The election of a new village president in Riverside did not draw much attention this spring, because it was an uncontested race. But, the winner of that race, Joseph Ballerine, has been preparing to fill the seat of departing two-term President Ben Sells since the beginning of the New Year.
When Ballerine is sworn into office on May 6, along with trustees Megan Claucherty, Aberdeen Marsh-Ozga and Doug Pollock, who also ran unopposed, he’ll hit the ground running.
“As of Jan. 1, Ben has allowed me to be part of every meeting he’s been in, anything he felt would carry over to the new administration” said Ballerine, ticking off meetings Sells has had with Army Corps of Engineers officials and the village engineer regarding the proposed Des Plaines River floodwall as well as Sells’ meetings with Village Manager Jessica Frances.
Ballerine has also been present with the village board during its executive sessions, closed to the public, where the village board has discussed personnel changes resulting from the restructuring of village hall, real estate matters and other sensitive subjects.
The only discussions Ballerine hasn’t been part of have been ones involving client-attorney privilege, since he wasn’t a sworn member of the body.
“From the beginning I was extremely fortunate,” Ballerine said. “It’s the first time one administration to the next was given as much access and mentoring.”
It’s certainly the first time in recent memory such a long, open transition has happened in Riverside.
When Sells took over as president in 2013, he also ran unopposed. But, his predecessor, Michael Gorman, was not a political ally or close friend, as Ballerine is. While Sells assumed the role of president after serving six years as a trustee, he still went into the new role cold.
“There was no transition when I took office,” Sells said. “I knew what I knew from being a trustee.”
As soon as it was clear Ballerine would run unopposed, said Sells, he reached out to have Ballerine brought into the inner circle.
“I want him to know as much as possible about what is going on as he can so he has a solid foundation, because decision-making doesn’t pause,” said Sells. “Anything I can do to make him better prepared is what I’ve been trying to do.”
There are a number of critical decisions that either have been made or are on the horizon that will immediately impact Ballerine’s administration. The first, a comprehensive restructuring of jobs at village hall, is already under way.
In a month, Police Chief Thomas Weitzel will retire and Fire Chief Matthew Buckley will take over the new role of director of public safety and emergency management, overseeing all aspects of the village’s police and fire response.
Last week, the village board approved the restructuring plan by amending job titles and salary ranges in the village code. The building department will be overhauled and overseen by the as-yet-unnamed assistant village manager, another new position.
Those employed in the building department, including the new position of village planner, will report to the assistant manager.
Ballerine will also have to guide the village board through the thicket that is the proposed Des Plaines River floodwall, now in the design stage. The floodwall concept is still getting pushback from those it will impact directly on West Avenue and, more recently, from those who believe the wall will damage Frederick Law Olmsted’s design and harm the village’s national historic landmark designation.
“It’s going to be tricky, but I think the Army Corps of Engineers has to understand that we’ll be building something that will be here for generations in a historic landmark,” Ballerine said of the floodwall. “The product that they’re giving us has to be in keeping with the community. This isn’t wherever. This is a special community and what’s done here has to be on that level.”
While Ballerine, 61, has 10 years of experience as a village trustee and 15 more as a member of the Riverside Parks and Recreation Board, sitting in the village president’s seat is a different responsibility.
In addition to simply running village board meetings, the president provides direction on what policies the village board will pursue.
“How many initiatives do the trustees bring forward? A handful,” said Sells of the president’s importance in setting the agenda. “That’s the job. … You’re the one who has to have a vision for the future.”
Ballerine said he already has a couple of changes in mind. First, he would like to empower the chairs of the various village advisory commissions by inviting them to report directly to the village board on initiatives they are pursuing.
He also wants the village trustees who serve as liaisons to those commissions to provide regular updates on what those commissions are doing.
“I really want commissions to feel they are an important cog in this village,” Ballerine said.
Ballerine said he also wants the village to do a better job of recruiting residents to serve on the commissions, to do more outreach in order to engage more people.
“We need to cast a wider net,” said Ballerine. “There are so many volunteers in this village. We need to reach out to community organizations and let them know we’re looking for people.”
Ballerine also said he’d like to find a way to incorporate Zoom technology into village meetings in the future, post-pandemic, to allow not only people like the village engineer and even residents who want to make public comment to attend without physically making the trip to the township hall.
“If we have a good hybrid system, it will save us money and time,” Ballerine said. “The goal is to learn from what we’ve been through this year.”
While Sells says there’s probably no incoming president with as much experience as Ballerine, the new president called the responsibility a heavy one.
“It’s been a long road and to now say that this is where I’ve come, is an awesome experience,” Ballerine said. “I can’t express the gratitude I have for this village.”