North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr, elected to the post twice at the top of a VIP Party slate, will seek a third term as an independent and without any other candidates running for clerk or trustee alongside him.
As for the VIP Party itself, it appears to be undergoing some sort of transformation, as yet unannounced. Party officials were expected to announce a slate of candidates as early as this week. As of Nov. 9 there was no word from the party on that score.
Regardless, Hermanek said he was pushing forward with his independent run, saying he believed residents trusted his ability to keep the village’s finances on sound footing.
“When I took over as mayor, the village was subsidizing everything – water, vehicle stickers. I stopped that because our revenues were not keeping up,” Hermanek said. “We had no [cash] reserves and were under tremendous financial distress when I came in.”
Hermanek said he pushed for the village to diversify its revenue streams, some of them admittedly controversial. Under his time as mayor, the village welcomed video gambling.
The proliferation of gambling within restaurants and bars brought additional revenue, and the emergence of standalone gambling parlors not only brought in a cut of the gaming receipts but also revenue from the expensive liquor licenses the village charges for them to operate.
The village under Hermanek also doubled its places-for-eating sales tax, which resulted in hundreds of thousands more annually in revenue. A separate fee to fund water and sewer system infrastructure projects is not necessarily beloved, but it has resulted in a large-scale, multi-year improvement to the water system west of First Avenue, interrupted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another program that has brought in millions during Hermanek’s time as mayor has been the village’s red-light camera program, an initiative mostly resented by the thousands of motorists who pass through the intersection of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road every day.
Its connection of a company, SafeSpeed LLC, has also brought scrutiny. A former company official was caught up in 2019 in a wide-ranging federal corruption probe into suburban officials – North Riverside not among them. That official, no longer connected to SafeSpeed, has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. SafeSpeed continues to operate red-light cameras in North Riverside.
While recognizing red-light cameras are not popular, Hermanek said the revenue was critical for meeting the village’s police and fire pension obligations, something North Riverside has done under Hermanek, a reversal from past practice.
“The money has to come from somewhere,” Hermanek said. “You can say you’ll get rid of red-light cameras, but where are you going to come up with $1.6 million to fund pensions? It’s easy to promise cuts, but if the residents pay less, then that’s a subsidy the village is paying and leads you to financial difficulties. It’s not free to live in the village.”
Asked whether there might be voter fallout over Hermanek’s five-year legal battle ending last year that sought to privatize firefighting services in North Riverside, the mayor instead pointed to events of the past year.
In the past 12 months, the village and firefighters union agreed to a new contract, which will expire right after the 2021 election, and Hermanek recently hired a new fire chief, who he said has the support of union members.
“I hope it’s put to bed,” Hermanek said. “I’ve admitted my mistakes to them and I’ve said that I’d do things differently if I had to do it again.”
While it’s unclear whether Hermanek will face a challenge from a VIP or revamped party slate, it’s widely believed that Trustee Marybelle Mandel will run for mayor in 2021 after winning the most votes of any trustee candidate in the 2019 election.
She did not respond to an email seeking confirmation of that question. If history is any indication, she may not make her plans known publicly until Dec. 21, the final day for filing nominating petitions.
When she ran for mayor in 2017, she filed nominating petitions two hours before the filing period ended. Hermanek won that election with 51 percent of the vote in a three-person race that also included Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos. He also did not respond to an inquiry from the Landmark about whether he was considering another run.
If Hermanek’s former party runs a mayoral candidate, that person would likely siphon votes from Hermanek if a third candidate, such as Mandel, also ran.
One of the reasons he is not running with a full slate, Hermanek said, was that he didn’t want to draw votes away from candidates whose policies he largely may still agree with.
“That’s a consideration they’re going to have to discuss,” said Hermanek of his former VIP colleagues. “If our policies are close together, it’ll dilute support for me.”