

“We’ve got abandoned, crumbling houses and vacant lots that are stacked with junk,” Mohr said. “No one is going to put a multimillion-dollar company beside a junkyard.”

Infrastructure updates are another urgent matter, he said, as many sewer and water lines need to be replaced.

“We need to find someone that can write excellent grants and apply for every single one,” Mohr said. “Funding is going to be tough to come by, but we need to get this done.”

At 36 years old, Ian Perkins is one of the youngest candidates in the field. But he has a long history of public service, he told The Southern, including leadership positions in local Elks and Kiwanis clubs.

“Running a civic organization is like running a business,” Perkins said. “You learn to file taxes, do payroll, and balance the different interests of your constituents.”

Perkins works for a major health insurance provider, making sure clients receive the care they’re entitled to from doctors and hospitals.

If elected, he plans to create a citizens’ advisory board, bringing together Benton residents and the leaders of city departments, to talk directly about pressing problems. Perkins also supports live streaming to increase participation in city council meetings, and will focus on writing grants to seek support for costly but necessary infrastructure improvements.

As an EMT and former volunteer firefighter, City Council candidate Brandon Overton knows firsthand that Benton's infrastructure is not up to par, from burst water lines to crumbling sidewalks.

"Upgrading our infrastructure will allow us to lure more businesses, create more jobs, and bring more money into town to keep that circle going," said Overton, a lifelong Benton resident.

If elected, Overton also hopes to see the city embrace technology to make government more efficient.

"Just last year we started taking debit cards to pay water bills," Overton said. "We need to get into the 21st century."

City Council candidate Albert Smith declined to be interviewed for this story, according to Benton City Clerk Brook Craig.

Voters interested in meeting the candidates can attend the 2019 Benton Candidates’ Forum on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., at the Kiwanis building, 414 W. Hudelson St.

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Gabriel Neely-Streit is a reporter for The Southern covering higher education.

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