Current River Forest village president Cathy Adduci faced off against village trustee Patty Henek in a Wednesday Journal-hosted Zoom forum between the two village president candidates on March 17.
Topics ranged from affordable housing to the state of the police department to Lake and Lathrop.
Adduci described the current affordable housing plan and its origins. The seven members of the Plan Commission, she said, “did a phenomenal job of discussing the opportunities that our community has.” After several meetings, they put together a report, which, said Adduci, is “open and transparent,” available on the village website, and includes six strong recommendations.
The ordinance, she said, has language indicating the goal is to “meet or exceed” the 10 percent affordable housing stock required by state law. Future plans over the next three to five years include looking at ways to increase affordable housing stock on part by removing or changing Zoning Board rules regarding auxiliary dwelling units.
Henek, however, responded that the original plan presented to the Plan Commission was one written in 2004 for Wilmette, not in 2020 for River Forest, so even the basis for the plan commission’s discussions and plans were flawed.
She added that accessory dwelling units “won’t be the silver bullet to our problem,” since, mostly located on the second floor, such as coach houses, they won’t be ideal for seniors or individuals with disabilities.
Her path forward with affordable housing, said Henek, would be to hire an expert on the topic who can address the challenges of the village being landlocked to present creative ideas and financing, such as zoning code breaks or tax incentives, that would involve the community on a broader level.
In terms of mandatory inclusionary housing, Henek said she supports it because it’s unreasonable to think a developer will come in and decide to do it without being forced to. “I think it’s something we need we need to explore because I don’t believe that a developer is going to come in and just take the opportunity to put in affordable housing.”
Adduci said the plan commission has discussed mandatory inclusionary housing and has decided it’s not a good option for River Forest for several reasons, namely that there are only one or two new developments every 10 years.
Substantive opportunities to collaborate with Maywood
Adduci said she and the village in general are excited about the Twin City Covenant with Maywood. When Maywood’s Trustee Miguel Jones brought up the idea, it didn’t take long to agree to the partnership. But Adduci said there is more the village can do to honor the covenant.
“There are aspirational things in the covenant but opportunities to make it more concrete,” Adduci said, such as a combined Memorial Day parade, sharing of equipment between villages, and potentially combining public works buildings.
“The Maywood Covenant is really what confirmed my decision to stay on the board, and most importantly, to run for village president,” said Henek. Her worry with the covenant is that it will become a list, a series of items to be checked off.
“I don’t want to see the covenant as five items, and we check them off, and we’re done,” Henek said.
Henek said she thinks “it’s healthy to have term limits.” A person can become too comfortable in a position, she said, “and kind of lose that new vision, that way of thinking … they get used to doing things the same way and aren’t open to new ideas.”
Adduci said democracy is about choice. “I think people should run as many times as they feel. And if they perform, then they should get reelected. If they don’t perform, they don’t.”
Adduci pointed out several ways the village has become more transparent since she’s been in office, starting with a completely redesigned website about eight years ago. The former website, she said, was poorly designed and made it difficult to find information.
Secondly, she said she started an e-newsletter that is regularly sent to residents. The newsletter contains information about current goings-on in the village and has been sent out weekly during the COVID-crisis, said Adduci.
Third, said Adduci, she opened up communication regarding the village boards and commissions. Eight years ago, she said, there was no application or even description of the boards and commissions. The website didn’t have a list of members. Now, though, there is a letter online inviting residents to apply, as well as the application and the names of everyone on the boards.
Henek acknowledged improvements in transparency, such as the website. But she said that although the e-newsletter is a good source of information, her concern is that it may be overused, or sent too often. “If we get too many emails, it starts to lose its importance level,” Henek said.
Henek said she’d like to see more transparency regarding seats on boards and commissions, with better advertising of when positions are available. During another part of the forum, Henek said, “I also believe we need broader representation on our boards that don’t come from the same tight friend group.”
Definition of equity, and whether red light cameras are an equity issue
“I would define equity as providing resources,” said Henek. “Not necessarily the exact same, but what people need, allowing enough resources for people to have a fair chance of outcomes and success. And so that may not look the same for everybody.”
“Equity in my mind is the fair and respectful treatment of all people,” said Adduci. “And I believe that that is what we always strive for in River Forest, is to treat people from a social justice standpoint, equal under the law.”
The idea of red light cameras, said Henek, is “something I’ve never really loved.” A revenue line item on the budget, it would take discussions before removing them completely, she acknowledged. What Henek said she objected to, though, was a new contract brought up for vote in the middle of June, during the height of racial unrest in the nation and when the village needed to “look at things through a different lens.”
Henek said she submitted a number of questions to help inform her decision on the contract. How many tickets are issued, and after going through the adjudication process, how many get dismissed? Are there two groups of people getting tickets, one which is able to pay it right away just to avoid the problem, and another who can’t afford it, and gets a second notice before the fee goes to a collection agency, impacting that person’s credit report? Do red light cameras really change behavior or are there repeat offenders? Without answers to these and other questions, said Henek, she voted against the five-year contract for red light cameras.
Adduci said, “Red light cameras are an enforcement tool” that help with safety issues, preventing accidents and ensuring people abide by the law.
“I don’t believe that the vendors are actually looking at the socio-economic profile of the people driving,” Adduci said. “So it’s based on breaking the law.”
Adduci added that someone with a ticket can appear before the judge, who has discretion to hand down a fine or work out a payment plan if money is an issue.
Hiring a new village administrator
Henek said the new village administrator should be someone who values transparency and inclusivity, is personable, understands the community dynamics and is experienced in financial management of a municipality.
“But I think in this current climate where we’re, you know, starting with these diversity initiatives … and since our Diversity Committee is going to be co-chaired by the village administrator, I would want to look for a candidate who has done work in this area, or who has experience in this area, because I do think it’s, it’s going to be very important that we have somebody who is comfortable with these conversations and comfortable with being uncomfortable in these conversations,” Henek said.
Adduci agreed that the new village administrator should be well versed in equity and inclusion and be intentionally engaged in related work.
“This appointment will probably be one of the most important appointments that our village will make in the next year for sure,” Adduci said, and stated that the candidate must have a deep understanding of many different areas, including zoning, planning, finance and government, as well as having good interpersonal and communication skills.
She mentioned her experience in the hiring process of former administrator Eric Palm, and said the village has a great internal candidate in Lisa Scheiner, former assistant to Palm and currently filling in as interim village administrator.
Turnover in police department
Adduci said officers leaving the department to work in a different village or town is a phenomenon happening currently in all police departments, not just River Forest.
“Our officers love working in River Forest,” Adduci said, and she added that four of the last five officers they’ve hired were people of color.
Henek said although she can’t talk about the current lawsuit against the village on behalf of a former River Forest police officer, it’s concerning to her that employees might be leaving because they don’t like the conditions in River Forest.
“I would want to be sure at all times that all of our employees can talk about their issues and have their concerns addressed,” Henek said.
Lake and Lathrop
In probably the most heated of the discussion of the night, the two candidates discussed the original goals of the redevelopment project and whether trusting the developer to get the development finished on time is prudent.
Adduci said the village didn’t have control of the property until late 2017 or early 2018, when the owner of the former Annie’s restaurant building passed away and his heirs decided to sell. The property owner next door sold as well.
From the beginning, said Adduci, the goal was to clean up the soil, which had been contaminated from a dry cleaning facility on that site.
“The whole point, right there and then, was to protect the safety and health of our community,” Adduci said. Contaminants in the soil were spreading, leaching toward St. Luke and the Ashland Condos.
In 2018, four trustees voted to approve a new developer coming in because that would allow the cleanup to begin.
“We’re exactly where we need to be,” Adduci said. “We have a clean property. And now the development and construction will begin.”
Several time she said she wanted to remind residents that, “first and foremost, cleaning the property up for the safety of our community” was always the goal.
Henek said although she initially voted to approve the project in 2017, it was with the understanding that the developer would hit the ground running. That didn’t happen, though, she said, and she voted against it in 2018. Extensions were granted, and now, said Henek, she’s not confident the project will be built.
“I am concerned because I don’t think there are enough sales to get the financing,” Henek said. With a history of delays, Henek said she is concerned, the developer was not “showing to be a good faith partner.”
“How long do we let this developer continue to have time go by?” asked Henek, who said she’s concerned about lost years of market opportunity at that property.
The debate was moderated by Dan Haley, Growing Community Media publisher, and Michael Romain, Wednesday Journal reporter and Village Free Press publisher.