'Hands on' president continues to guide village

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By BILL DWYER

In 2005, Frank Paris won reelection to an unprecedented fourth term as River Forest village president, saw several of his initiatives come to fruition, and launched what may be his legacy-setting move as he attempts to bring "home rule" powers to the village.

For those efforts, as well as for the criticism his governing style sometimes elicits, Paris is Wednesday Journal's 2005 River Forest Villager of the Year.

The past year saw a rewriting of River Forest's zoning code, passage of an ordinance covering the conversion of apartment buildings to condominiums, and the continuation of ongoing sewer system repairs.

In August Paris announced to the village board that he wanted it to consider a referendum to acquire home rule powers, an issue that promises to make headlines in 2006. While the initiative has taken longer than he had hoped, he expects a relatively supportive village board to discuss it at length in the new year. Paris insists that home rule will give village officials the flexibility needed to deal with impending and future challenges as they see fit, without having to seek permission from the state legislature. Key among those powers is the right to raise sales taxes to a higher level, and to establish greater regulatory oversight.

A value central to Paris's governing style is intergovernmental cooperation.

"I'm a very big proponent of that," Paris said. "I think all our governmental agencies have their individual responsibilities. But we can best address them when we work together."It is village government, though, that sets the tone, and the pace, Paris stressed.

"I think the village government should be the catalyst and the leader to other bodies working with the village, and with one another," he said.

Moreover, it is the village that fosters the environment in which other taxing bodies can best operate.

"I think the village board is responsible to all of the (village) taxing bodies for the tax base (of which the village takes between 11 and 12 percent)," said Paris. "We're responsible for trying to develop the tax base. Having a great community requires not only good services delivered efficiently, but reasonable property taxes."

Since first being elected village president in 1993, Paris has touted village government as the overseer of the things that make River Forest River Forest, most of all, he said, "a very inviting place to raise families."

A strong tax base along with the restoration of the village's infrastructure is essential, he said. Paris recently recalled being "very disappointed with the situation that existed on Lake Street" during the early post-Wieboldt's era. "(It) was not just one of being vacant, but of being decrepit," he said. "It wasn't a very nice gateway to the community'" he said of the long-shuttered department store at Lake and Harlem.

That's all changed dramatically, first with the development of Town Center I and II, and now with the nearly completed Lake Street Entry Corridor, which should be finished this spring.

Paris said he feels real estate taxes haven't been "out of line," in recent years, a state of affairs he attributes, in large part, to commercial development in the village. Along the way, the housing stock has been improved, he added.

"I'm happy to see the rejuvenation of the housing stock in the village," he said, noting that $400,000 in housing permit fees was collected in 2005.

Taxes remain Paris's most pressing concern.

"I'm very concerned about homeowner's taxes in the future," he said. "I've said over and over again that I see a push coming for funds that's going to have to be solved someway, and I hope that we can do it without increasing the property tax beyond reason."

Paris has clearly made mistakes. Introducing the issue of home rule as a way to strengthen the village's ability to mitigate property tax pressures on local schools was one, prompting some of Paris's strongest supporters on the board to balk at any direct connection between home rule and a District 90 tax referendum.

Three federal discrimination lawsuits have also been filed by several River Forest police officers, exposing the village to potential financial penalties. One trial is set to go to court this spring, and Paris was deposed regarding one of those cases in early December, as was everyone on the village's board of trustees.

Critics also believe that the ongoing application of a village comprehensive plan is flawed, that the police department is suffering from low morale, and that the fire and police pensions are underfunded.

"We're creating a problem for the future," former trustee Dale Rider said of the alleged pension shortage last April. Paris flatly disagreed, saying the pensions are well funded.

Paris, who isn't shy about pushing his agenda, has also been criticized for his management style, one which he would characterize as hands on, but one others say verges on micromanagement. During last spring's election campaign, Trustee Michael O'Connell said he wanted the village president to be a "guiding force as opposed to a determining force." O'Connell and Rider, who ran against Paris for the village presidency, criticized what they said was a government increasingly shutting out dissenting voices with fresh ideas, one that cut both trustees and citizens out of the loop.

"The dialogue needs to be opened up," O'Connell said at the time. "There's nothing wrong with controversy, if it's done in a respectful way."

Paris brushed off those criticisms, saying that he believes the village president should set the agenda, then let the board consider matters before it. Board members, he added, are always free to bring initiatives to the table.

"(My critics) feel the presidency is a ceremonial role. I feel it's a working role,"Paris said last spring. Besides, he argued recently, good ideas tend to prevail on merit.

"The ideas, which are not always mine, are what carry the weight," he said.

While trustees don't always agree with everything Paris advocates, most appreciate the depth and intensity of his commitment to the village. Trustee Nancy Dillon, who has served with Paris on the board since 1989, praised him as a "brilliant man" who works "27 hours a day" for the village. "I think he has to continue doing what he's doing."

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