Elgin 90-year-old steps down after over 30+ years on planning commission
If you've attended an Elgin planning and zoning commission meeting in the last 30+ years, chances are one member made an impression -- unhurried, unflappable, with a penchant for levity and a steely dislike for unruly behavior.
Ninety-year-old Robert Siljestrom stepped down this month after being appointed in 1985 -- back then it was called the land use committee. He has served since then, most recently as chairman, with only short gaps. The city revamped its commission rules last year, including limiting the chair to six years of service.
The unpaid job is all about listening respectfully, Siljestrom said. "I seek to encourage every reasonable voice to be heard and to feel comfortable in that process," he said.
One always must have a long-term perspective, he said, "to see what is most appropriate for all the people of Elgin for the long term, rather than what's good for today, tomorrow or next week."
Talking at his kitchen table Friday morning, he recalled anecdotes like the time former Mayor George Van De Voorde asked for a phone call, no matter how late, to let him know about a commission vote on a commercial development on the west side. "He said, 'Bob, that petition is important because that's the future, the economic future of Elgin,'" Siljestrom said. The vote was "yes."
Change isn't always easy to deal with and planning and zoning issues can stir emotions, Siljestrom said. As chairman, Siljestrom asked questions but never interjected opinion, and he often used humor to help defuse tense situations, he said.
Still, if an audience member is inappropriate or attempts to take control of the meeting, it's important to assert authority, which occasionally has included dangling the prospect of police intervention, he said.
Community Development Director Marc Mylott described Siljestrom as "the gentleman's gentleman."
"(He's) one of the nicest, most sincere persons you will ever meet," Mylott said. "Bob never had a bad word to say about anyone."
Siljestrom always promoted high planning standards while ensuring the process was fair and inclusive, Mylott said. "Siljestrom also always made sure that any and all persons who came to a public hearing had the opportunity to be heard and that those persons were treated with the utmost respect," he said.
Siljestrom moved to Elgin in 1958 with his wife, Barbara, who's always been his sounding board and picked his ties for meetings "because I defer to higher authority," he said. He worked as claims agent for Bell Telephone Co. and was a legislative aide for state Rep. Douglas Hoeft, a Republican who died in office in 2002.
Growing up in Chicago, Siljestrom said, he was always interested in urban development, so when he found there was a chance to serve in Elgin, he put his name on the list. Over the years he has worked closely with staff members in the city's community development department, who are the true professionals, he said.
Elgin has changed from being an "independent city" to a "functional suburb," much of it due to the Jane Addams Tollway and O'Hare International Airport, he said. That led to industrial growth and most recently the proliferation of warehouse facilities, including an Amazon delivery center off Randall Road, he said.
There have been a few "hot potato" issues over the years with commission meetings lasting well over five hours, he said. A proposal in the 1990s to annex more than 700 acres adjacent to the city's east side was particularly emotionally charged, he recalled, and in the end, Hoffman Estates annexed the land.
So what has he learned from his years of service?
"The world is complex and there are many ways to look at particular issues," he said. "There are many ways of looking at change, but change is constant. You can't change that."