On Sept. 19 Tom Lupfer, the chairman of the Riverside Economic Development Commission, fired off a letter of resignation to Village President Ben Sells.
“What started out with such hope and optimism has degenerated into public name calling and petty political posturing,” Lupfer wrote.
He accused Sells of “micromanaging projects to the point where we had to wonder if we needed to ask if you wanted to ‘choose the color of the balloons.'”
Just three months earlier, he and other members of the commission — one of the village’s many advisory commissions serving at the behest of the village board — had posed in front of a small building on the north platform of the downtown train station. It used to cover the stairs heading to the pedestrian tunnel beneath the tracks.
Filled in years ago, the small structure was becoming a visitor’s center and members of the commission had spent a weekend prior to July 4 doing the initial renovations.
They were getting ready to participate in the July 4 celebration with a scavenger hunt where people could search for the present-day locations of places depicted in the village’s first sales brochure “Riverside in 1871.” There would be signs made and erected at those spots and people could use their smart phones for a little interactive history lesson.
But a week before The Fourth, the plug got pulled. Sells on June 26 sent an email to EDC commissioners congratulating them on their initiative, but in no uncertain terms let them know they didn’t have the authority to start placing signs in parks, especially when he and the village board, didn’t know much about the scavenger hunt.
“I know the pace of government can be frustrating, but we just have to remember that the purpose of that pace is to ensure that all relevant groups are informed and invested together as we move forward,” Sells wrote.
At that point, the fuse was lit for Lupfer.
Lupfer complained that if the village board didn’t know what was going on, that wasn’t the EDC’s fault. In July 2013, Sells sent a memo to the commission tasking them with “implementing” items called out in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) downtown comprehensive plan — marketing opportunities, developing a “shop local” campaign, promoting tourism and creating a train station visitor center.
The EDC had discussed the scavenger hunt at its June 12, 2014 meeting, which was attended by then-Village Manager Peter Scalera. According to Lupfer, the EDC was simply doing what it was asked to do. Sells said that while the item may have been discussed, there was little hard information on how it would be pulled off.
In retrospect, said Sells, the July 2013 memo and the use of the word “implement” was a mistake. In embracing the CMAP recommendations and parceling out topics to advisory commissions for investigation was “like spilling BBs on the floor.” Sells said he was looking for research not physical implementation. That would be vetted and approved by the village board after a full analysis by village staff.
At the Aug. 7 village board meeting, Sells in another memo again addressed implementation of the CMAP initiatives. This time, however, implementation was tasked to specific village staff members, not the EDC generally. Lupfer complained that the commission’s establishing ordinance called for it to answer to the village board, not village staff.
Lupfer saw it as “neutering” the EDC. Sells maintained it was making sure any implementation of initiatives followed the correct process. So at the Aug. 7 village board meeting, Lupfer got up and called out the directive.
“We feel if this happens the EDC becomes irrelevant,” Lupfer told the board.
Sells bristled at the charge and responded that Lupfer was “radically misreading” the memo and that the duty of the EDC to make recommendations to the board hadn’t changed. What the memo spelled out clearly was who was going to do the work and spend the money.
Last week, Sells told the Landmark he believed some of the frustration came from the board wanting the EDC to work through channels via village staff rather than giving the EDC the ability to actually implement policy directives.
“A lot of the frustration, especially when you own your own business is that you’re used to being able to make decisions on your own and doing it,” said Sells. “That isn’t the way government works. It has to be collaborative and have oversight, because you’re spending the people’s money. Things move at a slower pace, and it has to.”
Commissioner Thomas Lombardo also resigned from the commission at the same time as Lupfer. Sells said that Liz Peters will be named the new chairwoman, and that he’s received four resumes to fill the two vacancies.
Asked for comment about the situation between the EDC and Sells, Commissioner Keith Wright replied in an email, “I guess the only thing I could say is that everything is well with the EDC. The group of people on the commission are focused and we are getting things done.”