The usually routine Forest Park village council vote on approving the payment of bills tuned into a nearly 16-minute discussion on whether the Forest Park is getting its money’s worth from its lobbyist.
Since August 2019, Forest Park has been paying GPG Strategies $2,000 a month to lobby on its behalf, mostly within the state government. During the Aug. 14 village council meeting, Commissioner Jessica Voogd moved to take the usual payment out of the payment of bills resolution. She said that she has been requesting reports detailing what GPG has done in the past four years, and after seeing her requests ignored, she wasn’t comfortable giving the firm a check.
Mayor Rory Hoskins defended GPG, touting the state grants and other funding it helped the village secure. The other village commissioners said that while they were willing to pay the firm this time, they shared Voogd’s concerns about the lack of reporting. Hoskins told the council that they should expect to see the more detailed report by the end of August, and Voogd joined the rest of the council in approving the payment of bills.
GPG is headed by Michael Axelrod, son of former President Barack Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod. Before GPG’s hire, former village administrator Matt O’Shea served as the village lobbyist for eight years. The commissioners and Hoskins agreed that while O’Shea made detailed reports, GPG’s reports have been sparse.
In August 2019, Voogd said that she was looking forward to seeing what Axelrod could bring to the village — but she also made it clear that she expected to see reports.
“I look forward to revisiting [the hiring] in the year, seeing how it goes,” she said at the time.
Voogd told the Review that since then, she requested the more detailed reports multiple times, to no avail.
“At the last few budget meetings, I have requested information and/or updates,” she said. “I have also requested the same over the years [on other occasions], verbally and in email correspondence.”
During the mid-August village council meeting, she said she had expected a report in July. Hoskins told the Review that to the best of his knowledge she did make that request, but he couldn’t speak to why she didn’t receive one.
With no report forthcoming, Voogd motioned to pull that particular bill out of the resolution approving the bills. Commissioner Ryan Nero seconded.
“I do think, in light of the fact that we asked for a [detailed] summary for some time, I’m not comfortable with making the payments,” Voogd said.
In response, Hoskins said that Axelrod “has a stylistic difference from Matt O’Shea, and O’Shea did give us voluminous reports, and I get that GPG does things a little bit differently.”
He said that GPG was “instrumental” in securing the grants to demolish the buildings and clean up the village-owned portion of the historic Altenheim retirement community property, and that it helped secure grants at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, “at the period where the state was really reassessing a lot of its grant-making.”
“We got what was due, and I would just suggest to you that the lobbyist provides quite a bit of value,” Hoskins said. “I think you’ll see it in the report, and I think it would be fairly soon.”
When pressed on the timeline, the mayor said that it would be “before the end of the month.”
Commissioner Michelle Melin-Rogovin, whose day job is a grant writer, said that she did appreciate the services GPG provided, but she thought Voogd’s request was reasonable.
“This is a good process for the village to start to institute as we’re mindful of the finances and the stewardship that we provide,” she said. “I think we can recognize both the value that this service provides, and the stewardship that we provide in our roles.”
Nero said that, in light of Hoskins’ comments, and because he didn’t want to potentially hurt the village’s ability to get grants, he was willing to approve the payment this time.
“It’s super-hard to disagree with [Voogd],” he said. “The only thing is, I would think, as a village, [we] live and breathe by our grant money.”
Village attorney Nick Peppers recommended making the payment for August services, which will come due in September, contingent on GPG providing the report.
Commissioner Maria Maxham agreed with that approach, and Nero withdrew his motion.
Voogd said that she didn’t want to vote against the bills resolution, because she had no issue with any of the other bills — but she made it clear that she was doing it under protest.
“I will approve the bills, but I’m not comfortable approving [the GPG bill],” she said. “We need to make due on our bills that are in this itemization, but I think we should remove it.”