As part of the Landmark’s coverage of the mayoral election in North Riverside, our intention was to provide readers profiles of all three candidates, based on one-on-one interviews, where we could explore a little more in depth how those candidates would approach governing should they be elected.
We ran two of those profiles, on incumbent Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. and Trustee Joseph Mengoni, in mid-March. However, after repeated requests to set a date and time, the Landmark has been unable to personally interview the third candidate, Marybelle Mandel, who is making her second run for mayor and her fourth straight run for elective office since 2013.
Mandel has proved difficult to pin down for on-the-record conversations on the positions she takes. While Mandel is active on social media and has been an enthusiastic door-to-door campaigner, she has been less amenable to being interviewed by the local newspaper, leaving questions as to how she might act on the priorities she outlines on her campaign website, on social media and in responses to a questionnaire she submitted for our election guide last week.
She presents herself as a champion of the people, committed to transparency and fiscal responsibility, calling herself the village’s “watchdog” on the website of her political party People Before Politics, an organization she co-chairs with Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos.
The two have run together on the same ticket just once, in 2015, when Demopoulos and Mandel ran for trustee spots as part of a ticket called Save Our Firefighters, which sought to exploit Hermanek’s eventually failed effort to outsource firefighting services.
Demopoulos enthusiastically backed Mandel’s first run for office in 2013, when she was a trustee candidate on the Transparency and Accountability in Politics Party (TAP). Demopoulos was not a candidate that year, but sections of his website were adopted by TAP in 2013, in particular elements critical of the village paramedic service provider.
Demopoulos and TAP ended up being sued for libel for statements made regarding the paramedic vendor, and in December 2016 the two sides settled the case when TAP candidates and Demopoulos agreed to publicly apologize for the statements in the local newspaper and pay an undisclosed sum of money to the paramedic vendor.
Mandel had managed to extricate herself from that lawsuit and was not among the signatories of the apology advertisement that ran in the Landmark in February 2017.
Despite the name of the party under which she’s currently running, Mandel showed she could play politics just fine. Two weeks after it was announced the libel lawsuit had been settled, Mandel filed to run for mayor against Demopoulos and Hermanek.
Neither Demopoulos, who’d put together a slate called the Municipal Village Party (MVP), nor Mandel would admit they’d fallen out politically, but Mandel’s presence in the 2017 mayoral race siphoned votes away from Demopoulos, who would finish a distant third, while Hermanek coasted to a second term as mayor.
According to state board of elections data, Mandel raised no money that election cycle but spent about $2,000. Part of those expenditures included anti-Demopoulos campaign literature that derisively alleged that Hermanek and his “Buddy Bobby D.” were a team.
Message sent, and with VIP beginning to crack as a political entity, both Demopoulos and Mandel would run for election as independents for trustee in 2019. They didn’t run as a slate, but they clearly had reconciled, forming the new People Before Politics Party last fall.
Demopoulos would win election to his third term, while Mandel would win her first, leading all vote getters in a six-person field.
Throughout her runs for office, Mandel’s platform issues have largely mirrored Demopoulos’ positions, focusing on what they term North Riverside’s “debt,” no-bid contracts, traditional (and largely discontinued) VIP practices of hiring party loyalists and granting them generous benefits as village employees.
One perk not normally found in small-town government is one that provides elected officials low-cost health insurance for themselves and their families. North Riverside continues to provide that perk to elected officials. Three village board members participate in the insurance benefit — Hermanek, Mandel and Demopoulos — which for the current fiscal year was valued at about $24,000, according to the employee compensation report on the village’s website
Mandel says she would “lay the foundation for fiscal and financial measures to alleviate our $117 million debt” but her campaign materials and statements about the debt don’t acknowledge that the vast majority of the “debt” — $105.4 million are police and fire pensions and post-retirement insurance premium payments for retired village employees.
The village carries about $7.5 million in long-term debt, and North Riverside eliminated the post-retirement insurance benefit for employees a decade ago.
It is unclear whether it would benefit the village to somehow pay down additional future pension obligations when there is no requirement to do so by the state or how directing more money toward pension obligations would impact village services.
Mandel’s page on the People Before Politics Party website claims that North Riverside village government can “tighten our belts” to reduce the debt, but gives no concrete examples of how to do that. Doing so, she says it “doesn’t mean cutting programs and services.”
The party states that it will pursue “zero-based budgeting” that will scrutinize all expenses.
“We will find ways to tighten our belts, economize, and put more resources/revenues toward retiring the debt of prior administrations,” the party’s website states.
The website hints at what may be Mandel’s belt-tightening policies, such as paying “fair wages for professional employee services that are equal to towns comparable to North Riverside” and “bring[ing] in professionals with new and creative approaches to business development and village management,”
There’s no specific example of what that might mean, but village employees have been spooked by such statements enough that formerly non-union public works and clerical staff at village hall have organized and have enlisted the Teamsters Union to represent them.
At the most recent village board meeting several village hall employees called out Mandel by name as the reason they sought to unionize.
The campaign and Mandel herself has doubled down at public meetings and on social media, criticizing village employee Sue Scarpiniti for accepting a $1,000 per week stipend for taking on the dual roles of finance director and village administrator.
Mandel has claimed Scarpiniti is breaking the law due to a provision in the village code that states the finance director “shall not receive compensation for any other office than finance director.”
Hermanek pitched the stipend in early 2020 as a practical as well as cost-saving measure when Guy Belmonte retired as administrator with a mayoral election just a year away.
Mandel called the payments to Scarpiniti a “crime,” which prompted Scarpiniti to demand a public apology from Mandel at a village board meeting.
Mandel only objected to the stipend after she found herself under scrutiny when federal appellate court documents surfaced in which a federal judge opined that she knowingly participated in a mortgage fraud scheme that landed her husband a 12-month prison sentence in 2000 for making a false statement to a financial institution.
She was never charged with any wrongdoing and publicly suggested that the U.S Department of Justice conduct an investigation she said would clear her name.
Since 2013, Mandel and the parties she has run with have hammered away at eliminating no-bid contracts. The People Before Politics website goes so far as to say “We must take every single one of our vendors and put them to the test!” without identifying what exactly that means.
Like many municipalities, North Riverside has had longstanding vendor contracts with its engineering firm and paramedic service provider, periodically renewed without seeking bids, although the village did seek competitive bids for paramedic services in 2019, retaining PSI as its vendor.
In 2012, Demopoulos pushed to rebid waste hauling services, which resulted in the village hiring Roy Strom that year, replacing a longtime vendor. In 2017, the village board did not seek new bids, choosing instead to renew Roy Strom’s contract for 10 years. Demopoulos, the co-chair of People Before Politics, voted in favor of extending the deal.
This story has been changed to correct the amount of the stipend being paid to North Riverside Acting Village Administrator/Finance Director Sue Scarpiniti.