When Jim Gitz steps down as Freeport mayor next week, it will mark the end of an era. Voters approved moving to a city manager system of government last November.
Freeport joins scores of cities in the state, including DeKalb and Woodstock, where day-to-day operations are run by a professional administrator. The move means Gitz was the city’s last full-time mayor.
In an interview for WNIJ's Friday Forum, Gitz shared his thoughts on the transition to the new system, his accomplishments and challenges facing the city.
Close to 80 cities and towns across Illinois have city managers. The list ranges from smaller communities like Sycamore and Princeton to large cities like Elgin and Naperville. Dixon joined that group in 2015 after voters there approved moving from a mayor-council form of government to the city manager model.
Now it’s Freeport’s turn. The transition to the new system started this spring, and will take off in earnest when the newly-hired city manager, Lowell Crow, takes his post May 22.
It’s appropriate that the last full-time mayor under the old system is Gitz, who is completing his third term as mayor of the Pretzel City. Gitz served two terms from 1997 to 2005, then lost a re-election bid. In 2013, he took back the office in a close race.
When the movement to change from a full-time mayor-council form of government to a city manager model began, Gitz publicly stated his opposition to the idea. But last November, residents solidly backed the change, and the transformation to the new system has begun.
Despite those earlier public misgivings, Gitz said he hopes the changeover succeeds. But, Gitz warned, it’s going to be an adjustment for everyone.
“For the first time in our city’s history," Gitz explained, "the mayor will not have administrative authority over the operations of the city. The mayor will not appoint department heads; the city manager will do that. The mayor will not be supervising the city staff; the city manager will do that. The mayor will assume a different role -- more like a super council member, who carries the title of mayor and sets the moral tone of the city.”
Gitz said this will be quite a change for the people of Freeport.
“They’re used to looking to the mayor and saying, you know, ‘Hey, where’s my pothole getting filled?," Gitz said, "There’s a loose dog in the yard, what are you going to do about it?’ I mean, I get emails every day from people, as do most mayors. This is going to be a different role now because there’s going to be a division of labor between the chief executive officer and the chief operating officer.”
Gitz said the initial period will be critical for the new administration. He hopes that the transition goes smoothly, and that the new mayor and councilmen also understand what this means for them.
“The council is assuming what I think is a very exciting role," Gitz said, "The more long-term future of the city -- the policy, the ordnances, the plan, the accountability -- and getting away from the day-to-day details and trusting your staff, are all things that, if they’re done successfully, could help take us to a new level.”
Asked if he had any advice for incoming Mayor Jodi Miller, Gitz said some things remain important even though her role will be different.
“Number one, listen to your critics as well as your supporters, because they have a message for us if we care to listen. And number two, there’s going to be time doing the right thing is not necessarily the popular thing," Gitz said, "I believe in doing the right thing, even if the consequences are substantial. I have lived it. I have practiced it. I have paid the price. I have been an un-elected mayor as well as an elected mayor. But I always feel it’s good to sleep well, because you know that you’ve done your absolute best on behalf of your community.”
But, Gitz said, whoever is in charge, and whatever the system of government, the key to Freeport’s success will be getting more people involved in their community, and owning it.
“I’ve come -- in my late, in my third term -- here to realize that we have basically three kinds of people common to all cities," he said."We have the people that make things happen, we have the people who watch things happen and we have the people who complain about things that happen. We need more people involved in things that are happening.”
Gitz said that’s important because of the consequences if people don’t step up.
“Cities where people don’t care -- whether it’s litter, whether it’s the maintenance of property, or whether it’s just not giving a damn about what happens to their neighbor next door -- are not cities that usually succeed. Freeport has so much history, so much promise that we cannot afford to fail,” Gitz said.
Gitz said, thanks to several initiatives, the city is turning the corner in that regard.
“But I don’t think we’re where we need to be," he said."where entire neighborhoods are organizing, and they’re doing projects, and at some point the synergy becomes so great that it takes off. I’d like to see that happen. I’d like to see it get there. And, as a private citizen, I’m going to be in the mix to try to assist in every way that I can on that.”
Gitz said he’s proud of what he’s been able to accomplish in his time as mayor. It’s not always been easy, especially with the state budget impasse, but even before that.
“We’re always trying to do more with less but, at some point, less becomes almost impossible," Gitz said.
As an example, he pointed to the fact that the state has never adjusted its motor fuel tax formula.
"So every year we have streets that are more beat up than the year before," he said, "and we get further behind because the $600,000 a year we get through the state motor fuel tax fund is about half of what we really need to start giving the people the infrastructure and roads that they need.”
Gitz said Freeport, like many cities that were once manufacturing centers, declined as companies left or went out of business. Now it’s trying to become a place that will thrive in the 21st century. Gitz said he was very excited by the city's prospects and its assets. He also was a realist.
"This is a key city in the whole northwestern region," he said, "but that doesn’t absolve us of the challenge and the depth of those challenges that we face as one of Illinois’ larger cities.”
Gitz cited as successes a rental-property registration program, extending public transit out into the county, and continuing upgrades to the water system. There’s the rehab of the old Carnegie Library and reinventing it as the new City Hall, and brownfield reclamation. And there’s more.
“We have also connected the Jane Addams trail, which used to be outside the city of Freeport," he said, "Ran to Wisconsin but didn’t come down to the riverfront. Now the trailhead, that we created close to 20 years ago when I was mayor in my first time, is now connected and a part of that, and what’s exciting is there’s more tourism coming there.”
Gitz said there’s much left to do. More neighborhood cleanup, for one, and efforts to revitalize the downtown still have a long way to go. He said there needs to be more coordination between public and private agencies on that front. But he’s hopeful that work going on now will begin to bear fruit in the not-too-distant future.
Before, after and between stints as mayor, Gitz -- while practicing law -- has worked in both the private and public sectors, holding jobs in Chicago, Urbana and Fond du Lac. But, he said, he never forgot his roots.
“I’ve worn a lot of hats, but my heart has always remained with my hometown, Freeport, and I want the very best for it,” Gitz said.
No matter what form the city’s government takes.