Around 200 people showed up to the Feb. 28 Forest Park mayoral and village council candidate debate, which was held in the Grant-White Elementary School building auditorium, 147 Circle Ave.
The debate was organized by the Forest Park Review and the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, with the Review publisher and editor Dan Haley serving as moderator. The two mayoral candidates – incumbent Rory Hoskins and John Doss, current Park District of Forest Park Board of Commissioners president – faced off in the first portion. Incumbent village commissioners Maria Maxham, Ryan Nero and Jessica Voogd, and challengers Joe Landgrebe, Michelle Melin-Rogovin and Ryan Russ faced off in the second part of the debate.
There were certain common themes across the board – most candidates were at least open to the idea of revisiting a referendum that would make Forest Park a Home Rule municipality. There is also a general agreement that any revenue from cannabis dispensaries that might open in the village should go toward addressing pension obligations. Economic development was a priority for many candidates, and several expressed the idea that the village hall was too cramped and outdated, even if they weren’t necessarily sure what should replace it.
Hoskins and Doss draw distinctions
While much of the debate was cordial and focused on issues, the candidates’ opening remarks had some jabs.
John Doss, who is running under the slogan of “Put the ‘Park’ back in ‘Forest Park,’” noted that, the village leased out most of its pocket parks to the park district in 2021 because “the village was not in the business of parks.” He argued the village could learn from the park district, which, he said, was able to get more done in the past four years than the village has. Doss pointed to the park district securing funds to rehab the pocket parks, as well as acquiring and demolishing the Oak Leaf property on Harrison Street to pave the way for a new indoor facility.
“While Altenheim [property] sits vacant at Van Buren, the park distinct purchased the Oak Leaf building,” he said. “While Roosevelt Road sees vacancies continue to stack up, your park district underwent a splash pad update project. […] In fact, I would almost say with certainty — if any village residents were to look around the village of Forest Park and saw this as important, it would likely to be done by the park district, not your village mayor.”
Mayor Rory Hoskins defended his record, pointing to the fact that, during his first term, the village was able to secure grants to demolish multiple buildings on the aforementioned village-owned portion of the Altenheim property. He also noted how the village responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the fact that the civil unrest that swept through Chicago in late-May/early June 2022 in the wake of the killing of George Floyd didn’t reach Forest Park. He also touted the “many new businesses” that opened on Madison Street over the past few years, and the fact that the most recent approved village non-union employee salary schedules brought female department heads’ salaries closer to what their male counterparts were earning.
“As the result of this council’s bold action, these women now make salaries on par with their male counterparts,” Hoskins said.
The incumbent mayor concluded his remarks by saying the new park district splashpads were supposed to open last year, but currently remain under construction.
“And, by the way — the splash pad doesn’t work,” Hoskins said.
Forest Park is currently a non-Home Rule municipality, which limits how much it can levy in property taxes and restricts other sources of revenue. A referendum to change the village’s status failed in 2001. Both candidates said they supported another referendum – though Doss added that he believed that there is likely still opposition because of the lack of trust towards the mayor and village commissioners.
When asked how they felt about the commissioner form of village government, Doss said he had no issue with it, adding that, when he was the village’s Director of Public Works, he never felt that any commissioners interfered with his job.
“Commissioners also have ideas — they should he involved, but the day to day should be [handled] by the directors and the village administrator,” he said.
Hoskins said he was open to having a referendum on whether the commissioner form should be kept.
Both candidates said they support the existence of advisory commissions, committees and boards. Many of them quietly faded away in recent years, and Hoskins brought back two of them – the Environmental Control Commission and the Board of Health. Doss said that he would make sure that the advisory bodies’ input would be more regularly taken into account.
When asked what they would like to see on the village-owned portion of the Altenheim property, Doss said he would like to get more public input and take more time to figure out the property’s future. The village appointed Altenheim Committee is currently expected to put together a final report this week.
“Why are we making a decision a month before the election, when we might have 3-4 new elected officials?” Doss asked. “I would like to have more public comment. The public, they should have say-so, and right now, I don’t think that’s happening.”
Hoskins said he would like to sell a “maximum of three acres” of the 11-acre site to a developer and use the proceeds to shore up pensions. The rest can be used for public green space, he said. He defended the process, saying all meetings were open to the public and many residents – most notably, a contingent from the Grove condominiums – took advantage of it.
Hoskins insisted that, even if the report is finished in March, “nothing is going to happen before the election.”
The candidates were also asked their thoughts about the future of the U.S. Armed Forces Reserve Center, 7402 Roosevelt Rd. Hoskins, who previously proposed moving the village hall and other municipal facilities to the site, said that, in the long run, he would like the village to move to a larger building, but he insisted that it wouldn’t have to be that site in particular. Hoskins also said that he would like the village to have a say in what happens to the property, which the Pentagon currently owns, and he would like to partner with a private business – but that isn’t his top priority at the moment.
Doss said he would like to move the village hall to the currently underutilized CTA commuter parking lot west of the Forest Park CTA train terminal. As for the Army Reserve property, he would like to see retail, because it would bring in sales tax revenue.
Both candidates said that they supported cannabis dispensaries opening in Forest Park, and both generally agreed that, while bars have their place, they support more restaurants coming to Madison Street.
Both candidates said they supported the work the village police department is doing. Doss said the only thing he would change was to have more community meetings, while Hoskins touted the department’s increasing diversity, and his push to hire Spanish-speaking officers. If someone needs help and doesn’t speak English, Hoskins said, having officers who speak another language is an asset.
“Today, we have the most diverse police force we ever had,” he said. “We have a deputy chief who’s Chinese-American,” he said. “Until recently, we had an Arab-American police officer. We have Polish-speaking [officers], more than one.”
Incumbents and challengers agree and disagree
Some of the questions overlapped with the mayoral candidate questions – such as whether they would support another Home Rule referendum. Commissioner Jessica Voogd said she would be open to it so long as there are community meetings about it, with residents getting a good look at pros and cons. Commissioners Ryan Nero and Maria Maxham said Home Rule should be considered because it would allow for other revenue sources that could be used to fund pensions.
Candidates Joe Landgrebe and Ryan Russ struck a more neutral tone, with Russ saying that it would ultimately be up to the voters and Landgrebe saying that he hasn’t made up his mind about it yet.
Candidate Michelle Melin-Rogovin said she would be “very, very hesitant to adopt Home Rule,” because she believed that higher property taxes Home Rule municipalities “undermine equity and fairness” because it would hurt “people of fixed and limited income to live in Forest Park.”
This portion of the debate also touched on the diversity question, with candidates asked to define equity. Maxham demurred, saying that, just as she wouldn’t want a man to speak for her as a woman, she wouldn’t want to speak for minority groups she isn’t part of. But she said that she would like to revive the currently dormant Forest Park Diversity Commission.
Nero said that, while there is always room for improvement, he believes that “we’re making the right strides,” saying that “at the end of the day, it’s about putting people in the right positions” and having diverse perspectives is better for the village’s decision-making. Landgrebe said he “absolutely believe[s] that equity should be a priority in municipal government” and that removing barriers in hiring and opportunities for minority business owners “can create better outcomes for everyone.”
Voogd said she would like to see the village tackle the issue as part of a strategic planning process, describing it as “a good way to start to apply that equity lens and apply it to all policy decisions.” She also believed the village should do more to encourage minorities to apply for village jobs and run for office, “so we can start to see our representation and staff reflective of people we will represent.”
Russ defined equity as “treating everyone with respect and dignity.” While he said that he hasn’t experienced prejudice growing up in Forest Park, he agreed that there was room for improvement.
“Diversity, inclusion — to me, this is Forest Park,” he said. “Of course, we still have further to go, because we don’t have everyone on the same page.”
When asked what role, if any, village commissioners should have in supporting public schools, Maxham, who currently has a daughter attending Proviso Math and Science Academy and has been outspoken in her support for candidates that would shift the balance of power on the Proviso Township High School District 209 Board of Education, didn’t mince words, saying that, by taking a hands-off approach, “we’re not only wasting our taxpayer dollars, but we’re complicit in failing thousands of students every day, and I will not be complicit.”
Melin-Rogovin and Voogd argued that what happens in District 209 hurts property values and pushes families out of Forest Park – but they all stopped short of saying that the village should do anything about it other than keep the lines of communication open. Russ argued that, when it comes to District 209, “people focus too much on the negative,” while Landgrebe said that, much as he shared other candidates’ concerns, he didn’t believe it would be appropriate for village government to get involved in another taxing body’s business.
The debate ended with all candidates being asked to share what their top priorities would be if elected.
Landgrebe said he would focus on public safety, finding more ways to bring in revenue and ensuring everyone in Forest Park has a chance to give input. Russ said he would try to figure out the alternative to the current village hall, because he agreed that Forest Park has outgrown it, as well as to engage residents. Nero said he would continue to advocate for infrastructure improvements and economic development, especially outside Madison Street.
“Once vacant properties sitting on Harlem Avenue are now thriving businesses. Once-thriving businesses in Oak Park are thriving businesses in Forest Park,” he said, earning chuckles from the audience.
Melin-Rogovin said she would prioritize collaboration between village taxing bodies, improving access to mental health resources, and diversifying the village’s revenue sources. Voogd said that, in addition to the push for the strategic plan she mentioned earlier in the debate, she would want to update the village code, especially the zoning provisions, working to make the village more sustainable and finding more funding resources.
Maxham agreed about the importance of the zoning code rewrite, tackling pension obligations and getting public input on important issues. She said that she wants to continue working on improving mental health services.
“I want to continue working on that,” Maxham said. “I hope to have your support on April 4 so I can continue this important work.”
Watch the candidate forum
If you weren’t able to attend last week’s Review/Chamber candidate forum at Grant-White School, we’ve just posted a recording of the event. You can find it at ForestParkReview.com under “Forums” on our Election Guide page.
It is in two parts. First a conversation between the two candidates for mayor, incumbent Rory Hoskins and challenger John Doss. In part two we interview the six candidates for four spots on the village council.