Calls to bring residents together while also stopping the growing deficit highlighted a commissioner candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Oak Park-River Forest on Feb. 19.
“Everyone talks about the budget because we want to be able to do things for our community,” Martin Tellalian said. “We want to have a thriving community, we want to continue the great services that we have, but we’re limited by our resources. So we have to find a way to get the word out there so we can continue to have this great place to live.”
Commissioners must look closely at the village’s costs and conserve spending wherever possible, Tellalian said, adding that the village should develop a portion of the village-owned Altenheim property and better market the community to businesses.
“In four years, I want to be able to say that we got the word out about what kind of town we are. … That will be represented in businesses wanting to move in,” he said. “If one of them fails, like what recently happened at HOBO, we want people to be lining up and saying, ‘I want to be a part of that.'”
Jessica Voogd, a candidate running as part of the Forest Park Forward slate, agreed that the village needs to do a line-by-line audit of its budget, as well as better market itself to customers.
“If we can update our village website, get more people involved, coming into the village, we can start producing sales revenue,” she said.
Dan Novak said the village has had some “great budget workshops” over the last few years, where officials have combed through every expense to cut costs. In the nearly four years he’s been commissioner, Novak said the council has also increased business and resident fees. He believes the village needs to come up with a long-term economic plan.
“Businesses are key, customer service is key, we’ve got to treat our businesses like residents,” Novak said. “They have a great stake in this village and we should be proud to have them.”
John Kubricht, a member of Forest Park Forward, said commissioners should be working with the mayor to recruit new businesses.
“It’s not just the department of finances; it’s all four commissioners and the mayor. They need to go out and solicit local businesses to come to Forest Park,” he said.
Ryan Nero said the village needed to continue its efforts with the chamber of commerce, develop the Altenheim property and make sure it’s “business-friendly” by streamlining its processes and offering resources.
“We have the tools to make sure that they foster growth, right? We must make sure that they have incentives, outreach, job training programs,” he said.
Joe Byrnes, an incumbent commissioner, said the Economic Development Commission should be used to help local startups develop business plans and secure loans from banks.
“But the main thing that we have to do is we have to deal with the people who own those buildings,” Byrnes said. “Higher rents are not going to keep businesses. Rents that people can afford are going to keep businesses in there.”
Byrnes added that the village should work to secure an estimated $250,000 ambulance contract with the Hines Veterans Hospital. Ryan Russ said the village needed to collect on unpaid parking tickets.
“That’s money that is owed to us; we should look that way and get what’s owed to us,” he said. “I think I’m not the smartest guy in the room, but we have financial advisors and people of that nature to help us with that planning. So let’s listen to those people.”
Mark Boroughf, a member of Forest Park Forward, agreed the village needed to hire a collection agency to recoup an estimated $300,000 in overdue tickets. He also said the village should better market its federal Small Business Administration office.
“Those are hard to come by,” Boroughf said.
Julianne Bonwit, a member of Forest Park Forward, said the village budget is hard to access because it’s not posted online, which she said spoke to a larger issue of transparency in the village. Bonwit was inspired to run for commissioner after encountering communication difficulties over how to add a stop sign near Garfield Elementary School.
“I found it was hard to navigate through local government, and I want to make that easier. I want to make it easier to access for everyone,” she said.
Voogd also called for easier access to information.
“We need a respectful responsiveness from our government officials, and I think that’s reality,” she said. “I think we can utilize that approach as we deal with anything from economic development to a greater, more sustainable Forest Park.”
Novak said the village has an “open door” policy, but it needs to do a better job advertising that to the community. The village also needs to provide residents with “consumable information,” he added.
“We have our budget reports, but a lot of that is not consumable for the average Forest Parker,” Novak said. He thinks the village should publish an annual report outlining how it spent its funds and touting its accomplishments.
Byrnes called for updating the village website so commission reports and meeting minutes are available.
“It is hard to read the budget. I will tell you, [it] took us three days to figure out what was in the budget,” Byrnes said. “If you put it on the website, you’re going to be looking at it the next three days. So what you want to be looking at is the appropriations report.”
Russ called for a more welcoming council. “Not having a village council that the community can feel they can talk to, and feel that they’re listening to them,” Russ said. “I think sometimes as a voter you feel like you know they’re not hearing what I’m doing.”
Several candidates made loud calls to leave social media as a way to drive unity in Forest Park, after the video gaming referendum divided residents in November 2018.
“Social media allows people to hide in the shadows, and carry grudges, and play ‘Gotcha,'” Tellalian said. “But you don’t do that face-to-face; people are nice generally.”
Boroughf said residents should seek out positive volunteer opportunities, including working with Proviso High Schools District 209. “All the improvements that are there, I mean, wow, it’s mind boggling. So I think in terms of unity, we’ve got the opportunity to carry this momentum forward by participating in the process,” he said.
Bonwit said she would like to see more events like District 91 schools’ Kindness Week — which involved collaboration among all taxing bodies — as well as the mural along the Circle Avenue bridge.
“We already have this unity; it’s just tapping into it again,” she said. “I think that we could have a more inclusive, and community-wide calendar, not just the village meetings but incorporate what else is going on in the different entities out there.”
If elected, she said she would start a yearly volunteer recruitment program to fill every single one of the village’s commissions and boards. Nero agreed that it was key for residents to stay involved with village business, as well as celebrate community programs.
“I would be happy to be the catalyst to support you folks in this village to help control the flooding program,” he said. “If we can have that done in four years, then we’re doing something. There’s a lot of things we can do as individuals; there’s a lot of programs. We used to have the flood prevention grant program here in Forest Park, so we need to celebrate some of the things we do as a community.”
Voogd said developing vacant green space into parks could drive engagement, as well as decrease flooding.
“Utilizing vacant lots, maybe turning them into pocket parks and having more green space as a meeting space for people in the community,” she said. “We can also possibly partner with the urban community state forestry program. They help towns develop their urban forests and their resources to plant more trees, which can help with the flooding.”