RF library race pits the new guard vs. the old guard

? Challenger Joan Cusack says lack of parking is the main issue. The incumbents toutprogress in modernizing a small-town institution.

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By KEN TRAINOR

Vote 2005
The River Forest library trustees race, which, as the candidates admit, usually "flies under the radar," is contested this time around, thanks to a challenge from a member of the village's old guard establishment.

The "new guard," oddly enough are the incumbents?#34;Mark Coe, Margaret Horstman, and Leonard Soffer?#34;who say they want to continue the process, begun in the last six years, of modernizing a somewhat sleepy, small-town library and bringing it into the 21st century.

That process has not occurred without some turmoil as the longtime director, Susan Hanes, retired, then moved over to the Oak Park Public Library. A number of other staff members left during that period as well.

All the candidates are highly complimentary of the new library director, Dawn Bussey, who has brought new energy and technological savvy to the position.

But most of the important changes occurred in the background, say the incumbents, as they discovered that important foundation issues such as budgeting and personnel had been handled too informally.

All three of the incumbents, who are running together as a slate, say they bring professional expertise to the table. Coe has been running his own technology business for over two decades, Horstman (who was appointed to a vacant seat in 2001) has a background in human resources, and Soffer (who was appointed a year ago to replace departing board member Roger Reitz) is a CPA. All moved to River Forest within the past 15 years.

Coe said they have created a multi-year budget structure that has allowed them to plan further into the future. The short-term future includes a request for roughly a half million dollars in tax-exempt bonds from the village to take care of needed capital improvements on the aging building (even the addition is more than 10 years old). The long-term future includes a property tax referendum, but probably not until 2008.

A community survey revealed unhappiness with the collection. A hired consultant informed them that 30 percent of the library's books hadn't been checked out in five years.

Personnel policies, including staff evaluations, had never been formalized. A computer crash resulted in lost data because the data hadn't been backed up. A survey of surrounding libraries revealed that staff salaries were lagging behind the norm. The board also oversaw the development of the 2003 strategic plan.

The incumbents say the current board has brought much-needed improvement in the level of professionalism to the River Forest library. They've upgraded the computer system (a new server) and doubled the collections budget. They also voted to limit trustees to two consecutive 6-year terms.

All well and good, says challenger Joan Cusack, but what about parking? Sandwiched between Roosevelt Middle School (which owns, but shares, the adjacent small parking lot) and Centennial Park, and fronting on busy Lathrop Avenue, parking has always been at a premium.

Cusack doesn't know what the answer is, but it's her top priority. She also wants to see more improvement in the adult collection, the return of free computer classes for seniors, and better promotion of programming.

"The library is a very warm and friendly place," she said. "We have to get the word out, and when they come, they need to have a place to park."

For Cusack, the wife of former village president Tom Cusack and, like her husband, a longtime Realtor in town, this campaign represents a personal comeback. Two years ago, she was run over by a float in the River Forest Memorial Day Parade. Her right hand was permanently damaged (she's had to learn to write with her left), but a couple of years' worth of painful physical therapy have paid off.

She says people asked her to run, partly in response to the discontent that arose during those last two years of turnover and change. People knew she had served on a number of boards and had a background in governance.

Cusack is willing to consider any possible solution to the parking crunch, even an above-ground garage. The incumbents say that would take away precious park land. A more likely?#34;but more expensive?#34;proposition is an underground garage beneath Centennial Park. Discussions between the library, park district, and District 90 have taken place, but they remain in the discussion stage.

Horstman said they have encouraged employees to park on Jackson, the street to the east, and asked Dist. 90 to keep the walkway clear of snow during the winter, so staff can cut through the park. They've also created short term parking spots in front, so patrons can drop off books.

A parking committee continues to talk about options, Horstman said.
CONTACT: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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