Mayor Anthony Calderone and Commissioner Terry Steinbach are next door neighbors. They both grew up in Forest Park. They were classmates together throughout elementary school from kindergarten through sixth grade at Garfield School and in seventh and eighth grades at Field-Stevenson School. But now the childhood classmates are on opposite sides of a political fence much higher than the 6-foot fence between their homes.
The Forest Park Village Council has been bitterly split ever since the 2003 election. Calderone and commissioners Tim Gillian and Mark Hosty form the majority with Steinbach and Commissioner Patrick Doolin usually in the minority. Not every vote is 3-2, all the council members pointed out, but many of the most important votes are.
And with last week’s rejection, by the familiar 3-2 vote, of Steinbach’s and Doolin’s choice of Paul Burris as Public Works commissioner, the philosophical divide and the personal bitterness have risen to a new level.
Is the split in the council about philosophy and issues or is it about politics and power?
“Up until the Paul Burris vote, I thought it was ideological,” said Steinbach. “The Paul Burris vote crossed the line,”
How are the relationships among the members of the village council?
“As bad as they could be,” said Steinbach.
On that everyone agrees.
“Those people out and out dislike us,” said Gillian referring to Steinbach and Doolin. “There is a complete lack of respect. I’m sure that in their opinion I do not respect them, but that is not the case. I respect anybody who throws their hat in the ring. I certainly respect the office. I try real hard to keep personalities out of it. Right now it is very strained.”
Steinbach and Doolin were elected to the council in 2003, defeating two candidates running on a slate that included Gillian and Hosty and that was backed by Calderone who was unopposed running for his second term as mayor.
“They came in contentious, and it has stayed contentious” said Hosty who is now in his second term on the village council. “It has been contentious since the swearing in. It’s been made personal.”
Hosty said that things were different in his first term, before the election of Doolin and Steinbach.
“I know that in my first four years in office, we got a lot done around here and didn’t do anything bad,” said Hosty.
Doolin and Steinbach disagree, pointing to what they refer to as out-of-control spending, cronyism, and influence from those outside Forest Park.
Doolin began his involvement in Forest Park politics, like Steinbach, as a supporter of Calderone, who appointed Doolin to the Police and Fire Commission. But, Doolin claims, Calderone, Gillian and Hosty have changed.
“They are not the people I knew five years ago,” said Doolin. “They’ve changed. The Tony Calderone I used to know was about making positive change, taking down the velvet drapes, and letting the sun shine in. I think there are still some hard feelings from the 2003 election. I don’t understand the three of them. Everything about them is foreign to me. I don’t understand the way they make decisions. I don’t know how three people, with three different sets of parents, three occupations, can agree so often. It doesn’t stand to reason.”
In a small community, politics often becomes personal. Everybody knows everybody and most people take sides. People run into each other in restaurants and on the street. Families and kids interact. It is easy for the political to become personal.
“This business of politics is not for the faint of heart,” said Doolin. “Local politics is the most difficult level of politics there is because it’s personal. Local politics is very, very personal. It’s a tough business to be in.”
Meeting requested to demand change
Doolin has requested a closed session meeting of the council to discuss a potential overhaul of village government in response to the council’s vote not to hire Burris as Public Work director.
Doolin, currently the commissioner in charge of Streets and Public Improvement, said he would request a shuffling of the commissioners’ appointments into departments that better suit their individual background.
“Since they won’t allow [Commissioner] Theresa Steinbach and myself to choose the individual we want to work on the day-to-day processes of the department, since we’ve obviously been shown we can’t run our departments, we want to know what their plan is.”
The meeting was supposed to take place Monday, but was postponed because Steinbach could not attend. Doolin said he would still like to meet before the next regularly scheduled council meeting if possible.
Doolin and Steinbach, who is the commissioner in charge of Public Property, along with Village Adminstrator Michael Sturino, recommended Burris for hiring, but the item was rejected by the council’s majority, who said they thought interim Public Works Director Bob Kutak was qualified for the job.
“Absent some type of plan, since hiring Kutak isn’t an option to us, we need to restructure. They have dismantled the commission form of government. When they don’t allow the relevant [commissioner] to choose his department head, there is no more commission form of government.”
“We’re about to embark on a $10 million improvement project, and I don’t think we have the right person in charge of the department,” Doolin noted.
He said the Illinois state statute allows for commission governments to be restructured when a restructuring would better serve the public need.
Under the commission form of government, each council member is named the head of a specific village department. In Forest Park, the mayor is put in charge of the Police Department, and the rest of the assignments are given according to vote count.
Top vote-getter Tim Gillian, for example, was given the Accounts and Finance Department.
Doolin suggested restructuring the assignments according to the committee members’ backgrounds. Since Gillian used to own a paving company, he said, he should be put in charge of the Street Department, Doolin’s current assignment. Steinbach, who holds an advanced degree in economics, should be put in charge of Accounts and Finance, he suggested.
With the current assignments, he said, “None of us really know anything about our departments.” For that reason, he said, the hiring of the right department heads is “absolutely critical.”
Abolishing the commission
form of government
If the restructuring idea did not work out, Doolin went as far as to suggest abolishing the commission form altogether, in favor of a village administrator form of government.
The commission form is used in about 25 municipalities in Illinois, most of which have a population density far lower than Forest Park.
“I no longer believe in the commission form of government because this is the quintessential example of having the wrong people in elected office who don’t respect the system or the process. Once that respect for the process has deteriorated, there is no process,” he said.
He noted that under the village administrator form, in which the administrator alone would be in charge of department head hires, Burris would be working for the village right now.
Mayor Calderone said that though the council would attempt to accommodate Doolin’s request for a meeting, Doolin must “get past the sour grapes” and learn to play the cards he is dealt.
“We all don’t always get what we want, but you have to work with what you have.”
“I just hope both commissioners can take a deep breath and give this an opportunity to work,” he said.
Calderone said that Doolin was exaggerating his role in running the department, stating that in reality, Sturino runs day-to-day operations, while Doolin’s role is relatively “hands-off.”
He noted that Sturino understands he must work with the department head voted on by the council.
Though Calderone said he is not opposed to the idea of reconsidering the commission form of government, the same problems could easily arise under other government models.
“There are ideological differences in every town and under any form of government. That’s part of the dynamics that make this country what it is,” he said, noting a recent controversy over the hiring of a police chief in Northbrook, which uses the village manager form, as an example.
Calderone said that in order to switch government forms, a referendum would have to be passed at election time as a result of a petition from voters.
“I think the five of us [commissioners] need some face time together because the residents of this village are not being well served,” said Doolin.