Literally and figuratively 10 candidates were looking for a little elbow room as they muscled for position on a crowded stage last week during the last public forum leading up to the April 17 election.
The event, which was sponsored in part by the Review, gave a standing room crowd one more chance for side-by-side comparisons. On Election Day, voters will choose a mayor and all four commissioners. Every seat is contested and it’s entirely possible that four of the five seats will be occupied by political newcomers.
“I’m a person that believes in making an investment in the future of the village,” Mayor Anthony Calderone said during his opening statement. “I am a pro-business person.”
Calderone has already survived a primary election in which he and Commissioner Theresa Steinbach defeated Commissioner Patrick Doolin in a three-way race. In less than two weeks Calderone will ask voters for a third term as mayor, while Steinbach, a first-term commissioner, will attempt to wrest the council’s gavel from his grip.
“Our current mayor has a bad habit of spending beyond the taxpayers’ means,” Steinbach said.
Regardless of who sets the agenda for the village council after April 17, Forest Park’s mayor will need to win the favor of those commissioners seated to their left and right. Incumbent Mark Hosty is the only veteran asking to be returned to office, but faces stiff opposition in a field with seven other candidates. Also vying for the title of village commissioner are Anthony Lazzara, John Plepel, Rory Hoskins, Carl Nyberg, Mike Curry, Martin Tellalian and Jerry Webster.
Commissioner Tim Gillian is retiring from the council. Steinbach and Doolin gave up their seats in deciding to run for mayor.
Tellalian, who sits on the planning commission, acknowledged the similarities between himself and other members of the field. He pointed to his professional background in engineering as a qualification that sets him apart.
“We’re all looking for the same things,” Tellalian said.
In responding to questions submitted by those in attendance, the candidates often echoed one another. On the topic of public safety, Webster, Curry and Lazzara were all of the opinion that the police department is understaffed. Hosty and Hoskins called for more youth-based programs. Nyberg and Tellalian pointed to concerns with department leadership.
The proposal to flatten residential properties to make way for additional downtown parking has not been discussed in council chambers since December, but the issue is still weighing heavily on the minds of voters. Calderone exchanged barbs with Steinbach over the origins of that proposal, but both said they were not in favor of using eminent domain. The mayor said he has since formed an ad hoc committee to revisit the issue and it appears unlikely that a single parking structure will be enough.
Steinbach agreed that a mix of surface parking and garages may be needed, but said the village needs to revisit its current parking restrictions to see if prime spaces can be made accessible to a greater number.
Every council candidate voiced some support for a parking garage as a long-term solution. Lazzara said the expansion of surface lots will hurt the character of the village.
“Before you know it there will only be dead people and parking lots in Forest Park,” Lazzara said.
Curry and Tellalian said the need for better planning is highlighted by this issue. Curry, the chairman of the zoning board of appeals, said a solution that will support the village’s parking needs for decades is the only solution that will work.
Tellalian, meanwhile, criticized the mayor for allowing a politically-connected bar owner to expand his businesses where new parking could have been created. Calderone defended the permit and said only six spaces could have been constructed on the lot where Doc Ryan’s built an addition to its Madison Street location.
The issue of campaign finance was posed to the candidates, and here, distinctions were drawn. In the mayor’s race, Calderone defended his practice of accepting donations from village contractors and employees. All of the money is documented by the state, Calderone said, and done in compliance with the law.
“I follow the law,” Calderone said.
His challenger, however, said the law is only the minimum requirement and pointed to her promise never to accept donations from such sources.
“I follow the law, but I also take it a step further,” Steinbach said.
Plepel, Hoskins, Nyberg, Curry, Tellalian and Webster all denounced the practice of accepting donations from village contractors. Lazzara promised to conduct himself with integrity
“The mayor is correct, but a reasonable person can see the conflict of interest,” Plepel said.
Hosty, who is an avid supporter of Calderone’s bid for re-election, said he too follows the guidelines established by the state.
Because of the number of candidates appearing in the forum, participants were limited to giving brief responses. Nonetheless, more than 200 residents turned out for the two hour event. Candidates also spoke to development issues along Roosevelt Road, updating the village’s zoning codes, absentee landlords and steps that can be taken to improve the community’s public high school district.