March 23, 2005


The origins of 2005’s tempestuous, acrimonious municipal contest in suburban Harwood Heights can be succinctly characterized as follows: Ambitious, obstinate politicians progressed to being obdurate, and then to being obsessively ornery. This prompted the local citizenry to become increasingly irritated -- as they expect their leaders to govern, not to provide comedic relief.

Dominated by Mayor Ray Willas and his mostly Democratic allies for 28 years (1973-2001), Harwood Heights was utterly devoid of political contrariness and competition. But massive demographic change, exemplified by both the influx of immigrant and first-generation Poles into the village, which began in the mid-1990s and continues to date, and the aging (and moving or passing) of the existing populace, fomented political upheaval.

The village had a 2000 population of 8,297, up from 7,680 in 1990, of which 92.1 percent was white, 5.8 Hispanic, and 0.3 percent black. Of the white population, at least a third are non-voting non-citizens. The number of registered voters is 4,488.

In 1999, three anti-Willas trustee candidates were victorious. Soon thereafter, the remaining three pro-Willas trustees abandoned their master. Willas’ salary was cut in half, and his ability to govern undercut – and, after two years of bickering and incessant criticism from the trustees, he retired in 2001.

In the ensuing 2001 mayoral election, being “with Willas” was a devastating accusation. Voters, however, confounded prognostications. In a turnout of 1,927, Norb Pabich, a onetime Willas ally as trustee (1991-99), who was ousted in 1999, scored an upset. His foes were two outspoken anti-Willas trustees: One-termer Don McCormick, and 24-year veteran Mike McGough, both of whom ran as “reformers”; the fourth contender was appointed village clerk George Alex, who was endorsed by Willas.

Voters repudiated the bickerers, and chose outsider Pabich, who got 599 votes, to McCormick’s 529, McGough’s 515, and Alex’s puny 281. And now, in 2005, it’s déjà vu all over: Pabich is the embattled mayor. Peggy Fuller, elected  trustee in 1999 as an anti-Willas reformer, dominates village government, since she and her so-called “Gang of Four” have a 4-1 majority among the trustees. Bickering has reached a decibel level much higher than that during the waning Willas years. And whatever Pabich proposes, Fuller opposes…and whatever Fuller and her Gang of Four passes, Pabich vetoes…and whatever Pabich vetoes, Fuller’s Gang re-enacts.

On April 5, Pabich, Fuller and former trustee Joe Scott are competing for mayor, and each mayoral ticket has a slate of three trustee candidates.

Scott, who lost his job in 2003 when anti-Pabich candidates (including Fuller) swept the three trustee spots, is trying to reprise Pabich’s 2001 role as the non-bickering outsider. Referring to his two foes, Scott, a teamsters’ union official, charged that “they’re being obstinate for the sake of being obstinate. There’s not been just a lack of leadership. There’s been a total failure of leadership.” Scott castigated Fuller for “just rejecting everything the mayor wants,” and criticized Pabich for “not trying to reach any common ground.”

“There’s chaos, hatred, animosity, and lack of accomplishment,” Scott added. “The right people are not in power.”

Pabich, a high school teacher, retorted that the current situation is “all about power and control. I had accomplishments during my first two years (2001-02), but since then, for political purposes, the trustees have blocked everything I’ve tried to do. We cannot have another four years of this kind of gridlock.” However, unless all three of Pabich’s trustee candidates – incumbent Arlene Jezierny, and Pat Christl and Cathie Van Giesen – win, creating a 3-3 split among the trustees, with the mayor as the deciding vote, the status quo will reign. Fuller, if she loses, will still be a trustee, and it is not unlikely that one or more of her trustee candidates (Jimmy Mougolias, Roy Schmidt, and Lester Szlendak) will triumph.

Fuller took effective control of village government in 2003, when she and her allies (Alex, who had evolved from being pro-Willas to anti-Pabich, and Mark Dobrzycki) won for trustee, and formed a majority, along with Trustee Mary Duffy. Shortly thereafter, Trustee Larry Bilek, a Pabich supporter, resigned after he said he received death threats.

After 11 phone messages left by this writer at Fuller’s office and residence, she responded with a voice mail stating that she “declined to be interviewed” because she was “afraid that I will be misquoted by you.”

Dobrzycki, however, expressed no similar fear, and stated that Pabich has “failed to be a leader. He’s failed to reach out and compromise. He’s failed to develop a comprehensive plan for economic growth. He’s presided over cost over-runs at village hall. He’s had his chance (as mayor), and he should go.”

Here’s a brief summary of assorted Harwood Heights Hi-Jinks over the past two years:

* Redevelopment: The Gang of Four approved an expenditure of $120,000 to a Wisconsin firm, Vandewalle & Associates, as a planning consultant, relative to a  project at Wilson and Oketo. The firm recommended construction of 1,800 mixed use residential/condominium units, and, according to Pabich, stipulated that Fuller would “co-ordinate” the implementation of the plan. Pabich opposed the idea, and the Planning Commission tabled the project. “That’s 4,000 more people in the village,” said Pabich, “with an impact on sewer, water, infrastructure, and schools. And she (Fuller) supported it. I oppose it.” Fuller, in a recent press release, now proclaims that she wants to “reduce gross density by 28 percent” and will “listen to our residents.”

And there’s also a proposed 200-unit condominium project at Ainslie and Olcott, known as the “Courtyard,” which is being promoted by Zittel Realty. “I will veto it if it passes,” promised Pabich, who said that Fuller is “trying to fatten her piggybank. She’s going to let developers run wild (in Harwood Heights), in exchange for which she will get campaign contributions.” According to Pabich, Fuller, a Democrat, intends to run for state representative (against Republican Mike McAuliffe) or state senator (against Democrat Jim DeLeo) in 2006, provided that she wins as mayor in 2005. The Plan Commission has recommended a reduction to two 90-unit buildings.

* Continuity. Since Bilek resigned in 2003, Pabich has submitted seven people (including Scott) as a successor. Each was nominated by Pabich’s ally, Trustee Jezierny, but none received a second, so none were confirmed. “That’s irresponsible,” said Scott, who claimed that whether Fuller ran the board with a 4-1 or 4-2 majority “was irrelevant. Couldn’t one (of the seven) have been acceptable (to Fuller)? Or couldn’t he (Pabich) have found somebody acceptable to them?”

* Staffing. The Gang of Four zeroed out a line-item appropriation for a secretary for Pabich, who now has none. When the clerk who handled the village’s water billing began taking the mayor’s calls, she was line-itemed out too. As a result, water bills were not forwarded, and a consultant had to be hired to rectify the situation, which resulted, according to Pabich, in double-billings and much chaos. Also, the trustees voted to cut the salary of the code enforcement officer to $6,000 annually, which, according to Pabich, means six hours per week. “He can’t do the job” in six hours, said Pabich. “We need weekend inspections.”

Also, the trustees hired their own attorney, Mat DeLort, as their “legislative counsel,” at a retainer of $20,000 per year. He drafts their ordinances, most of which are designed to enhance Fuller’s power. Pabich fired the former village attorney, and hired his own firm, which the trustees refuse to approve. So Pabich simply appoints them on a month-to-month basis, and they get paid only when they appear at board meetings.

According to Pabich, Fuller and her Gang have “hijacked the mayor’s prerogatives. They now have the power to hire and fire. They now control all zoning and planning. They now control all development. If I’m not effective, it’s because they won’t let me be effective.”

* Services. In Pabich’s first two years, 19 alleys were repaved, and sidewalk, sewer and street repairs were made, including major upgrades on Olcott. According to Jezierny, since 2003, despite $550,000 in the village’s Motor Fuel Tax fund (provided by the State for capital improvements), “not a single alley, sidewalk, street or sewer has been improved.” Every attempt to spend the money, said Jezierny, has been blocked by the trustees. The village employs 63, with 44 board appointees, and an annual budget of $9.7 million.

* Village Hall. The new, 33,000-square foot village hall complex, located in an old factory bought for $1.8 million, will cost a total of $6.5 million to renovate. The old village hall, according to Pabich, will be sold to developers for at least $2.3 million. Dobrzycki claims the renovation cost will be closer to $6.9 million.

West of Harlem to Ottawa, Harwood Heights extends from Foster to Sunnyside; east of Harlem to Nagle, it extends from Gunnison to Montrose, with a small sliver along Forest Preserve Drive to Sayre. The village contains 11 precincts.

Pabich, a Republican, has assembled an eclectic array of outside backers, including McAuliffe; Democratic Water Reclamation District Commissioner M. Frank Avila, and his son, attorney Frank Avila; 38th Ward Republican Committeeman Chester Hornowski; and, according to Pabich sources, workers from Democratic Alderman Bill Banks’ 36th Ward Organization, with whom DeLeo is allied.

“The voters see me as a victim of Fuller’s power grab,” emphasized Pabich, who said that he has worked diligently to alleviate flooding, with new underground retention areas, and to expand free bus services.

The outlook: In 2001, Pabich got 599 votes. In 2003, running for re-election as trustee, Fuller got 931 votes, finishing first; Scott got 786, finishing fourth. This year, Dobrzycki is campaigning energetically for Fuller among Polish-American voters, and Fuller’s slate has one Polish-American candidate. Pabich claims to have “three or four workers” per precinct, and said that they have found that there is “anger toward Fuller.”

My prediction: Scott’s “Third Way” approach, reminiscent of the triangulation so effectively employed by President Bill Clinton, and by Britain’s Tony Blair, can only succeed if Scott runs an active, visible campaign. To date, he hasn’t – but there could be a late “throw the bums out” surge. Turnout will be around 2,200. Pabich’s base is in the east end, and he has been working the apartments along Harlem, and Parkway Towers; Fuller’s base is in the west end.

Fuller will get about 850 votes. That means Pabich, to win, must hold Scott’s vote under 500. The race is very volatile, and any of the three could win. Make Pabich a very, very slight favorite.