By Bob Uphues
North Riverside trustees made an attempt Monday to put a lid on partisan politics at village board meetings after a pair of clearly political items of correspondence of suspect origin were entered into the records of the Dec. 14 and Jan. 4 village board meetings – though neither was read aloud.
But at a meeting of the village board's administrative committee on Jan. 11, trustees appeared resigned to the fact that they have little power to control the content of public comment at village board meetings, although there is likely to be some attempt to try and verify the identities of those who submit comments they don't intend to read personally during Zoom meetings.
Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. attempted to get trustees to simply agree – an honor system, essentially – to stop submitting such correspondence to be read at board meetings, but that fell on deaf ears.
Trustee Marybelle Mandel read a prepared statement blasting those she called "VIP minions" for failing to set written rules for public comment earlier and said that only comments related to "legitimate" village board business should be allowed.
Exactly who was going to draw that line or how it would be drawn was not such an easy matter, however, said committee chairwoman Terri Sarro, and in the end trustees agreed that essentially all correspondence to the board would be accepted in the future,. They also tasked Village Attorney Michael Hayes with drafting language on best practices for accepting public comment and perhaps some language to prevent what Hayes called "John Doe" letters of the type that sparked the committee meeting.
Hayes told trustees that the Illinois Open Meetings Act gave them little leeway to censor the content of public comments at village board meetings and even prevented them from requiring those making comments to provide their addresses.
"It's an awfully broad standard," Hayes said during the committee meeting, which was held via Zoom.
Sarro called the meeting a week earlier after a second politically motivated letter was entered into the record of the Jan. 4 village board meeting.
Although the correspondence was apparently signed by the resident who dropped it off at the Village Commons, the piece was similar in form and style to campaign materials published in the past by Marybelle Mandel, who is running for mayor in a three-way race against incumbent Hubert Hermanek Jr. and a current trustee, Joseph Mengoni.
On Dec. 14, the village clerk declined to read a letter dropped off anonymously for comment at that day's village board meeting. The letter included an Illinois Appellate Court ruling related to Mandel's husband, who pleaded guilty two decades ago to making a false statement to a financial institution.
The Jan. 4 correspondence, signed by Brenda Kohler, complained that Village Administrator Sue Scarpiniti, who was appointed to the position in an interim capacity early last year, is being "illegally" paid to perform those duties because she also serves as the village's finance director.
The Landmark also received, unsolicited, a signed PDF copy of the letter in an email from someone named "Thomas Sapington." Brenda Kohler's signature does not match the one on the correspondence delivered to the Village Commons, and the Landmark got no response to a reply asking whether the emailed version of the letter was actually the one delivered to the village board.
Mandel claimed she hadn't seen Kohler's letter prior to about 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 4, after that night's village board meeting, when she said it was sent to all members of the village board. That's about the time the Landmark received the email containing the letter.
The Landmark has received other emails in the past two months from "Thomas Sapington," all of them complaints or demands related to issues involving Mandel's political opponents.
Kohler's village board correspondence also uses an unusual typewriter-style typeface and is peppered with sentences that are in bold type or underlined, similar in nature to campaign materials Mandel and her political allies distributed in 2019 during Mandel's successful run for trustee.
The letter delivered to the Village Commons, obtained by the Landmark through a Freedom of Information request, cites a provision in the North Riverside Code of Ordinances that states the finance director "shall not receive compensation for any other office other than director of finance."
When Scarpiniti was named acting administrator last year, she was paid an additional $1,000 per week above her salary as finance director.
"It sure looks like Village President Hermanek and his VIP Administration are violating the villages [sic] laws by paying Sue Scarpiniti an extra $1,000 per week," the letter states, suggesting that Scarpiniti pay back the money. "I am requesting an immediate investigation into this matter."
Scarpiniti took on the additional role due to the retirement of former Village Administrator Guy Belmonte, who had been paid $158,000 plus benefits annually.
At the time, Hermanek sent a memo to village trustees explaining that the move, along with other personnel changes initiated by Scarpiniti, would achieve a cost savings of around $30,000.
The move received no public criticism at all until Jan. 4.
Hermanek said the provision being cited in the code referred to other duties the village's finance director has taken on since being named to that post almost 20 years ago.
In addition to serving as finance director, Scarpiniti is the village treasurer and sits on both the North Riverside Police Pension Board and North Riverside Fire Pension Board. Scarpiniti is also the village's authorized agent to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund and is the village's alternate delegate to the Intergovernmental Personnel Benefit Cooperative, which is the village's self-insurance pool, and the Municipal Insurance Cooperative Agency, which is the village's risk management program.
Scarpiniti is not paid any additional stipends for carrying out those duties.
According to Hermanek, the code "didn't take into consideration another [staff] position."
"This is an interim thing," said Hermanek, whose choice for administrator is limited by village code to serve only through end of the mayor's term this spring. Hermanek said that if he is re-elected in April, his plan would be to hire Scarpiniti as the permanent administrator and hire someone else to fill the finance role.