Forest Park Middle School’s “cafetorium” was jam-packed last week when locals came to see a crop of village board hopefuls make their cases for election at the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Forest Park Review candidates’ forum.
The 10 candidates for commissioner were spotlighted first, followed by mayoral aspirants Anthony Calderone and Marty Tellalian. All of the candidates gave opening statements and answered audience members’ questions, which were submitted to moderator Bob Senechalle. A range of issues was discussed: the village’s finances, the divisiveness of the current council, the town’s shrinking revenues and the controversial commissioner form of government, to name a few.
In the mayoral portion of the forum, incumbent Anthony Calderone and challenger Marty Tellalian faced off over a definition of transparent government and differed over the future employment of Tim Gillian as village administrator.
With endorsements from the Forest Park Review being announced the same day as the forum, several commissioner candidates who were not backed by the newspaper highlighted that issue in their opening statements.
Mark Hosty, a 12-year-incumbent commissioner who was not endorsed, said the Review “thinks we [Forest Park] should create a form of government more like Oak Park, where businesses and ideas go to die in bureaucracy.” The Review is owned by Wednesday Journal, Inc., and is headquartered in Oak Park.
“Let’s not let a newspaper from Oak Park. … tell us we’re not good enough to make our own decisions,” said Hosty.
Realtor and property manager Sam Tarara, a candidate for commissioner who was also not endorsed, said the Review’s description of his campaigning as “casual” was inaccurate.
“Nothing I do is casual,” he said.
Tom Mannix, a small-business owner, and another non-endorsed commissioner candidate, said, “as you’ve probably read in the Review, apparently my entire campaign is based around a high school…it’s not.” For three months, Mannix said his top “priority” was to work to separate Forest Park from Proviso District 209, and to build a high school in Forest Park. Last week he briefly mentioned the issue at the end of his opening statement and noted that a public “discussion” was necessary.
Then came the audience’s questions, and by and large, most of the candidates’ echoed each other’s voiced standpoints. There were talking points that tuned-in residents have heard from candidates over the course of the campaign: inclusiveness in government; a fiscally responsible board, although this a contentious issue; development of Roosevelt Road; and fixing the outdated sewer system, were a few.
Everyone except Hosty agreed that they would be in favor of a voter referendum to change the commissioner form of government, if the issue gathered enough support to appear as a ballot question.
“I don’t see the advantage of that except change for change’s sake,” Hosty said. “I’ve only worked with it under the administrative form, and I think that when you have five good elected officials who trust their day-to-day staff, and macro-manage instead of micro-manage, it’s a very efficient form.”
Candidate Eric Connor, a defense attorney, said there are “inherent conflicts” that exist when the job responsibilities of commissioners, the mayor, and the village administrator overlap, in certain cases. Connor has advocated for public discussions to educate residents on the commissioner form of government, and how to bring it to a referendum vote. Candidate Steve Johnsen proposed the manager form of government, as a possible alternative.
Candidates Rory Hoskins, Mike Curry, Chris Harris, Elsie Norberg and Matt Walsh were also present at last week’s forum.
Mayoral contenders Tellalian and Calderone faced off to close out the event, but were also asked questions that have been omnipresent issues on the campaign trail. Some of those questions echoed queries that the commissioner candidates answered.
Spending and transparency are, perhaps, two points where these candidates differ the most. Tellalian thinks the village is overspending and underfunding its pension obligations, while Calderone pointed to spending cuts that have accompanied no layoffs, and a projection for an end-of-the-year budget surplus of over $400,000.
As for transparency – which the mayor dubbed “a buzz word” – Calderone said that the village provides “information overload” on its website, and that anything else can be obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which he called a “simple process.” Tellalian countered by saying that additional information could be posted on the site, and that more could be done to engage the public in government by holding town hall meetings when local issues arise.
The future of Village Administrator Tim Gillian was another divisive issue. Gillian, a former commissioner and longtime friend of Calderone’s, was named village administrator by a council majority at the mayor’s urging in 2009. Tellalian voted against hiring him.
Tellalian said he will replace Gillian if elected mayor, but added that Gillian might still have some “role” within local government.
“We had some great candidates that came to us for village administrator that had master’s degrees in public administration, that had 25 years of experience, who were willing to work for the same level that we are currently paying our village administrator. I think we need a professional village administrator,” Tellalian said.
“If elected I have no intention of replacing…the village administrator,” Calderone said.
Both candidates tried to leave their own unique and indelible mark on audience members. Calderone described himself as an experienced and accomplished leader focused on bringing business to Forest Park.
“I have never stopped my quest for economic development,” he told the crowd, adding that he wants to bring a 5,000 square-foot multimedia community center to the Forest Park Plaza.
Tellalian is painting himself as a reformer who wants to bring change to a government that has become far too “isolated.”
“My style is more teamwork and open involvement,” he said.