The Forest Park Review sent questionnaires to each person running for public office in 2023. The Review’s questions are in bold and the candidate’s responses are below.
Name: Maria Maxham
Previous Political Experience: Current Forest Park Commissioner of Public Health and Safety; involvement in two previous District 209 Board of Education elections
Previous/Current Community Involvement: Former reporter and editor at Forest Park Review; past fellow in the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation’s Leadership Lab; member of the Forest Park Arts Alliance; member of the Forest Park Historical Society; member of OPALGA+; member of the Forest Park Garden Club; organizer of the Forest Park Community Fridge project
Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting; Master’s degree in creative writing, Iowa Writers’ Workshop at University of Iowa
1. Do you believe Forest Park should actively pursue acquisition of the former U.S. Army Reserve site on Roosevelt Road? If so, what do you believe would be the best use of this property and what do you think should be the minimum bid for its purchase?
Under fairly narrow and ideal conditions, Forest Park should pursue acquisition of the former U.S. Army Reserve site on Roosevelt Road. The possibility should stay on the village’s radar, since a large, revenue-generating development on a busy street would be highly beneficial both in terms of making Roosevelt Road a more attractive corridor and obviously in terms of economic benefit to the village. Acquisition of the property would give the village the ability to do an RFP and control future development, though future use can also be controlled by the village through zoning in the event that Forest Park is not the purchaser.
However, refusal by the Army’s Office of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) to allow environmental studies prior to an exchange partner being selected for the Fort Sheridan work in October 2022 was a red flag, as there are known contaminants on multiple areas of the property. Additionally, only a Phase 1 environmental study has been done on the property. Being allowed to do a Phase 2 environmental study, and the scope and breadth of environmental remediation needed, would certainly be determining factors in whether the village should pursue purchase and at what price.
In terms of a minimum bid, as asked, zero is the obvious answer. As for maximum, it is impossible to provide a number without due diligence, such as environmental studies and a market analysis, but the village should leverage relationships to ideally acquire the property at below market value. Initial discussions between the village and BRAC touched on preferential opportunities for the village, and the fact that the property has sat untouched and still available speaks to both the questionable desirability of the exchange process offered by the Army and the potential to acquire it cheaply.
The best use for the property would obviously be something that generates much-needed property or ideally sales tax revenue for the village; market forces will determine the specific use.
2. How should the discussion of this acquisition be more public and transparent?
The potential acquisition of the property, if being actively considered, should be discussed in open session during a village council meeting. A public hearing and presentation of a plan by the village should be offered to residents for their input and buy-in.
3. What do you believe is the single greatest commercial development opportunity in Forest Park?
Most prominently, the village-owned Altenheim property is a development opportunity in Forest Park, though almost definitely not commercial. However, a companion analysis of the Desplaines corridor from I290 to Madison Street, as recommended by the Altenheim Advisory Committee, is something the village should investigate.
The Army Reserve Center should, of course, be on the village’s radar, as six acres along a heavily traveled route would provide robust opportunities for economic development. But due diligence must be completed and acquisition sought only under controllable circumstances, such as a Phase 2 environmental study. Zoning should be examined to control the outcome in the event that the property is purchased by an outside group.
Determining how to backfill or develop Bed, Bath, and Beyond will present exciting opportunities for the village, and there is no doubt that on a well-traveled route like Harlem Avenue, interest in the property will be abundant.
While perhaps less important but still of particular interest is the property previously known as Moran’s Garage at 7505 Randolph Street. Currently, the Department of Public Health and Safety, with help from the county’s Brownfield Site Redevelopment Program, has applied for a Phase II environmental study, and acquisition in the future is a possibility. If the site has limited contaminants, the village can go through the county’s no cash bid program to acquire the property. This would allow us to take control of the property and put it up for redevelopment and would clean up an eyesore.
The village is also waiting on an NFR letter for the property at 949 Harlem Avenue; if/when received, redevelopment will be imminent.
4. What do you believe is the minimum portion of the 11 acres of the Altenheim property that should be preserved as green space for public use? Is the park district the best option for building and operating that green space or do you believe that there are better options for operating the space?
A large majority of the village-owned property at the Altenheim should be left as green space preserved for public use.
Characteristics inherent to the property and its location, such as traffic restrictions and stormwater management needs, in addition to the restrictive covenant the village entered into when purchasing the parcel, are automatically limiting in terms of intensity and density of development.
The Altenheim Advisory Committee is comprised of a diverse, highly talented, and thoughtful group of residents who spent many hours over several months learning about the property, including a tour, hearing presentations from interested groups, and studying and discussing details about the zoning, restrictive covenant with the Altenheim Senior Home, easements, property lines, and more. Initial consensus from the group seems to be that the northern section of the property remain unimproved. The section immediately west of the Altenheim Senior Home has fundamental access issues and, combined with the need to meet Metropolitan Water Reclamation District stormwater management requirements, may be required to stay undeveloped. These two parcels alone account for at least 50 percent of the available property.
However, this is the bare minimum that should “stay green.” Residents paid for the property and should be allowed use and enjoyment on this large, unique, and special piece of land.
The Park District is not the best option for building and operating that green space because they have specifically said they are not interested in doing so now. The Park District has previously indicated that they don’t want to purchase it, since that would mean Forest Park residents would be paying for it twice. They have also indicated they are not interested in leasing it from the village at this point in time. Though not ideal, and though the village is not in the business of administering parks, for the time being we should continue to provide basic maintenance. Determining highest and best use for the undeveloped portion does not need to be rushed.
5. How do you define racial equity in municipal government? Do you believe it should be a priority? What are the specific opportunities in which an equity lens might improve local governance?
As a white individual, I don’t have the lens to accurately or in a meaningful enough manner understand all that goes into active work toward inclusion. I believe a robust diversity commission, tasked with providing regular guidance to the village council on matters, would be a good place to start. To reengage the diversity commission, including defining its role, I would like the village to seek guidance from a diversity, equity, and inclusion expert to assess shortfalls in resources and opportunities and address ways to bridge those gaps. Part of what a diversity commission might be tasked with is developing a definition of equity that Forest Park can embrace and use as a benchmark for decision-making. Reviving the diversity commission is a priority, and specific opportunities in which an equity lens might improve local government include, but are certainly not limited to, hiring practices to actively recruit a move diverse work-force; determining how to reach out to and engage people with a wider background for our commissions and committees; and ensuring that every resident has equitable access to resources and opportunities at all times.
6. How should Forest Park balance public safety concerns with making policing more equitable and community-engaged?
A police department’s work within the community speaks volumes about its desire to engage with residents and create trust rather than friction, and Forest Park’s police department puts a big focus on that. While COVID and a short-staffed department put some programs on rest, they are coming back, including a regular and active Neighborhood Watch group and Citizen’s Police Academy (which I am attending, and which is amazing). Our police department regularly participates in the Casket Races, the police chief or deputy chief attend every village council meeting, and officers are a visible and active part of our community.
Retirements, two devastating deaths, and a serious injury have left our department short-staffed for some time, but the department is actively recruiting, and there are currently three recruits in field training and four in the academy. While everyone from the police chief down has been out on the streets to fill in for vacancies, it’s not hard to see that the focus has been on public safety over anything else. But even so, the focus on community involvement in Forest Park’s police department is an important way to create trust between residents and law enforcement.
7. Do you view as an impediment the fact that Forest Park does not have home rule? Do you think Forest Park should seek home rule authority?
Not having home rule certainly is an impediment to Forest Park because we are limited in our ability to finance the day-to-day operations of the village. Home rule would open up new revenue sources. The central issue when it comes to home rule, however, is always trust; opponents of it often worry about, and there is a potential threat of, over taxation and an undue burden placed on residents. But home rule also affords the opportunity to shift the tax burden away from residents, because other avenues of taxation are opened, including special use taxes and transfer taxes. (In Oak Park, for example, the village makes $8 per $1,000 on all properties sold.) A home rule referendum failed in Forest Park in 2001. But according to the Forest Park Review, only a small number of voters participated in the process (just over 2,000). As with changing our form of government, I think it is time to take a hard look at the pros and cons and hold community learning sessions and discussion to determine if this is the best way forward for Forest Park.
8. Do you believe that Forest Park’s commission form of government is preferable for Forest Park in comparison to a city manager form?
No. The commission form of government inappropriately gives commissioners administrative authority over a department, regardless of their experience in that area. Traditionally, the top vote-getter in a commissioner election is offered the position of Commissioner of Accounts and Finance, even if that person has never taken a finance class or looked at a spreadsheet. The same holds true for other departments; someone with zero background in building and zoning, for example, can become the boss of Public Health and Safety, with the authority to make day-to-day decisions on how the department director and employees perform their jobs.
Having a commissioner in charge of a department even if they know nothing about the field can create a toxic environment in which a seasoned and experienced department head is being told what to do by an elected official with potentially no experience in the field. Department heads and staff are hired and retained based on their ability to perform their jobs, and our department heads are exceptional. They should not have to worry about getting a new boss every four years. Rather, commissioners (or trustees, as we would most likely have if we changed to a different form of government) should set policy but not be awarded administrative control over “their” departments.
To say that traditionally commissioners have respected boundaries ignores the fact that the potential for abuse and mismanagement is inherent within this form of government. And the truth is that there are commissioners whose active attempts to manage their departments, though technically allowed, has at times created toxic situations for department heads, staff, and even residents.
9. What role do you think village commissioners should play in the operations of the village government? Do you believe that the current mayor and commissioners should have active authority in the operations of the departments to which they are assigned?
I’m going to push back a little on this question, because it’s very similar to the above question, but, if answered exactly as asked, will provide a response that doesn’t address the nuances needed for a full discussion of the issue. By definition, village commissioners and the mayor do have active authority in the operations of the departments to which they are assigned. The current mayor and commissioners, again by definition, already do have that authority. If we are embracing and using our current form of government, that’s the way it works, and the question of whether the elected officials “should” have that power is moot. That is why, as a village, we should actively investigate other forms of government, because as mentioned in a previous answer, it doesn’t make sense for elected officials, with potentially no experience in a field, to have administrative authority over a department. It would be to the village’s benefit to move entirely away from the commission form of government so there would be no assignation to a particular department and no administrative control over such. Instead, trustees should be in place to set policy but not be involved in day-to-day operations.