His second full year as village president was a year of transition, John Rigas said last week, and he’s learning to accept the time it takes to make changes.
“Things never move fast enough for me,” said the 52-year-old River Forest Villager of the Year.
“As I get older I’m more tolerant of the pace that change takes.”
Elected in May 2009, Rigas is beginning his third full year as the village’s leader. It’s not his first stint on this board, and he also served on the District 200 Oak Park and River Forest High School board from 2001 to 2009. Rigas moved to River Forest in 1986 after growing up in Oak Park, and now the father of three is the co-owner of a software company in downtown Chicago.
Though the board’s accomplishments in 2011 were more incremental than years past, Rigas said a new leadership team and administrative changes to streamline processes at village hall have been key to helping the village run more smoothly.
The leadership team, where four of the five village department heads are new, became more established this year, Rigas said. The new group includes Village Administrator Eric Palm, Finance Director Joan Rock, Police Chief Greg Weiss and Public Works Director Phil Cotter.
Palm said he appreciated Rigas being a collaborative leader and asking for his opinion in some of the hiring decisions.
The fact that Rigas doesn’t just hand down decisions is good for Palm’s own professional development, Palm said.
Rigas said the new team brings a high level of professionalism and stability to village government, and they’ve been working to make their departments more efficient.
“The changes we make are tweaks to the very basic stuff,” Rigas said, like accelerated permit processes.
This year also saw the approval of a balanced budget, a change from a significant deficit the village faced two years ago. Collective bargaining agreements with the police and fire departments were finalized, and relationships with the District 90 and 200 superintendents continue to be built and solidified.
Rigas said his time as board president has been a stark contrast to his first two terms as a village trustee from 1989 to 1997, when village employees didn’t even have email.
Frank Paris, the former village president, said he remembers Rigas during his first year on the board, when he was its youngest member. Paris called him “the glue that kept us together” because of his patience and willingness to listen to everyone’s opinion. Rigas was part of almost all the meetings that resulted in the Lake Street and Harlem Avenue TIF money going to the school districts, Paris said.
He had a talent to “find the best piece of each point and champion it,” Paris added.
During Rigas’ first years, the board also dealt with the reconstruction of village hall and the redevelopment of the River Forest Town Center. By comparison, Rigas said it sometimes seems like this board hasn’t gotten much done.
Village Trustee Susan Conti agreed with Rigas that the changes haven’t been very sexy this year, but restructuring positions at village hall, getting the new team in place and updating some codes and ordinances were issues that needed to be addressed. Staff also put a new phone system in place, and they’re making improvements to the village website.
Conti called Rigas an organized, steady leader who brings well-thought out convictions to the table. His calm demeanor helped ease tensions on what had been a highly contentious and unproductive village board in recent years, she said.
“He stepped in and didn’t allow personalities or anyone’s agenda to hinder progress going forward,” Conti said.
And now, when the board disagrees on an issue, “we move forward more quickly and more positively afterwards,” said Rigas.
Rigas and Conti both acknowledged economic development as one of the highest priorities for next year despite economic conditions that will make it difficult. The board has been in contact with developer Tim Hague of Keystone Ventures LLC about future plans for Lake Street and Lathrop Avenue. They’re also discussing ways to attract development to Lake Street and Park Avenue.
“We are working on it. It just isn’t as easy as it appears,” Conti said.
Another goal Rigas mentioned for this year is evaluating the zoning code. River Forest has different styles of homes from north to south, so zoning restrictions should be based on the geography of a particular area instead of one-size-fits-all, Rigas said.
Despite the economic uncertainty, Rigas says he’s “very optimistic” about the new year, even if he has to wait a while for changes to be implemented.
According to Palm, Rigas will always make sure he has all the facts before moving forward on an issue, and it’s all for the good of the village.
“What you see over his entire body of work is a commitment to the community,” Palm said.