It was five years ago that founding members of Citizens United in Forest Park first encouraged residents to take an interest in local government, and their community in general. Over time, with a constant presence at municipal meetings, and through candidate debates, voter registration drives and forums on topics like waste removal and property development, the organization has proven its commitment to being a force.
But a force for what?
Public officials who’ve felt unfairly targeted by watchdog efforts of CUinFP, as the group is commonly known, have worked to marginalize members as grumblers from the fringe who do nothing but tear down the community.
Proponents, however, have said their sole purpose is to foster awareness and provide information about the community to residents.
Karen Rozmus, the president of CUinFP, said the reality is that it has been a little of both.
“Unfortunately, the perception of the organization is that it’s political, and that it’s adversarial.” Rozmus said. “I’m trying to change that.”
Now in her second year at the helm, Rozmus is touting a renewed commitment to growing the organization as an essential source of information for the community. In May, the group reached its fifth anniversary and the milestone is being marked on Wednesday, Nov. 11 with a fundraising party at Molly Malone’s, 7652 Madison, to benefit the Forest Park Food Pantry. Signing up for a one-year membership gets you in the party for free.
A list of CUinFP accomplishments that exceeds two pages in length has been somewhat overshadowed by perceptions that its members harbor some resentment toward Mayor Anthony Calderone and those believed to be aligned with him, said Rozmus. While it’s true that many members have actively campaigned on behalf of candidates running against those incumbents, Rozmus said the organization has been careful to stay above the fray.
On the flipside, Forest Park’s size may make it difficult for public officials to readily accept criticism from neighbors.
“It’s easy to be a little thin-skinned if there’s an opposing view or opposition,” Rozmus said.
Village Administrator Tim Gillian, a council member in 2004 when CUinFP formed, acknowledged a rocky relationship between the group and public officials. A remarkable but true story of the early days includes CUinFP members bringing lawn chairs to council meetings because seats weren’t being provided by the village.
Gillian said organizations that disseminate information, and serve as civic watchdogs, “absolutely” have value in a community. However, he said he’s found it difficult to decipher exactly what is CUinFP’s purpose.
“I would bet you there were some instances where it wasn’t just about policy, but that it was more personal,” Gillian said of the group’s efforts.
Steve and Gloria Backman, husband and wife, founded Citizens United in Forest Park after they were disappointed with the handling of several local issues. Parking in their neighborhood was becoming difficult as Madison Street came to life, and a proposed use of the Roos property on Harrison seemed to take everyone by surprise, they said. An overall lack of decorum and professionalism at village hall was also a problem, Steve Backman said.
Energized by shared concerns regarding the Roos, strangers began contacting the couple after Steve Backman wrote a letter to the newspaper. Over the course of several months, a “loose association” of people in 2003 decided they should get more organized. The first official CUinFP meeting was held in May 2004.
“It was kind of a heady and fun period, and we thought we could do something good,” Steve Backman said.
Through the years, and to this day, the couple has served as the primary videographers in the group’s commitment to record every single publicly held meeting at village hall. Decorum changed almost instantly, they said, and the message that they were “crashing the party” came with it.
Over time, the Backmans began documenting construction projects around town and were not shy about pointing out violations of local building and zoning regulations. Those efforts were separate from the organization, the couple said.
Never did they let personal feelings influence the conduct of Citizens United, they said.
“Probably more than any other members of CUinFP, Gloria and I became the personification of CUinFP,” Steve Backman said. “They forget that there were seven or eight charter members.”
In May 2008, new officers were selected to lead Citizens United and Steve Backman no longer serves on the board. Gloria is the organization’s treasurer. The husband-and-wife founders said it was time for them to let others take the lead.
Rozmus, a member since 2005, declined to comment on the reasons for the change.
Gillian, previously unaware of the turnover in Citizens United’s leadership, said he would welcome the chance to work with the organization if Rozmus is at the helm.
“I would absolutely accept Karen at her word,” Gillian said.
Terry Pastika, executive director and a community lawyer for Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, has tackled a range of government issues in DuPage County and in many ways serves as a model to CUinFP, according to both Rozmus and the Backmans. Pastika credited the Forest Park group for surviving five years, and said such longevity is difficult to accomplish if an organization is focused solely on a single issue. CUinFP is “extraordinarily valuable” and an example of “exactly what should be happening in every community.” In particular, the group’s dedication to keeping an archived collection of public meetings lets the entire community easily review civic issues.
“The much broader purpose is to engage people in the democratic process, and the watchdogging is only one element of it,” Pastika said.