River Forest public works chief battles summer storms

Villagers of the year: Runner up

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By Ben Meyerson

Chicago Journal Editor

When Phil Cotter stepped up to the plate in May to run River Forest's public works department, he had a vague idea of what he was getting into.

Big storms had hit River Forest hard since Cotter had joined the department as assistant director in 1999, but he'd been second in command to director Greg Kramer.

But when Kramer retired this spring, Cotter was tapped as interim director of the layoff-depleted public works department just in time to face several massive storms.

"Mother Nature, she's been very busy in recent years — not only in River Forest but in the Chicagoland area," Cotter said. "It's a testament to the whole department. Not only are we busy because of what Mother Nature's throwing at us, but we're busy because we're down a person."

A trio of storms hit the village this summer, capped off by a massive event that dropped eight inches of water on the village in two days.

Despite the department's short staffing, public works managed to get out into the streets and take care of much of the damage in each storm, clearing tree debris and after the last storm, water-logged furniture.

It wasn't a perfect process. There were resident complaints that the village hadn't responded fast enough, or hadn't used its resources as well as it could have.

But Cotter made himself available to residents as they sorted through the rubble of their homes and tried to apply for help from FEMA as Cook County was declared a disaster area.

It was a bit nerve-wracking to step into the job, Cotter said, especially as one thing after another hit the village.

"Certainly there was some excitement and nervousness," he said. "But I had worked pretty closely with Greg — I watched closely how he handled many situations."

Going forward, it's not clear who will take the permanent position as head of public works. Cotter's still an interim, and new administrator Eric Palm hasn't named him — or anyone — the full-time director yet.

"We'll have some conversations and decide what he'd like to do with public works and the rest of the issues at village hall," Cotter said.

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