An already tense village trustee race in North Riverside was taken up a notch Monday, when the village’s mayor publicly accused firefighters from North Riverside and elsewhere of stealing and damaging campaign signs touting VIP Party candidates.

And the venue the mayor chose to call out firefighters — in the middle of a village board meeting — also raised some eyebrows.

“Nothing is healthier than a good old fashioned political debate on village issues around election time,” said Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. as part of his mayor’s report during the board meeting. “Unfortunately this past weekend set a new low in NR village politics.”

Hermanek, who is a VIP Party member, said he brought up the matter because it was the subject of an active police investigation. But his opponents and firefighters themselves accused Hermanek of inappropriately playing politics during the village board’s business meeting, which also happened to be the last board meeting prior to the April 7 election.

“We should be talking about village business and the future prosperity of this village, not politics,” said Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos, who is running for re-election on a slate called Save Our Firefighters.

Earlier on March 16, Hermanek called North Riverside police to report that about 30 VIP signs were either stolen or damaged between March 14 and March 16.

During Monday’s board meeting, Hermanek said the trouble occurred on the night of March 14, a day during which North Riverside firefighters and their colleagues from Berwyn and Cicero went door to door to speak with voters and talk up candidates running under the Save Our Firefighters banner.

“Besides scaring our elderly residents and by telling them that they will not be safe if the union firemen are replaced …,” Hermanek stated at the board meeting, “the union firemen capped off the day by removing and destroying at least 50 signs of their opponents’ party in typical Berwyn, Cicero political style.”

Hermanek took pains to point out that the village’s union firefighters were not the same as its paramedics, which are employed by Paramedic Services of Illinois. The mayor has proposed privatizing the fire department, initially proposing to shift the firefighters’ employers from the village to PSI. The latest proposal would allow union firefighters to phase out of the department over an 11-year period and be replaced through attrition by PSI employees. The union has rejected the village’s proposals.

“This should make crystal clear that our Union 2714 firemen and our PSI paramedics are not the same individuals,” Hermanek said. “They just work in the same building under the same chief. This disgusting conduct has no business in our quiet and peaceful village.”

 Demopoulos said his volunteers had nothing to do with the sign thefts and said his own party’s signs had gone missing during the campaign and that the VIP Party had harassed one of his running mates, Marybelle Mandel, as she campaigned in the village.

“I also think it’s disgusting that my signs, from the party that I am with, are also missing, number one,” said Demopoulos. “And, number two, I also think that certain members of your party go around and stalk and harass a fellow candidate of mine while she is going door to door.”

Hermanek suggested that Demopoulos make a police report if his party’s signs were missing.

“I don’t care about signs,” Demopoulos said. “You can take as many signs as you want from me. You can’t take a vote. A vote wins the election, not a sign.”

Meanwhile, union firefighters sitting in the audience at the board meeting questioned the mayor’s motives with his statement, saying it contained “serious allegations.”

Hermanek responded that police were continuing to investigate the matter and that they would “make arrests if and when their investigation so warrants.”

Firefighter David Rajk said Hermanek was abusing his authority as mayor by making the accusation.

“I think that it’s somewhat an abuse of your powers to sit up there and say things as if they were fact,” Rajk said. “You said the firemen did this. You didn’t say they allegedly did this. … Maybe you should be more careful of what you say.”

Meanwhile, North Riverside police told the Landmark on Thursday that no arrests had been made and that, following their investigation, none were expected.

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