While village commissioners who won the highest number of votes traditionally had their pick of departments to oversee, there have been times when the village council broke with that tradition – and the May 8 meeting proved to be one of the exceptions.
In the April 4 election, Commissioner Jessica Voogd received the highest number of votes. But as the council began the selection process for departments, Mayor Rory Hoskins nominated Commissioner Maria Maxham for the position as head of Accounts & Finance, saying that her professional qualifications made her better suited for the task. Voogd objected, arguing that commissioners’ professional qualifications don’t matter given that village commissioners don’t actually run their department on a day-to-day basis, and said that her record on the council made her more qualified.
The commissioner also denounced the process, saying that it was decided behind the scenes. Maxham confirmed to the Review that Hoskins offered her the position before the meeting. The mayor also said that Voogd didn’t try to work with the other commissioners to get the necessary votes – something that the commissioner denied to the Review.
Hoskins nominated Commissioner Ryan Nero to be the Commissioner of Public Health & Safety, which was previously Maxham’s position, and the newly sworn-in commissioner Michelle Melin-Rogovin to be the Commissioner of Streets & Public Improvements, which was previously Nero’s position. Voogd remained in her previous position, the Commissioner of Public Property. The council approved Maxham’s nomination by a 3-2 vote, with Voogd and Melin-Rogovin voting against. All other nominations were approved unanimously.
Under the Illinois Municipal Code, each village commissioner within the commissioner form of government is responsible for one of five areas of government, with the mayor serving as the Commissioner of Public Affairs and the remaining commissioners deciding by majority vote which ones would get the remaining positions. The position titles are set by state law, but municipalities have latitude to determine each position’s responsibilities.
While, on paper, Forest Park commissioners have broad powers over their departments, in practice, over recent years the village administrator and department directors have come to handle day-to-day operations.
The Commissioner of Accounts & Finance has traditionally been the most coveted position because, under state law and Forest Park municipal code, they not only supervise village finances, but act as Vice Mayors when mayors are either absent or incapacitated. In Forest Park, they have oversight of the Fire Department and collective bargaining negotiations.
During the May 8 meeting, Hoskins asked for motions to nominate his preferred candidates, but one of the commissioners made the motion. In Maxham’s case, Nero made the motion and Maxham herself seconded.
She argued that her undergraduate degree in accounting and her past professional accounting experience made her more qualified for the job than Voogd, who earns her living as a motion picture set buyer and decorator.
“For a long time, things were done according to the tradition, but sometimes, traditions don’t make the most sense,” said Maxham.
Voogd countered that, in her line of work, she “actively manage[s] budgets every day” and argued that, in any case, their professional qualifications don’t matter for a commissioner position.
“We aren’t applying for [Finance Director Letitia Olmsted]’s job — we’re applying to provide oversight of this department and support to this department,” she said.
What did matter, Voogd argued, was “the actual track record” of how commissioners handled financial issues and she argued that the way she worked with Public Works Director Sal Stella to trim some items from the budget to help pay for the village-wide tree inventory should count in her favor.
Voogd also accused the rest of the council of deciding the appointments ahead of time, and questioned why Maxham would even want the position, given that improving mental health services was a major part of her campaign platform.
“This seems very pre-determined,” she said. “I knew nothing about what was going to happen today walking into this, and you all seem to, which is very disappointing.”
Maxham told the Review that Hoskins offered her the position, and that, while she was reluctant to leave Public Health & Safety, she ultimately agreed that her talents would be of better use in Accounts & Finance.
“I did say I loved the position I was at,” Maxham said. “But [Hoskins] said that, given my background, and the very trusting, respectful relationship [I had] with staff, this was the best fit.”
Melin-Rogovin told the Review that no one on the council talked to her about who would get what position, and that she had no idea she was going to be nominated to Streets and Public Improvements. In fact, she believed that, given that she got the lowest vote share of the four, she believed she would get Public Property. During the meeting, she said she came in with an open mind about who she would support for which position.
Hoskins responded to Voogd’s comments saying that it was ultimately up to the council majority to make the nominations, and that, if she didn’t secure that majority, she had no one to blame but herself.
“I believe you had time to discuss your preferences with the commissioners, whether you’ve had a substantive conversation with someone or a very brief conversation with someone,” he said. “The council is prepared to vote, and part of [the commissioner’s] role is to have relationships, working relationships. And sometimes, board members don’t build sufficient relationships. And sometimes, those board members aren’t selected to lead.”
Voogd told the Review that she talked to Hoskins, Nero and Melin-Rogovin about being interested in the position, but that it was more about signaling her intent than trying to make it happen. Any decisions about who gets what, she said, should have taken place at a public meeting.
When Voogd raised the fact that Hoskins originally appointed Maxham to her seat and made significant contributions to her campaign, the mayor ruled her out of order.
“We’re not going to rehash conversations related to politics, we’re not going to do that,” he said.
Voogd nominated Nero for Accounts & Finance as a “compromise candidate,” but no one seconded her motion.
Hoskins then nominated Nero to Public Health & Safety, with Maxham making the motion and Nero seconding. Nero said that, while he was passionate about the infrastructure, he felt that his experience in the construction industry was an asset for the buildings and code enforcement aspects of the Department of Health & Safety. He also said that he shared Maxham’s passion for improving mental health, saying that it’s a significant concern in the construction industry.
“I think the next move logically for me would be to serve in the public health and safety,” Nero said.
Maxham told the Review that she had a conversation with Nero about continuing some of her priorities when he assumes the position, and she thought they were on the same page.
Melin-Rogovin told the council that, while she didn’t know much about the departments she would be supervising, she already learned a great deal from the tour of the village facilities she got earlier, and she was eager to keep learning.
“I’m excited to get to work, but it would be my greatest pleasure to be in the Department of Streets and Public Improvement,” she said.
This left Voogd with her old position — which was approved without discussion.
Toward the end of the meeting, she emphasized that she had no issue with keeping the position.
“I’m thrilled to be in public property and continue the work that we started,” she said. “I’m looking forward to four more years.”
Maxham told the Review that she still supported a referendum to get rid of the commission form of government, and that the current process of selecting positions doesn’t make much sense, but until the referendum happens, “We need to do the best within the confines of the system,” she said.