Four years after a bitter Bensenville mayoral election resulted in the defeat of a 24-year incumbent, the political divisions in town appear to be just as strong.
Village President Frank Soto says Bensenville has come a long way since he unseated John Geils, and he wants another four years to build on the progress his administration has made.
But his two challengers say progress isn't coming fast enough.
Soto is being opposed in the April 9 municipal election by Trustee Oronzo Peconio, a former political ally who ran on Soto's slate in 2009, and Rich Johnson, a 12-year member of the Bensenville Park District board.
In a meeting with the Daily Herald editorial board, Soto accused his opponents of being products of the Geils administration who would take the town "backward."
Citing a 2012 community survey that found 78 percent of respondents were satisfied with the direction of the village, Soto said his opponents represent a vocal minority that is pursuing its own agendas and finding issues to "nitpick."
"Under Geils, it was good for a select few, not the residents as a whole. We were literally on life support. We were dying," Soto said. "Bensenville is at a very critical time. We're at a crossroads. The progress we made in the past four years, I want to proceed in that direction."
When he came to office, Soto said the village faced an $8 million deficit, had no infrastructure improvements on the horizon, and held the top spot in a Forbes magazine ranking of "America's Fastest-Dying Towns."
Today, he says sales tax revenues are increasing, 152 new businesses have come to town, and the village has a balanced budget. And, he says, Bensenville ranked No. 2 on a 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek ranking of the best places in Illinois to raise a child.
Peconio, who was elected as a village trustee in 2009, said Soto's administration started with good intentions, but "somehow we got off the wagon."
He pointed to high salaries for village management staff and a slow rate of economic development, particularly downtown and along the Irving Park Road corridor.
He said he would concentrate on bringing more businesses to the village and retaining the ones already in place.
"Our community deserves better. We need to bring this community back together," Peconio said. "People are ready for a change. This village president and management staff have made life miserable for everybody."
Soto said Peconio voted with him 99 percent of the time during the past four years on the village board.
"There's Oronzo the trustee versus Oronzo the candidate," he said.
Soto and Peconio are running with slates of candidates for village board and village clerk. Johnson, meanwhile, said he would bring "a level of choice to this election" because he's running on his own. He denied being a Geils ally, even though his wife, Patti, was on the village board when Geils was village president.
"I was not a big part of the past administration. My wife was; I was not," Johnson said. "I'm a good consensus builder. You have to put personal agendas aside. I want to bring the core group of trustees together. I'm not saying this is 'my team' or 'my ticket.'"
Johnson said the park district has made great strides during his tenure and he can bring that same approach to the village.
Both Johnson and Soto tried to tie Peconio to Geils, who appointed him to the fire district board, and endorsed him during three unsuccessful campaigns for the park board. Peconio's Bensenville First slate was behind the objections to Soto's nominating petitions, as well as those of four other candidates on Soto's Changed Bensenville slate. They claimed Soto, Trustee Henry Wesseler and village clerk candidate Ilsa Rivera-Trujillo owed the village money when they filed for candidacy, such as unpaid parking stickers, overdue water bills and late fees. They also challenged the legitimacy of some signatures on nominating papers.
Soto said the objections, since thrown out by the village's electoral board, were "frivolous" and an attempt to stall his campaign by forcing him to seek affidavits from petition signers to verify whether they had really signed.
In 2001, Soto filed an objection to Geils' nominating papers, and was able to get him removed from the ballot. But Geils, as a write-in candidate, defeated Soto in that election.