Keith Sbiral

On the morning of Dec. 10, time stopped for anyone catching the morning news before heading off to work.

Earlier that morning, Riverside’s favorite daughter, Judy Baar Topinka, had died at the age of 70. It was a complete shock.

Topinka in November had been elected to her second term as Illinois comptroller and was raring to be part of a new administration, headed by Republican Governor-Elect Bruce Rauner.

A week after her election, she told the Landmark she relished the chance to be a bridge between Democrats, who control the General Assembly, and the new leader inside the governor’s mansion.

We’ll never know what role she would have played.

Exactly one week after her death, nearly 1,000 people jammed a union hall in Countryside to honor Topinka — political colleagues and constituents of all stripes. The common theme for those paying tribute to Judy (everyone simply called her Judy) at the memorial service was this: She was true to her convictions despite any political cost she might pay, she was pragmatic, she was funny. She was, above all, genuine.

At the Riverside Village Board meeting the day after the memorial service, Village President Ben Sells summed up Judy this way:

“What we all long for are leaders who are genuine, leaders who are sincere and who want to put the good of the public ahead of any personal aspiration. We lost a leader like that when we lost Judy Baar Topinka.

“Judy represented to my mind all that is good in a public servant. She was honest, she was dedicated, and she was fiercely devoted to doing what was best for the average person, for the average citizen. Never once would she put political gain or a political party ahead of what she thought was right. …

“For those of us here, [her personal] accomplishments in some ways fail to compare to that other Judy, the Judy who was our neighbor — her lack of pretention, her down-to-earth humor. She did not walk into a room without making that room better, happier, more lively, more entertained, more energetic. And in many ways, that is her legacy.

“We will all feel the void of her passing, but we will all remember that smile, that hair, and we will remember the fire that burned in her so brightly and brought such happiness and hope to so many people.” 

 

Sure, why not record cold?

In 2011, Mother Nature threw a witches’ brew of awful weather at the Chicago area. In February of that year there was a near-record snowstorm, the great “Snowpocalypse.” In June, howling winds tore through the area, uprooting trees — like Brookfield’s “Constitution Oak” — and in July another storm knocked out power to 400,000 customers throughout the area. July was capped off with drenching rains that flooded streets.

In 2012, area residents baked under oppressive 100+ degree heat, while Illinois sustained a terrible drought. In 2013, the spring came with rains that caused record flooding near Salt Creek in Brookfield and near the Des Plaines River in Riverside.

So of course, 2014 began with lots of snow followed by temperatures that fell to -17 degrees. And then it thawed. And then it began all over again in February, freezing solid and then suddenly thawing.

In Swan Pond Park in Riverside — newly regraded in 2012 as part of the Hofmann Dam removal project — the results were nothing short of catastrophic.

The thaws created ice jams at the bend of the river near the Riverside Library. Water behind the jams rose and then flooded into Swan Pond Park. Huge ice shards hurtled into the park, flattening young trees and gouging the landscape.

Just two weeks ago, a construction crew repaired some of the resulting erosion to the riverbank near a drainage pipe installed in 2012. But the damage to the rest of the landscape and to sections of the asphalt walking path remains.

Riversiders are holding their breath to see what damage another winter might inflict on the park while figuring out how to fix what’s already happened.

Pension problems in North Riverside

North Riverside has been scrambling since 2009 to get its finances under control. When the economic crash happened in 2008, officials saw the village’s life blood — sales taxes — take a direct hit, which was worsened with the loss of the Edward Don Company in 2012.

But the problems predated that crash. For the past decade, the village had been balancing its budget by avoiding mandated payments into its police and fire pension funds.

In 2014, events came to a head.

This summer the state’s Department of Insurance called the village on the carpet with respect to those missed pension payments and let the village know it needed to make good or see its sales tax revenues deducted to make up for the shortfall.

In response, North Riverside officials embarked on a plan to save about $700,000 in fiscal year 2014-15 and ease its future pension obligations by privatizing the fire department. 

The plan called for firefighters to voluntarily leave the employment of the village and sign on with Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI), which provides paramedics to the village. In doing so, the firefighters would leave the pension system. In time, as those firefighters retired, they would be replaced by lower-cost PSI firefighters.

But firefighters were having none of it. The village filed a lawsuit in September asking a judge to terminate the firefighters contract (the deal actually expired April 30, but state law requires the two sides to bargain) and later declared both sides to be at an impasse.

Firefighters, in turn, invoked contract arbitration proceedings and filed complaints with the Illinois Labor Relations Board.

The whole mess is now tied up in the courts, while arbitration and the labor complaints are moving forward. It’s entirely unclear what the resolution will finally be, but the village likely will see no savings for the first three-quarters of the fiscal year.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick on the village’s outstanding pension obligations. Come 2016, the state will start taking sales tax revenue. Easy solutions? There aren’t any.

 

Relentless pest

In October, dark blue “X” marks appeared on the trunks of ash trees in North Riverside.

Until 2014, it looked like the village — which each year chemically treated its ashes to prevent the spread of the emerald ash borer — might escape the fate that hit Riverside so hard in 2013 and 2014.

But there was no mistaking what was happening. The pest was already rampant in the nearby forest preserves and the Riverside Golf Club. Now the village’s parkway trees were getting hit.

Nearly a dozen ash trees on Country Club Lane were marked for removal, with others scattered around town. North Riverside has 500 ash trees.

Meanwhile, the emerald ash borer also began to be felt heavily in Brookfield in 2014. The spread of the pest prompted Brookfield’s public works director to ask the village to set aside enough money to remove 300 ash trees per year until all of the infested ash trees on public lands are taken down.

In early 2013, Brookfield counted 1,300 ashes in its public tree inventory.

Rough ride in D96

If anyone was looking for tensions to cool in Riverside Elementary School District 96, they were surely disappointed for most of 2014.

While the final quarter of the year was spent more or less quietly, it was a tumultuous year for the school board. Two board members, David Kodama and Lisa Gaynor, abruptly quit at the beginning of the school year amid reports that members of the board were mulling whether to part ways with the district’s superintendent, who had just completed one year on the job.

The search for two board replacements was a precursor to the school board election slated for next April and a glimpse into what will be a referendum on the leadership of board President Mary Rose Mangia.

And that wasn’t the half of it in D96. Two of the key administrators hired along with Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis in 2013 announced they were leaving in 2014. The first was Director of Finance Zack Zayed, who walked out in August. 

And in December, the district’s No. 2 administrator, Director of Academic Excellence Brian Ganan, announced he was leaving at the end of the 2014-15 school year to become the superintendent at Komarek School District 94.

 

RBHS vs. Hollywood

While the drama that once surrounded the administration and school board at Riverside-Brookfield High School has subsided, officials took some heat this year from residents of Brookfield’s Hollywood section after announcing plans to build a new parking lot and renovate the football field and stadium.

With funding from a belated state construction grant in hand, officials set their sights on building a large parking lot on land the district owns just north of Hollywood School. At the same time, the plan called for demolishing and replacing Shuey Stadium and resurfacing the football field and the running track.

The parking lot in particular set off howls of protest from residential neighbors, while others complained that precious funds were being spent on sports at the expense of academics or other life safety issues.

Officials have since scaled back the parking lot and are working with officials from the Cook County Forest Preserve District on other parking options. But the stadium is slated for demolition and replacement in 2015, with the hope that all will be ready by football season next fall.

 

Paving the way for a path

Ready for some good news? There actually was some in 2014. And while all of the construction on First Avenue made traffic an absolute nightmare and resulted in more than a dozen crashes, there’s something to show for it.

Since at least the late 1960s, there had been calls for a safe way to walk from North Riverside to Riverside-Brookfield High School along First Avenue. But the idea never gained much traction until 2013, when officials from Riverside, North Riverside, RBHS and Brookfield Zoo climbed aboard and got the Illinois Department of Transportation interested in making safety improvements at the intersection of Ridgewood Road and First Avenue.

That was the key. Once that was in place, those same officials, plus other local residents and the Friends of the Forest Preserves got the ears of Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski and state Sen. Martin Sandoval, the senate transportation committee chairman whose newly drawn district includes part of Riverside.

With improvements already taking place on First Avenue and with funding in place from the villages and Cook County, IDOT gave the go-ahead to build the first leg of a bike path that will eventually connect RBHS with 26th Street via First Avenue. The plan also calls for the path to extend west to Prairie Avenue and provide a connection to the Salt Creek Trail on 31st Street.

Phase two of the path-building project is expected to commence in 2015.

 

Changing of the guard

Even without municipal elections in 2014, both Riverside and Brookfield saw significant changes in its village leadership this year.

Both towns’ village managers, Riccardo Ginex and Peter Scalera, announced they were leaving for other opportunities. But both also had in-house candidates available to step in and assume the duties of manager.

Keith Sbiral, who was Ginex’s hand-picked assistant back in 2006, was an easy choice as Brookfield’s new village manager. Sbiral in his nearly nine years with the village had tackled just about every job in village management, from information technology to finance to community development.

In the past year, he has worked to revamp the village’s building department, update the building code and oversee the process of finally getting the village’s code of ordinances online.

In Riverside, Jessica Frances, who has served for several years as the village’s finance director, was chosen to be interim village manager. Since she was hired, the village has not announced or ordered a search for a new village manager, giving every indication that as 2015 dawns, the permanent job will be hers.

 

Behind bars, for good?

You want good news? How about this? Steven Mandell is still behind bars.

Mandell, the former Chicago cop and ex-Death Row inmate whom federal authorities say is connected to the murders of five people, was convicted in February of conspiring to kidnap, torture, extort, kill and dismember Riverside businessman Steven Campbell.

Mandell and his alleged co-conspirator, Gary Engel, never got to carry out the grisly plot; they were arrested by the FBI the day it was supposed to happen back in October 2012.

On Dec. 11, a federal judge sentenced Mandell to life in prison — again. He previously had been convicted of murder in Illinois and was sentenced to death. He was also sentenced to life in prison along with Engel for a kidnapping in Missouri. Both convictions were overturned on appeal and he was never re-tried.

Just how he came to target Campbell remains a bit of a mystery, but he started tracking Campbell as early as October 2011. It wasn’t until Mandell met a real estate mogul named George Michael in the summer of 2012 that his plan to get hold of Campbell’s money and properties began to pick up steam.

Unfortunately for him, Michael was an FBI informant. The feds obtained hours of cellphone calls between Mandell and Michael detailing the plot against Campbell, with the most damning evidence being video footage inside “Club Med,” an office near Michael’s real estate business that was rigged up to be a torture chamber and body disposal facility.

Mandell, 64, claims he never intended to carry out the plot. At his sentencing hearing he went so far as saying he was just about to turn in Michael to the police when he was arrested.

On Dec. 22, Mandell’s attorney appealed the verdict against him. In the meantime, he’s being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago.