Hellner: Brings a 'broad perspective to everything I do'
This is the second of three profiles on the men running for Arlington Heights village president. The profile on Tom Hayes ran Monday; coming up Wednesday: Ron Drake.
Giving back to the community is something Mark Hellner said has always been a part of his life — it's the way he was raised.
Family: Married, one son.
Education: BS (English and political science), Illinois State University; University of Illinois College of Law.
Civic involvement: Arlington Heights Housing Commission; Friends of the Arlington Heights Memorial Library; volunteer attorney for the Center for Disability & Elder Law, and Prairie States Legal Services.
Top 3 campaign issues*:
Ÿ Fiscal responsibility; notably the unfunded pension liability and the $40 million committed to new police station.
Ÿ Stagnant business climate, and slow village response to business needs.
Ÿ Injecting energy, creativity and more coordinated planning into all local governmental units.
* Full candidate questionnaire at www.dailyherald.com.
Growing up in Springfield, Hellner said, his family instilled in him the idea that anyone who has the ability should be helping others. As a Boy Scout he delivered meals to homebound neighbors, cleaned up the community and helped paint and wash windows for the elderly. His mother, now 86, still volunteers.
"It must be in the DNA," he said.
Now, the 61-year-old attorney is hoping to use his abilities to lead Arlington Heights as its next mayor.
"I think society only functions if people help other people," said Hellner, who faces Ron Drake and Trustee Tom Hayes in a three-way race to succeed Arlene Mulder when she retires in April.
Hellner chanced to be sitting next to Mulder on a train into Chicago one morning a few years ago, and he mentioned how much he wanted to get involved with the village. He followed up the conversation with a formal letter, and Mulder soon appointed him to the Housing Commission.
While the past two years on the commission are his only experience in local politics, he said his professional life practicing and teaching law has prepared him well. His years of pro bono work for needy clients, as well as his own family situation have made him an empathetic listener to the needs of citizens, he said.
After graduating from the University of Illinois Law School in 1977, Hellner moved to Chicago, where he met his wife, Tracy. They have lived in Arlington Heights for 16 years.
The couple adopted David when he was 4 days old. Now 11, David is autistic and attends a special school through District 25.
David's struggles and experiences inform much of the couple's life — Hellner was a longtime volunteer with the Center for Disability and Elder Law, where he now works. Tracy works for Clearbrook, managing the Family and Community Autism Resource Room.
"Having a special needs kid opens a person's eyes to the world even more," Hellner said. "I have a really blessed life in a lot of respects, but it makes you re-prioritize life a lot. It is a challenge, but it's a blessing."
At work, Hellner is one of only four full-time attorneys at the Center for Disability and Elder Law, said Executive Director Susan Keegan. There, he helped create and runs a program for volunteer lawyers to assist seniors in maximizing their property tax exemptions.
Keegan said Hellner's intelligence and attitude make for a "lethal combination" that help him succeed.
Earlier this month Hellner dealt with a mother who claimed her autistic son was being neglected and mistreated at a Chicago hospital. Keegan said it was a tricky case where both sides were upset, but Hellner's calm demeanor prevailed.
"He was able to see through all the emotion that was attached to this and understand what both sides needed to get a good resolution," Keegan said. "He just takes a balanced approach and solves problems without a lot of histrionics or fanfare."
Keegan said Hellner has earned a reputation as a lawyer for the underdog, often taking cases others would not.
"A lot of lawyers may not take those cases because they think they are going to lose, but Mark approaches it confident that he'll get good results," she said.
Before joining the center full time, Hellner worked in the public sector. From 2005 to 2007, he was general counsel and ethics officer for the Illinois Department of Revenue where he had legal oversight of the Illinois Gaming Board, the Racing Board, the Lottery and the Liquor Commission. He said it was a helpful learning experience for the ethical issues that can come up in government work.
Working with people of different ages and ability levels has informed Hellner's leadership style, he said.
"I listen. I'm not a domineering kind of person," he said. "I'm one of those people who thinks smart people have more questions than they do answers and if I'm doing all the talking then I'm probably not learning."
Hellner said it is important to him to get the community more involved in the business of the village. He said he wants to have neighborhood meetings, one in a different part of town each month, to talk to residents in their community rather than asking them to come to the village board meetings.
One place where Hellner does a lot of talking, though, is in the classroom, teaching law at the University of Illinois in Urbana. This spring he is commuting to Urbana to lead a seminar on state and local taxation — an issue sure to come up in village business. One of the projects the class is working on right now deals with tax incentives.
Joe Bisceglia, former president of the Illinois State Bar Association, said he went to Hellner for advice regularly, calling him honest and caring.
"He's very even-tempered and very thoughtful, but at the same time he's able to make a decision and go with it," Bisceglia said.
Outside of work and family, Hellner enjoys outdoor activities and the trumpet — an instrument he picked up in the fourth grade and never stopped playing.
While Mulder has treated the mayor's seat much like a full-time job, Hellner already has at least two jobs between practicing law and teaching it. He said he sees the village president as a leader, like the chairman of a board of directors rather than a CEO of a company.
As for how he'll have the time to get it all done, Hellner said he believes the busier the better.
"I have always been blessed with energy and I stay well-organized," he said. "There's an old aphorism that if you want a job done, you get someone who is busy, so that's me."
Throughout the campaign Hellner has focused on financial issues, pointing out the village's pension deficiencies and speaking out against plans for a $40 million new police station. He said that he would take a logical approach to village leadership, as he does the rest of his life.
"I bring a broad perspective to everything I do," he said.
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