Catherine Adduci will tell you being River Forest's village president is about connecting and listening.
"I don't believe we can understand what goes on unless we do. Visibility means transparency. It's vital that leaders engage with all sides and let them know that government is there to help."
Adduci valued the importance of making connections during her 32-year career with Unisys Corporation as well as in her civic involvement. Those talents and others were evident when she won an overwhelming victory in a contentious election in April, making the 55-year-old Chicago native the first woman to lead the village in its long history.
And there's no doubt that her actions have matched her words. River Forest's Villager of the Year has hit the ground running — in a very short period of time, she has become the very visible face of her community.
One can only imagine her calendar. Cathy Yen, executive director of the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce, cited just one example — a recent reception of the Community Leadership Program.
"Sure enough she was there, introducing herself, congratulating people for the work they've done," Yen said. "She's personable, she wants to get to know as many people as she can. See where the village can help, where it needs to improve or stay the course."
Adduci will tell you it's her responsibility to keep her pulse on the community, keep her ears open for ideas that might help River Forest progress or help save money. She listens to residents' concerns — no matter whether they agree with her or not — and helps folks understand what the village has been doing and where it needs to go.
Al Popowits, who was not an Adduci ally when she was a village trustee but who since has become a supporter, said he appreciated that she sat down and explained adeptly and succinctly how and why River Forest would pay for the costs of the North End sewer project, one of her top goals during her campaign and the largest public works project in the village's history.
Adduci is not afraid of speaking her mind and she doesn't have an ego, said Patty Henek, the coordinator of the Holiday Food and Gift Basket program. "She's a good role model for any woman who wants to enter politics," said Henek, a fellow parishioner at St. Luke's.
Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University, said it's terrific to have a woman in that leadership position and it's important for one woman in leadership supporting another. "My initial impressions are positive...," she said. "Her ability to build trust and coalitions and effective processes all around her all are essential to effective leadership," she said.
It's pretty clear from her tenor and demeanor — and how much energy she devotes — that she loves the job. It's measured up to her expectations. But she wasn't quite sure what to expect in her move from trustee to the head of the board table. The role of village president is different. She sets the agenda and works to unify trustees behind her to make that agenda a reality. She says she has grown more confident and certain of the direction her town is headed in.
Trustee Susan Conti said Adduci has matured in the role of village president, which suits her better than that of trustee. "She has an ability to think deeper and has a forward-looking view. She can put together her thoughts and ideas quickly; she has a ton of energy. She's not willing to sit and wait — she wants things to get done," said Conti, who served with Adduci as trustee and before that when Adduci was village clerk for two years.
She'll have to bring all of her assets to bear to build on the successes of previous president John Rigas' watch. Adduci credits him with returning decorum to the board table. More important, the village is financially stable: budgets have been balanced and costs have been cut.
"A community cannot move anywhere without financial stability. We now can think broader and bigger," said Adduci, who also credited former trustee Jim Winikates's work as chair of the board's finance committee. "That's a springboard to do the things that River Forest needs to do to progress. I was clear about that (in the campaign) and that resonated with residents."
Rigas said Adduci's game plan is clear. "It's easy to focus on a few things and move them forward. That's what she's trying to do," Rigas said.
Under her watch, River Forest has moved at business-like speed. An economic development commission was formed, filled with people knowledgeable about elements needed to spur growth.
It's been assessing its options. The North End sewer project is in the engineering phase.
The bridges she's built will pay off: it could lead to additional grants, a suitable developer for the Dominick's property on North Avenue. It also could mean legislation that would aid non-home rule communities like River Forest.
Her next big leadership test will come with collaboration.
This will be no small challenge for what she envisions, including sharing space and resources among local governments, is uncharted territory.
She said this type of government cooperation is not new and cited District 200's recent actions to reduce its tax levy by $10 million and abate $2.5 million in bonds. What makes this collaboration?
"We're about to embark on a sewer project. We have to increase water rates to pay for this sorely needed infrastructure. The school district recognized it had too much money and gave it back. This will help us do what we need to without overtaxing residents," she said.
She meets regularly with other heads of government in town to seek ideas on potential savings. She has fostered alliances with village presidents who are on the same page. That will be benefit River Forest and his community, said Anan-Abu Taleb, the new village president of Oak Park.
The challenge will be to educate residents on the notion that River Forest is not an insulated island, but part of a greater community, said Lou Vitullo, a member of the village's economic development commission and the high school's finance advisory commission.
"Regional relevance is more important and she gets that. She'll be redefining what municipal government can do to solve problems," he said.
"She has the political sophistication to see where River Forest fits, who it relates to and how it relates. She has the skills to meet the challenge."
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