Ask Joseph Mengoni why he wants to move beyond his role as a village trustee by running for mayor of North Riverside and he’ll tell you it’s about the village’s pride of place.
“One of the biggest decisions is restoring that pride back to this village,” said Mengoni during a socially distanced in-person interview last week. “I think that’s been lacking and I think there’s been no forward movement.”
While acknowledging and supporting the village’s push in the past year or so to modernize its code of ordinances, with a particular emphasis on the zoning code, Mengoni said the delay in doing that has resulted in the village looking a bit worse for wear, not just commercial districts but residential neighborhoods as well.
“We really need to beef up our code enforcement, which we just started to do,” Mengoni said. “Some of the biggest complaints I hear is how trash, the rat stuff, and I think that’s because we let it go. And, I’m sorry, but the answer of ‘beauty is in the eye of the homeowner’ is not right. There has to be a set of standards. …
“I want to bring that back. I want people to have that sense of pride of living in this village and not seeing garbage flying all over the streets. It needs to be cleaned up.”
Mengoni said North Riverside Park Mall is a key property when it comes to that overall village pride effort. Targeted last summer during the civil unrest that swept the nation and beleaguered by incidents of gun violence in the months following, the mall’s future is a top priority for all three mayoral candidates, because it also is so key to the village’s success financially.
“We need to work with them and partner with them to revitalize and make it more attractive to shoppers, developers and other companies to come in,” Mengoni said.
He said he would advocate creating a village position to focus on economic development for North Riverside.
“I think we need somebody that works strictly on development, public relations and communications,” Mengoni said. “Social media is great, but you’ve got to have somebody who’s putting that information out there, and it has to be timely. Because, if not, people are going to put it out there on their own and that’s when it snowballs.”
Mengoni also warned against discounting the mall’s viability as a revenue producer even as brick-and-mortar retail is facing greater pressures from online retailing. A recommendation by an ad hoc village Economic Development Committee in 2019 that reimagined the mall and adjacent commercial areas as ripe for a Rosemont-lite dining and entertainment draw might sound like an exciting plan, Mengoni said, but the property is privately owned and limits what the village can do.
That said, the owners of the mall need to ensure it remains attractive to shoppers.
“We have to work with the owners on making those changes and deciding what the future’s going to be for the mall,” Mengoni said. “In the meantime, they need to step it up and beef up their security.”
Mengoni, who works as the executive director of UCP Seguin, a nonprofit that provides services for adults and children with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities, tops a slate of candidates running as the North Riverside United Party, a new banner in local politics featuring familiar people. Incumbent Village Clerk Kathy Ranieri is the party’s candidate seeking re-election to that office, while incumbent trustees Fernando Flores and Terri Sarro also seek re-election. They are joined on the ticket by a former village trustee, Jason Bianco.
One tie that binds the slate is that they are all former members of the VIP Party, now defunct but for a generation the most potent political force in North Riverside. A slate of candidates running under the People Before Politics Party banner, topped by mayoral candidate and village trustee Marybelle Mandel, would like to tar North Riverside United with the VIP brush.
In answers to questions from the Landmark, Mandel and some of her running mates, refer to their opponents as the “VIP/United Party.”
Mengoni rejects the label.
“The opposition is all about finger pointing; tell you what the problems were and who’s to blame for those,” Mengoni said. “There’s been no ‘how we’re going to fix things or what we’re planning on doing from here.’”
Electing Mandel as mayor, said Mengoni, would harm the village.
“It’s that Welcome to North Riverside sign with a big ‘bankrupt’ sign across it,” Mengoni said. “Everything she keeps telling people and talking about – eliminating red-light cameras, things like that – where are you going to get the money to replace all that?”
Mengoni said that while there’s no hiding that North Riverside United were all members of VIP in the past, “We just felt as a group of individuals that we have more to offer, more to share and we have our own voices. While we may not all agree on certain topics, we all have ideas to bring to the table and we need to hear those out.”
Clearly there was an ideological split among the former VIP Party membership over the past couple of years. Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr., who ran alongside Mengoni, Sarro and Flores on the VIP ticket four years ago, is now running against Mengoni and Mandel as an independent, without a slate of candidates.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Mengoni and Hermanek will split the former VIP voter base, paving the way for Mandel to be elected. Mengoni admits that the three-way race is tricky, but that neither he nor Hermanek ever discussed the predicament.
“I think it’s going to be a tight race,” Mengoni said. “I think it’s going to come down to who is the best candidate, the most qualified for the office, who’s getting out there and talking to people.”
Mengoni said the North Riverside United slate has been going block by block, hitting the entire village west of First Avenue and south of 26th Street. The campaigning continues east of First Avenue, he said.
“You get a lot of good information when you talk to people,” Mengoni said.
North Riverside’s system of government is not a strict village manager form, like Brookfield and Riverside. As a result, the mayor wields enormous influence in who is hired and fired for director level positions at village hall.
The mayor not only appoints the village administrator but also the finance director, police and fire chiefs and public works director. In a strong manager form of government, by contrast, department directors are hires by the village manager.
The difference means North Riverside’s mayor – officially the title is president but the village code allows that official a preference when it comes to title — can act without much input from other elected officials when it comes to naming people to key village posts.
Because it would take a referendum to change the village’s form of government, Mengoni said he would seek to maintain the president/administrator form North Riverside has, but he would loop in the rest of the board and administrator more formally.
“To hire and to terminate an employee comes at the recommendation of the village administrator, to the mayor and then to the board,” Mengoni said when asked how he would approach being mayor. “I think a lot of it has to be discussed with the board and get board approval.”
Hiring and firing of top village employees, said Mengoni, should be discussed by the full board during executive sessions, which are rare in North Riverside.
“I would make sure we have closed session of the board if we’re going to be discussing personnel-related issues,” Mengoni said. “I don’t believe in this text message ‘come see me before the meeting’ [process],” Mengoni said. “I think that’s where we’ve lost a sense [of unity] and we see a lot of infighting amongst members, because you’re not sitting up here debating an issue and having constructive dialogue.”
Mengoni said he would seek to have trustees discuss more important issues, such as the village’s decision to give Zeigler Ford a generous sales tax rebate, in public committee meetings instead of seeking individual comment from trustees behind the scenes and then bringing the issues to a vote.
“It all starts in the committee,” said Mengoni. “The committee is where the debate is and where the discussion is.”