The Commissioner form

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It used to be our annual appeal. Then we let it go because it became clear no change was coming. But with the certainty of a new mayor come spring, as well as at least two new council members, the Review is back on the case of just why our village still has a Commission form of government.

What is a Commission form of government? What's the alternative? Why should we care?

What is it? It's the legal structure under which Forest Park is incorporated. So this goes back a long ways. The model is fully obsolete for an urban suburb of our size. You still find the Commission form in use but only in small rural and semi-rural towns that are not big enough to fund professional staff.

Under this form, each elected commissioner — that's five people, including the mayor — is assigned to oversee specific governing functions within the municipality. Among the oddities, those assignments are not based on any individual commissioner's life skills but rather on total vote counts. The mayor oversees police and the community center. The person with the next highest vote total is assigned to "Accounts and Finance." In the small-town version of this an elected commissioner was actually running the public works department.

Forest Park gerry-rigged the Commissioner form some 25 years ago and layered in a village administrator between the elected officials and the hired professional staff. That's better but still odd and confusing.

After going through a handful of professional administrators in fairly short order, Mayor Anthony Calderone ultimately turned to Tim Gillian, a former commissioner and longtime friend, to fill the administrator's post. Our concern here isn't Gillian. While he doesn't have all the bells and whistles of a traditional municipal administrator, he has the experience and the history to do the job.

Our issue is going forward. When Gillian is ready to move on, whenever that is, are professional city managers going to want to climb into a position where the mayor and the chief of police have a direct reporting relationship? Where the commissioner of Accounts and Finances has a direct line to the finance director?

It is time to clean up the governing structure and to adopt the much more common village manager form of government. The elected officials have one employee. That is the village manager. Everyone on the payroll reports to the manager exclusively.

It will take a referendum — yikes, a referendum! — to change the form of incorporation. But sooner than later, this has to happen. And if Forest Park is going to solve its chronic financial issues, drive economic development, attract the most talented department heads, and find the most capable manager, it needs a form of government that matches those ambitions.

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