By Bob Uphues
Members of a local progressive political group, along with many North Riverside residents, packed the Aug. 13 meeting of the village board to protest the hiring of an interim fire chief, with the mayor stating that a search for a permanent replacement is ongoing.
Typically routine affairs that last 20 or 30 minutes at most, the board meeting featured calls for a new chief and pleas to female elected officials to take seriously the sexual harassment allegations in a lawsuit, settled in 2009 by the village of Oak Lawn, against Interim Fire Chief Scott Boman.
Meanwhile, others, including former North Riverside Mayor Richard Scheck and his wife, Judith, defended Boman, claiming he was innocent of the allegations and the target of a smear campaign launched against him by a disgruntled female employee.
The sometimes raucous meeting devolved at moments into heckling matches, but elected officials themselves stayed out of the fray for the most part.
The only trustee to address Boman's surprise appointment in July was Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos, an opponent of the VIP Party majority on the village board and ally of union firefighters who have been at odds with the North Riverside administration for the past four years.
"Just when you think things were going nice and smooth, it takes a turn for the worse," Demopoulos said.
At the time Boman's appointment was announced a month ago, Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. announced that Boman would be formally sworn in Aug. 13. That, however, did not happen, though he was present at the meeting.
Asked following the meeting when or if Boman would be sworn in, Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. said he was "interim until he's not interim" and that he was still interviewing candidates.
Regarding the search process, Hermanek said he was tapping the resources of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association and accepting resumes from individuals who have expressed interest in the job.
How long will the search for a permanent chief last?
"Until I find somebody that's good," Hermanek said. "[Boman] is eminently qualified, and as I told you before, this isn't the most sought-after job in the world because of the situation we have with the union."
Members of Indivisible West Suburban Action League organized a protest of the swearing-in, and its members — predominantly women from Riverside and North Riverside — jammed the council chamber in North Riverside Village Commons and loudly applauded the handful of women who stepped up to ask that Hermanek find another candidate for fire chief.
"We are here today to request that you reopen the search for a fire chief, and select a candidate who can be counted on to treat the women of North Riverside and all women with dignity and respect," said Lisa Janunas, who spoke on behalf of the local Indivisible group.
North Riverside resident Tierney Duffy asked about the mayor's search for the interim chief, whether other candidates, specifically female candidates, were considered or whether trustees knew about the allegations in the Oak Lawn lawsuit before Boman was hired.
"We demand transparency from our village leadership," Duffy said. "I believe we are at a crossroads here. We have a choice: Will we be part of the problem or part of the solution?"
But administration defenders, like P.J. Folz, said Hermanek had the right to make the hire as he saw fit, and decried online debates about Boman's appointment as forums for "vitriolic spewing" and "mudslinging against anyone who supported the hire.
"The hiring and firing of department heads falls under the jurisdiction of the mayor, and whether you agree or disagree with the decision being made, this was his decision," Folz said.
Richard Scheck, the former mayor who moved to Oak Brook nearly a decade ago but who still exerts influence as a member and contributor to the VIP Party he once led, called Boman an "innocent man who is getting painted with a wide brush."
"It's not about woman here tonight," Scheck said. "It's about an innocent man that we're throwing under the bus."
He also then went on the offensive against firefighters he said were engineering the opposition and a specific North Riverside resident who has been a virulent online critic of Boman's hire and the administration in general.
Scheck held up a thick document he said was the response to a Freedom of Information request and that it showed North Riverside police had visited that resident's house 60 times "and most of them were for female harassment, and most of them were by his wife."
Firefighter David Rajk responded to Scheck by saying he didn't appreciate the accusation that firefighters were "riling up" the public and placed the responsibility on the mayor.
"We had nothing to do with this hiring and firing," Rajk said. "We didn't force anyone to do anything or take a stance on this. For people to be coming from out of town to accuse us of wrongdoing, shame on you."