By Megan Dooley
When the new River Forest Board of Trustees takes over next month, four women will hold seats on the board — a first for the village. Returning board member Susan Conti, who was re-elected in an uncontested April election, along with Colleen Horrigan and Carmela Corsini, said that's not the only change the village can expect to see on the board.
"I'm looking forward to it because it's going to have an entirely different feel," Conti said of her upcoming term, which she says will also be her last.
In recent years, the sharply divided board was known to dissolve into heated arguments, complete with insults and profanity. This time around, Conti expects board members to be more respectful of, and receptive to, opposition.
"It's very valuable to have disagreements — different perspectives, different opinions, different votes. That would be terrible if we all agreed on everything all the time," she said. "But we will have a respectful debate. And I'd bet my bottom dollar that we can all communicate and deliberate and question one another and share our opinions without being heated, without being personal, and without being disrespectful in any way."
Fellow Trustee Catherine Adduci praised Conti for her "independent voice," and said she, too, believes the board of the future will be just the right "complement of people" to encourage decorum and healthy, respectful debate.
"I hope we agree on principle, and I hope we agree on what we feel is best for the community," said Adduci, noting that when she joined local government, first as village clerk and then, two years ago, as trustee, she was shocked by some of the behavior she witnessed. "We need a voice, but we need to treat each other with civility," she said of the future.
Despite the tension on the board, Conti said she felt they had accomplished a great deal, including passing a referendum late last year to increase the sales tax in the village, and approving a balanced budget for fiscal year 2011-12 just last week. "We have accomplished so much with finances that we're not going to have hanging over our head in such a drastic way," she said.
That leaves the board open to embark on new projects or pick up where they left off on older ones.
"Economic development is going to be the biggest issue we have to face over the next four years, and it's hopeful," Conti said. She pointed to the retail area at the corner of Lake and Lathrop, the Town Center at Lake and Harlem, and the River Forest section of Madison Street as the three areas on which the village will likely focus. And while she said there isn't anything new to report on development in those three areas, it's her priority to map out a timeline for new projects.
"I think maybe once this transition occurs, we can hit the pavement running," she said.
Adduci agreed that economic development will likely be the new board's top priority. "We did a nice job balancing the budget. I think that was our number one goal," she said. "Now we can kind of see the next two or three years; we've got to now make our community more vibrant."
Adduci said residents in the village are looking for a downtown area in which to gather, dine and shop. Any of the three areas up for development in River Forest may fit the bill. "With gas prices going up, who knows, it might put a damper on it. But with the economy going where it needed to go, my hope is in the next 12 to 15 months, things will fall into place for us and that we'll get development going," she said.
Another issue that will be getting some needed attention, both Conti and Adduci agreed, is collaboration, both within the village and between River Forest and surrounding villages.
Adduci said the park district, township, community center and village might be able to gain some efficiencies by finding new ways to collaborate. "I think we should formally begin some conversation around that." She is also interested in collaboration among fire departments in River Forest and neighboring villages.
"One of the things I will do, as the community chair for fire, is continue to look at the feasibility and the implementation of a fire district. To me, we should do it. I don't want to say it's a no-brainer because we've got a lot of work ahead to do," she said. "Sharing is good so long as it structurally makes some sense."
Conti said now is the perfect time to begin exploring an increase in collaboration between River Forest and other villages. "Those are the things we can work on now because our agendas are lighter. We don't have that many things right now going on. We're wide open to take on something along those lines, where we can reinvent how government might be more efficient," she said.
She continued: "I can't say I know it would be more efficient necessarily. You need to investigate it, you need to do the research, get the numbers, and see if it's a practical thing to do. At this point, it sounds like a nice idea. But I don't know what the bottom lines is, and you really have to do that kind of work to find out."