When the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2018 we’d thought maybe, mercifully we’d swept out the mess left at the end of 2017 and could usher in a better year. It couldn’t get any worse, right?
Yet, as the sun of 2018 begins to descend slowly – so painfully slowly – beyond the horizon, we look back and see that the past 12 months were very much a continuation of the previous year with many of the same issues lingering, like spoiled leftovers in the fridge, with some fresher dishes thrown onto the shelves for a little variety.
Finding their voice
Local high school students got a sense in 2017 of the power of protest. Perhaps nudged along by the larger national movement resisting the policies of President Donald Trump, students made their views known in 2017, staging a sit-in to protest the non-tendering of a popular teacher who many students said encouraged their engagement on important issues.
On the one-month anniversary of another senseless mass shooting, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February, students at Riverside-Brookfield and Lyons Township high schools walked out in protest of the failure of government to enact commonsense gun laws.
The walkouts even extended to the grammar school level, where Congress Park School first-grader Ellie Knott created signs and convinced 35 of her fellow students to walk out and assemble near the flagpole outside where they stood in silent protest.
Retail in retreat
Warning signs were plentiful in 2017 that the village of North Riverside was facing a future in which its most important source of revenue, sales taxes, was no longer going to be a slam-dunk line item in the annual budget.
Over 2016 and 2017, the village saw a drip-drip of retailers leaking away, first Sports Authority and then H.H. Gregg. While the arrival of Binny’s in late 2017 more than made up for the loss of its predecessor, H.H. Gregg, the year ended with Sears consolidating its operations in half the space it previously occupied.
When 2018 dawned, the economic gods turned on the faucet.
The bankruptcy of Toys R Us swiftly turned into a liquidation and then, like a pair of lightning bolts in a spring thunderstorm, news arrived that North Riverside was going to be losing Tony’s Finer Foods and, worse yet, Carson, Pirie Scott.
By the end of November all three retail spaces – tens of thousands of square feet of space that once helped fill North Riverside’s coffers – were empty with no prospects for replacements.
To make matters worse, Sears filed for bankruptcy protection in 2018. In mid-December, Sears Holdings Chairman Eddie Lampert – the person who steered Sears into its present predicament — said his hedge fund would bid $4.6 billion to acquire some 500 Sears and Kmart stores, including the one in North Riverside, in order to save the company from liquidation and save tens of thousands of jobs.
In the meantime, a bankruptcy judge approved Sears’ plan to pay executives $25 million in bonuses for their performance.
The deadline for bidders for Sears Holdings’ assets is Dec. 28.
Brookfield clears the decks
The signs were there throughout 2017 that the situation inside Brookfield Village Hall was beginning to get shaky. Ongoing unrest between management and public works employees resulted in a mutiny in which union employees openly supported a challenger for village president and filed numerous grievances regarding treatment.
While the election didn’t usher in new leadership, changes were coming. Soon after the election the public works director was shown the door. Things quieted down a bit until July when the entire Brookfield Fire and Police Commission resigned en masse, complaining about village management’s treatment.
In March 2018, the dam broke.
It started with a ripple. Mary Pezdek, the longtime recreation program coordinator, had announced her retirement in February. The only full-time employee of the department, there was still no plan of succession in place when she was to leave for good on March 15.
It turned out there were bigger issues developing at the same time. The village’s human resources director, Michelle Robbins, had quietly announced she was leaving on March 16 to take another job and Fire Chief Patrick Lenzi announced he was retiring in early April.
Swirling around all of this was the determination that it was time for Village Manager Keith Sbiral to go. After meeting with Village President Kit Ketchmark, Sbiral agreed to submit his letter of resignation, effective March 15.
On March 26, the village board approved a generous severance package for Sbiral. Ketchmark, meanwhile convinced Robbins to stay on and Lenzi to postpone his retirement.
With a management consultant in place to help steer the ship, the village board embarked on a search for a new manager.
There were a couple of more bumps in the road to come. In June, Village Planner Emily Egan departed for a new opportunity and the only other employee of the recreation department, Arlene Rovner, announced she was retiring. To top it all off, new Public Works Director Amy Wagner announced she was leaving as well.
Not all of the holes have been filled to date. The village is still looking for a permanent public works director and a new planner, but the turmoil also resulted in a chance for restructuring.
For the first time in 15 years, the village has a bona fide director, Stevie Ferrari, in charge of recreation and the village board hired a veteran manager in Timothy Wiberg.
So long, St. Barb’s
The Catholic Church in Chicago is in the midst of a comprehensive overhaul involving every parish in the archdiocese.
The effort, called Renew My Church, is attempting to realign resources to reflect dwindling congregation sizes and a shortage of priests to serve them. The message to the faithful is simple – you need to get out there and evangelize and grow the faith.
While the faithful are getting used to that new mission, their parishes are slowly undergoing a process of consolidation – one that struck home in Brookfield, LaGrange Park and Westchester in 2018.
The bad news at the most local level is that yesterday’s Christmas Masses were the last ones that will be said at St. Barbara Parish in Brookfield and St. Louise de Marillac Parish in LaGrange Park.
Earlier this year, Cardinal Blase Cupich announced that St. Barbara and St. Louise would be consolidated into a new parish, with a single pastor. The name of the new parish has not been announced yet.
The good news is both churches will be retained as local sites of worship and St. Louise School (whatever its name will be) will continue to serve as the new parish’s school.
After a referendum to approve a bond issue for the construction of a new building was defeated by voters in late 2016, officials at the Brookfield Public Library spent the following year trying to chart a path forward.
The wheels started turning in late 2017 with the creation of the Foundation for the Brookfield Public Library, a nonprofit that would lead a capital campaign to raise money to help fund the new facility.
In February 2018, the library board cut ties with its longtime architect and hired Product Architecture and Design, a boutique firm specializing in libraries. At first, the library board charged architects with expanding the existing library, but concepts were not only expensive but unsatisfactory.
In midsummer, the library board scrapped the expansion and again embraced building new. Architects in relatively quick order delivered a concept the board embraced and the entire package fell into place in September, when Linda Sokol Francis pledged a donation of $1 million to the cause, virtually ensuring the construction of a new building.
While fundraising still continues, groundbreaking is tentatively being eyed for 2020.
The gift that keeps on re-gifting
It’s has been more than four years since North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. unveiled his plan to privatize firefighting services.
In that time, the village has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the battle through the courts and in January the Illinois Supreme Court nailed the final nail in the coffin, declining to take up the case.
Union firefighters continue to work without a contract (their most recent deal expired April 30, 2014) and the matter still is in the hands of a labor arbitrator, whose ruling will determine the path forward.
While that drama continued to play out, and largely because of that drama, the fire department underwent a brief but painful upheaval during the summer. The mayor in July canned the fire chief and deputy chief – whom he’d hired just seven months earlier – and abruptly replaced them with an interim chief whose appointment drew immediate fire.
The interim chief was due to be sworn in on Aug. 13, but it never happened. The meeting drew protesters angry that the village had hired someone who a decade earlier had been a defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit that ended up costing the village of Oak Lawn $850,000.
Later in August, the mayor named John Kiser fire chief, effectively ending the crisis.
D103 turnstile keeps spinning
The election in 2017 resulted in another complete turnover in the board majority of Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 and the impact really became evident in 2018. By July, almost all of the administrators hired after the 2015 election were out, including Superintendent Carol Baker.
The school board hired as co-interim superintendent Patrick Patt, who’d been run out of the central office in 2015 when a new board majority with the backing of Lyons Village President Christopher Getty took over, along with former Komarek School Superintendent Robert Madonia.
The board has launched a search for a new permanent superintendent, who should be hired in early 2019. But another election awaits in April. If the board majority flips again, there’s no telling what new drama awaits in mid-2019.
The village of Brookfield marked its 125th birthday in 2018, pulling off a celebration that was at once enthusiastic and low-key, and in the end served to spark an interest in preserving the village’s past.
A couple of truly positive results of the anniversary was a renewed interest in preserving and updating the village’s historical museum, the Grossdale Station, which also happens to be the town’s oldest surviving structure.
Buoyed by an influx of new volunteers, the museum’s interior got a much-needed makeover and opened to the public for the first time in at least two years in November during the 125th’s capstone event, Founder’s Day, in November.
Time will tell if the volunteer spirit will allow the museum to open on a regular basis and serve to connect residents with the village’s past.
One thing that will remain a window into that past is a hopefully ongoing effort by the Brookfield Public Library to create a digital archive of photographs, images, documents, oral histories and more.
Scrolling through the photos is a fascinating journey into the past and a tantalizing sample of remains undocumented, hidden in people’s attics, in file folder and photo albums.
You can access the online archive through the library’s website at www.brookfieldlibrary.info.