Looking back at 2015, the villages of Brookfield, Riverside and North Riverside didn’t experience very many events that you’d term “dramatic.” The year passed without destructive floods, parching heat waves or a whole lot disorienting political upheaval (although there was a bit involving Brookfield’s southeastern end of town).
That doesn’t mean nothing of significance happened. There were plenty of issues that began in 2014 that continued to unfold, and there were decisions that will set the stage for more tangible change in 2016.
Here are some of the stories of 2015 that will continue to have an impact as the calendar resets and we enter a new year.
Meet the new boss
From a municipal point of view, the 2015 elections turned out to be pretty routine affairs. In North Riverside, with a plan to privatize the fire department still simmering, Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos put together a slate of largely political novices and gave the VIP Party the scare of its life.
Until the final precinct’s vote totals came in, it looked as if Demopoulos and his Save Our Firefighters Party were going to pull off a stunning upset. In the end, Demopoulos retained his seat, but VIP also held serve.
In Brookfield, the PEP Party easily waltzed to another victory, while candidates slated by the Riverside Community Caucus ran unopposed.
Where residents saw a real change was in Lyons-Brookfield Elementary School District 103, where a slate of candidates backed by Lyons Village President Christopher Getty, clobbered the field and set in motion a series of changes that has turned the school board into a political wing of Getty’s United Citizens Party.
Exactly what impact this is going to have on the school district is unclear. After a general purge of top administrators, the new regime is still not entirely set. There’s a full-time superintendent to hire and there are a raft of new faces in the central office.
But anyone who hoped that the District 103 school board still might somehow operate as an independent governmental body cannot be heartened by actions taken to date.
Back to nature
Stepping into Riverside Lawn — the roughly triangle-shaped area of unincorporated Riverside Township tucked between the Des Plaines River and 39th Street — is like visiting another world.
About 45 homes dot the forested landscape. There’s no sewer or water system (it’s septic tanks and wells), roads are rudimentary sheets of asphalt.
The area also floods. In the past seven years, it’s flooded a lot.
After toying with the idea of building a protective flood wall and after repeated processing of flood damage claims, Cook County has decided to simply buy everyone out and let the floodplain revert back to forest.
The plan surfaced in earnest during the summer and has gradually picked up steam since then. More recently, appraisers have visited properties and homeowners have been told that in early 2016, they’ll be receiving offers to sell their homes.
It’s all strictly voluntary, but you’d have to figure that at some point it might not be worth it to be one of the few holdouts and risk getting little for your property in the future.
Last week, the Cook County Department of Planning and Development submitted a request to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Planning to release funds to allow the county to buy all 45 properties. The total cost is expected to be about $12 million.
Properties sold to the county will come with a deed restriction prohibiting anything being built on those properties in the future. The homes will be demolished and the land will be turned over to the Cook County Forest Preserve District.
By this time next year, Riverside Lawn may be a memory.
Calming the waters
If the changes in District 103 constituted a hostile takeover, the changes wrought in Riverside School District 96 were more like a velvet revolution.
Since about the end of 2012, things in District 96 have been rough. The exit of Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson was bumpy enough, but it was followed by a school board election in 2013 that coincided with the arrival of a new superintendent, and the resulting mix was volatile.
The couple of years saw the superintendent and board at odds, and administrative changes in the district came at district parents and faculty on a rolling basis. By the time the 2015 school board elections arrived, voters had seen enough.
A majority which took the reins of the school board after 2013 were nudged aside. With the departure of Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis, it was time to step back and take a breath.
The temporary solution, oddly enough, came courtesy of Lyons-Brookfield District 103, whose new school board unceremoniously dumped a pair of interim superintendents in favor of a hire anointed by the school district’s new political bosses.
So Patrick Patt and Griff Powell, a pair of veteran, steady, administrators stepped into the central office. Together with new board leadership, Patt and Powell have calmed things down mightily in District 96.
The school board hired trusted retired school superintendents David Bonnette and Dennis Kelly to lead a search for a new full-time superintendent, and a ship that battled some mighty stormy seas during a three-year period prior to 2015 has been sailing rather smoothly since mid-year.
If you live in Brookfield, you will have plenty of opportunities to whip out your calculator in 2016 and see how potential new property tax increases might affect you. You’ll also have at least three opportunities to vote to raise your taxes next year.
The Brookfield Public Library has been laying the groundwork for a referendum question for the past five years. In its quest to construct a new library on land it purchased from the Brookfield United Methodist Church in 2012, the library’s board of trustees has moved slowly and deliberately.
Plans for a new facility have been tweaked and finalized. Earlier this year, the plan was approved — with some conditions — by the Brookfield Planning and Zoning Commission.
A vote on the plan by the village board was expected to have taken place twice, but the library has held off, wanting to make sure it’s able to build the facility it wants and not be hamstrung by conditions it considers unreasonable.
But expect a vote on the plan in early 2016 and then a tax referendum question in November to help pay for the new building.
Just as the library board was putting its finishing touches on plans for a new facility, the Brookfield Village Board swooped in to make sure its referendum question — a whopping $22 million bond issue to pay for road improvements — gets to voters first.
At first, officials planned on a question that would have raised taxes permanently. The strategy has changed and now the village will ask for the $22 million to be paid off in 10 years. At that time voters will probably have the opportunity to vote for another bond issue or simply let it come off the tax bill.
Either way, on Dec. 14 the village board voted to approve a referendum question that will appear on the March 15, 2016 primary ballot. Will Brookfield’s roads get some much-needed attention in the next several years? Voters will decide that.
As the year drew to a close, the third leg of the referendum stool arrived from the carpenter’s shop over at Brookfield-LaGrange Park School District 95.
In 2015, leaders in District 95 unveiled plans to construct a new school building in Brookfield, and funding for construction of that building will have to come from voters in the district.
The location of the new building has been a matter of debate. Initially, officials proposed a K-2 building to be located at Madlin Park, just a stone’s throw from S.E. Gross Middle School.
A more recent plan calls for a fourth- and fifth-grade building, along with a new gymnasium, to be built on the campus of S.E. Gross School.
While a referendum seems a long way off, the district has already been planning for the change. The district purchased a building in downtown Brookfield to house its central office and on Dec. 16 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski gave notice that the district was requesting qualifications for a construction manager.
The plan is for the referendum question — probably in the $20 million to $22 million range — to hit the November 2016 ballot, alongside the library’s question.
Change at the top
It’s been a rocky run for the Riverside Fire Department since late 2010, when village officials began looking into allegations against former Fire Chief Kevin Mulligan, who was terminated in 2011.
Mulligan later sued the village and won a $350,000 settlement and his replacement, Spencer Kimura, a north suburban fire commander with no ties to Riverside, was never embraced by the rank and file and important village leaders.
Factions in the department that formed during the Mulligan saga remained at odds under Kimura and the ill will boiled over in 2014 when four firefighters, including three lieutenants filed a lawsuit against Kimura and the village over a disciplinary matter related to an off-duty incident at a North Riverside tavern.
Although a court sided with Kimura in early 2015, his days were numbered. Three months after the lawsuit was dismissed, Kimura was fired.
In December, the village’s administration moved to get the fire department back on track, hiring longtime firefighter and lifelong Riverside resident Matthew Buckley as the new chief and approving a new command structure aimed at providing a clear line of communication and responsibility.
Brookfield Village Manager Keith Sbiral raised some eyebrows in late October, when he essentially forced out Police Chief Steven Stelter, who was brought in to what was a department in flux back in late 2007.
Stelter was, at the time, a total outsider having spent 28 years with the DuPage County Sheriff’s Police. But Stelter set out to professionalize the department, improve training for officers and train the next generation of commanders.
Two of those who benefitted from that training, lieutenants James Episcopo and Edward Petrak, were ready when Sbiral decided to make the change, hiring them as chief and deputy chief, respectively.
After nearly a decade, village management again felt comfortable promoting from within, with Sbiral remarking that the increased training opportunities had ensured chief material “for the next 20 years.”
Riverside-Brookfield High School wants to build a parking lot. That’s been very clear since the high school rolled out its plan to build a new football stadium, which also included moving the tennis courts to North Riverside and building a 130-space parking lot on District 208-owned land north of Hollywood School.
The neighbors were not amused. After agreeing to downsizing the parking lot and retaining room for tennis courts, RBHS went to the village with its plan. The Planning and Zoning Commission gave it the OK, but the village board in 2015 rejected the parking lot plan.
In response, RBHS officials in May filed a lawsuit claiming that the village board’s denial of their plan was arbitrary and asked a judge to prohibit the village from standing in the way of its plans.
As 2015 ended, despite a couple of attempts by the village to have the lawsuit dismissed, the lawsuit continues to make its way through Cook County Circuit Court. However it ends, the village of Brookfield already has expended about $25,000 to defend itself in court, while RBHS has spent a little less than $25,000 pursuing the case.
You want to start a fight in Riverside? We’d suggest two words: Video gambling.
In October the Riverside Village Board kicked around the idea of allowing video gambling — which has been a financial boon for many bar and restaurant owners throughout the state — in Riverside.
A couple of business owners approached the board about the possibility, and the village board at first seemed amenable to allowing it.
But then came the backlash. A local real estate broker started an online petition drive against the measure and residents howled in protest that gambling would cheapen the village, attract an undesirable element and set a bad example for children.
The issue came to a head at a village board meeting Nov. 5, where Scott Zimmer, the owner of The Chew Chew (and one of the two business owners asking the village to legalize video gambling) chided residents for wanting to put local businesses at an economic disadvantage.
The hostility toward video gambling didn’t kill the issue outright, but it did put the brakes on any action. So far, there’s been no date set by the village board to re-open the discussion.