The village of Forest Park is perhaps the only local government in this area to have finished 2009 in the black. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s including Oak Park and River Forest where the property taxes would make me – if I lived there – consider becoming a Republican.
Clearly, our village government is doing some things right. For many years the editorial slant of this paper has been to discard the commission form of government and replace it something that is more up to date. But, should we attribute the village’s fiscal success to individual commissioners rising above the limitations of the system, or might the system be more functional than my editors allow?
Here’s my take on the issue. When I was playing in Little League, every once in a while one of my teammates would throw his glove on the ground after dropping a fly ball. To me, it looked like he was blaming the glove for the error.
Good equipment can improve a player’s performance. Good forms of government increase the likelihood that the common good will be served. So, are our commissioners playing the game of governance with a bad system?
I don’t think it’s so bad. One argument against the commission form of government is that just because you are attractive enough to get elected doesn’t mean that you are able to run departments like accounts and finance, public health and safety, streets and public works and public property.
That’s true. On the other hand, holding a Ph.D. in urban planning doesn’t mean you know how to govern or are in touch with real people and their needs. Oak Park is a town with big ideas that come from very bright, educated people who feel they are somehow a failure if they don’t come up with big, expensive projects. Take Marion Street for example. It’s a street with electric coils in the pavement to melt the snow. That’s really cool, but it’s one reason why the village east of Harlem is in the red.
Likewise, commissioners with common sense will consult with the professionals under them before making decisions. Commissioners, though, like the rest of us, don’t always use common sense. And that brings us to the next problem those opposed to the commission form of government raise. They say that because commissioners have one foot in the legislative boat and one foot on the executive dock, there are no checks and balances.
That, to a degree, is also true. But at the same time, in a village the size of Forest Park, there is a check called the electorate who live next door to these guys and a balance called the hometown newspaper. I know that some of our elected officials feel that the Review has misunderstood, misquoted and maligned them. In a way, however, their hurt feelings show that there are some real checks in place.
Here’s the bottom line for me. The U.S. Constitution is one of the most impressive public documents in the world. If you want to play political baseball it is the best glove you can buy. Yet, the way Democrats and Republicans are behaving regarding the health care issue is making citizens angrier or more depressed than Bears fans right now.
Before writing this column, I got input from each council member, as well as Tim Gillian, the village administrator. That in itself is a sign that the system is working.
“It is my opinion that the form of government is not as important as the people who are elected,” Gillian told me. “I am confident that if the local paper did the research they would find fault with any type of local government. I have not seen a good reason to seek a referendum to change it.”
So, two cheers for Forest Park’s version of the commission form of government. If it were perfect, I’d give it three cheers, but as institutions go it catches more fly balls than it drops.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.