Homewood's five incumbent candidates for village office made a case for their leadership and promised to build on successes during a candidate forum Saturday, March 18, sponsored by the local League of Women Voters (LWV) chapter and co-sponsored by the Homewood-Flossmoor Chronicle.
Two trustee challengers ― Jennifer "Jen" Sjoblom whose name will be on the ballot, and write-in candidate Andre Thames ― were unable to attend.
Village President Richard Hofeld and Village Clerk Marilyn Thomas, who are running unopposed, were given two minutes to make statements but were not included in the question-and-answer session.
In his statement, Hofeld said Homewood excels at the four basics of municipal government: fiscal responsibility, economic development, public service and community events.
He said the village carries no debt and has nearly 30 percent of its $18 million budget in reserves, "and that's almost unheard of." Economic development in recent years ― especially along Halsted Street ― has grown to the point that business-generated taxes have surpassed property taxes as a source of revenue for the village.
The village's family-oriented community events are "the glue that holds us together," he said.
Thomas, who was appointed to the clerk position in 2014 and was elected in 2015, said her main task is keeping minutes of board meetings.
"That's essential not only for our current record, but it also gives you a historical record," she said.
She added that her position allows her to observe the workings of village government.
"I think our trustees together, working with the mayor and our oustanding staff, are keeping the village in great shape," she said.
The candidates for trustee positions ― Anne Colton, Barbara Dawkins and Lawrence Burnson ― each made opening statements and then fielded questions from the audience submitted to LWV moderator Penny Shnay. The three are running, along with Hofeld and Thomas, as part of the Greater Homewood Party slate.
Candidates were asked why they were interested in serving on the board.
Colton, a resident for 17 years, said she wants to contribute to the community she loves.
"What makes a community strong is every resident stepping up and saying, 'Here's the thing I can do,'" she said. "I have background in marketing and in community organizing. I think all of that has gone to strengthen the community."
Another questioner asked candidates to identify the most important issues facing the village.
Burnson said pursuing transit-oriented development (TOD) in the downtown area is at the top of his list.
"Halsted takes care of itself," he said, referring to the thriving commercial corridor on the village's east side. "We want to get our downtown as viable as we've gotten Halsted."
He said the board has been working hard to spur development downtown and made special mention of the Homewood Science Center, which he said has exceeded his expectations and was beginning to draw interest and participation from people beyond the village borders.
A later question asked for clarification on what TOD is, and Dawkins explained that it involves promoting projects that take advantage of and benefit from proximity to transportation resources. In Homewood's case, commuter rail service and Interstate 80/294 are primary resources.
Dawkins identified economic development, fiscal stability and public safety as the main issues facing the board.
She has been an assistant state's attorney in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office for 18 years, and in that time, she has seen what happens "in communities that are broken."
Homewood provides a dramatic contrast, she said.
"The Homewood Police Department has a stellar reputation," she said. "They solve crimes. They keep us safe."
Another audience member asked what candidates would do to provide storm water relief to residents in areas that are vulnerable to flooding. A big storm two weeks ago temporarily closed both viaducts in the village and caused street and basement flooding throughout the community.
Colton said residents are encouraged to bring problems to the village's Storm Water Committee. The committee consults with the Public Works Department to identify problem areas.
One questioner asked why the downtown area has had a recent increase in the number of establishments selling alcohol.
Dawkins said the village doesn't have complete control over what businesses people choose to open, and she noted that demand for drinking establishments is driving the surge.
She said those businesses contribute to the village's goal of creating an "18-hour downtown," one in which there are enough shopping and entertainment options to persuade people to spend most of a day in the area.
Colton said the recent liqour establishments fit well with the village's economic development mission: providing business diversity that helps downtown thrive. Burnson agreed, noting that the three most recent establishments to be granted liquor licenses include a French restaurant, a martini bar and a craft brewery taproom.
"We do not have problems with our liquor establishments," Burnson said. Until his retirement last year, Burnson was the village police chief and was in charge of enforcing liquor laws.
Other questioners asked about sidewalk replacement, sustainability policies, the Wal-Mart Class 8 property tax incentive granted last year and the proposed rental property inspection program.
All three candidates expressed strong support for the rental property inspection program, which is expected to come before the board for final approval in late spring or early summer.
The program seeks to increase the village's enforcement of property maintenance codes for single-family rental homes.
Dawkins said the program would be a win-win situation for nearly everyone affected by it. She said home owners would benefit from better maintenance of rental units in their neighborhoods. Tenants would benefit from better homes to live in. And landlords would benefit by keeping the value of their properties high.
"In my mind the only people who don't benefit from this are the irresponsible landlords who don't want to maintain their properties," she said.
Colton agreed and said that in her conversations with constituents over the eight years she has served as a trustee, at least half the residents expressed concerns about rental property maintenance.
Burnson noted the new program is intended to continue the village's main interest: code compliance. He said in most cases landlords who are cited for violations will have tickets dismissed in court because they have brought their properties into compliance.
Perhaps the easiest question of the afternoon was one asking the candidates what they would do to prevent strip clubs from setting up shop in Homewood. All three candidates were succinct in their replies.
"Strip clubs are not going to happen in Homewood," Colton said.
"There's an ordinance against it," Burnson said.
"Not on my watch," Dawkins added.
Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 4.