Ben Sells is destined to be Riverside’s next village president, and the village board next spring will once again be populated almost entirely with candidates chosen by the Riverside Community Caucus now that the present board majority has decided to bow out after one term in office.
Claiming to have achieved the goals they set out to accomplish four years ago, the four members of the Riverside Community Alliance, elected to the village board in 2009, announced last week via email that they would not run for re-election on April 9.
In a statement sent to the Landmark on Dec. 26, Village President Michael Gorman and trustees James Reynolds, Lonnie Sacchi and Mark Shevitz explained why they were stepping aside.
“Residents now know that when the village board plays an active role in overseeing village operations, there is no need to threaten cuts in village services as an excuse to try and push through a tax increase,” the statement reads.
According to the statement, “it was never our ambition to run Riverside for any extended period of time. We wanted to prove that there was a different, smarter way to do things in Riverside.”
The statement touts the RCA’s method of budgeting as a model for future village boards to follow. It urged the next board not to return to “the old ways.”
“The next village board has a new template for responsible budgeting that it can choose to follow or not,” the statement reads. “We hope that they continue to budget sensibly and grow village savings and services.”
The deadline for candidates to file nominating petitions for office for the April 9 Consolidated Election was 5 p.m. on Dec. 26.
With the RCA deciding to walk away, the only candidates for office were those nominated by the Riverside Community Caucus — Ben Sells for president and Patricia Julian Collins, Ellen Hamilton and Doug Pollock for trustee.
In an interview last week, Sells said he was surprised that no RCA members decided to run for re-election. But he called their statement “exactly what I expected to hear during the campaign,” calling it “their misleading narrative about the finances of the village.”
Sells said he won’t be following the RCA budgeting template.
“We are going to do things differently,” Sells said. “I actually believe a budget should budget.”
At the top of the list of issues to address, said Sells, is funding for ongoing and long-term capital expenditures. He said he’d like to reinstitute the practice of assigning any year-end budget surplus to capital projects. In addition, he said he would favor transferring a portion of the village’s current unassigned cash reserves — up to $2 million — to fund capital improvements and would favor rolling over $2 million in bonds that will expire in 2014 as a source of capital funding.
Sells criticized one particular phrase in the RCA’s Dec. 26 statement, which stated that the RCA hoped future boards would “grow village savings.”
“Local government is not a bank,” said Sells. “If we’re increasing our savings, then we’re taxing residents too much. What I’d like to see done is to move money from our unassigned reserves into the capital plan.”
Once the issue of funding capital expenditures is dealt with, said Sells, the village board could focus on operations.
“That’s what we’ve been missing for the last four years,” he said. “There’s no acknowledgement of the two main funding tracks, operational and capital, and you have to address both of those for the long term.”
Sells said he also wants to examine possible changes to village rules that he says stand in the way of new businesses locating in Riverside. The central business district, he noted, is not part of Olmsted’s plan and “shouldn’t be constrained in that way.”
“We have to think of ways to be more flexible and responsive downtown,” he said, adding that he’ll also push to reverse one of the RCA board’s most controversial initiatives — stripping the Riverside Parks and Recreation Board of its autonomy and making it an advisory commission.
The move spurred an advisory referendum campaign, led by Sells, to call for the board to be re-established. The referendum won widespread support from voters, but the RCA board refused to re-open the matter.
“I intend to propose re-establishing the Parks and Recreation Board,” said Sells. “Very early on, I’d like to do that.”
In addition to re-establishing an autonomous recreation board, Sells would also like to look at the village’s advisory commissions to determine whether their missions should be changed or whether some might be dissolved entirely.
“I think it’s time to revisit all of the commissions,” said Sells. “I’m not convinced we need all of the commissions we have.”
One that looks sure to have its duties reappraised is the Landscape Advisory Commission which, among other things, approves plantings in the public right of way.
That’s a duty he called “a waste of time.”
The village has a forester, a director of public works and lists of approved plantings already in place, said Sells. Approving every planting on public land is “make-work for a commission.”
However, he’s not proposing changes in staffing. All of the village’s department heads, except for the police chief, have been hired in the past four years.
“I think we have a great staff,” Sells said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
As for who his choice would be to succeed Sacchi as the village board’s finance chairman, Sells said Trustee Jean Sussman would be his choice. And with more than three months until the election, he’s looking forward to meeting with his running mates and getting to know their priorities and ideas.
“I’m interested to hear what they think we can do,” Sells said. “We’ll have a nice little transition period here.”