A man who in 2018 resigned his elected position as president of an Illinois village months before his term ended plans to challenge incumbent Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling in this summer’s municipal election.
Paul Serwatka, a real estate broker and former Chicago firefighter, is running for mayor just two years after moving to Decatur from the Chicago suburb of Lakewood, Illinois.
Qualifying for the Aug. 25 election is in July. The mayor serves a four-year term at an annual salary of just over $106,000.
“I look around and see so much potential that’s being neglected,” said Serwatka, 52. “And the things Tab Bowling says and his action, or inactions, are not helping the city. We need someone with bold principles and leadership. Decatur can be so much better.”
Bowling announced in August he would seek a second term. He is seeking to become the first mayor to be elected to consecutive terms since Bill Dukes was elected to five straight terms and served from 1976-94 before becoming a state lawmaker.
Bowling said he is campaigning on his experience as mayor, his ability to create regional and state partnerships and his community involvement. He said it’s important to continue the growth while preparing for an influx of newcomers expected from new industries in the area.
Serwatka, who bought a home in Decatur in May 2018 and divided his time between Illinois and Decatur until July 2018, said he understands that some residents may have reservations about voting for someone who has been in the city just two years
“My response is would you rather have a mayor who has been here 50 years and is not a good leader, or have someone who is new but has experience and can lead? I think Decatur would value the kind of leadership from someone like me who is willing to make reform,” Serwatka said.
Bowling said he has learned how to deal with the strong-council form of government and has led by managing city employees and presenting an annual budget.
Serwatka has several platforms for his campaign. He said he’s concerned that the One Decatur comprehensive plan calls for doing away with single-family residential districts in zoning reform. However, the portion of a draft zoning ordinance implementing this proposal was deleted after a January public meeting on the zoning rewrite in which residents objected to including multi-family homes near single-family homes. The city and the consultant are still working on the rewrite.
“We need to make sure that doesn’t come back into the (final) zoning rewrite,” Serwatka said.
Serwatka was critical of the mayor and City Council for the way they’ve handled the alleged release of toxic chemicals by 3M Corp. into the Tennessee River and multiple sites around the city. The city, Decatur Utilities, the Morgan County Regional Landfill, 3M and other industries are defendants in multiple lawsuits over the issue.
“Government needs to be transparent,” Serwatka said. “They need to tell people what they know and, if they don’t know or aren’t sure, they need to tell us they will let us know as soon as they get the information.
“We need a mayor who is more transparent, more open and more honest.”
Bowling said he understands that some want more information on the 3M cases, but the litigation is in mediation that includes restrictions on what he and the council can say publicly. Rule 11 of the Alabama Court Mediation Rules prohibits the disclosure of negotiations and information learned through the mediation process.
“Rule 11 says it has to be confidential,” Bowling said. “I can see where he’s trying to take advantage of the gag order.”
Serwatka said he’s also concerned with improving the city’s roads and finding ways to help the growing homeless population.
Serwatka said he “has a different way of doing things as a politician,” and that led to some controversy during his political tenure in Lakewood, a village of about 3,000 residents.
Serwatka ran for the Illinois House of Representatives as a Republican in 2016, but withdrew in the middle of the race.
After getting elected as a village trustee on a write-in two years earlier, he ran for village president in 2017 and won. Village president and trustee is similar to mayor and city councilman in Decatur, he said.
Serwatka’s main platform was his opposition to a property tax levy that was expected to collect $66 million, or $1.6 million a year, to spur economic development for the village. He used his victory to get the town trustees to remove the tax levy, and he said this angered some in power who planned to use the money for pet projects.
“Our property taxes were the 25th highest in the nation (before the levy removal),” Serwatka said.
Serwatka said he also established a planning commission and Planning Department and led an overhaul of the Police Department.
The Lakewood trustees voted 5-1 to censure Serwatka in December 2017, complaining that he had bypassed the trustees on various decisions, including the hiring of a village administrator.
Serwatka served only 15 months as Lakewood president. On his short term, Serwatka said he was a reluctant candidate. He said he was looking for someone else to run, but his choices pushed him to run instead.
“I told them I might not make it a full term because I might not even be here,” Serwatka said.
He said a three-day trip to the South led to his family moving to Decatur. He met a city fireman during that trip, and he and his wife stumbled upon a house with 10 acres in Southwest Decatur that they loved. They quickly made an offer and bought the house.
“We fell in love with the people and city," Serwatka said. It didn’t hurt, he added, that Alabama property taxes are much lower than in Illinois.
Serwatka continued to serve as village president even though his wife, Robin, and their four children had moved to Decatur. The Northwest Herald reported that Serwatka “faced intense criticism for months for making plans to move without stepping down,” and he didn’t resign until July 2018.
In his letter of resignation, he said he was "now spending a lot more time out of state than I am in Lakewood," and complained about "obstructionism from some remaining board members."