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updated: 12/5/2011 12:08 PM

Can Winfield trustees all get along?

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  • Deb Birutis

      Deb Birutis

 
 

Most of the problems that plague Winfield leaders are typical in the suburbs.

Not enough money to fix roads. The pesky emerald ash borer has started picking off trees in town. Empty storefronts dot the downtown area.

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But the village also faces problems uniquely its own: An inability of village board members to get along often stands in the way of routine business. It also boiled over into a nasty confrontation between a trustee and a resident, sparking calls for a state police investigation.

For now, there's an uneasy truce in which trustees have been asked by the village president, basically, to play nice together. But only time will tell if the resentment -- some of it personal and some of issue-oriented -- can be put aside.

Always political

Winfield, a bucolic community of about 9,000, is predominantly a bedroom community and host to the massive Central DuPage Hospital. Its downtown struggles for new business, and there are heated debates as to whether the village should push for commercial development along busy Roosevelt Road. Unlike in other nearby towns, the Winfield stretch of Roosevelt does not abound with restaurants, strip malls and the usual high-traffic fare.

The town always has been vigorously political; Winfield's last local election produced one of the highest voter turnout percentages in DuPage County. But even experienced observers have been taken aback by the virulence of some of the local political debates since four new trustees took their seats this past spring.

The animosity ramped up after a bitter campaign resulted in the election of trustees Tim Allen, Tony Reyes and Jim Hughes. Trustee Erik Spande was appointed to the board immediately following that election by Village President Deb Birutis.

Immediately upon taking office, Allen and Reyes have made development along Roosevelt Road a priority, arguing that it could enhance village revenue. But opponents say that would cause the village to lose a lot of its character because that stretch of Roosevelt remains surrounded by trees and natural growth.

Meanwhile, agendas keep growing, as meetings frequently devolve into a series of accusations and rebuttals from the trustees, village president and two political factions of residents in town. In fact, until its first November meeting, trustees failed to get through an entire agenda of its committee of the whole meetings, which follows regular board meetings.

Who's to blame?

Who is the cause of the conflict depends upon whom you ask.

Commenters on a local blog, recently taken over by Allen, place the blame squarely on Birutis and Winfield United, a political group with a philanthropical arm that has backed most successful political campaigns -- including that of first-term Village President Birutis -- since it emerged in 2005.

Winfield United members regularly accuse Allen and Reyes during public comments at village board meetings of holding up progress.

On Oct. 6, the conflict got personal as local publisher Stan Zegel accused Reyes of withholding documents from a Freedom of Information Act request he submitted regarding development along Roosevelt. After the meeting, according to a police complaint filed by Zegel, Reyes approached him in a "loud, hostile and threatening manner" and told him that he would sue Zegel for damages if he did not stop accusing him of illegal activities.

The complaint said Reyes launched a profanity-laced tirade against Zegel and that Reyes got within "a distance any reasonable person would know is threatening." The matter was turned over to the state police, who have yet to determine whether they will investigate.

The incident also prompted a failed attempt at censure of Reyes by Trustee Erik Spande, who called his colleague's conduct unacceptable.

As much disagreement as there is in town, members of both factions said they hope the incident represents rock bottom for the village.

"All I can say is I hope so," Allen said.

"How can it get any worse?" Birutis said. "In the last month, I believe the village board has hit rock bottom in how they treat each other and each of us needs to bring civility back to Winfield."

Civility returns?

For at least one meeting, that civility seemingly returned, at least among board members. Despite a handful of residents bringing up Reyes' actions during public comments, including one who read the profanity off the police complaint verbatim, Birutis and the trustees kept the meeting on task.

By the end of the night, the board finished its committee of the whole agenda for the first time this year, giving trustees hope that some stability could follow.

"There is a lot we can get done for Winfield and we absolutely have to," Trustee Jim Hughes said. "We have to be able to pull together to get the work done. It doesn't mean we have to agree or like each other because it's about Winfield."

But disagreements this summer have hindered progress on some of the Winfield's most-pressing issues.

After the board approved using tax increment financing money to bring a bakery downtown, Reyes questioned its approval because it seemed to come right from Birutis with little public debate. He then asked the bakery owners if they were aware that other bakeries had failed in town.

The emerald ash borer has taken up residence in town, but, unlike leaders in other communities, Winfield trustees have disagreed on whether to take up the battle or just plant new trees after the critters destroy the town's ash tree population.

And the most drawn-out conflict has involved the village's roads. Last year, a pair of ballot questions asking voters for $3.3 million for immediate road repairs and an extra $700,000 annually for ongoing maintenance failed, after an anti-referendum campaign led by Allen before he became trustee.

Since then, officials have scrambled for ideas to pay for the work.

In June, trustees doubled the village's road fund by moving future money into this year's budget. However, even that new amount will cover only a small portion of the village's 34.6 miles of roads, of which more than half have been deemed to be in poor-to-failing condition.

As the trustees work on solutions, however, Allen's blog ratchets up the political heat.

Not long after Zegel filed his FOIA request, Allen penned a series of entries, including one that accused Zegel of being the mastermind behind Winfield United.

The site also claims Winfield United controls board members it backs financially, including Birutis. Winfield United officials and Birutis deny this, with Birutis saying she resigned from the organization in 2006.

"I want to make clear," she said, "Stan Zegel nor any group that people accuse me of being involved with does not control me or anyone else on this board."

Despite all the turmoil, Birutis says she thinks the existing board has the ability to accomplish things.

"We have a board that has great ideas," she said. "I think that they need to get past the history of what has happened and look to accomplish what it needs for Winfield."

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