River Forest Villagers of the Year

One newsmaker is a man who has both served and, some say, dominated the village for the last two decades. The other newsmaker is a man who has shown the determination to challenge that dominance and alter its effects.

Village President Frank Paris was our Villager of the Year in 2005. Village Trustee Steve Hoke was last year’s Villager of the Year. Each still meets the condition for our designation: a person who has a major impact – positive or negative – on River Forest.

Paris, 70, has one foot in the old River Forest, a place he has lived all his life, and the other foot in the evolving River Forest he helped form.

Hoke, 49, moved to the village 20 years ago-at about the time Paris was first elected to the village board. Hoke has moved to the forefront of village issues the past three years after shouldering leadership roles outside of government the last half decade.

Paris is clearly more comfortable with lining up support for his vision behind the scenes and presenting a unified front on the board. Hoke is clearly more willing to allow many processes to play out at public meetings and work toward resolution.

It’s during such times that Paris and Hoke have both clashed publicly and worked together privately. Rare is the outcome in River Forest that doesn’t bear their stamp.

Glimpses of alignment

The differences between the two men are primarily more style than substance. In most ways, they offer a common vision of low taxes, good village services and fiscal responsibility. Where they differ is in how best to accomplish those ends. What one sees as legitimate questions, the other sees as disrespect.

Hoke and his supporters have been relentlessly critical of what he sees as a closed-loop-of government by fiat, rubber-stamped by a compliant board. The board majority, they say, is willing to accept only superficial debate and bristles at substantive criticism.

Paris and his supporters have expressed outrage at what they contend are disruptive and obstructionist tactics that cross over into incivility and blatant disrespect.

There has been some agreement, particularly as the two strong-willed men worked together to address serious problems on the police force.

“We had a lot of problems in the police department,” Paris acknowledged. “I think we really made some lemonade out of some really sour situations.”

Paris has often bemoaned the existence of two or three groups within the department that had operated as what he calls “divisive factions” that didn’t respect one another.

“I think we’ve gotten past that,” Paris said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but we’re on the right course, a good course. I think we have competent supervisory personnel and a competent chief.”

Hoke agreed, saying, “I feel very good about the police department today, and a year ago I didn’t.”

“We worked together, not as quickly as I’d have preferred, and got it done,” Hoke said. “I think we had a lot of resistance to our claims that we had problems on the police department.

Hoke and Paris agree on the primacy of village finances on the board agenda as the village budget continues to be buffeted by sagging revenues and rising expenses. Exactly how to go about finding solutions, though, has been a faultline.

“I’d say the financial condition of the village is my most serious concern,” Hoke said.

“The next step is to accomplish a budget for the next year. I intend to work on that every week. Hopefully so do other trustees,” said Paris.

Paris saw some encouraging signs, saying, “We did pass a levy,” he said, referring to a 3-2 vote. “And we did pass a modification to the existing budget.”

Paris also admitted feeling a bit daunted.

“In 20 years, this is the first time I’ve had any reservations about how difficult it would be to have a balanced budget,” he said.

Paris has ripped Hoke, who chaired the board’s finance committee -made up of him and trustees Susan Conti and Pat O’Brien-with increasing intensity this fall, blaming him for the board’s failure to come up with solutions to the budget malaise.

In the wake of a major blow-up between the two at the Nov. 24 board meeting, Paris said Hoke has held a grudge against him, to the detriment of the village.

Hoke turned those criticisms back on Paris and the village administration, saying Paris has it backward.

He suggested politics is playing a role in that criticism.

“It’s really extraordinary. They keep looking at one trustee to set policy, and you have to ask why they’re doing that,” he said. “I fear that it’s political.”

“The administration and the majority board members, along with the president, don’t want to be the first ones to take action,” Hoke said. “Because they don’t want to be blamed for the situation.”

The final straw?

The two men’s working relationship was trampled to pieces during yet another tumultuous board meeting Nov. 24. Paris publicly mentioned alleged threats by Hoke and himself against each other, reportedly at a private meeting between the two men on Nov. 23.

Paris contends Hoke is allowing their personal unpleasantness to interfere with his trustee and chairman roles.

“You run around worried about personal attacks made on you and your family, and you don’t do the work of the village on the budget,” Paris told Hoke during debate on the 2008 tax levy.

Hoke in turn attacked Paris for bringing up his family in public, and warned, “I have reported the fact that President Paris threatened me to the village attorney and village administrator.”

“I wouldn’t get into that; you’ll be sorry,” Paris replied, furious.

Paris flared again when trustee Steve Dudek questioned whether Paris had fully and accurately disclosed his economic interests in the clout-heavy Amalgamated Bank of Chicago, which has been listed as a vendor in numerous village bond issues. That bank is a sister bank of Oak Brook Bank, which Paris helped found.

Paris called to adjourn the meeting, saying, “I’m not going to accept this. I’m not going to allow an attack on me or anybody else.”

The day after Christmas, Paris said he hoped that Hoke would reconsider, saying, “He doesn’t want to talk with me.”

“We have to find a way to get more respect on the board and get meetings that run more smoothly,” Paris said. “I think we have to debate things and will have disagreements. But we have to do it respectfully.”

Hoke insisted respect or a lack of it has nothing to do with the current impasse, nor is the Nov. 23 unpleasant a primary reason.

“Frank’s and my relationship has been better, and the last two months have really tested it,” Hoke said. “I’m always interested in exploring solutions to problems. I just think … politics of the most unfortunate kind has entered into that relationship, in a way that has made it difficult for me to work with him.”

Paris suggested Hoke is overreacting, saying, “Steve Hoke is going around with rumors and statements regarding things I’ve said to others. I haven’t done that. But I’ve not been able to convince Steve Hoke I haven’t done that.” He also suggested Hoke is giving him too much credit.

“He seems to feel I have control over other people and trustees,” Paris said, denying that perception.

Hoke said he’s somewhat encouraged at the changes he’s seen in 2008.

“I’m encouraged to see there’s an increase in general transparency of government,” he said. “Business as usual in River Forest has basically ground to a halt, because people are aware someone’s watching.” He’s not optimistic the changes will be permanent.

“I don’t see a sea change in the instincts of the power structure,” he said. “It’s been a battle. I didn’t realize a year ago just how ingrained the power structure is.”

Paris, whose influence in the village has been largely based on persuading people to accept his vision, said he hopes to persuade Hoke one more time.

“For better or for worse, I’m seen as a change agent. And change agents are rarely well received by the powers that be,” said Hoke.

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