Though no referendum will be on the River Forest ballot April 5, when all is said and done, the election will in effect be a referendum on the direction the village has taken over the last 12 years under President Frank Paris. Paris stressed economic development as the cornerstone of his first presidential campaign in 1993, and prevailed with over 60 percent of the vote versus fellow trustee Julia Faust. Since then Paris has kept his hold on power, besting real estate professional Tom Poulos for reelection in 1997 with 63 per cent of the vote, and garnering 1270 votes in his unopposed run in 2001.
And economic development continues to be a center piece of his administration.
This time, though, long-time trustee and previous presidential contender Dale Rider is challenging Paris for the president's chair. In announcing, Rider said that he wanted to give voters both a choice and a voice that he didn't feel Paris has increasingly denied board members and citizens during his three terms. He reiterated that position last week.
"If I'm (village) president, I don't want the trustees to automatically accept my opinion," said Rider. "I want them to stand up and have an interchange of ideas."
Rider served as a trustee from 1979 to 1987 before returning to the board 10 years ago.
Trustee Michael O'Connell, in the middle of his first term as trustee, is supporting Rider's bid. "I think turnover is good," said O'Connell, praising change for its own sake.
Underscoring Rider's criticism of Paris, O'Connell said he wants the village president to be a "guiding force as opposed to a determining force."
Among the concerns O'Connell said he and Rider have is the ongoing application of a village comprehensive plan they feel is flawed, as well as a police department O'Connell said is suffering from low morale. Equally troubling, they said, is that River Forest's government is increasingly shutting out dissenting voices with fresh ideas. The Paris administration, said O'Connell, has increasingly cut both trustees and citizens out of the loop.
"The dialogue needs to be opened up," said O'Connell. "There's nothing wrong with controversy, if it's done in a respectful way."
But Rider, who will be out ringing door bells soon after his return from vacation February 25, looks to have his work cut out for him. No one among the two incumbents and two challengers running for trustee- and one trustees not currently up for reelection- expressed concern over Paris's management style. While not always in full agreement with Paris on all issues, all but one emphatically agreed that he was a positive force in the village who was open to debate on issues and didn't force his views on others.
Current trustee Al Swanson, who is not up for election this year, said he was "mystified" by the contention that anyone on the board could feel precluded from expressing an opinion.
"I'm not aware of a single occasion where people have been stopped from expressing their opinions," Swanson said, calling the process both in and out of board meetings a "give and take" in which Paris is more than willing to engage.
Incumbent trustees Patrick O'Brien and Nancy Dillon expressed enthusiastic support for the current president. O'Brien, who has served six years, said that while Paris has a "forceful personality," he has always been a gentleman and a professional when dealing with him and his fellow trustees, even on contentious issues.
"He's never rammed anything down my throat," said O'Brien. Paris, he said, simply knows what he wants and does it. "He has a management style that gets things done. He cuts to the chase."
Dillon, running for her fourth term, insisted that Paris has been essential to the progress that has occurred in town since 1993.
"Everything good that's been done in River Forest the past 15 years is a result of Frank's efforts," she said.
"He has his ideas, and he's strong in his idea of what he thinks is right," said Dillon, adding that she doesn't always agree. "But he certainly allows people to give their opinion."
The two challengers running for trustee largely concur.
"I think Frank's done a great job," said James Winikates, a retired audit partner, former chairman of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois, and, until recently, president of the Oak Park and River Forest Community Foundation. Like Dillon, he credits Paris with most of the progress over the last few years, saying that he divides the 24 years he's lived in River Forest into "pre-Frank," when nothing was accomplished, and "post-Frank," when much was done.
"Somebody has to lead, and leaders get criticized," said Winikates. "But Frank gets things done."
Russell Nummer, who stepped down as River Forest's fire chief last August 15 described himself as "neither anti-Frank or pro-Frank." Rather, he said, he intends to be an independent voice on the board.
"I have no problem with being the lone dissenter at the table," he said.
Still, Nummer said he believed Paris has performed well overall, saying, "In general, we have benefited from the developments championed by Frank Paris and various village boards."