If there was any broad area of agreement among all three candidates for Brookfield village president at the March 13 candidate forum, sponsored by the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce at village hall, it was economic development.
However, just how the candidates would go about dealing with that issue revealed the differences in the candidates’ styles — all of whom are familiar to anyone who has followed the village’s political scene for the past decade or more.
The candidates included two sitting village trustees, Kit Ketchmark and Michael Towner, who were, until last fall, members of the same political organization. Ketchmark is the PEP Party’s endorsed candidate, while Towner is running as an independent. Both got their start in local politics around 2000.
Independent candidate Bill Russ has been around even longer, with involvement stretching back into the 1980s, first as a trustee and then as village president from 2001-05.
Russ slammed the lack of economic development in Brookfield during the PEP-dominated years since he was voted out of office, calling the village “broken” and stating that decisions made since he left office “have made our community a laughingstock in the area.”
He renewed his past call for Brookfield to try to attract national franchises for Ogden Avenue, complaining that village has been passed by while villages like Lyons and LaGrange have landed such businesses.
Russ referred to the village’s 1-percent non-home-rule sales tax as a possible block to economic development, called for implementing a radio marketing campaign and compiling a “catalog” of vacant properties for developers to peruse.
“Let’s be proactive and go after the franchises out there and medium-sized businesses,” Russ said.
He also mocked the premise of the village’s latest foray into discussing economic development. The first step in that process consisted of the village board determining what they believe successful economic development will look like — whether it means going after franchises or different kinds of businesses.
Ketchmark earlier in the evening mentioned that a key part of determining the best way to market Brookfield was “knowing who we are and who we aren’t.”
“Well, if you don’t know after eight years, you shouldn’t be running for office,” Russ said.
Towner and Ketchmark disputed Russ’ contention that economic development efforts had halted in the past eight years. While agreeing that the national economic downturn had an impact on economic development everywhere, both Ketchmark and Towner said Brookfield laid the groundwork for future economic development on Ogden Avenue by establishing two TIF districts there.
Ketchmark said the village did need to start seeing results regarding economic development and suggested that changes should be made to the zoning code to make it more development-friendly. He also called on village hall employees to improve their customer-service skills.
“We can work to reduce the obstacles that would be in the way of those businesses having a chance to succeed,” said Ketchmark. Customer service has to be improved with respect to prospective developers at village hall.”
Towner, meanwhile, said he expects the TIF districts to start paying dividends in terms of development in the coming years, which will allow the village to reinvest in Ogden Avenue.
He also said he wanted to involve local business owners in the economic development discussion to see what the village can do to help not only attract new businesses, but help ones already in Brookfield that are not necessarily on Ogden Avenue.
“Find out with staff and with them what kinds of programs we can come up with that will help and benefit them as a whole,” said Towner. “I wouldn’t want us to ignore any one part of town for economic development.”
While Russ decried a lack of leadership under PEP in the past eight years, Ketchmark and Towner approached the question of its effectiveness differently.
Ketchmark stressed the need to continue policies such as maintaining a balanced budget, living within the village’s means, obtaining grants and addressing crucial infrastructure issues.
“It’s not about election time rhetoric, it’s not about false hope, it’s not about self-promotion,” Ketchmark said. “It’s about leadership, it’s about dedication, it’s about trust.”
Towner echoed many of those goals, but said PEP had grown too insular and that village government needed to broaden its reach.
“Over the past six years it seems that our village board has become more isolated in running the village,” said Towner, who broke from PEP last fall and is running as an independent. “We are making decisions by an ever-shrinking group of individuals, and it has become a control group.
“We need to cultivate the best ideas wherever they may be and [need] a leader to search those out.”
The presidential forum, which lasted about 40 minutes and was attended by about 80 people, was moderated by members of the LaGrange Area League of Women Voters.