Unafraid of the challenges ahead, City of Joliet Mayor Robert “Bob” O’Dekirk is a man who believes things can be done better and is leading the City of Champions into a new beginning. Joliet is the largest city in Will County with a population of almost 150,000 and is less than an hour drive southwest of Chicago. It is the only city in Illinois with two casinos and has many attractions including four golf courses, the Autobahn Country Club, Chicagoland Speedway, Route 66 Raceway, the University of St. Francis, Joliet Junior College the country’s first public community college, CPX Sports, The Slammers Professional Baseball Team of the Independent Frontier League, the Rialto Square Theatre, Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park, and the Jacob Henry Mansion. The City of Joliet also is host of events The Taste of Joliet, New Orleans North, Star Wars Day, and Witches Night Out that draw thousands. Bob O’Dekirk first came to Joliet in 1993 and since that time the city has nearly doubled in population along with expanding its borders. He started as a police officer and 22 years later became mayor. Joliet, Illinois was recently named the 3rd largest city in the state.
Guzman: Thank you so much Mayor Bob O’Dekirk for allowing me the opportunity to interview you for MyTrendingStories. You have an impressive list of accomplishments working previously as a police officer, a lawyer, and a City Councilman before becoming Mayor. I was hoping we can go over each of these titles leading up to your time as Mayor.
O’Dekirk: I became a police officer in 1993. I got hired by the City of Joliet and that’s when I came out to Joliet. I worked for ten years as a police officer. Joliet was a great town to work in I believe because you were exposed to a lot. I worked primarily in my career on the eastside up in sector 11 which is the Forest Park neighborhood. Certainly we were exposed to a lot of significant criminal events that we were a part of as policemen.
Guzman: As a previous police officer do you have any advice for new officers and on how best to interact with the police as a private citizen.
O’Dekirk: You learn early on it’s a very frustrating job because whatever you do you are going to be criticized; you are going to be second guessed. A lot of time second guessed by people who weren’t there at the time didn’t experience things that you experienced but are going to look back and decide whether you made the right choice right decision. The best thing as a young policeman is do what you believe is correct. Whatever you do someone is going to be angry at you about. You have to stand your ground if you believe you are in the right then do what you think is right. As far as the general public it’s difficult. There’s definitely a lot of tension and there’s a lot of people who at least some people who do not trust the police. In Joliet through the neighborhood policing program, which began back when I was a young policeman, I think this department has been very forward thinking in trying to establish ties to the community to overcome that distrust. I would simply say to the people of Joliet if you are skeptical about the police give the police a chance. They are human beings doing a job. Certainly the City of Joliet Police Department has made efforts to make inroads into communities and areas not well liked and well thought of. It’s a two way street and certainly a lot Joliet residents have done so but I would certainly ask people again if you skeptical try to reach out and try to work with the police. You may realize you may have more in common than you think.
Guzman: Is the Joliet Police Department back to pre-recession levels and if not when do you think we can be there.
O’Dekirk: No, it was over 300 officers at one point. We’re not back to that level. There’s probably an argument about whether we have to get back to that level. What we do want to see filled though is the neighborhood policing positions. There were safe school officers back then and there aren’t many anymore. There were officers in the high schools. We certainly need to hire more police and we have hired more. We continue to do that. Believe it or not there was an issue in the last year or so that they had a difficult time for a number of different reasons officers we attempted to hire were not making it through the process either not passing all the tests, the background examination, the physical tests that needed to be passed or people that were passing on the job. They are putting together a new list and be testing again. Definitely we need to see more people hired. I think the Neighborhood Policing Program has really proven to be effective and I think having that fully staffed is something the City Council needs to do.
Guzman: How did you become a lawyer?
O’Dekirk: The last four years I was working as a police officer I went to night school part time John Marshall Law School. I graduated and passed the bar in 2003 and left the police department. I started working as a lawyer and immediately I was hired by the City of Chicago. I was a prosecutor for City of Chicago Corporation Council’s office for 2 ½ years and then made the decision to leave the city and come back to Joliet work in private practice which is essentially what I been doing prior to joining the City Council in 2011.
Guzman: As a lawyer what are cases that have been important making you the person you are today and tell us about your firm.
O’Dekirk: The firm’s doing great. My partner Leslie Allred is really terrific. Leslie and the attorney’s that work there do an outstanding job. As a lawyer I handled a variety of different things. I have been on both sides of the aisle. As a prosecuting attorney, I’ve done some criminal defense work. The law firm does some. I do a lot of family law. We do real estate law, we do worker’s compensation, just a variety of things. The biggest case I was part of was I just got home from Iraq and in 2011 the Brian Dorian case. The Lynwood Police Officer who was arrested and charged with murder was pegged the Honeybee killer. Being a former Police Officer and former Prosecutor you tend to believe that the police and prosecutors are going to get it right. I never saw an effort where the policemen and the prosecutors knowingly did something wrong and did it anways. That was a case where the police had got it wrong. This gentleman was arrested charged with murder. He was exonerated several days later. Didn’t take long. That was for me was a bit eye opening being on the other side of it. Something that didn’t think was thought was possible as a policeman something like that would happen but it did happen. It does make you take a step back and take pause maybe other people who aren’t as connected as Brian Dorian was that couldn’t afford legal representation or that aren’t police officers that had basically a whole army of people come to their aid and say wait a minute this is not right and within a few days were able to step up and prove wasn’t right. Makes you wonder. We read the news about other examples. There are other people out there and again I’m not pointing the finger of blame it was just a situation facts lined up a certain way and responsible intelligent people believed something to be true that turned out wasn’t true. It should give us all pause that it can happen the system can get it wrong sometimes. As an attorney being on the other side of something my professional life had really been spent as a prosecutor a policeman, it was a little bit of an eye opener.
Guzman: Prior to the Brian Dorian case you were in Iraq? What were you doing in Iraq?
O’Dekirk: I went over working with the State Department. We were working embedded with the United States Army. I was there for 20 months. I was basically in the northern part of Iraq. I got promoted when I was overseas I became a Regional Commander. I had 270 people under my command at one point. What we were doing as civilians embedded with the military working hand in hand the Iraqi Police, some of the Iraqi Military, and the Iraqi Administration that the US was trying to get up to speed after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The entire hierarchy collapsed and it was up to us to rebuild that and get them in the position to stand up on their own. I was there for 20 months and then came back home in 2010.
Guzman: What made you run for City Councilman?
O’Dekirk: I moved back the city. I had been away a couple years and I was stunned as a lot of people were to hear about the financial condition the City of Joliet was in. I had been a city employee and I had seen even after I left a lot of friends I had that were city employees I saw the way how well they were being compensated. The city seemed to be in terrific financial condition with the riverboats and the money coming in. So to come back and find out at the time I ran Joliet was looking at a 27 million dollar deficit. It was stunning to me and others after years of all the boom money with the riverboat how can the city be in this condition. That’s when I took an active interest in public office and decided to run for District 2 City Councilman.
Guzman: During your term of District 2 Councilman what were you able to accomplish for the City of Joliet?
O’Dekirk: I think as you know there was a lot of fighting during those four years but I always felt although we would be chastised the council by some elements in Joliet for the public arguing not being in agreement I thought it was good different points of view were being brought forward and not being shut down. Ultimately it led to more transparent local government that existed before I came on the council. I certainly don’t feel I alone did this but there were others on the council that were asking questions asking tough questions and persistently tough questions. I think what we were able to do myself, Mayor Giarrante, the other councilman were able to stabilize the city financially. Joliet was slow to recover from the recession. We are really starting to see it now. I do think we stabilized the city and I know there was a lot of arguments but ultimately the council worked together to put Joliet in better financial shape than it was when I came on.
Guzman: Toward the end of your term as District 2 Councilman did you feel it was your time and/or what made you run for mayor?
O’Dekirk: There was no roadmap for me when I came home or when I first ran for office. The mayor’s office wasn’t a goal but I became a little disillusioned with some of the things that I saw happening during the 4 years as a councilman. I simply thought things could be done better at the city and I thought although I enjoyed being Councilman I thought the changes I wanted to see happen I thought I could do a better job bringing about not as councilman but as the mayor and that’s why I made the decision to run. I will note it was not an easy decision because obviously if I lost I would have been off the council. When at larges run for the mayor they lose their election they go back to the council. This was a little bit different but I made the decision I thought if I was going to do this I’d like to do this and be as effective as possible.
Guzman: You are fast approaching 2 years as Mayor of the City of Joliet. What accomplishments can you cite and what goals do you have for the remainder of your term?
O’Dekirk: Well I definitely think its work in progress. There’s things that are not where I want the city to be however I think we are definitely going in the right direction. I’m going to give a state of the city speech in the next month or two and you are going to hear some of the economic good news from Joliet. I can tell you last year we were looking at 6-7 million dollar deficit that we turned into a 4-5 million surplus. I’m anticipating the same thing for this year. We budgeted for a deficit should be a surplus again. We brought thousands of jobs into Joliet in the last year and a half. Most notably is Amazon. I think 3,000-3,500 jobs coming just from Amazon. A lot of the jobs are to the south but not exclusely in the southern area. There are other jobs that have come in. I’ve talked about it recently Harrahs Casino longtime Joliet company had a job fair. They are having problems filling their jobs. I think that’s good news the jobs that are coming into Joliet and the businesses that are choosing Joliet. I think more importantly now we are getting corporate headquarters that are looking at Joliet which is again something we all stressed. The warehouse jobs were terrific but if we can go across the whole spectrum with things coming into our city. I think economically the city is really doing well and something that I am proud of. I think there is a lot of stability on the City Council. There’s obviously different personalities and strong personalities. You need to be a strong person to put yourself out there but I think the Council has really worked well together. It’s something as the Mayor I can’t take sole credit for but certainly it’s something I wanted. I talked about at my inauguration empowering the council and I really tried to do that. Tried to stress to the council people that they are going to have a voice and they are going to have influence on the council. It seems it’s done well. The City Council has responded really well. There’s been occasional disagreements which again I think are healthy but for the most part I think the City Council has worked really well and I think you are seeing the results of some of the things that are happening here in Joliet.
Guzman: Not to take away from your State of the City Address but can you give us an early state of Joliet?
O’Dekirk: Economically the city is doing well. It’s been run well. The numbers are going to bear that out. When you see the level of permits how they are increasing, housing starts. The city is doing well. We could always be better but there is no question that the City Council I think has done a good job not just of stabilizing things but now moving forward turning the page and moving Joliet forward. I talked about jobs, we have hired more police. There were also were some major, major projects some of which have either pended for a long or have been on the drawing board for a long time that in the last year, year and a half you’ve seen kick in. The Courthouse downtown, the Houbolt Road Bridge, the train station downtown, Evergreen Terrace; these things are now one way or another are all moving forward. Some of these began like Evergreen Terrace began long before I got on the City Council. You are seeing movement in these areas and with downtown redevelopment and other things I’m very positive about where the city is at right now and the direction it is going.
Guzman: Can you provide us an update about the new mall proposed near I-80 and I-55?
O’Dekirk: It’s a very exciting project. The whole city council has been briefed on what this is. Everyone on the council is thrilled that this is being looked at in Joliet. One of the issues that’s been involved in that property for a long time is access on and off the property. It’s prime real estate. Your right at the intersection of I-80 and I-55 but if you are familiar with the land there’s only a Frontage Road that leads you on and off the property off of Route 52. That’s been a significant issue that if something were to be built there how do people come and go from there. It’s going to require a lot of money so I can tell you that working with the developers who I been extremely impressed with I know city staff has too who have put a lot of skin in the game they are working hard with our state and federal legislators to come up with solution to that problem and I anticipate in the next year there will be announcements about what’s going to happen there. I can tell you if it’s anything like what they talked to the council about what’s been proposed to the council the people of Joliet are going to be thrilled with what’s going to happen with that property.
Guzman: Do you have any updates with the Houbolt Road Bridge?
O’Dekirk: That project’s moving forward. When you are doing a project that size there’s a lot of ducks you have to get in row. Things you probably wouldn’t even think about but you need Army core of engineers to give you the heads up to build over the river on the river. All the different beaucratic agencies and loopholes you have to get through. It’s in the process of that. My understanding is that Governor Rauner absolutely wants that bridge built. This is something he got behind and we thank our governor for that. I think the best thing about the bridge as it stands right now there’s no Joliet money on the table. It may turn out there’s cost overruns on the money the state has given us for that project. The new interchange at Houbolt Road the city would be responsible for that but right now we are looking at 21 million dollars given to this project by the State of Illinois. The rest which is somewhere between 160-180 million is going to be privately financed by Centerpoint and group of investors that they put together. So you’re looking at a 200 million dollar investment. You’re looking at thousands of constructions jobs You’re looking at something that is going to improve Joliet infrastructure which we need. We need relief on our roads. As it stands right now there’s no Joliet taxpayer dollars at risk. I think this is a great project. I’m proud of it. I think this is a great deal that we negotiated for the city and it has to be one of if not the biggest investments in our city, probably in City’s history. It’s moving forward and I’m hoping construction will start next year and the bridge will be done soon because we certainly need relief on Route 53 and some of the other areas in and out.
Guzman: Any update on the Metra Station?
O’Dekirk: The Metra station project began right before I joined the city council. The state of Illinois had promised money which had been held up for some time. The money has come through now. The plans had been changed probably about 10 different times. The station is currently under construction. That’s the big thing everyone was waiting for. There’s a lot of other parts of that plan some that have been put on hold others which are going forward but not having station has been a real problem for our commuters. I think the new station is something to be proud of but more importantly for the people who use it every day it’s been a difficult process. There wasn’t much the city could do during this process. We were waiting for the state to come through. Took a little while but they have come forward.
Guzman: Any updates on the new courthouse and opening up Chicago Street?
O’Dekirk: Chicago Street we are in active negotiations with the County Board on. I spoke with a couple County Board members right before the holidays. We talked about getting together in a serious nature early January. The County courthouse is moving forward. The renditions of it with what’s been proposed it’s a beautiful building. We are very excited. I knew these plans had been drawn up for some time. There was discussion four years previously when I was on city council but the project wasn’t moving forward much like the Houbolt Bridge. I got together with Councilman Gerl, who was a former county board member. We called meetings. We actually met at my law office with myself and County Board members from both sides of the aisle and we sat down. We brought the City Manager in. Eventually we worked out a deal. We took it back to the City Council and they took it back to the county board. I think great example of different units of government working together. In this case county and city worked together to get everyone at the table to hammer a deal out. It’s gonna happen. The courthouse is staying in downtown Joliet which we are excited about. The Chicago Street project is going to be the same thing. Just a matter of getting the right people at the table. I know that the county board members are progressive and want to see the city and county move forward. The City Council feels the same way. I’m fairly confident that in the next 12 months there will be a deal for Chicago Street and you’ll see it reopened.
Guzman: There is a Microbrewery opening downtown at the old Metro Station. Do you know when it is expected to open?
O’Dekirk: February or March it is slated to open. I was also contacted there is a second microbrewery that wants to open on East Cass Street. They have not made any announcements yet but I know they are working with the city. I think what we are looking with the microbreweries there’s always talk of new restaurants coming in but what we do know is here coming in are the students from Joliet Junior College which opened downtown and the college of St. Francis. The Camiros Downtown Plan looked at this. We believe bringing in more young people on a daily basis into downtown Joliet will help the downtown area. This is happening as we speak. These things not just talk or plans anymore. They are actually coming to fruitition.
Guzman: Las Vegas, Nevada recently became the first major city being run by all renewable energy and the City of Aurora prides itself on being a green energy city. Is there some movement in Joliet with us becoming a more environmentally conscious city?
O’Dekirk: There has been several green initiatives in Joliet. We are starting to implement LED lighting throughout the city. We are beginning in major areas lights that the city owns. We are currently looking at plans of replacing lights all over the city with LED lights. Our lighting at City Hall and other city owned facilities. I met with former Mayor Weisner of Aurora and I was invited to seminar in Aurora about the drinking water. This is something you are going to hear me talk about in the State of the City Address. Aurora, Joliet, the entire region is supposed to run dry in the next 20 years. Right now the City of Joliet really doesn’t have a plan about what’s going to happen when we run out of water that we’ve used for all these years. One thing I am not going to let happen is what happened with the water runoff project that now is costing the city 200 million dollars. Where we kicked the can down the road to the point we couldn’t kick it anymore. We have to start taking action now planning on what to do to provide water to our residents and all our businesses here. It’s going to cost money. It can’t be done overnight but I don’t feel it’s something I feel we should wait another 5-10 years. This is something I want to get active with.
Guzman: Is there anything else you would like to add?
O’Dekirk: I want to thank the City Council. For me it’s been a very fulfilling. Seeing all the good work that’s being down, it’s been a great year and a half for me and I really want to thank the council and city staff. I think we have all worked well together. There are some differences and people put those aside and we are moving the city forward.
Guzman: Thank you so much Mayor Bob O’Dekirk for taking time to speak with us today.
Published by Angel Guzman