Naperville mayoral candidates offer differing views on affordable housing, assault rifle sales ban and crime

Naperville mayoral candidates Scott Wehrli and Benny White agree the city needs to attract more economic development, plan for a sustainable future and find an alternative to coal as its main source of electric power.

But with affordable housing incentives, assault rifle sales ban and overall safety in the city, it’s a tale of two views of the city.

The candidates spoke Thursday evening at a League of Women Voters online forum where they addressed a variety of topics suggested by the league and the community.

The third candidate for mayor, Tiffany Stephens, was invited but did not participate.

Wehrli, 53, said he would bring an important historic perspective if elected.

“I am going to use all my knowledge and background from living in this community for all my life to contribute to being the best possible mayor I could,” he said.

The product of Naperville District 203 schools and an alum of Naperville’s North Central College, Wehrli is principal owner of DuKane Precast, a Naperville-based family company with more than 200 employees.

He also has worked part time for more than 30 years with Naperville Park District police.

White, 59, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army, has lived in Naperville for 18 years and served on various boards and commissions. He was appointed to the Indian Prairie 204 School Board in 2012 and elected to a four-year term in 2013.

He was elected to the Naperville City Council in 2017 and reelected in 2021.

On a question about whether the candidates support the assault rifle sales ban approved by the council in 2022, Wehrli said the ordinance did little more than spur lawsuits.

“I don’t think anybody could say honestly that we are safer than we were in July of 2022. I believe the real question is whether you believe the ordinance is effective and if we are safer as a result of its passage,” Wehrli said.

When downtown Naperville experienced frequent bar fights and a stabbing a decade ago, that problem was solved by assembling stakeholders and coming up with creative solutions, he said.

“We need to do the same thing to prevent mass shootings in our community,” and perhaps by setting up a panel to study solutions, Wehrli said.

White, who voted for the ban, said the number one responsibility for any elected official is to work to ensure the health and welfare of the community, which was the driving force behind the ordinance.

While it may not prevent the next shooting from happening, White said, “one thing we will be able to say is that we made it a little bit tougher, and they did not get that weapon from Naperville.”

“If we can have any impact on that, given what has happened in our country over and over again, then I’m happy with the fact that we did support that,” he said.

When asked about the city’s efforts to address affordable housing, White said this is a subject “near and dear to my heart. I’m so happy that we just passed an affordable housing ordinance that basically is not telling our developers what to do but we’re incentivizing them to do the things that we need in order to reach that goal.”

He’s proud of the project where city land is being used to create affordable housing for seniors and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, he said, adding the city still has other public property left that could be used for similar purposes.

Beyond that, White said, the city needs to discuss affordable workforce/attainable housing.

A lot of seniors would love to downsize, but it’s cheaper to stay put, he said. Were they to have an alternative, those would be the homes generally available to young families who want to take advantage of Naperville’s great schools.

“We have to think a little bit out of the box on how we’re going to address those types of issues,” White said.

Wehrli raised concerns with the developer incentive program.

“Naperville is the greatest community in America, and I know people want to live here,” he said. “I support efforts to bring affordable housing to Naperville. But to be right, it’s got to be the right project and with the right characteristics and at the right property most importantly.”

The city should not give developers “by right” incentives on density and parking ratios or reduce the land-cash donation to the Naperville Park District, he said.

“As a matter of fairness, equity and ensuring good government, whether you’re developing market rate or an affordable residential housing project with tax credit credits, the local approval process should be the same,” Wehrli said.

“I believe development should be transparent. It should be open to discussion with the neighbors and the City Council should weigh in,” he said. “If there are variances in deviations from the standards, it should not be just an (automatic) right that a developer can back into.”

Wehrli said public safety is the top issue for people he’s spoken with over the last year.

“It’s the number one thing people talk about when they look at moving here,” he said.

That’s because it’s a very challenging time, he said.

“Things have changed since I started (with the park police) 32 years ago. Naperville has gotten to be more dangerous, and it’s something we’ve got to keep an eye on,” Wehrli said.

Along with that, the city needs to get creative when hiring police officers and firefighters because the departments are receiving fewer applicants, he said.

White countered by saying city officials must look at the data rather than making decisions based on perceptions.

Naperville is the safest city in America, and “I’m not just saying that. That’s directly coming from our police chief,” he said.

White encouraged residents to review the crime statistics released this week by the police department.

If city leaders aren’t doing that, there’s the potential for making decisions on bad data, he said.

“I’ve seen it almost happen where people were about to make some costly decisions based on perceptions that they thought were existing, and I think we’ve got to really be careful about that to ensure that we’re getting accurate information out to the public,” White said.