In preparing for an annual fundraising event to benefit a community action group, Gloria Backman called the director of the village community center in early January to see about reserving space. For the last two years, Citizens United in Forest Park rented the municipal facility to stage a day-long rummage sale, and was expecting to do the same in 2007.
But shortly after making her inquiry, Backman got a phone call from center Director Beverly Thompson encouraging her to find another facility. In February and March, Backman wrote to Thompson asking for a written explanation for the decision, but said she never received a response.
Steve Backman, who is an organizing member of CUinFP along with his wife, suspects Mayor Anthony Calderone is leaning on village staff to shut his organization out.
“We deduced that from the message that Bev left on our answering machine,” Steve Backman said.
Specifically, Steve Backman points to an e-mail he sent to the village’s director of Public Health and Safety last August, as the fuel for Calderone’s alleged revenge. In that e-mail, Backman accused the mayor of violating a municipal sign ordinance in 2005 when he advertised his annual picnic on the community center’s marquis. That event, according to Backman, was organized and funded by Citizens for Calderone, therefore making the picnic a political event.
Though the village code explicitly defines a multitude of different types of signs, the ordinance does not do so for political messages. However, political messages are expressly prohibited from appearing on public property.
Calderone described Backman’s contention as a “bizarre, ridiculous notion” that is entirely untrue. Further, the mayor said his use of the marquis as challenged by Backman did not constitute political advertising.
“That does not make it a campaign sign,” Calderone said. “That is the furthest thing from a campaign sign.”
Thompson declined to comment on the matter and referred questions to Mike Sturino, the village administrator.
Sturino flatly denied allegations that the mayor had any say in the decision, and said the community center has a policy prohibiting political activity.
“They are a political organization,” Sturino said. “Staff is not persuaded by (Backman’s) own description of the organization. I find that they are a political organization.”
The decision not to allow the rummage sale was Thompson’s and hers alone, Sturino said.
According to Sturino, Thompson has made similar calls regarding the use of the community center. In 2006, Gov. Rod Blagojevich asked to use the facility to make an announcement regarding his candidacy for re-election. Thompson denied that request, without any input from village hall, Sturino said, as she did a similar request from at least one candidate for state representative.
According to Sturino, the village administrator has the final say in how municipal property will be used, and he supports Thompson’s decisions.
“If the mayor wanted to hold a fundraiser at the community center, I would refuse that as well,” Sturino said.
Sturino acknowledged he did not have an answer for why CUinFP was allowed to host its rummage sale at the community center in 2005 and 2006. However, given the flavor of local politics, Sturino said the village should take a hard line with respect to political activity on publicly owned property.
“In my view, yes it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Sturino said. “It’s better to take a strict approach than sliding down a slippery slope.”
But Steve Backman denied the contention that CUinFP is pushing a political agenda. Though he admits to being an outspoken critic of the mayor himself, Backman said the organization has never taken a position with respect to public policy or candidates running for office.
“Some of our members are supporters of Calderone,” Backman said.
The mayor’s rival in the April 17 election, Theresa Steinbach, is a member of CUinFP.
In addition to his August 2006 e-mail regarding the mayor’s picnic, Backman was an outspoken critic of a recent proposal to level homes for parking along Madison Street, he regularly videotapes village meetings and is openly distrustful of Calderone’s administration.
“That’s me. That’s Steve Backman the person,” Backman said.