March 9, 2005


When American politicians in general, and the Bush Administration in particular, advocate "regime change" in such countries as Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Libya and North Korea, their message is abundantly clear: Replace totalitarian dictatorships with democratically elected governments.

But when politicians in north suburban Morton Grove argue about local "regime change," their message is abundantly unclear and hopelessly murky. Here's why:

Trustee Dan Staackmann, a lifelong Republican, is the mayoral nominee of the Morton Grove Action Committee, this year's name of the Action Party, which has controlled village government since 1977 and with which the last three mayors, Dick Flickinger, Richard Hohs and Dan Scanlon, were affiliated. All three were Democrats, and all had varying degrees of political alliance with Niles Township Democratic Committeeman Cal Sutker. Staackmann, in fact, lost the 1997 mayoral race to Scanlon, who is retiring this year, an election in which Sutker backed Scanlon. Scanlon has endorsed Staackmann to succeed him.

The opposition, known as the Morton Grove Caucus Party, fielded Trustee Rick Krier as its mayoral candidate. Krier's father and grandfather were both township Democratic committeemen, and Krier is a lifelong Democrat, a veteran precinct captain in Sutker's organization and a lifetime political payroller, having held a succession of county jobs since 1975. Krier worked for Scanlon in his race against Staackmann in 1997. The Caucus Party is the moniker under which Sutker controls the township offices and Skokie.

Krier is now vociferously critical of Scanlon's administration, claiming that it is "arrogant and disconnected with residents" and insisting that Sutker "will not control me or the government" if elected. Staackmann is vociferously critical of Krier, calling him a "political hack" who will be "under the thumb" of Sutker if elected.

So is "regime change" now perfectly clear? Former Scanlon foe and present Scanlon ally Staackmann doesn't want Sutker precinct captain and present Scanlon foe Krier to win. And Democrat Krier doesn't want Republican Staackmann to win. The erstwhile "outs" are now the "ins," and vice versa.

Morton Grove, a decidedly middle class village with a 2000 population of 22,451, is between Skokie and Niles. It extends from Washington to the Edens Expressway north of Dempster to Golf, and from Waukegan to just east of the Edens south of Dempster to Oakton. The village contains 26 precincts, of which 19 are in Niles Township, with the remaining seven, west of Harlem, in Maine Township. The population is almost 74 percent white, 4.4 Hispanic and less than 1 percent black, but there is a large and growing Indian and other Asian population, amounting to over 22 percent in the 2000 census.

Both Staackmann and Krier were elected trustee in 2003, with Staackmann getting 1,906 votes and Krier 1,784; the top vote getter was Danny DeMaria, the Action Party chairman, with 1,943 votes. The village elects three trustees every 2 years. Krier's triumph was the first for a non-Action Party member since 1975.

Though outnumbered 5-1 at board meetings, Krier has caused quite a stir. "He's been disruptive and deceitful," said Staackmann of Krier. "I've simply tried to open up our government," retorted Krier.

The current village budget is $47.3 million, with an anticipated shortfall of $500,000 during the 2005 fiscal year. In 2004, with a projected shortfall of $2 million, the trustees approved several tax hikes, including those on food and beverages at restaurants and on gasoline, and also approved a quarter-cent hike in the local sales tax. Also, a garbage collection fee was imposed on each household. As it turned out, the shortfall was only $1 million.

Over the past 2 years, Krier has incensed the incumbent administration by habitually moving to remove every item from the consent agenda at board meetings and by seeking to block the practice of holding agenda review sessions. He also unveiled his "truth in budgeting" plan at the December budget meeting, proposing line-item cuts of $900,000 to eliminate the $500,000 shortfall; included in that plan was a reduction in funding for the village's police and fire pensions.

Staackmann accused Krier of "political grandstanding" and "deceit," noting that Krier voted to support the 2004 budget. "Now, when he's running for mayor, he's suddenly a budget hawk," Staackmann said. "It's all politics." Staackmann said that the state mandates specific funding for pensions and that the Krier proposal would violate state law.

Krier confessed to being "ignorant" of the budget process when he first took office, but he says that now he understands it and that he is "fighting to protect tax dollars." He said that his alternative budget contained no job cuts, a 3 percent worker pay raise, and maintenance of all health insurance. He also said that pensions need not be fully funded until 2033.

Both Staackmann and Krier voted for the gas and sales tax hikes and the 2004 budget, and both opposed the restaurant tax. When the board considered putting on the ballot a nonbinding referendum on whether an off-track betting facility, which was expected to generate more than $400,000 in tax revenue, should be allowed in Morton Grove, both voted in the affirmative, but the motion lost. They differed on the issues of the garbage collection fee and the 2005 budget, with Staackmann voting for both.

While Krier's campaign focuses on the issue of changing the regime, Staackmann's campaign is focusing on Krier's alleged "unfitness" for office and what they say is his lack of management skills.

In 1975, just out of high school, Krier got a job as a seasonal laborer for the Cook County Forest Preserve District golf courses, which numbered seven at the time. By 1977 Krier had become the assistant manager of the Chick Evans Golf Course in Morton Grove and moved into the low-rent, on-site house maintained by the district at the course. He eventually became manager of the course, and then superintendent of all 10 district golf courses.

In 2002 the County Board voted to privatize the management of all the golf courses, giving control to Billy Casper Golf, and by 2003 what had been a $1.5 million annual revenue loss became a $1.5 million annual cash infusion. That was the sum that Casper was paying to the county from the course profits. Some 150 county employees lost their jobs in the privatization.

"If Krier had done his job, privatization would not have been necessary, and those workers would not have been terminated," Staackmann said. "His job was to run the courses, and he failed miserably. If he couldn't run them, how can he run Morton Grove?"

Krier has, he says, a plausible explanation: "Over 80 percent of my (golf course budget) was for manpower. The board controlled the budget, not me. Of course, if you don't have to pay union scale wages and health insurance, you can save money."

A secondo issue: The village's corporation counsel, Terry Liston, is paid $87,000 annually, far in excess of the part-time mayor's salary of $8,000 and of the trustees' $6,000. Liston was once a village trustee, and it is common knowledge in Morton Grove that she, village inspector Jack O'Brien and DeMaria are the real powers behind the Action Party. "I'd consider replacing her," said Krier of Liston. In fact, that trio was instrumental in selecting Staackmann, due to polling data, over Trustee Jim Karp.

The outlook: Staackmann, a park board commissioner for 18 years, ran for state representative as a Republican in 1994, getting 43.4 percent of the vote against incumbent Ralph Capparelli. He lost for mayor to Scanlon in 1997 by 2,326-1,354. Staackmann is well known, but not particularly well liked, by the Democratic component of the Action Party. Krier is less known, but due to his histrionics over the past 2 years, he is detested by the Action Party leadership.

My prediction: Will the anti-Action/pro-Staackmann vote of 1997 stick with Staackmann this time? Will the customary Action Party vote stick with Staackmann? Or will voters opt for a change? Since Staackmann's been both anti-Action and pro-Action, it's difficult to assess. But Sutker's organization in Skokie has atrophied, and he won't be sending in more than a dozen workers for Krier. And the Maine Township supervisor's race will boost turnout in Republican areas, aiding Staackmann.

Expect about 3,500 Morton Grove residents to troop to the polls on April 5, and expect Staackmann to win.