While there have been many discussions over the years about whether Forest Park should keep its commission form of government, incumbent commissioner Maria Maxham has put it back at the forefront as she made it part of her campaign platform for the April 2023 elections.
Mayor Rory Hoskins told the Review that he was open to reconsidering Forest Park’s form of government. He said that in February 2021, while the village was looking for a new village administrator to succeed Tim Gillian, he arranged for a representative of the Illinois City/County Management Association to give a virtual presentation on all forms of government possible in Illinois.
“The council at the time couldn’t really decide which [form of government] they felt strongly about,” Hoskins said, so it didn’t go any further.
Moses Amidei, the village administrator chosen in that process, previously served as village manager in the north suburban town of Highwood, which has a village manager form of government. He previously told the Review that he doesn’t have strong feelings about Forest Park’s form of government one way or another, saying they both have their strengths and weaknesses.
With that in mind, the Review decided to take a dive and explain exactly what makes the commission form distinct, what other options are out there and what it would take to change the form of government.
What is the commission form of government?
In Illinois, any municipality that’s incorporated as a village, gets the trustee-village president form of government by default. The village of Harlem, precursor to Forest Park, was officially incorporated in 1884 and it was no exception. Voters approved the current commission form of government in 1911, four years after the village’s name was changed to “Forest Park.” The first four commissioners and the mayor were elected in 1913, with H.J. Mohr serving as both the village’s last president and its first mayor.
The powers of each form of government are set down in the Illinois Municipal Code, with the rarely used commission form of government mostly spelled out in Chapter 4.
It should be noted that in the decades since Forest Park first hired a village administrator an informal hybrid of a commission form with strains of a manager form has evolved.
The biggest difference between the commission form of government and other forms of government is that each commissioner is put in charge of a village department, with the power to hire and fire their department employees. While the municipal code is mostly silent on departments in other forms of government, it specifically sets down the five department that can exist under the commission form of government – Accounts & Finance, Public Health & Safety, Streets & Public Improvements, Public Property and Public Affairs. Mayors serve as commissioners of public affairs. The code does give the village council discretion to “determine the powers of and duties to be performed by each department.” The village council decides which commissioner gets to head which of the remaining four departments in the first meeting after each election, but voters can pass a referendum that would require each commissioner candidate to run for a specific department.
There are also certain jurisdictional and procedural differences. Under the Illinois library code, village councils are responsible for appointing trustees to their local municipal library board. In practice, Forest Park mayors tended to choose the library trustees themselves, with the council either approving or denying those selections, the way they would with mayor-appointed boards, commissions, and committees.
Any ordinance or resolution that deals with “any street improvement or sewer, or making or authorizing the making of any contract, or granting any franchise, right, or license to occupy or use the streets, alleys, highways, bridges, viaducts, public property, or public places in the municipality for any purpose” must be approved by the village council. In towns with the manager form of government, it isn’t unusual for village elected officials to delegate the authority to approve smaller-scale contracts and expenditures to the village manager, but that option is off the table for Forest Park.
The municipal code also requires the village council to meet at least twice a month, and either the mayor or two commissioners can call special meetings, so long as they file a notice ahead of time.
Changing the form of government
Under the state municipal code, in order to place a referendum on whether the village should keep the commission form of government on the ballot, voters must collect signatures equal to 25% of all registered voters who voted for any mayoral candidate in the previous municipal election. For municipalities with less than 50,000 residents, such as Forest Park, the referendum can only go on the ballot during a municipal election.
The referendum must be phrased as “Shall the village of Forest Park retain the commission form of municipal government?” so if the majority votes “yes,” the commission form of government remains in place.
If the majority votes “no,” Forest Park will revert to the trustee-village president form of government. Voters also have the option of approving either the manager form of government or a strong mayor form of government. In the manager form of government, a village manager would handle most of Forest Park’s day-to-day operations, including hiring and firing of department heads. Under the strong mayor form of government, the mayor has veto power and can appoint some department heads without village council approval.
Of municipalities near Forest Park, Brookfield, Maywood, Oak Park, River Forest, Riverside and Westchester all have the village manager form of government, while Berwyn has the strong mayor form of government.
Voters can also change, via referenda, whether village legislators are elected at large, from wards, or some combination of both.
Voters would also have the option of adopting the manager form of government without doing away with commissioners altogether. That would transfer the commissioners’ powers to oversee the departments to a village manager but keep features like the structure of the village council, the ability to appoint the library board and terms of office the same.