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For the first time in recent memory, River Forest will have a contested election for village president, with two-term incumbent Cathy Adduci taking on sitting trustee Patty Henek in the April 6 election.
Adduci said she is seeking another term in order to “build on the progress” the village has made during her previous eight years as village president, while Henek said she values the importance of “good governance, transparency and accessible public deliberations.”
What are the biggest challenges facing River Forest and what can the village board do to address them?
Adduci: We will prioritize issues based on our community values and guiding principles, and will address all of them head-on with transparency and efficiency. First, we will ensure safety and health for all by enabling collaboration and using data-driven metrics and technology to address COVID-19 recovery for our residents and businesses. Second, we will stabilize property taxes by reducing costs and increasing revenue. We will also use enhanced data and technology to deliver services more efficiently, resulting in anticipated reduced labor and equipment costs. My experience and leadership in the Illinois Municipal League is crucial to ensure that we use best practices in our village and have access to the latest information and funding sources. Third, we will strengthen our quality of life for all by advancing our aging initiatives/policies, carrying out our affordable housing plan, supporting the Dominican University [diversity and inclusion] partnership and the internal diversity, equity and inclusion advisory group and supporting the sustainability commission’s action plan to stem climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Henek: The three biggest challenges for River Forest are, first, economic development, including Lake Street and Lathrop Avenue and the Madison Street and North Avenue tax increment financing districts. I will lead the board to be strategic in how we encourage community input at all stages of planning conversations and intentional in supporting existing and new River Forest businesses. Two, finances, including COVID implications, needed infrastructure, pension shortfalls/obligations and postponed revenue needs due to flat tax levy. I will lead the Board to develop a five-year, forward-looking comprehensive financial plan, modeled on the five-year capital improvement plan. Third is the closed commission process. Village ordinance stipulates that appointments are made with the “advice and consent” of the board. I will lead the board to open the commission process to actually solicit the board’s “advice” role in the commission appointment process.
What is most in need of change in the village and how can the board address this?
Henek: Of the “biggest” issues previously noted, the revision most expeditiously implemented is to open the closed commission process. Current village ordinance places selection of commissioners in the office of the president with the “advice and consent” of the board. Unfortunately, the “advice” clause has not been consistently employed as the board often receives proposed commission appointment notifications, without applications or background information, when the agenda is publicly posted. As a result, board diligence is negated, risking commissions and outcomes which lean towards affinity bias and do not reflect the community. I will implement a more open, transparent process to attract and select commission members.
Adduci: We have to change how we interact with each other around emotional and perhaps sensitive issues. We can do that by cultivating patience and acknowledging the worth and dignity for each person, regardless of age, gender and race. I hope residents will embrace what they have to say to each other in a manner that is sensitive to their point of view. How to be respectful and mindful of differences must start with the village president and board of trustees. We need to model and be responsible for holding positive and constructive conversations. River Forest is better when we work together toward a common goal.
Are there cost-saving opportunities you believe the village should pursue to address the village’s tax burden?
Adduci: The board and I froze the village’s portion of the tax levy in November of 2020 for property taxes payable in 2021. This was a historic decision and we were able to do that because of sound revenue forecasts and fiscal policy through cost savings and revenue enhancements. We are always looking for cost-saving opportunities that allow us to balance our budget on an annual basis. Recent opportunities include the purchase of the salt brine equipment that replaced traditional rock salt at roughly 25% the cost. Another cost saving opportunity was achieved through the approval of the automated metering infrastructure, which will result in lower water usage and labor costs, and improve customer service.
Henek: Village tax obligations represent 12% of a resident’s tax bill. Where possible, I’ve advocated consortium buying opportunities with other village taxing bodies and neighboring communities. Going forward, I will also advocate exploring regional grant opportunities and potential grants under the new state and federal administrations. I see a cost-saving opportunity in the role of the existing collaborative committee, a cooperative of representatives from each River Forest taxing body. My vision for the collaborative committee is to utilize it to strategically consider the total tax burden on residents when the taxing bodies budget. I see the Collaborative Committee as a place to identify and bring back to their respective boards the most effective use of finite village resources.
How do you believe future development within the village should occur? Are there specific areas to target?
Henek: I will promote community-endorsed development and hold developers accountable to contract deadlines, property maintenance and meeting conditions set as part of the approval process. I expect the two TIF areas, Madison Street and North Avenue, will demand much of our focus. Unfortunately, the mishandled Lake and Lathrop project will also be on our plate. Lake and Lathrop discussions opened in 2009, TIF dollars were committed in 2010, the current developer was approved in 2017 and now it is 2021. The village board, led by Cathy Adduci, has not held the developer accountable. When properly managed with a strategic vision, development can increase revenues from property/sales taxes and, as a result, improve property values.
Adduci: Developments will adhere to our municipal standards and zoning codes, and any variance would require hearings to determine community capacity. Any development will always have residential input, and residents will be engaged in discussion and testimony during the development review board process and at meetings of the board of trustees. Our zoning codes and ordinances are being reviewed to better accommodate new affordable housing needs and people with disabilities. We will be looking toward the revitalization of properties in the Madison Street and North Avenue tax increment financing districts as well as Lake Street and Park Avenue in the coming months.
What is your opinion on the village’s police department and should changes be made to its structure and policies?
Adduci: We have a high regard for our police department and I believe our residents feel our department is doing a great job. Our village has taken strong steps toward strengthening trust between law enforcement and our community. We are committed to holding quarterly safety meetings and we have signed on to the president’s task force on 21st century policing and the 10 shared principles developed by the NAACP. Our diversity, equity and inclusion group will look at our policies and practices through an equity and social justice lens, and that will help the village and its police department be more sensitive in our interactions. I don’t envision structural changes to the department, but we may look at how we handle certain calls for service. For instance, Thrive Counseling Center will continue to train officers on de-escalating mental health issues and use social workers to address the needs of the community.
Henek: I believe the police department holds a unique role in the community as first responders for residents and often the face of our village. I am a big believer in a review of all village functions. I championed the creation of the diversity, equity, and inclusion ad-hoc advisory group and believe it is the appropriate place to conduct a thorough review of internal and external initiatives, actions and operating procedures to identify areas to revise in policy, training and engagement for all village departments.
What experiences do you have that you believe would be beneficial in the role of village president?
Henek: I grew up in Austin, attended Trinity High School and graduated from Eastern Illinois University. My husband and I lived in the condos at Chicago and Harlem avenues [for two years], and have lived in our current home on the LemonAid block for 20 years. I have a unique perspective and a long view on our village housing stock, changing demographics and the need for affordable housing for both new residents and those who wish to “age in community.” This arc of my village residency informs my understanding of the deep impact of rising taxes on residents’ ability to remain in town. Through my leadership as a village trustee, LemonAid co-founder, a former District 90 PTO president, current program coordinator of the Holiday Food & Gift Basket and as a current board member of A House in Austin, I have honed skills which will serve the community. I have demonstrated integrity and principled independence, rigorous preparation and constructive curiosity, open examination of all sides of an issue and consistent advocacy for resident input to improve decisions.
Adduci: I developed many strengths as an executive vice president and general manager of Unisys, where I managed complex $1 billion budgets and more than 1,000 employees. A year before I retired, I was elected to my first term as village president, and since then, my strengths have moved our community in a positive and meaningful direction. I have built consensus at the board table by carefully synthesizing information, listening and communicating. As a member of the board of directors of the Illinois Municipal League, I work closely with colleagues statewide to address issues that will benefit River Forest and Illinois. All these talents and assets have provided unique qualifications and experiences to the office of village president, as well as an invaluable perspective on how to successfully lead River Forest’s $30 million complex government.
River Forest is embarking on an endeavor to improve equity and inclusion within the village. How would you help guide this process and are there specific goals you have for it?
Adduci: We have just formed the ad-hoc advisory group on diversity, equity and inclusion, which will enable us to examine our internal policies and practices. Through its guidance, we can examine and remove barriers that can prevent residents, business members, visitors and employees in municipal services from being a part of community and civic life. Our partnership with Dominican University will allow us to examine how our community can learn and benefit from racial equity through Dominican’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation framework. I will be involved in this process and will engage in and offer civil, thoughtful and constructive dialogue. There are no timelines to accomplish this work because it is an ongoing learning and growth. I plan to use my role as Village President to endorse and address this question as much as possible and be a role model to others.
Henek: My perspective on race and racial injustice was formed growing up in the Austin neighborhood between 1968 and 1990, during the height of white flight. I understand systems like redlining, blockbusting and disinvestment were at play and treated Black and white Americans, and their homes, differently. I know that entrenched racism has not been eradicated as hate crimes at our local Jewel and on our streets attest. Moreover, systemic racism, as evidenced by the death of George Floyd, and countless others, continues. We are at a critical moment where bold steps, not hopeful actions, are needed to combat systemic racism. I championed a greater agency for the diversity, equity and inclusion advisory group, and believe this group will appropriately guide the equity and inclusion process for the village. I am the leader with the life and professional experience to lean into and facilitate the difficult, but necessary, conversations that will lead to true impactful change.
What else would you like voters to know?
Henek: My vision is for River Forest to be the model of “governance by the people for the people.” The current “establishment” culture leaves many residents on the outside. I will bring residents into the solutions by creating a culture and system that values input from all. Together we will achieve real gains on economic development, diversity, sustainability and much more. I believe we can create smart, community-endorsed development that will stabilize property taxes, increase access to affordable housing that will welcome new residents and allow existing residents to retire-in-community, enable our cost-burdened middle class residents and our seniors to continue to thrive here, implement a climate action plan that will get us closer to reaching committed goals and external compacts and expand accessibility, both virtually and physically, so that all residents can engage in our community more fully.
Adduci: The most underreported stories in River Forest have been our progress on aging in place, sustainability and infrastructure upgrades. Since 2017, when I first addressed the issue of aging in place, River Forest has made strides toward removing barriers that prevent older adults and people with disabilities from fully participating in social and community activities. Since then, we have established an age-friendly advisory ad-hoc committee to attain an age-friendly status as designated by the AARP; set up a COVID senior response program partnering resident volunteers with seniors for grocery and prescription pickup, dog walking, snow shoveling and other vital chores; created the sustainability commission in 2017; formulated and approved the first every bicycle plan and we are planning to initiate a 20-year stormwater master plan, which will help us identify projects, programs and initiatives that will reduce flooding conditions throughout River Forest by the most cost-effective means and at the appropriate levels of protection.
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