Van Meter seeks another term on County Board running against Bommarito

It’s the establishment versus the newcomer in the District 24 race for Sangamon County Board on Nov. 8.

Republican Andy Van Meter has served on the board since 1994 and chair of the board since succeeding Mary Frances Squires in 2000.

Van Meter’s Democratic challenger happens to be his Village of Leland Grove neighbor, political newcomer Maureen Duffy Bommarito, who moved to Springfield from Chicago with her family in 2013.

Both share an affinity for mid-century modern design and mid-century modern furniture, and, no, Bommarito said, she doesn’t see it as a negative being political opponents and neighbors. “We’re both trying to do the best for the people that we are going to be representing,” she said.

“We can be members of different political parties,” Van Meter added, “and still be good neighbors.”

Neither Van Meter nor Bommarito faced an opponent in the June 28 primary.

Andy Van Meter

Springfield native Andy Van Meter, 64, is president of Design Ideas, which provides wholesale distribution of home furnishings and housewares. The company employs 50 people here and another 25 people overseas.

Van Meter, who is single, is a graduate of Springfield High School, Princeton University and Stanford Law School. He is the author of “Always My Friend: A History of the State Journal-Register and Springfield” and also an Eagle Scout.

Van Meter is the son of the late attorney and banker A.D. Van Meter. Like his father, who was a member of the first elected board chartered to study the construction of a Springfield convention center among his other civic duties, Van Meter believes in giving back.

“The county board is a great place to contribute to the community,” Van Meter said. “We have a lot of exciting projects that are in process or in process of being initiated and I would like to see those projects finished to successful conclusion.”

Maureen Duffy Bommarito

Bommarito, 49, is a forensic scientist for the Illinois State Police.

A mother of three high schoolers, Bommarito has a degree in biochemistry from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign after transferring from Triton College.

Growing up in the Harwood Heights section of Chicago, political talk was a constant. She tried to distance herself that arena, but her husband, Angelo, “loved politics” and the family ended up in the Capital City.

“I moved down here, and it was, ‘Wow, there’s hardly anybody on the ballot,'” Bommarito recalled. “Now I’m hearing myself complain about the situation. I’m like, OK, I’ll get my name on the ballot. So now people have a choice.”

Here is how Van Meter and Bommarito responded to questions in recent interviews. Answers edited for length.

Q: The new multi-modal transportation center and the upcoming remodeling of the county building are “generational changing” projects in downtown Springfield. What is the county’s role in seeing that these facilities are best utilized and how might the county be good stewards of these projects? 

Van Meter: With the railroad relocation project, the community stands to achieve so many long-term goals: better transportation connection through the community; hopefully a parkway along Third Street; train horns will fall silent in the community for the first time ever.

In addition to that, we hope we can seize the opportunity of making the transportation center a new focal point for the community.

That precipitated the necessity of the county reconfiguring the entrance to the County Building and that precipitated the rethinking of how the county provides its services to the community by moving everything to the ground floor. Parking will also be easier because it will be in a covered lot.

I think the lesson of that project is if the community focuses on an issue and really pulls together on an issue, we can literally lift a railroad up and move it.

Bommarito: Seeing the progress and being in the community and hearing people talk about the moving of the train tracks, it is a massive undertaking and impressive in terms (of the work).

I feel like the costs of the project keep going up. I know materials have gone up, but there don’t seem to be explanations. I hope it will be sustainable. It seems like they’re considering ‘green,’ but I feel like when projects get more and more expensive, those things are the things that are forgotten. So that’s my concern with going forward.

When I moved here in 2013, I noticed immediately they weren’t a lot of buses. Finding a bus stop was challenging. I feel like that has been an area where the county has lacked.

Q: A draft of a report, “Heartland HOUSED: Springfield & Sangamon County’s Strategic Plan to Address Homelessness,” was recently released and was guided by a steering committee that included input from the Sangamon County government. It called for nearly a tripling of available housing for area homeless. Do you support the findings of the draft report or what other initiatives would you implement? 

Van Meter: I really think that the homeless project in a very important way grew out of the success we had in the rail project. Coming together, staying focused, being realistic, checking egos at the door, focusing on what works and getting all the critical players around the table: these are all lessons we’ve learned from the rail project and applying those to the homeless challenge has already brought us some success with this plan.

Rockford is cited as a national model for success. The product the steering committee has come up with has very much been developed in that spirit.

We anticipate we’re going to find or create 750 living situations that will enable these people to move from homelessness to housing.

The community can have some reassurance if we get our act together and if we have a coherent system for supporting the homeless in our community, there are tremendous additional federal funds that will eventually come to us.

Bommarito: I found reviewing it that it was very comprehensive. I was impressed by it. It’s a huge undertaking, what they have laid out and their goals and their plans for meeting the needs for the future, what the current level is and what they expect it to be and what they’re going to do address that gap.

I hope that is something we can achieve in Springfield to address the homelessness. I feel that where government fails is in the follow-through.

When catastrophic events (happen), people band together then, but when it’s all these people’s personal lives in the community individually struck by circumstances and then they’re out on the street, that’s viewed so negatively. If we get that buy-in, achieving this goal will be possible. Getting the landlords to have their properties used for these temporary, emergency housing, like I said, it’s impressive.

Q: Sangamon County Animal Control has come under scrutiny recently leading to the dismissal of director Greg Largent. Some organizations have suggested removing Animal Control from under the leadership of Public Health. Would you support that initiative or what other improvements would you suggest for Animal Control?

Van Meter: Sometimes animal control is assigned to the public health department. Sometimes animal control is assigned to the sheriff’s office. I think our public health office, as evidenced by its successful leadership during the COVID pandemic, has demonstrated enormous capabilities.

Since (Director Gail O’Neill) has been able to turn her attention to animal control, we’ve sent a special master out there to get a handle on why some members of the volunteer community were so concerned about conditions about animal control when the reports we were getting from the inspections from two state agencies were always positive and continue to be positive.

What I think the special master found out was that we had (someone) managing the department (Greg Largent) who was very knowledgeable, but who just didn’t have the temperament to deal with a real situation. I think now we have a really good manager (Jean Keenan) who is serving in a temporary capacity.

In June, we implemented a training program for our volunteers. Seventeen volunteers are fully trained and back on the volunteer list.

Bommarito: From what I read and meetings I attended and what I listened to, (Largent’s dismissal) seemed like it all could have been avoided if it was handled appropriately. It seemed like (he) was offhandedly dismissed.

Allowing the volunteers back in, that’s a positive. That people are willing to spend their time and money providing additional service is amazing. To turn it away, it doesn’t make fiscal sense. If they’re willing to help out and have the experience and the means, (we have to take) advantage of that, so I think that’s important to maintain and foster that relationship so that there won’t be the clash there was before and (sides) are working towards a common goal.

I see value if it was the sheriff’s department’s overseeing it, for who gets called out to rescue an animal and take it in. I’m willing to see how Public Health handles it. They had a lot on their plate with the pandemic. Hopefully, it is something that they’re able to incorporate into the scheme for their organization.

Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, [email protected],