During 20 of the last 24 years, John Rigas has brought his knowledge, ideas and energy to many facets of life in River Forest.
Rigas, 53, who grew up next door in Oak Park, served eight years as a River Forest trustee, followed by eight years as a member of the Oak Park and River Forest High School board (one of those years as president), then four years as River Forest village president.
He ended this phase of public service Monday night when his successor Catherine Adduci was sworn in as village president.
Last week, he spoke with the Wednesday Journal about his years of public service and what they mean to him.
Why did you decide against running for a third term?
My belief is a perfect term is one six-year term. Four years is almost too short. It takes two years getting into it and it takes two years catching up. I was on the village board for eight years. I never intended to go more than four years as village president.
The situation (I found coming in) was similar to when Bob Jones became president. When I first was trustee in 1989, the village board was shaken up and Bob came in and righted the ship. Bob had been a District 90 board member and president and spent a lot of time in the community. It took time to get us on track.
The board was in disarray four years ago; I felt my goal was to come in and get the board rolling in the right direction and pass it on. Twenty years of working in the community in the past 24, well there's a burnout factor. I did not want to get to the point where I was going through the motions. The [current] board is great and they all will work together.
What were the most significant accomplishments during your term?
Getting the board to become functional again and getting our financial house in order. But I can't take the credit for [the latter]. The board was heavily driven by Jim Winikates; he chaired the finance committee. He spent a lot of time getting projections together. There was work with a consultant. Jim led a citizens advisory committee in 2010. The finance committee [consisting of Winikates, Susan Conti and Steve Hoke] looked through the finances from tip to toe and made suggestions. What came out of it was that we needed to be a lean machine, but there wasn't a lot of room to make cuts. The group suggested shifting crossing guards from the police department to the schools. We increased the sales tax 1 percent; that helped considerably. We have a new administration, with the exception of James Eggert [fire chief]. They're all working real well together.
What haven't you been able to accomplish?
I wish we could have done more with development. Talbot's will be filled. Two new ones will be opened [TIF funds will be used]. We redeveloped the Plunkett property on North Avenue. The next logical spot is Hines Lumber [on Madison Street]. It has limited value; no one there is paying rent or using the site. We're hoping someone will tear it down and rebuild on the site.
What's on your agenda that will be passed on to the new board?
The new board will have to continue to look at finances. Expenses continue to grow, especially with pension issues. The zoning code needs some significant work. There have to be zoning districts. There can't be a one-size-fits-all zoning code for residential properties in a fully-developed community.
Are there any decisions that you've regretted during your years of service?
No. During my eight years on the board, Jewel-Osco expanded, two medical center buildings were built, the Masonic Temple was replaced with townhomes and village hall was rebuilt. We created Priory Park and the community center. I wish we could have preserved the Masonic Temple. That was a pretty neat building. I don't regret anything during my service as president.
What about District 200?
I wish we had done a better job with respect to explaining the phase-in of the referendum. We talked about it, had many public meetings. The surplus has caused some angst; it's been misunderstood, too. The key to this is making sure the money is spent responsibly. The district's done a pretty good job with that. The school district became more fiscally responsible; that led us to save more money and extend the life of the referendum even more. Our job on the board is to make it economically stable. District 200 is the most important asset we have. The new board will have hard decisions ahead of them. If the district decides to choose to spend down the balance, it has to do so responsibly. At some point the district will have to go to referendum again. The question is whether it will pass or fail. The consequences of a failed referendum would not be good.
There's a bigger problem with the achievement gap and getting parents involved at the right level. Many don't know what to do and they need guidance. There was a mentoring program for parents and that seemed to disappear. The achievement gap is a difficult issue. You're dealing with students entering ninth grade and some are three to five years behind in some skills. It's hard to bridge that gap in a four-year period. I hope something really happens with the Early Childhood Collaborative. I think that could be positive.
With respect to the high school, I'd like parents to get some mentoring. Getting a Big Brother-Big Sister program at the high school would be a good thing. We should do the same for the parents. How to get them engaged and involved is the issue. If parents aren't able, we should help students in a different way, fill in the gaps and bring other parents along. Faculty here does a good job. They want to help. The district needs to put programs like this in place and get them to work. Sometimes all you need is the impetus.
How has public service changed you?
It's probably made me much more aware of having and formulating opinions and investigating things before coming to conclusions instead of having all the answers. When you're in public service, people listen to some of the things you say. You have to make sure you look at all sides before coming to conclusions. I think things through deeper and wider and look at all sides before I come to a conclusion.
What has public service grown to mean to you?
The role of public service has become more serious to me. People often talk about their volunteer jobs. This isn't a volunteer job. It's an unpaid elected position that I chose to run for. It's different from volunteering. Everyone who serves understands that this is something to take seriously and be committed to. You have to at times make it a higher priority than you wished it had to be, especially with family and other commitments.
Has your view of public service changed during your years?
I had a lot of preconceived notions about public service when I started. I got involved when the Thrush Project arose in my neighborhood. I went to a few meetings and I felt like the board [at the time] didn't hear the residents' concerns. Residents would ask the question but they got blank stares back. They were asking good questions and not getting any answers. That stuck with me. That got me involved. I might not know the answer to something but I'll get the answer. Residents are entitled to an answer.
What words of advice do you have for Catherine Adduci, the new village president?
I would tell her it's important to listen, it's important to be a leader who lets people be part of the process. The most misunderstood part of being president is that people think presidents make all the decisions. They don't — decisions are made by the board. The village president facilitates the meeting; the president keeps people corralled and focused. I never viewed the position as being someone who is more important than the rest of the team. The role of village president is much more to guide than dictate.
What words of encouragement do you have for the new leadership at District 200?
John Phelan will do a great job as president. The hardest thing about District 200 is ferreting out the vocal people and then trying to figure out if they represent a large number of people or not. The board gets pulled in so many different directions; that can derail the board pretty quickly. It's critical to stay focused and stay on mission.