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updated: 10/19/2010 12:16 PM

District 4 forest preserve candidates outline their key issues

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  • Outdoor recreation  including fishing at Blackwell's Silver Lake  will remain a key part of DuPage County's forest preserves, no matter who voters select in the Nov. 2 election.

      Outdoor recreation including fishing at Blackwell's Silver Lake will remain a key part of DuPage County's forest preserves, no matter who voters select in the Nov. 2 election.
    Daily Herald file photo

 
Daily Herald Report

On Nov. 2, voters will choose between two Glen Ellyn men vying to represent District 4 on the DuPage Forest Preserve Commission.

Republican incumbent Mike Formento has held the office since 1989, including being elected to two terms since the district separated from DuPage County government. He is president of an interior design firm. Democrat Eric Bergman is looking to unseat Formento, having served as a precinct committeeman.

The candidates are seeking to represent District 4, which serves all or part of Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, Glendale Heights, Carol Stream, Winfield and Lombard.

The Daily Herald recently asked the candidates for their views on issues facing the forest preserve commission. Today, we look at some of their responses.

Q. What is your top campaign issue?

Bergman: Protect the forests for our children.

I will work to preserve open space and advocate sound environmental practices. The forest preserve's mission is to acquire and hold land for the purpose of preserving it. I will be vigilant against small incidental encroachments that result in loss of irreplaceable natural open space.

There is pressure to use forest preserve land for projects and development. For example, the board chose to encroach on open savanna at Danada to build its offices at a time when there was available office space on previously developed land. A number of acres of irreplaceable, open space were lost to the building and parking lot.

More recently, the board has proposed using part of the Blackwell Forest Preserve to construct a fleet maintenance facility instead of finding available, developed industrial space.

There is tremendous value in the trees and wetlands that benefits everyone, even if they never set foot in a forest preserve. These are the lands and systems that clean our air and water and improve the quality of our lives.

Formento: I don't see this campaign in terms of individual issues of conflict, but more broadly as setting goals and creating the consensus to achieve them. Prime among these goals is maintaining the financial soundness of the district that is shown by its AAA bond status and its proven ability to lighten the burden on DuPage taxpayers while continuing high levels of service.

Q. What is your second most important campaign issue?

Bergman: Provide financial accountability.

In addition to holding well-publicized hearings and comment periods on all major projects, the forest preserve board must make planning and meeting materials readily available to the public. To make the forest preserve a truly open and accountable organization, I will work to:

Make meetings immediately available via webcast;

Have meeting minutes posted in a timely manner;

Have the agenda and supporting documents posted on the forest preserve website when they are distributed to the board; and

Ensure meeting records include accurate accounts of public comments.

Board members must be above reproach and demonstrate an ethical standard in conducting the public's business. I believe money is at the root of most ethical dilemmas in government. I will ensure contracts and grants are tracked openly and honestly, that systems are in place for everyone to see how the money is accounted for and spent. I will not accept campaign contributions from people or entities doing business with the forest preserve.

In short, I will conduct the business of the forest preserve openly in the public interest.

Formento: Three other important goals are stressed in the district's mission statement: conservation, education and the recreational enjoyment of DuPage residents. These aims can be reached by creative attention to specific projects, proposals and plans as they emerge. This requires proactive vigilance, which I believe I have demonstrated during my present service on the commission.

Q. What is your third most important campaign issue?

Bergman: Be responsive and accessible to voters.

I am running for forest preserve commissioner because we need strong leadership that will fully include the public in the decisions about managing our irreplaceable natural spaces through open hearings and discussion. No board or leader can satisfy every resident, but no one should feel that their perspective and input were not respected and considered.

Recently, the forest preserve board engaged with both the DuPage County Board and the Lisle village board to cut a deal with Navistar. Unfortunately, the process was so closed that the neighbors were not considered, informed or included.

The result was outrage and upset on the part of the neighbors and backtracking and damage control on the part of our elected leaders. A deal that might have brought significant employment to the county was unnecessarily delayed.

While the forest preserve board may wish that this is an isolated incident, it is only the most recently publicized misstep made by this board. Under my leadership, the decision-making process will include the public from the beginning rather than at the end.

Formento: Another overarching concern is keeping DuPage green and healthy. This, too, is a daily challenge as the county population grows and the need to protect wetlands, wildlife and green space grows along with it.

Q. How should the forest preserve handle the need for a vehicle maintenance facility?

Bergman: I am deeply concerned about the expenditure of more than $1 million on no-bid contracts for this project. As my running mates Dennis Clark and Shannon Burns revealed through their careful examination of the project to move the maintenance facility to Blackwell Forest Preserve, it was poorly conceived and poorly researched, and is likely to cause significant harm to the Blackwell Forest Preserve and the McKee Marsh.

I agree that updated facilities are needed to improve the efficiency of the forest preserve staff, but I believe another location can be found that will not develop open land, will provide a more centralized location and will place the project in an area already devoted to industrial activity.

The commission should re-examine the process and give clear guidance to the staff about finding appropriate land and putting up for bid the projects that require outside expertise.

Formento: I certainly recognize the need for larger and better fleet maintenance facilities. There is a site study going on now that will examine several sites in terms of accessibility, environmental impact and residents' convenience. I'd like to thoroughly review the results of this study before taking a position on the facility's location.

Q. What does the forest preserve commission need to do to become a more transparent form of government?

Bergman: To become more transparent the forest preserve must make a concerted effort to increase its accessibility. As a commissioner, I will focus my attention on four main projects:

Improve the website to make it easier to navigate and include full disclosure of financial transactions;

Make board meetings and hearings more accessible by streaming them on the web, broadcasting via local access cable and scheduling them at times when more residents can attend;

Actively engage the public with better notice of public hearings and longer periods for public comment, and make board meetings and hearings more welcoming of public comment;

Actively meet with voters and groups to engage in careful listening, especially to opinions that are different from my own.

The most important function of increased transparency is to provide real-time open information about the dealings of the commission, especially the financial transactions and the relationships between the parties making the spending decisions and the beneficiaries of those decisions. I will explore and learn from initiatives like the Sunlight Foundation (sunlightfoundation.com).

Formento: I truly feel the Forest Preserve Commission actively strives toward transparency. Our meetings are held regularly on Tuesday mornings and are open to the public. I advocated for evening meetings so that people who work during the day could attend and we did do that. Unfortunately, they were not well-attended. We keep ourselves available to the media. Perhaps we could try televised meetings for public access or recording.

Q. How should the St. James Farm development plan be implemented?

Bergman: I understand and appreciate the difficulties faced by the district in making this special property open and available to the public, but more effort is required to overcome the roadblocks. Commissioners should actively engage with other political leaders to find meaningful, quick solutions to negotiate regulatory hurdles that are holding up the process.

The current plan calling for a 20-year implementation schedule is sensible because it allows for manageable small projects to progress as resources and assets are acquired. I support the plan in general. However, I will focus attention on preservation of open natural spaces and the special buildings, and minimize development. I will emphasize connections with the county's existing trail system for bicycle and foot traffic. I will prioritize low-impact access, including permeable pavements and other eco-friendly solutions. The forest preserve's mission is about preservation of natural habitat and not development of facilities. I will continue to examine the plans to be certain that the emphasis is properly placed.

The estimated cost of this project ($35 million, which will increase as time passes) is a good example of the tremendous challenges the board will face as the role of the district changes from acquiring open space, of which there is very little left in the county, to managing the assets we own.

As the project progresses, board members and staff must be active in finding and winning grants to support it. This will help minimize the burden on taxpayers. The long time span will also provide many opportunities for improved public engagement and involvement in refining the implementation of the plans. This includes public disclosure of the selection process for advisory boards and better publicity of public hearings.

Formento: The master plan for St. James Farm has been approved and is programmed to be phased in over 20 years, or sooner if funds are available. This intent has already gotten off to a strong start. The facilities are open more frequently, and that's a key step that should be followed up with increased access and more information to promote usage. Of course, all these efforts have to be vetted very carefully to ensure that allocated funding is used wisely and effectively.

Q. Should the district invest in more active recreation uses for the forest preserves?

Bergman: The proper role of recreation in the forest preserves is low-impact outdoor activity that does not require open land to be developed. There is room for partnership with park districts to connect activities and increase access to events and activities, but the forest preserve's mission does not include recreational uses of land such as team sports on large fields or organized events that require theaters and buildings.

I will seek opportunities to increase activities such as hiking, fishing, camping, skiing and other recreational activities that place people in our beautiful natural spaces without developing facilities or damaging the natural habitat. I believe we should seek ways to allow residents who have difficulty with their mobility to find ways to enter and enjoy the forest preserves, but these accessible projects must remain focused on the preservation of our natural spaces.

I am in favor of continuing and improving many of the recreational/educational programs of the forest preserve such as Kline Creek Farm and the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, but the forest preserves are not an appropriate venue for gun ranges, golf courses or sports fields.

Formento: Recreation is one of the district's prime missions, along with education and conservation. It's our job to see that all three of these missions are addressed with consistent care given to each of them and how they combine to best serve the residents of DuPage County. We continue to invest available funding for these purposes.

Q. Explain your position on term limits for county offices.

Bergman: The best form of term limits is fair and open elections. If our governing bodies have clear and open records and meetings, the public will hold our leaders more accountable for their actions, their failings and their achievements.

I am proud of the bipartisan support I have received from across the community. As forest preserve commissioner for the fourth district, I will use my position to focus attention on open, honest communication with the public and protecting the forests for our children.

Formento: I am seeking county office on the basis of considerable experience in dealing with concerns specific to the forest preserve district. I also bring substantial business and administrative background to the table. This experience is often essential to get business done.

However, I also recognize the need for different perspectives, including one that asks for a study of the term limit issue. Term limits have become a ballot item in such disparate places as Naperville and New York City this November. It will be interesting to see how the electorate there reacts to the chance to accept or reject them.

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