By Bob Uphues
The Riverside Community Caucus, which last December was forced to dissolve its political action committee and decided to sit out recruiting and endorsing candidates in 2019 for the first time in almost a century, is back.
On Oct. 22, members of the caucus voted to ratify new bylaws for the organization that aim to dispel the notion that it operates without transparency and promote greater participation among Riverside residents.
"As many people who want to get involved, should get involved," said the organization's new chairman, Kevin Smith, a former two-term trustee who ran as an independent for his first run in 2001 and then as a candidate slated by the Caucus in 2005. "Hopefully, we can do away with the mystery of village government and how you get involved in village government."
In January, on a date to be determined, the Caucus will reintroduce itself to the community at a public meet-and-greet.
"It'll be informal, a way to get people meeting as neighbors to see it's not something all that mysterious," Smith said.
That will be followed in March by a general education meeting on how village government operates. Later in spring 2020, the Caucus will begin its efforts to recruit candidates for the 2021 election for village president and three trustees.
Smith leads a new Riverside Community Caucus board of directors who are a mix of those with years of experience and those newer to the scene. Joining him on the board are Sandy Briolat, vice chair; Jay Van Cura, treasurer; Mary Cerrone, secretary; Kimber Coombes, correspondence coordinator; and Amy Bilow, membership coordinator.
The most important change in the bylaws concerns the way the Caucus nominates candidates for village president and trustee.
Previously, Caucus members selected a nominating committee of up to 12 people, who interviewed and recommended candidates for village office. The fact that such a small group of people were charged with vetting candidates – behind closed doors -- drew ample criticism and some resentment.
"We really wanted to make the process more transparent," said Jill Mateo, most recently the Caucus vice chair who was a member of a steering committee created after the dissolution of the political action committee to review and revise the organization's bylaws. "With the nominating committee unknown to the general public, the process was unclear."
The new bylaws replace the nominating committee with a recruiting committee of between eight and 14 members who will be drawn from six different areas of the village in order to get even representation.
The members of the recruiting committee are directed in the bylaws to "encourage residents in their areas to consider running for office, interview with the committee and submit a candidate sheet/application."
People seeking the endorsement of the Caucus will then be invited to participate in a public forum where they can present themselves not to just the Caucus but the general public.
"We'll have a public forum with moderated questions, out in the open," Mateo said.
After the forum, Caucus members will meet privately to discuss and vote on its preferred candidates using a ranked-choice method.
Mateo said in addition to the candidate recruitment and forums every two years, the Caucus will also strive to host other public events to make the organization a visible presence in town and recruit dues-paying members.
It costs $25 a year to belong to the Caucus, and the only requirements are that members be Riverside residents who are registered to vote, attend Caucus meetings, support the public forums and be engaged in the election process.
"All we really want is some kind of commitment to get this moving," Smith said.
Once the Caucus nominates candidates, it will be up to the candidates whether they want to form a slate or a political action committee in order to raise funds for a campaign. The Riverside Community Caucus, which cannot create a new PAC after being forced to dissolve its own last year in the face of fines from the Illinois Board of Elections totaling $17,275, is out of the fundraising business.
"As far as [raising money for] a campaign, it's up to the candidates," Mateo said. "We're not going to register as a committee."
While that could create a scenario that puts Caucus-endorsed candidates at a disadvantage in a partisan race against a well-funded opponent or slate, Smith said the Caucus' new, more open approach is intended to head off such races.
"These are few and far between and are generated by what we're trying to get away from – hot-button issues," Smith said. "If we can get that out we won't have those great conflagrations. Time will tell if it can work out that way."
The last time Riverside voters saw a contested election for village office came in 2009, in the midst of a national financial meltdown and following a controversial look into possibly creating a TIF district in downtown Riverside and a long and equally controversial planning process that ended with the construction of the Village Center development at Longcommon and East Burlington Street.
While hot-button issues can inspire some to run for office, said Smith, what the Caucus wants to help potential candidates understand is that village government is more often mundane.
National political issues rarely make their way to the village board, Smith said, adding, "It's rather how do we pay police, find a way to give the village manager a raise and get the streets paved. It's all very local.
"Running for the village board is a stepping stone to nowhere."