With Election Day on April 4 around the corner, Growing Community Media hosted a “Meet Your Candidates” forum for village trustees on March 22 inside the gymnasium at the North Riverside Village Commons, 2401 Desplaines Ave.
Moderated by Riverside Brookfield Landmark editor Bob Uphues, the 70-minute forum was held to provide the seven candidates vying for three trustee seats a chance to share their opinions on topics including public safety, business redevelopment, transparency in village practices and more.
Five candidates attended, including incumbent Deborah Czajka and her slatemates from the North Riverside United ticket, newcomers Nicholas Tricoci and Antonio Santucci; independent candidate and newcomer Jose Del Angel; and Municipal Integrity Party candidate Sandra Greicius, who ran unsuccessfully for trustee in 2021.
The race’s other incumbent, Marybelle Mandel, and the third member of the Municipal Integrity Party slate, newcomer Joseph Maruska, declined to participate in the forum.
A letter from MIP sent by Mandel to the Landmark the morning of March 22, stated the reason for “at least two of the three MIP party candidates” not participating in the forum was due to “credible information received by the party in advance of the event,” which they believed to mean the forum would “be anything but a fair and impartial airing of the issues facing the village.”
The letter also expressed concerns for “plans for unruliness, heckling and shouting down of MIP candidates” and stated the party was “concerned about the impartiality of the moderators.”
In the email to Uphues accompanying the letter, Mandel went so far as to allege “they will have tomatoes,” referring to the forum’s audience.
About 75 to 100 people were in the audience at the trustee forum, and despite the absence of two candidates and the behind-the-scenes drama around the election, no political sparring between participating candidates broke out nor were any tomatoes thrown, or evident.
In addition, candidates were virtually in agreement with one another on how they would address the topics discussed.
When asked about why they are running for trustee, all responded with the simple reason of caring about North Riverside.
“I’ve lived in town all my life,” Czajka said. “I care and I understand what you’re going through sitting in those chairs. One of the things that was a goal for me was to pursue my love for North Riverside by becoming a village trustee.”
Greicius agreed, saying it’s all about wanting to make a difference.
“I do love the village,” she said. “I am surprised at how kind people can be when I stop by their doors.”
Village revenue streams and attracting strong businesses were important to everyone, with all remarking on the need to collectively discuss the public’s changing shopping habits and need to stay on top of pension obligations. Greicius usred village government to reduce its debt burden, a theme of MIP’s campaign materials.
“I think [the major issue] is revenue — how are we going to keep revenue coming in and paying pension liabilities,” Tricoci said.
“One issue I’ve noticed in the past few years is the lack of new revenues coming into town,” Del Angel said. “We need to come together and put a plan together … we need to have an alternative source of revenue and an action plan.”
They all agreed that while red light cameras in town have helped bring in money to fund pensions and pay down debts, that the uncertainty of their staying power in the village means that new, viable streams absolutely need to be explored — including ways to help transform North Riverside into a west-suburban destination for businesses.
With respect to North Riverside Park Mall, an economic engine for the village often viewed unfavorably by residents as a source of crime, candidates mainly held the same opinion that new commercial or residential construction at the site is something that would have to be openly worked on with local residents.
The mall’s owner recently acquired the 11.5-acre former Carson Pirie Scott property on the west side of the mall and has floated a mixed-use development for the land.
Possibilities for funding incentives for such development included exploring state grants, sales tax rebates and the introduction of TIF Districts — a new concept to North Riverside.
“The use of [business areas in North Riverside] would have to be decisions made by a team,” Santucci said. “Trustees could guide or explain what we would like to have there and what would be best for the community, then talk to residents and see how we can figure out a plan.”
Czajka remarked on the village and residents needing to work together to “encourage and support the robust revitalization of the mall,” with Del Angel saying how he hoped the mall could turn into more of a restaurant/entertainment district akin to Rosemont.
“We are going to have to update infrastructure, but it’s going to have to be a multi-partisan effort,” he said. “We owe it to everyone in North Riverside to get it done.”
When presented with the question about transparency in local politics, most candidates agreed that current officials appear transparent at meetings and in publications of business plans, audits and budgets.
“As far as transparency, I believe the current board has been transparent, except for the clouded eyes of others who want to cause more problems that don’t need to be had,” Santucci said.
“Just because you don’t agree with something or don’t understand it, it doesn’t mean that the board is not being transparent,” Tricoci added.
Greicius said she believes the village could do more in the way of transparency, particularly with respect to finances and spending. The statement appeared to be related to MIP’s calls during the campaign for a “forensic audit” of the village books, something Mayor Joseph Mengoni has stated is unnecessary in light of the village’s annual audit of its finances, which have not revealed any accounting failures.
In regard to the number of video gambling cafes in town and if enough is being done to attract a diverse business base, all candidates agreed that while filling vacant storefronts is important, more can be done to attract businesses with a more family-friendly feel.
“As the town, we can only promote what the residents ask for,” he said. “We want to be open to everybody, but we have to sit down and ask residents and businesses what their needs are in our town.”
Czajka agreed, saying that the village can’t prohibit businesses some might not like if that business conforms with the village’s zoning code.
“We can’t put all our eggs in one basket with gambling, even though it brings in money to the village,” she said. “When a property is bought, if it is zoned for that type of property, we can’t do anything about that. We can maybe try to change things up again with zoning, but I think the village is open to different businesses in town.”
“Strategy comes down to working as a team together,” Del Angel said. “I’d like to see TIF Districts and economic development where you can attract businesses to North Riverside.”
Greicius said that she’d like to attract businesses that “add, not detract from our vision of family, social and cultural community.”
“Many times when I talk to residents, they are leaving North Riverside to go to restaurants and businesses in other areas,” Greicius added. “I feel like we need a way to bring the people here.”
Santucci agreed that work needs to be done to see what types of businesses North Riverside should strive to have in town.
“What we should do is sit down and look at what’s going to work best for this community and attract that type of establishment so it can succeed in this community and thrive,” he said.
On the matter of public safety, candidates agreed that the police and fire departments have done a strong job of keeping residents safe and addressing crime directly at the source of where it’s happening, mainly, those passing through the village or visiting businesses, including the mall.
Czajka and Tricoci noted how the new license plate reader cameras are a good way to fighting crime by targeting those driving stolen vehicles. Del Angel, Greicius and Santucci all talked about finding ways to get “neighborhood watch” groups more active.
With respect to the former church property at the intersection of 24th Street and 8th Avenue, purchased by the village in 2020, all candidates said that further study needed to happen before making any decisions on whether to turn the lot into permanent village green space or selling it for residential development.
A video recording of the entire meeting can be viewed by visiting the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark’s Facebook page ay facebook.com/riversidebrookfieldlandmark.