Most of the candidates for village commissioner appeared at last week’s Citizens United in Forest Park forum, held at the Forest Park park district building.

Seven of the 11 hopefuls fielded questions from an audience that wanted to know how they would operate as commissioners. Many of the inquiries pertained to perceived problems with village finances, transparency and ethics, among other issues.

“I see an ever-increasing budget and revenues that aren’t matching the increase in that budget, and I don’t see where that revenue is going to come from – except I’ve seen ideas to increase [the cost of] everything from business licenses to the vehicle stickers,” said Chris Harris, the owner of a technology start-up company.

“In these times, I don’t think hitting us up is the answer,” he added.

Eric Connor, a public defense attorney, expressed concern over the village being “skimpy on reserves.”

Forest Park faced a $2.1 million deficit as of Jan. 31, according to the village’s most recent monthly accounting report. At that time there was only $1.8 million in reserves, Village Administrator Tim Gillian wrote in an e-mail. However, Gillian and Finance Director Judy Kovacs said the state and county are several months behind on payments to the village from sales tax, property tax and income tax revenues. Neither Gillian nor Kovacs could say how much money will come in, but Kovacs said she is “100 percent” that the budget will be balanced on April 30 – the end of fiscal year 2011.

Harris and other candidates stressed the need to stimulate commerce along Roosevelt Road. Some of the candidates who ran in 2007 promised to court more businesses to set up operations on the south end of town.

“There is a TIF [on Roosevelt Road] that has a surplus in it, and it could contribute to Roosevelt Road, and we have been expanding the TIF there,” said Rory Hoskins, incumbent commissioner of accounts and finances. “That work is not done.”

A TIF, or tax increment financing district, is a designated fund where property taxes are frozen at a certain amount and the amount above that is collected and placed in a special account. By state law, the money must be used to develop blighted areas. The TIF Hoskins referred to is the Roosevelt/Hannah TIF fund. At the end of fiscal year 2010, there was $1.7 million in the account.

The sitting commissioner also suggested the village form an “enterprise zone,” part of a state program that, among other things, gives businesses that rebuild or relocate within the confines of the zone, tax breaks on their building costs. An enterprise zone exists in the neighboring village of Maywood, and Hoskins thinks Forest Park should consider joining it.

Although all of the candidates echoed calls for financial prudence, most of the
political aspirants have an issue or platform they are focusing on.

Small business owner Tom Mannix has one of the more precise and specific campaigns.

His platform includes a high school in Forest Park separate from the Proviso District, efforts to get residents to shop locally, frugal spending (when asked about programs for seniors, he said he wouldn’t “overpromise” anything), and a suggestion that all Freedom of Information Act requests be granted.

But Mannix’s priority is the creation of a new high school district in Forest Park.

“Too many families move in here and move out when their oldest child hits eighth
grade, knowing they don’t have the money to send their child to parochial school,” Mannix said. “We must find a way to get a high school for Forest Park … and work to separate ourselves from the Proviso district,” he added.

Mannix did not explain what he could do as a commissioner to achieve this. Separation is a complicated legal process that involves either a voter referendum or approval by the current District 209 board.

“We’re not going to get a high school in Forest Park; it’s not going to happen,”
Hoskins said.

How the village operates – as a non-partisan, commission form of government – was also discussed.

Steve Johnsen – a former police officer and former District 91 school board member – said he wants the board to simply “set policy and get out of the way.”

“I want to have a strong village administrator who is the single point of contact in the village, who reports to the council in its entirety, who is the boss of all the department heads, and can have a nice command-and-control of government,” Johnsen said, adding, “We’ve had a horizontal management system where our rank-and-file employee can kind of end-run his department head, he can end-run the village administrator and he can run right to his favorite politician. … I don’t think politicians have any business talking to any of the employees. … Our business is with the village administrator.”

In 2007, Johnsen resigned from the police force amid disputed allegations that he failed to properly document an arrest.

Connor seconded Johnsen’s criticism.

“I think [the commission form of government] produces a tremendous amount of discord on the council with conflicting priorities,” Connor said. “If we had a discussion on this issue, I think we could get a much stronger and more varied opinion from our citizenry and much better representation.”

Connor, running as an independent, has change on his mind.

“If you like the way things are going, vote for the same people,” he said, taking aim at the current village board.

Eighteen-year-old Matt Walsh discussed bringing youth activities to Forest Park, creating more transparency (“We seem to be having too many secret dealings,” he said) and familiarizing himself with “the issues.”

Elsie Norberg, who works in the nonprofit sector, echoed much of what Mannix said, quite literally. The two were seated next to one another, and on numerous occasions, she said, “I like Tom’s idea,” in response to questions from the audience.

She is focused on stimulating the local economy – another Mannix initiative – and maintaining activities offered to seniors.

Incumbent commissioners Mike Curry and Mark Hosty were noticeably absent.

“It’s not a forum,” said Hosty, when asked why he didn’t attend. “They’re not the neutral group that they claim to be.”

“Every member has actively worked to undermine any of my candidacies and my time in office,” he added.

Curry wrote in an email that a death in his family prevented his attendance.

Non-incumbents Sam Tarara, a real-estate agent, and Tad Mossell, a cable salesman, were not present either.

Tarara said he was at a business conference; Mossell wrote in an e-mail: “I have been out of town all week again travelling for business. … It’s a VERY good thing for my company, and also for me personally, but unfortunately the election has taken a back seat.” Mossell is a regional sales manager at Lake Cable LLC.

This was the second of three forums. Next week’s mayoral forum will feature one candidate: Marty Tellalian, an incumbent commissioner. Last week, incumbent Mayor Anthony Calderone informed Citizens United that he will not attend the forum – he was not present at their event in 2007 either.

In a letter to Citizens United President Jerry Webster, Calderone cited the organization’s lack of impartiality as the primary reason for the decision.

“I have no desire to participate in any way, shape, or form with an organization that hides behind a fake cloth of good government when its true ambition is the assassination of my character,” Calderone wrote.

“Participating in your forum would be akin to placing a ‘lamb in a lion’s den,'” he added.

Forest Parkers can attend the third and final forum on Wed., Mar. 2, at 7 p.m., on the third floor of the park district building, 7501 Harrison St.