Obsolete commission form hinders Forest Park

Opinion

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Dan Haley

Forest Park likes to think it is on a gigantic roll. And, in ways it is.

Property values are flying. Retail and restaurants have put Madison Street back on the map. Developers are interested in notable housing and retail projects. Donald Rumsfeld is determined to put a prime Roosevelt Road real estate parcelâ€"the Navy training centerâ€"back on the taxrolls. A lot of things are going well. There is praise to be shared.

But there is also a big problem. It is Forest Park's form of government. I know, hit the snooze button. Who cares about the form of government? What form of government does Forest Park have anyway? Sounds like civics to me. Soon this guy will be writing about The Federalist Papers.

But give me a chance to explain. Forest Park has a commission form of government. So do about 50 other communities in Illinois. Trouble is, as best I can ascertain, the other 49 are in counties with names like Grundy and Jo Davies and Pike. There are no longer any other commission form municipal governments in significant suburbs. There is a reason for this. The commission form of government is totally obsolete in towns the size, complexity and sophistication of Forest Park.

What is a commission form, you hopefully ask? It is an electoral system which elects a mayor and a number of commissioners. This elected body has legislative powers like every other elected board. They pass a budget. They decide zoning issues. They set the policies under which the town operates. That's well and good and pretty much like most other towns. However, in addition to having legislative powers, under this form of government, the mayor and commissioners also have administrative authority. They actually have responsibility for running specific departments of the local government. Things like the police department, public works, the finance department.

The mayor, the big cheese, gets to run the cops. And then, based on the vote counts, the highest toting commissioner gets to pick the department they want to run. The most popular commissioner typically chooses to oversee finance. The keeper of the purse strings, after all, has a lot of control. Go down the line and the Realtor you've just elected is in charge of the streets and the barkeep is running Health and Safety. Totally absurd when you consider that Forest Park has numerous employees, at least six department heads and an administrator being paid $115,000 per annum. Maybe the commission form works in a town of 3,000 in Southern Illinois where the streets commissioner actually paints the yellow line down the middle of Main Street. But it makes no sense in Forest Park. Hasn't in decades.

The three senior members of the village councilâ€"Mayor Tony Calderone, Commissioner Tim Gillian and Commissioner Mark Hostyâ€"know this. When first elected to their current posts they said so. They backed the hiring of a strong village administrator and pledged to remove themselves from all operational functions. They talked openly of the logic of switching Forest Park to a village manager form where the council hires the manager to run all day-to-day aspects of local government, to hire and oversee department heads, and to keep lines of governance clear and efficient. Somewhere, post-election, the lure of the street sweeper and the ledger book took hold and talk of bringing Forest Park governance into a modern age has receded again.

Last week, a storm broke out when it was revealed that Calderone has been directing the publicly-funded Forest Park lobbyist to push a bill in Springfield to amend the state Open Meetings Act. He wants special provisions which apply only to commission governments and which make it easier for commissioners to talk to each other about government business outside of official meetings.

It's a very bad idea. The trend must be to more open and transparent government not to more quiet meetings on the sidelines. Trouble is that Calderone couched this need for legislative relief in the ruse of the hands-on demands of the commission form. We're back to the hooey that there's this snow storm, see, and the commissioner in charge of plowing streets has to be able to talk to the commissioner in charge of getting fire trucks through snow drifts. Just stop it Mr. Mayor. Have the village administrator doing his job and directing the efforts of the public works foreman and the fire chief. That's how a government of this size needs to work.

This bill is now deader than a door nail and it will stay that way if this newspaper has anything to say about it. The root cause, though, of this nonsensical attack on the Open Meetings Act, on the high staff turnover in key village departmentsâ€"administrator, finance, community development, in the vitriol on the council itself, is that Forest Park's leaders have us stuck trying to govern a modern, progressive urban community with a form of government designed for farm towns. Sadly, now we're stuck because the majority of commissioners like it this way. Either some persuasive debates must be had or a thoroughly contested election in two years will be necessary to solve this mess.

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