River Forest Village Administrator Charles “Chuck” Biondo appeared just a tad uncomfortable on learning that he was selected Wednesday Journal’s 2006 River Forest Villager of the Year. “Humbled but honored,” Biondo said, immediately pointing out that the governance of the village is a cooperative process in which he plays at best an advisory part. Those who set policy, he stressed, deserve such honors.
“I can think of a lot of other people more deserving than me,” Biondo said. “[This is] what I’m paid to do.”
Those who have worked most closely with Biondo over the past year, however, are unanimous in their praise both of his job performance and of his selection as Villager of the Year. Board members contacted for this article have been quick to point out that Biondo’s knowledgeable advice and guidance are crucial to the process of developing effective policy for the village. His two biggest strengths, they say, are his deep well of knowledge about how government works and an equally deep understanding of how River Forest itself works-its needs, its values, its concerns.
Biondo primarily wears two hats at village hall-that of overall administrator of village government, and primary advisor to the village board. His commitment to informing the development and implementation of policies decided on by the board of trustees undergirds those decisions.
“He does a very nice job of keeping board members up to date with what’s going on,” said Village President Frank Paris. “He goes out of his way to understand what trustees want and need on various issues, then gets them that information.”
“He always sees both sides of things,” said Nancy Dillon, an 18-year veteran of the board. “He knows all the facts of what we’re talking about.”
Just doing my job, Biondo shrugs.
Understanding both sides
“It’s a matter of being involved in the process,” he said. “I try to provide the board with the information they need to develop policy.”
Board members, though, say Biondo is more than just involved-he’s been consistently on top of the issues, both in 2006 and throughout his career. While he serves the policy demands of the board, Dillon said Biondo is usually the one who tells the board what they need to be tending to from one meeting to the next.
Dillon said she continues to be amazed at Biondo’s “cache of information.” What he doesn’t know, she said, he knows where to find out about it. “We’d be a heck of a lot slower if it weren’t for Chuck.”
Trustee Russ Nummer has observed Biondo work from vantage points on both sides of the table-as a firefighter contract negotiator, a fire pension fund board member, River Forest fire chief, and now as village trustee. Biondo, he said, has always been methodical, fair-minded, and easy to work with. He too praised Biondo’s thoroughness in researching issues.
“Chuck was not the type of individual who would just take anecdotal information and take a stance on [an issue],” he said.
Though the Villager of the Year award is focused on a single calendar year, there’s often a cumulative element involved, and that’s true in Biondo’s case.
“This year Chuck has demonstrated the abilities that have made him an asset to River Forest over the years,” said Trustee Al Swanson.
2006 was a year characterized by a series of unresolved issues, including a proposed referendum to adopt Home Rule powers, controversies over teardowns of existing homes that affect neighborhood character, a long-proposed Historic Preservation ordinance, and ongoing federal discrimination lawsuits filed by two veteran police officers. Along the way, there were contract negotiations and budget matters that required attention.
Paris, who has benefited from Biondo’s counsel on “big picture” issues over the years, stressed that Biondo is a “first rate administrator” who is able to consistently stay focused on both those big-picture issues and the many smaller but no less important day-to-day pictures.
“He gets the things done that should be done, and does it economically,” said Paris.
Biondo, he said, has consistently come in on budget in recent years, including this year.
One major issue which was still unresolved as 2006 faded out is Home Rule. It’s an issue Paris points to as a prime example of what makes Biondo effective. Since Paris first broached the subject to his board in August of 2005, Biondo has taken the lead, researching the issue thoroughly, providing the board with comprehensive background and bringing in a series of experts and individuals experienced in the subject. When Paris appointed a committee to study Home Rule in depth, Biondo provided each committee member with comprehensive research on the issue.
“He brought information from a wide variety of sources to educate us on Home Rule,” said Swanson.
Paris noted that although Biondo believes strongly that Home Rule is in the village’s best interest, he gave the board decidedly conservative estimates of projected tax revenue benefits that would accrue from adopting it. It’s a trait those on both sides of the issue appreciate.
“Chuck has a unique ability to present both sides of an issue in a balanced manner,” said Swanson.
“He’s painstakingly balanced, whatever his personal opinion is,” Paris noted.
“His professionalism demands that he do that,” said Nummer.
For his part, Biondo said he’s grateful to have a board that allows him to help them, and praised the level of professional competence on the board.
That goes for those under him as well, he said. A major key to serving the board appropriately, Biondo said, is having competent staff involved with the process from start to finish.
Current Assistant Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez will take the reins on Feb. 2 from Biondo, who is retiring after two decades. He praises his boss for his ability to listen to all points of view, yet make the decisions that need to be made
“He’s good at allowing staff to bring their knowledge, their experience to the table. He fosters that, encourages that,” said Gutierrez.
As with board deliberations, staff are allowed to consider a wide range of alternatives in order to come to an informed decision.
“We’re able to surface ideas,” said Gutierrez. “People want to know that they can make a difference in what they’re doing.”
Public Works Director Greg Kramer’s tenure at River Forest predates Biondo by two years. He said he has appreciated the opportunity to truly contribute to the ongoing discussion that is River Forest governance, and feels fortunate to have worked under Biondo, whom he called a detail-oriented manager who is demanding but eminently fair.
“He leads by example,” Kramer said. “He conducts himself in a way everyone else should.”