When Steve and Gloria Backman first began attending village council meetings back in the summer of 2003 they noticed that there never seemed to be enough chairs for members of the public who came to watch the proceedings. So at the next meeting the Backmans brought their own lawn chairs and plopped right down. They made their point and by the next meeting the village had at least doubled the amount of chairs for the public so that everyone could have a seat in the council chambers.

That’s the kind of dogged activism that earned the organization that the Backmans help found, Citizens United in Forest Park (CUinFP) a citizen’s initiative award last week from the Elmhurst based Citizens Advocacy Center (CAC).

The Citizens Advocacy Center was founded in 1993 by a former staffer to Ralph Nadar and identifies itself as a non-profit, nonpartisan legal organization dedicated to building democracy for the 21st Century. The CAC provides legal and strategic advice to community groups who are often trying to reform local government and also tries to promote greater public participation in local government.

The citizen’s initiative awards have been given annually since 2003 are meant to recognize those citizens who act as catalysts for more citizen participation in government. CUinFP was one of four recipients of the award for this year.

CUinFP has approximately 60 to 70 members according to vice president membership of membership Marcy Wozniak and was officially founded in May 2004.

Its members attend all open meetings of village government and monitor the actions of the village government.

“In a short year and a half CUinFP has become a force in the community,” said Terry Pastika, the executive director of the CAC. “They have a reputation of being both an ombudsman and a watchdog in the community.”

In January of 2004, the Backmans spent about $800 of their own money to buy a camera and recording equipment. Since then they or other CUinFP members, have videotaped every village council, zoning board of appeals and plan commission meeting. The tapes are made available for rent free to CUinFP members and for $10 to non-members.

Major accomplishments of CUinFP, according to members, include more chairs for the public at meetings, videotaping all village’s public meetings, better decorum at village council meetings because the videotaping, pushing for the appointment of members to the village’s ethics commission, and hosting a workshop of gangs with the Forest Park police department according to Steve Backman who serves as the president of CUinFP.

The award was a welcome pat on the back for CUinFP said Backman.

“What we do gets us labeled as crackpots or wise guys,” Backman said. “It was nice to get recognized by like minded people all fighting the same struggle in different towns.”

In the future CUinFP plans to conduct a voter registration drive before next year’s primary election in March, host a workshop on teardowns, and push for the enactment of a stronger whistleblower ordinance that would offer more protection to village employees according to Backman.

And village officials know that whatever they do someone will always be watching.

“The village administration has had to take a look and really pay attention to what they are doing because they are being watched,” said Wozniak. “They are no longer going to be able to make decisions on where taxpayer dollars are going without a watchful eye.”