West Chicago mourns death of Mayor Mike Kwasman
West Chicago residents and local leaders are remembering Mayor Mike Kwasman as a dedicated leader who fought to improve their city and its image.
Kwasman, 65, suffered a heart attack Saturday while eating with friends at Pal Joey's restaurant, officials said. He was with his wife, Crystal, and other family members when he died Tuesday at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.
He was appointed acting mayor in December 2006 after serving as an alderman. He won election in April 2007 and again in 2009. He previously served on the city's plan commission and on the West Chicago Fire Protection District board.
"This is a tremendous loss to the citizens of West Chicago and to all who knew Mayor Kwasman," Alderman and Deputy Mayor Ruben Pineda said. "He was not only a great leader, but also a great friend."
City Administrator Michael Guttman said the city will continue to pursue Kwasman's vision for West Chicago, but not before taking time to mourn his loss.
"His record of public service and his countless contributions as mayor of the city he loved will serve as a legacy to future generations," Guttman said.
DuPage County Board member Jim Zay said he considered Kwasman a "very close personal friend" for the past 15 years. He said they talked on the phone Friday about an issue they had planned to work on. Soon after, Zay was in the hospital visiting Kwasman.
"He was always there next to me," Zay said. "He was a friend and mentor."
Zay said Kwasman was proud of the inroads the city made in reducing the crime rate through the hiring of police officers and of building fire stations through his work on the fire district board.
"He loved the city. As long as I knew him he never asked for anything for himself, but for West Chicago," Zay said. "He was really a great leader. He brought people together."
Zay noted Kwasman's stand against locating a second garbage transfer station in town, and his leadership in efforts to annex properties adjacent to Diamond's Gentleman's Club that prevented it from relocating during the expansion of North Avenue.
"We've seen change for the better. West Chicago had a negative name around it," Zay said. "He was getting rid of the stigma it had for years."
State Rep. Mike Fortner, Kwasman's predecessor, worked with Kwasman to get legislation passed in 2007 that removed West Chicago as a member of the DuPage Water Commission when the city built its own water treatment plant. As a result, the additional tax burden was removed, Fortner said. The city council appointed Kwasman, then an alderman, as acting mayor when Fortner was elected to the state House in 2006.
Fortner also said Kwasman took the lead in developing the North Avenue/Route 59 interchange area and helping bring a major car dealer to the area.
"He brought West Chicago's development up to the level that it deserved to be to really get us on a sound footing," Fortner said.
Former West Chicago Mayor Eugene Rennels said he and Kwasman "go way back."
"I'm pretty sure I was the first person Mike met when he moved into town 23 years ago," he said. "I had just left the mayor's office, but I happened to meet him as he was closing on his house."
They kept in touch. As Kwasman became more focused on his political career, their bond strengthened.
"We always knew where each other stood. I would say I was like a big brother or mentor figure to him," said Rennels, mayor from 1977 to 1989. "Without interfering, I would keep in touch. We would talk about the fantastic vision he had for the city. Mike was a businessman and when he came along, he was exactly what the village needed."
Rennels said Kwasman would focus on a goal and work until it was achieved. He's most proud of Kwasman for helping establish the DuPage Veterans Foundation, a group raising funds for Honor Flight Chicago; his plans to develop a community civic district; and his decision to use city funds to redevelop Main Street.
"He had a full plate," Rennels said. "This is a disaster for the city, along with (his wife) Crystal and his family. The city will miss him. We'll all miss him."
Funeral arrangements for Kwasman are pending.
His death brings to mind other suburban leaders who have died while serving their communities. They include Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens, who died in 2007; Hanover Park Village President Irv Bock, in 2006; Round Lake Park Village President Ila Bauer, in 2006; Tower Lakes Village President Leonard Kuskowski, in 2006; Waukegan Mayor Dan Drew, in 2002, Algonquin Village President Ted Spella, in 2002; Hoffman Estates Village President Michael O'Malley, in 2000; and Des Plaines Mayor Paul Jung, in 1999.
Other West Chicago leaders praised Kwasman for his energy and leadership.
David Janaes, president of the West Chicago Fire Protection District board, said Kwasman brought his knowledge of finance to the board as a self-employed sales representative for men's clothes. During Kwasman's four years on the board, he helped procure land for new fire stations.
"The fire district and city always had a good relationship. But it became even better when he became alderman and then mayor," Janaes said. "He truly loved West Chicago and did things that were best for the citizens.
Gary Major, executive director of parks and recreation for the West Chicago Park District, said that in the past five years, Kwasman helped provide the district the opportunity to turn a vacant city-owned building into a fitness center, and donated money to allow underprivileged children to participate in the wintertime Polar Express event.
"Michael provided an energy and vision for the city of West Chicago," Major said. "I think his perspective was always that all the governing agencies are here for the community and how can we work together to pool our collective resources to make a better West Chicago."
Melody Coleman, administrative librarian for the West Chicago Public Library District, said Kwasman helped with the library's first strategic plan.
"He has been a wonderful supporter to me and the library in terms of library programs," Coleman said. "He has been a visionary for the city, so we tap into that energy as we are setting our programs."
Kwasman's death leaves a hole in the community because of his efforts to understand and collaborate with all types of people, said Dave Sabathne, president and CEO of the Western DuPage Chamber of Commerce, which includes West Chicago, Warrenville and Winfield.
"He will be missed so much around here, both from his vocation as a friendship-builder to his business knowledge and ability to blend politics with good sense," Sabathne said.
Carol Stream Village President Frank Saverino said Kwasman "fought hard" for his city, and worked closely with him and other mayors on countywide issues. Saverino noted that he and Kwasman both served on their respective community's fire protection district boards and city councils and were elected mayor at the same time.
"We were kind of attached as stepbrothers," Saverino said. "He's that type of guy you either loved or hated. But I don't know anything else but love for him."
John Smith, a longtime friend of Kwasman and one of four co-founders with Kwasman of the political action committee "4 The People," recalls how the group in the mid-1990s pushed for the passage of a property tax hike that would raise money for the city to hire 10 new police officers.
"Everyone was saying, 'That's more than a million dollars a year. It will never pass,'" Smith recalled. "But we went out there with the facts. We talked about the gang situation, and Mike would tell people his philosophy, that I agreed with, which is public safety is the foundation for quality of life."
Often nattily attired, Smith said, the West Chicago mayor was known as much for his personality and charm as he was for his civic work. Barrel-chested and gruff-voiced, he looked far more intimidating than those who knew him say he actually was. His wide grin that frequently peaked out from beneath his throwback handlebar mustache were his calling cards.
"That was his trademark," Smith said. "If he ever shaved that mustache off, I might have walked by and not recognized him. A lot of people can't grow a great mustache, but he could."
Kwasman, unbeknown to Smith, once found out that the West Chicago Fire District was going to honor Smith with a plaque for years of service on the district's board of director.
"I didn't tell him about it, but there he was," Smith remembered. "Here's the thing, my buddy Mike, my friend, showed up just to see me receive this plaque and shake my hand. I'm going to miss him a lot. I'm going to miss his advice, his energy, his humor, his vision and most of all his friendship."
• Daily Herald staff writers Jake Griffin, Justin Kmitch and Marie Wilson contributed to this report.
Mike Kwasman's final state of the city addressEditor's note: Here is the full text of West Chicago Mayor Mike Kwasman's final state of the city address, which he delivered at the March 19 city council meeting:
"There's only one thing better than looking back on the close of a successful year, and that's looking ahead at what's planned for the next. Welcome to the state of the City of West Chicago, my annual report to the community.
"As always, 2011 was the year of the customer. Our residents and businesses remained at the center of all strategy sessions, deliberations and decisions that took place on the committee and commission level, at staff meetings, and here in council chambers. With our sleeves rolled up and our pencils sharpened, we explored ways to enhance services, bring value-added benefits, increase communication, elevate image and save you money. The results which I will outline here tonight, contribute to the quality of life which we have all come to know and enjoy in West Chicago.
"West Chicago customers will be the beneficiaries of substantial savings as a result of the creative and strategic financial planning on the part of our staff. In April, the city fully called the bonds that were issued in 2002 to fund the construction of the water treatment plant. By calling the bonds and then making payment in full, the city will realize a savings of over $4.3 million as a result of the debt being retired 10.5 years prior to its scheduled maturity. The true winners in this scenario are our customers, who will now benefit from stable water rates over the midterm.
"In fact, as a result of thoughtful planning, the 2012 Annual Budget total of $51,203,000 is a decrease of 12.05 percent from the 2011 budget, as amended. Furthermore, the approved budget includes no service reductions as well as no tax, rate or fee increases; also of note, the property tax levy remained unchanged from 2011.
"An increase in our sales tax and building permit revenue signals an increase in the investment being made in our community. This important economic indicator reveals that consumer confidence is returning and people are heeding the call to "shop local" and keep the funds in their own backyard. Also, based upon the increased number of property owners getting a deed certification, it appears that the housing market is improving in town.
"Last year, residents played an active role in shaping our City government by approving a referendum that eliminates the elected city treasurer position in 2013. By doing so, the voting public voiced concurrence in a structural change that will reduce the associated cost and improve efficiency through the elimination of the additional layer of bureaucracy that the position of treasurer has come to represent -- a direction which all but five remaining DuPage County communities have already taken.
"The city also negotiated a renewed contract with Groot Industries, Inc. as its single waste hauler, an action that will continue to benefit our citizens. We are proud to offer one of the cheapest waste removal rates in comparison to our municipal competitors, with the senior rate being the best around by far. There will be no rate increase in the first year of the new contract, with only minimal annual increases thereafter. Our senior rate is and is expected to remain the lowest in the region. Additionally, every customer will receive a 65-gallon covered recycling cart to replace their current recycling bins. Our annual citywide amnesty collection in May and free seasonal leaf collection will continue. Plus, the renewed contract provides for an annual shredding event, free of charge to our residents.
"And, while we can't take credit for it, the mild winter we've enjoyed will also help our bottom line. Dare I say it? No matter what Punxsutawney Phil says about those six more weeks of winter, chalk one up for the city. Any cost savings realized by not needing to pay staff overtime for after hour snow removal and the lower fuel usage that results from less plowing will be added to our reserves in case Mother Nature chooses to deliver a harsher winter next year.
"Our financial strategy is sound, our municipality is healthy and we will continue to maintain a customer-centric focus on all platforms, products, services and experiences.
"It's amazing what could be accomplished by accountable, responsible and transparent government practices.
"That's just the beginning of the story, though. Diligence in other areas has also paid off. Our crime rate has continued to decline and a strategic plan created by our police department has positioned us for the future. Last December, an important first step was achieved toward improving the structure of the department and thereby accomplishing the goals of the Plan as three sergeants were promoted to the newly established rank of commander.
"Led by Chief of Police Laz Perez, appointed to his position in 2011, our police department continues to strengthen ties in the community by partnering with citizens through programs like Open Gym, which was added recently to Pioneer School, National Night Out, Touch-a-Truck and more. Crime prevention measures and traffic enforcement continue to be a priority, as will a crime-free housing initiative.
"We continue to hold our first responders and military veterans in the highest of esteem and on September 11, 2011, the community commemorated the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America 10 years ago. We all appreciated the efforts of City Clerk Nancy Smith, and her husband Don, and their committee who created the meaningful observance that brought hundreds from our community to Reed-Keppler Park to pay tribute to those who lost their lives or risked them to help others, memorialize the events for future generations and celebrate America's strength and unity. Thanks to the West Chicago Park District Foundation, a magnificent sculpture is the centerpiece to a serene memorial garden at the Park, with beautiful benches donated by the West Chicago Garden Club.
"I am proud to have brought other DuPage County leaders together to form the DuPage Veterans Foundation, a 501c3 organization with a mission to assist our military heroes. Our first initiative is to raise funds through an event at the DuPage Airport on Saturday, May 5, 2012, for Honor Flight Chicago. All World War II and active duty military are invited to attend free of charge for a tribute, lunch, musical entertainment by Legacy Girls and an incredible display of World War II era aircraft and other vehicles. I urge you to visit the Foundation's website, www.dupageveteransfoundation.org to learn more, and to support this worthy project.
"On the community development front, we have seen the start of several substantial building projects including the expansion of the West Chicago Middle School, Eudcare, Subco Packaging and a new building at Ball Horticultural.
"Staff has been working with Menards in gaining approval from IDOT to install a traffic signal at its main entrance, improving safety as well as the development potential of the vacant land in the area. The project is in the design phase and is hoped to spark the interest of business location scouts in 2013 upon its completion.
"We have recently welcomed some wonderful new businesses to the community -- Mid-City Supper Club, Little Ceasars Pizza, Changarro Restaurant, Egg Yolk Café, O'Reilly's Auto Parts and Platinum Dance Academy just to name a few. They are featured on our website in the business section, where you will also find a West Chicago Business Directory for your convenience in locating our established local restaurants, merchants or service providers.
"While business recruitment is always a priority and we look forward to many ribbon-cuttings this coming year, we also pay equal attention to business retention. Through programs like our shop local campaign, a construction-zone marketing plan that assisted businesses impacted by road construction, and a business recognition program, we continue to support our existing businesses, which are undeniably the economic engines of our City. I am deeply appreciative of the efforts of all of our businesses and would like to point out our six 2011 Brilliance in Business Award winners for what they have done to better our community:
Ÿ Siemens Industry, Inc. -- a global leader in the energy economy, added a $10 million dollar upgrade to two of its buildings on Harvester Road, and expects to hire 100 more employees this year;
Ÿ Sleep Innovations Inc. -- a manufacturer which prioritized a spirit of generosity with a donation to victims of a local apartment fire;
Ÿ Kramer Tree Specialists -- an internationally recognized arborist and community champion who donated the city's fully decorated Christmas tree;
Ÿ Main Street Family Dentistry, office of Dr. Richard Smith -- a downtown mainstay which has brightened countless community smiles through professional, connected care;
Ÿ Western DuPage Chamber of Commerce -- for an innovative merger of not just two, but now three, successful organizations which aims to advance economic prosperity in three cities including West Chicago;
Ÿ And, Deicke Scout Shop -- for nurturing generations of Boy Scouts with the values of good citizenship and character while acting as a destination business for our community
"Please take time to view the Brilliance in Business video on the city's website to learn more about their accomplishments; and while you're there, also take a look at another clip that demonstrates the successful efforts of West Chicago to gain well-deserved exposure on ABC-TVs 190 North program that aired last October.
"Citywide projects through our Public Works Department ensure we maintain our infrastructure and stay ahead of the curve on issues that impact our residents, businesses and visitors. Last year we began a seven-year plan to remove diseased, non-treatable Ash trees, while treating others that have a good chance of survival; plus we will be replanting trees to replace the ones removed. This will ensure our community remains aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sustaining.
"Projects that were prerequisites for the designation of a quiet zone for the EJ&E Railroad were completed. These included the realignment of South Aurora Street and the closing of the existing at-grade crossing. Once concrete medians are installed adjacent to the Smith Road and Ann Street crossings, the city will submit its application to the Federal Railroad Administration to get a quiet zone designation.
"We completed the engineering required to move our utilities for the North Avenue Reconstruction Project which involves widening Route 64 to six lanes from Route 59 to Kautz Road, which is anticipated to start in either 2012 or 2013; and also completed the engineering required to move our utilities for the Roosevelt Road/Kautz Road grade separation which will result in a bridge over the railroad crossing sometime in 2012 or 2013.
"How about a home improvement upgrade that won't cost you anything? We began a citywide water meter replacement program, whereby all existing water meter assemblies will be replaced at no cost to our water customers. In addition to reaping some cost savings and efficiencies that go along with all customers having the same type of water meter, the new system will allow the City to identify potential leaks in a customer's water service significantly sooner, thereby saving the customer money and potential water damage.
"So what does the future hold?
"2012 promises to hold significant progress and renewal for our community. It will mark the end of the thorium removal from residential properties, with the remaining focus on the cleaning-up of Kress Creek in Warrenville and Naperville.
"And, what would you say to a game-changing development for downtown West Chicago? The city has acquired property along Washington Street in order to continue its efforts to revitalize the downtown and is looking for community input. The area will include new retail development, open space for community events, a new city hall and possibly a park district community center. We have hired the consulting firm of URS to develop a conceptual site plan for the area and architectural options for the buildings. These may be viewed on the city website, or in person at city hall. Look for more news and more public forums on the West Washington Street Redevelopment Project in the near future.
"We will continue to build on the current momentum being enjoyed at Gallery 200 and Gallery 200/STUDIO, which serves as an ongoing catalyst for downtown revitalization and which has introduced a wide audience to the heart of our community. Volunteers like Heide Morris, Mandy Rakow and Janet Gilleand have transformed the space at 200 Main Street, into a hip/historic center for the arts; a place where you could go to browse and buy a piece of original art, enjoy the musical talents of the tremendous up-and-coming performers of Local Music Night or catch a live production of Gallery Theater. The transcending power of the arts has taken root and is growing in West Chicago.
"The launch of a mobile website marks a significant upgrade to the city's current communication efforts. It joins an integrated mix of multiple channels which the city uses to engage its constituents' diverse communication preferences. Those methods include our website, newsletter, E-News, Twitter, LED signage, YouTube, and coming soon, city podcasts. We will continue to look for ways to stay at pace with emerging technology and communication trends to ensure an effective flow of information on demand to our customers.
"Like a well-oiled machine, our staff has done an amazing job of keeping the gears turning and the city-engine moving forward. I wish to thank each one of our employees for their efforts and commitment to providing exemplary service to our customers.
"In closing, I wish to thank the city council for the countless hours they put into understanding the issues, the talent they individually bring through their own personal skill sets, and the heart that is consulted for every decision. Their wards can be certain of its representation in our government.
"Thank you and good night."