River Forest Villager of the Year
In less than eight months on the River Forest village board, Trustee Steve Hoke has led a political opposition that triggered a sea change in that board’s deliberations and processes. It was a change that didn’t come without storms.
Some citizens have said it’s about time the opinions and practices of longtime Village President Frank Paris were challenged. Others contend Hoke and fellow trustees Russ Nummer and Steve Dudek have done little but disrupt the smooth functioning of a board that has served the village’s interests well with Paris setting the agenda.
No one, though, can argue that Hoke’s skills as both strategist and parliamentarian have had anything less than a major impact on village affairs in 2007. For that, Hoke is Wednesday Journal’s 2007 River Forest Villager of the Year.
Hoke’s impact on the village board was first felt a year ago last fall, when he was recommended by Nummer to serve on an ad hoc Home Rule Committee empanelled to study the possibility of putting that issue before voters in a referendum. The issue passed out of committee with a slim 5-4 approval.
Hoke, who believes in the power of argument, found the argument for home rule unpersuasive. The majority produced a three-page report advocating passage of a referendum. Hoke authored a detailed 12-page minority report that refuted the majority, issue by issue. It was coupled with a five-page supplemental report by Rosemary Johnson, and 14 pages of addendum material. “No compelling reason exists to recommend vast new home rule powers,” the report began.
In light of the bare majority and the detailed critique against the board seeking home rule authority, the previous village board tabled the issue indefinitely last January.
Hoke said he’s been concerned about swelling property tax bills in the village, and has had some experience in advocating for property tax reform.
“I was the one who initiated and was basically responsible for the Cook County Assesor’s Office reducing the number of appeal zones, neighborhood zones, in River Forest, which made the property tax appeal process here a little bit simpler.”
Like local governance, a big part of Hoke’s objection was to the process itself.
“I think the system is arcane and non-transparent,” he said. “I think everybody shares that concern.”
It awoke a desire for public service that had lain dormant.
“It was my experience on the home rule commission that led me to believe that some of the things I was concerned about weren’t getting any better and needed to be addressed-and that the only way that I could address them was by stepping up and running for trustee,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been asked. George Parry, a vocal critic of Paris’ governing style, had asked him to run in 2003, but Hoke wasn’t interested. On a more general level, Hoke, who moved to River Forest 12 years ago, said he was motivated to seek a chair on the village board to foster more open and transparent government and to work towards what he termed greater participation by a wider group of residents.
“There is a perception that there’s a status quo,” he said, “and that status quo isn’t entirely representative of the electorate. River Forest has changed quite a bit over the last 20 to 30 years-in ways that, I’m sure, are both good and bad. But I think we have to recognize the reality that it has changed. Slowly we’ve developed a silent majority of people who are, unfortunately, not heard.”
Hoke set about assuring they would be heard. The thoroughness and detail of his minority report foreshadowed the precision he would bring to the board in his role four months later as village board opposition leader. A lawyer by training and meticulous by nature, Hoke presents his cases as one would a legal brief, pointedly and concisely, and does the same when refuting the other side’s arguments.
The main ongoing battle in the early months of the new village board was over procedural rules as he, Dudek and Nummer struggled to get a foothold.
“I made sure the board followed our rules and regulations,” he said. “Without rules, it’s very easy for the minority to get squashed and not to be heard.”
Another key part of Hoke’s success so far has been his willingness and ability to think long term and strategically.
“I approached it [as] a longer term project,” he said. “I was basically trying to lay the foundation for some of the more important initiatives that we pursued after Labor Day. I spent the summer essentially laying the foundation for some of our initiatives,” he said. “The right of a trustee to put something on the agenda is critical because if you can’t put something on the agenda, you can’t debate it, and if you can’t debate it, you can’t get it passed. You may not win the vote the first time around, but maybe in a couple months, or a couple years, you’ve laid the groundwork for real change.”
Simmering tensions on the police department over two federal age discrimination law suits, ongoing resentment over alleged unfair management practices in the department, and new allegations of mismanagement and procedural problems at the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center provided considerable grist for the mill Hoke helped set up.
A major clash occurred in September after Hoke, Dudek and Nummer took advantage of the absence of a majority trustee to take control of the moribund Police Committee. With Hoke as chair and Dudek the second of three votes, the committee held hearings to address several roiling issues within the police department. That will continue to be a priority in 2008, Hoke said.
“We need to get the police department in order and address apparent problems there,” he said. “We clearly have men and women at odds with management. That’s a situation that has to be fixed, no matter who is at fault.”
Hoke said Paris is not the sole problem on the board. He has criticized what he considers lock-step compliance by three trustees who follow Paris’ agenda. On numerous occasions, he castigated the majority for their unwillingness to engage in discussions.
“Debate was ignored without explanation. It is a little disturbing when legitimate debate, and I think some excellent points, are simply ignored without explanation. That is pretty frustrating for us. And I’d like to see that change.”
Period of adjustment
Hoke said that while clashes were inevitable as opposition first arose to the traditional way of doing things, he’s seen some progress and increased willingness by the two sides to work through their differences.
Much of the chaos on the village board last fall-three meetings adjourned without the full agenda being addressed-appeared to stem from the presence of an opposition.
That changed in November after face-to-face meetings between trustees Susan Conti and Russ Nummer, and between Paris and Hoke. The last two board meetings have gone more smoothly, despite ongoing disagreements. Hoke said he hopes that’s a sign that Paris and the board majority has come to accept the existence of opposition.
Hoke said he’s neither bothered by nor excited about being leader of that board opposition.
“It’s not a matter of being comfortable or uncomfortable. At this point, it’s just a fact.” But it’s a fact he’d like to see change.
“We’re going to lose everybody if we don’t find some common ground pretty fast,” he said. “I do think we can find common ground if we work at it. I’d like to think that, over time, the minority and majority find common ground, and the labels fall away.”
Hoke said he expects progress on dealing with such issues as the alleged problems at the 911 dispatch center. And two weeks ago, the board approved a settlement in the nearly 4-year-old discrimination lawsuits filed by two police officers. That settlement was finalized last week.
Hoke said he’d also like to pursue the establishment of greater conflict of interest protections in the village code. He’s been particularly critical of alleged conflicts involving individuals serving on the Development Review Board.
As for the issue that brought him to prominence, Hoke said he’s not totally against eventually obtaining home rule powers. It is, he insisted, an issue deserving of full and detailed discussion both at the grass roots and board level.
“Anyone proposing it ought to make a very compelling case,” he said. Home rule, he said, “has some benefits,” such as greater flexibility in certain areas of governance. Hoke said he wants greater specificity regarding just how those greater powers would be used, and to what ends.
“If you give government more power, you need to be confident it will be used [appropriately],” he said.
Thanks Paris, but heralds change
As Paris approaches the start of his final year in office after 19 years on the village board, Hoke had both praise and counsel for the man he has tangled with. There are, he said, good reasons to admire Paris.
“Frank has worked very hard for many years,” said Hoke. “I think he does care quite a bit for River Forest. That’s something we should honor.”
Calling Paris a fiscal conservative, Hoke said Paris has tried to adhere to those principles. Like Paris, Hoke said he intends to work to keep local property taxes as low as possible. Where they differ is in the approach.
“I want to keep property taxes as low as possible, while also providing a level of services that the public here demands and deserves.”
Besides being a growing burden for many residents, burgeoning property taxes, Hoke said, are creating problems for the very institutions they’re meant to fund, as a growing number of senior citizens and so-called empty-nesters leave their homes due to the tax burden.
He said changes on the village board aren’t the only ones taking place in River Forest, insisting that Paris and others must accept the fact that winds of change are blowing through the village, rendering some methods no longer viable if the village is to deal effectively with taxes and other challenges.
“I’d like to remind him that we’re in a transition phase.” For decades, Hoke said, the village was run from behind the scenes by a clubby elite. “The history of River Forest governance is that what happens in River Forest stays in River Forest. That worked fairly well around the mid-[20th] century. Now the composition of the town has changed. It’s time for River Forest governance to reflect those changes.”
Hoke’s challenge is directed not just to the current village board, but to those residents it serves as well. Saying that River Forest’s small size allows for a more direct practice of democracy, Hoke called for increased participation in local governance by a wider group of residents.
“I really would like to see more people at the meetings; I really would like to see a more diverse type of people on the commissions,” he said. “I’d like to see us leverage the talents of all the people here, rather than just the regular cast of characters.”