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Article updated: 4/7/2013 11:48 PM

How will turnover of suburban mayors affect regional cooperation?

Experts say mayoral election may affect regional efforts

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

As suburban voters ponder who their next leaders will be, the turnover of mayors and village presidents in several Northwest suburban towns could impact regional cooperation on key issues, some experts say.

Voters will elect a mayor Tuesday in 21 contested races across suburban Cook and Lake counties -- including Arlington Heights, Antioch, Barrington, Bartlett, Des Plaines, Gurnee, Hoffman Estates, Island Lake, Mundelein, Roselle, Streamwood, Lake Zurich and Wheeling.

Overall, of the 273 municipalities in the greater Chicago region, 216 mayor and village president seats are up for election, said Dave Bennett, executive director of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus.

"That's nearly 80 percent of the towns in the Chicago region where the mayor or village president is either standing for re-election, or we'll see some change," Bennett said. "We know for certain there are going to be changes in 43 communities in the Chicago area because the current mayor is not seeking re-election."

The 12-year-old Metropolitan Mayors Caucus' membership is made up of the 273 mayors and village presidents in the six-county Chicago region, including the nine suburban municipal conferences, and the city of Chicago.

Bennett said the last time there was significant municipal turnover was in 2009 when 73 communities across the region saw changes in top leadership. Over the summer months and during a fall retreat, the caucus will engage the new leaders on larger regional issues that affect everyone and don't have political boundaries.

"We've already encouraged the mayors who are not seeking re-election to invite their successors," Bennett said. "The one thing that new mayors need to be aware of, they will be taking office sometime in May and the Illinois General Assembly will be wrapping up (its) session that month. We've got plenty of opportunities to engage the new mayors legislatively."

Legislators are dealing with significant issues that could affect municipal budgets, such as a possible freeze on the local share of income tax receipts at today's levels, Bennett said.

"We've been clamoring for local pension reform for the last few years," he added. "The General Assembly has told us they are not going to do local reform until they get the state reform finished."

The infusion of new blood means a lot of education for new mayors getting caught up on regional issues, such as transportation, and legislation affecting municipalities, such as public safety pension reform, said Mark Fowler, executive director of the Northwest Municipal Conference.

Fowler said the agency, whose membership includes 43 municipalities and a township mostly from Northern Cook and Lake counties, has seen a sea change in leadership over the past 20 years.

"In 2009, we had 40 percent of our membership turned over," Fowler said. "That's when we had almost 20 new mayors. I can't really think of another time when there was really that big of a change. Locally, regionally and then statewide (issues) ... that's where we found our biggest challenge in terms of education."

Fowler said a number of those new mayors in 2009 had previously served other elected posts or worked on commissions within the community.

Yet, many had never been to Springfield to engage legislators on municipal issues.

Fowler said once the mayors elected Tuesday are sworn in, they will be encouraged to participate in Northwest Municipal Conference meetings and other regional caucuses, and meet with legislators.

"That's a quick way to immerse them on issues facing their municipalities," Fowler said.

"We're right in the middle of the spring session of a brand new General Assembly. Not only are we introducing ourselves to a lot of new legislators, but now we're going to have to introduce new mayors to a lot of new legislators."

Fowler said new faces can sometimes bring in new ideas and fresh perspectives that may not have been considered before.

"Any and all ideas are always welcome," he said. "People who are geared to public service are, by nature, very good communicators, and always seeking assistance from groups like ours. We expect that to continue."

With the departure of many experienced mayors some institutional knowledge may be lost, but "there's always a group that steps up and rises to the occasion," Fowler added.

Outgoing Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder, who is not running for re-election after serving 20 years at the helm, said first-time mayors could learn a lot from those long-serving mayors about regional cooperation.

"I went wherever I was asked to go. The first year you do a lot of listening, you do a lot of reading, and when you come back, you talk to your managers," said Mulder, 68, of her own experience when newly elected mayor. "It's a responsibility. You become the face of the community. It's a steep learning curve. Everybody deserves the adjustment period so don't rush it. Get the lay of the land."

Mulder said new mayors need to get involved with regional groups to understand the common challenges and issues other towns are dealing with.

"A lot of these regional groups really help open dialogue and communication, and partnership where we can serve more than just one community with a grant," Mulder said.

Mayors who have been around for some time often have taken newcomers under their wing.

Longtime Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson, who is not up for election for another two years, said over the years he has encountered mayors who didn't work well with other governmental agencies and ended up being one-term mayors.

"Transportation issues are a prime example," said the 74-year-old Larson, who has been mayor since 1987 and was a village trustee for 12 years before that. "We are working with other mayors on the Elgin-O'Hare (Expressway) extension. We're also dealing with the Tollway Authority on some improvements along the Jane Addams Tollway. It's very important for local mayors and candidates to understand that they can't do things by themselves. You need cooperation from other agencies."

Engaging and building consensus with fellow board or council members also is key, Larson said.

Larson said without village board consensus and cooperation with the park district, Schaumburg would not have the Boomers baseball team today.

It also took cooperation with DuPage County to defeat the proposed redevelopment of Schaumburg Regional Airport into an industrial park, and to connect to the county's water line as an alternative to service Schaumburg residents, in case there is a break in the village's main water supply line from O'Hare International Airport, he added.

Larson said one issue of great importance to the entire Northeastern region is the proposed merger of the Regional Transportation Authority with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which would eliminate all the members of both boards, replacing them with appointees who are not local government representatives.

"It presents a real challenge to local suburban communities in terms of who is going to be overseeing transportation funding, regional zoning and land use planning issues," he said.

Libertyville Mayor Terry Weppler, who is running unopposed for his second 4-year term, said the relationship between mayors is important because of issues that come up in unincorporated areas that affect multiple communities.

Weppler, who serves on the board of the Lake County Municipal League, said the agency began a program this year for co-op purchasing of a number of items, including crack sealing and street sweeping.

"By working together we can get better prices for these services than having each community work alone," he said. "I don't believe that turnover necessarily affects the ability to work together. It's just getting to know the new officials and building new relationships."

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