Maria Maxham talks with other committee members on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, during a public forum discussing the Altenheim, at Forest Park village hall. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

It’s not often that an incumbent political candidate makes repealing their elected office part of their platform.

But is one of six top priorities for incumbent Forest Park village commissioner Maria Maxham as she launches her campaign to be elected to the council in April 2023. Maxham, a former editor of the Forest Park Review until she was appointed to fill a vacancy on the village council, believes the long established “commission form” of government is a detriment to Forest Park. Maxham said she has no preference as to what replaces it, but, if re-elected, she plans to have a public engagement process where residents will look at what forms of government neighboring villages have and select a form that would suit Forest Park best.

The form of municipal government can only be changed via a referendum. Unless someone musters enough signatures to put it on the ballot in the April election cycle, the earliest a referendum can go on the ballot in Forest Park is the April 2027 municipal election.

Other major priorities for Maxham include supporting the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, making public engagement meetings part of the village’s decision-making process, supporting Forest Park’s public school districts, investing in public safety and working with other villages on environmental sustainability. 

Maxham said she became interested in the ins and outs of the municipal government structure while serving as the Review’s editor and lead reporter. That appreciation only increased after she was appointed village commissioner on July 14, 2021, filling a vacancy created when a commissioner moved from the village.

“I think it was sort of a surprising change, but it felt very organic,” she said. “I felt I’ve come to develop, not just a deep understanding, but a deep love for the village and appreciation for the local government that I’ve never had before. It has literally been one of the biggest honors of my life to serve as commissioner in this town.”

Because she was originally appointed, next April will be the first time Maxham is on the ballot. 

The long-standing commission form of government has several features that set it apart from the “manager form” of government common in villages throughout the western suburbs. Most notably, each elected commissioner serves as a head of a department – in Maxham’s case, the Department of Public Health & Safety.

“I really firmly believe that it’s time for Forest Park to adopt a different form of government,” she said. “It’s outdated, its inconvenient, and I can see first-hand how it creates a toxic work environment for the staff.”

Maxham said it was “ridiculous” that, under the current system, commissioners have direct power over department directors who have more actual job experience than them. 

“For me to step in and start dictating how [Director of Public Health & Safety Steve Glinke] should run the department on a day-to-day basis doesn’t make sense,” she said, adding that “I think there a tendency for commissioners to overstep and get involved in day-to-day operations.”

Maxham said she doesn’t have a preference for what should replace it, because she hasn’t done enough research on the topic – but she believes that the change should be resident-driven.

“I think we’d need to do a real deep dive, [research] how these forms of government work and figure out what’s going to be best for Forest Park,” she said. “I would do a series of town halls and have the experts come in [to answer questions].”

Maxham’s other major priority, one that she mentioned first in the interview, would be to improve Forest Park’s economic vitality by directing more funding and support to the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce. She previously advocated for more American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) federal stimulus funding to go to the chamber. 

“Since the village itself doesn’t have an economic development person on staff, we need to partner better with the Chamber and lean on them to do work with us,” Maxham said.

She is also looking to improve public engagement, citing her town hall on the possibility of allowing backyard hens in Forest Park as an example of the kind of public-driven process she would like the village to engage in more.

“Sometimes, it feels like council makes decisions in a vacuum and we don’t hear feedback about the decisions until after it was made,” Maxham said. “I think engaging residents early on in an education process is really important.”

She also said that, if elected, her major priority will be to improve public safety,  pushing to make sure police and fire departments have the vehicles and equipment they need, as well as continue rehabilitation of the fire station.  She is also interested in building on the village’s existing relationships with Housing Forward and Night Ministry homeless services organizations, so that they can do more to help homeless individuals who pass through or camp near the Forest Park Blue Line CTA terminal. The goal, Maxham said, would be to “help those individuals get into the system, help them get medical care that they need, and help set them up with housing.”

She said, as someone who sent her kids to Forest Park School District 91 and Proviso Township High School District 209, and who reported on the later while working for the Review, she is deeply invested in the future of both districts. Maxham said she supported the Proviso 209 United slate, which is running against the current District 209 incumbents. She said that it’s “terrifying” the majority on the current board supported Supt. James Henderson, even as the district experienced teacher and bus driver shortage without demanding accountability.

“I am actively involved in campaigning to change the board, because I believe there’s a gigantic lack of transparency and poor decision-making and little to any oversight [with the current board],” Maxham said. 

She believes that all elected officials in all villages within Proviso Township should be actively pushing for improvements, since the quality of the districts affects the property values.

“I think it remains one of the most pressing issues in all of Proviso,” Maxham said. “I think the officials should be more involved. I think they should go to meetings, I think they should be aware, and make decisions on what candidates they’re going to support in the election in April.”

Abandoning the commission form of government

Under Section 4-10-1 of the Illinois Municipal Code, at least 25% of all registered voters who voted for mayor in the previous municipal elections must sign a petition to put the referendum on the ballot. A separate referendum question will ask the voters what form of government they would want to establish instead. For municipalities with population under 50,000, such as Forest Park, the question can only be placed on the ballot during the same election where the village council officers are elected, so the earliest this can go before the voters is April 2027. 

If the majority votes “no” in the referendum, the village will transition to whichever other form of government the voters choose effective the next municipal election. 

Generally, the voters would be able to choose a managerial form of government, where a village manager handles most day-to-day administrative tasks, or a strong mayor form of government, where the mayor can veto legislation and unilaterally appoint certain department heads. The Illinois Municipal Code offers multiple options for how the former would be structured, including whether trustees or village council members would be elected at large, from districts, or some combination of both. With the latter, all village council members would be elected from wards.