February 13, 2013


In northwest suburban Park Ridge, the mantra for 2013 is "Just Say No." As in "Mayor No" -- and "no more nonsense," "no more nonessential spending," "no more vetoes," "no more bullying," "no more deficits" and, most emphatically, "no more Mayor Dave Schmidt." How much "no" is too much?

The city of 37,480 has had four mayors in the past decade, and self-styled independent Larry Ryles wants to be the fifth. He says that Schmidt is "despised and detested" by the public and six of seven aldermen and that he's running to clean up the "muck, mire and mess" into which Schmidt has plunged the city. "Civility and morality" will be his goals, said Ryles, age 65, who served 27 years in the U.S. Army and who was discharged as a division command sergeant major for the 101st Airborne Division. "We must do what is right, not what is expedient," he said.

"Ridiculous, total lies," Schmidt said. Ryles wants to "return to the old days of tax and spend," Schmidt said, adding that Ryles' "biggest booster is Howard Frimark," whom Schmidt, a Republican, defeated in 2009. "(Frimark) can't stand rejection," Schmidt said. "He recruited (Ryles) because he knew he couldn't beat me. He was a terrible mayor."

Schmidt said that during Frimark's 2005-09 term, the city ran up $7.8 million in spending deficits. "In my 4 years, we had a $3.8 million surplus -- $350,000 in 2010, $1.5 million in 2011, $1.1 million in 2012 and $811,000 in," he said. "We are correcting ruinous fiscal policies."

"He is a bully," Ryles responded, saying that Schmidt vetoed 51 City Council-passed fiscal ordinances and that the aldermen overrode 47 vetoes. He said that 19 times he vetoed ordinances that were passed 5-1 or 6-1.

"There's no teamwork, no agenda, no economic development plan," Ryles said. "He never discusses anything. There is no flow of information. This is nonsense. That's not leadership." Frimark adds that while he was the mayor, he never vetoed any ordinance.

Schmidt, a 53-year-old attorney, scoffs at the allegations. "Everywhere I go, people are praiseworthy and encouraging," he said. "They tell me 'thank you' for restoring fiscal sanity."

As for economic development, Schmidt pledges to "continue strengthening Park Ridge's financial position," acknowledging that the housing market collapse and the ensuing recession hit hard. An astounding number of knockdowns and $1 million-plus "McMansion" construction from 1995 to 2006 created inflated home values which subsequently collapsed, causing a rash of foreclosures. Because prices were so high, they have yet to bottom out and rebound, as in many suburbs. Because home owners can't sell, demographic change is minimal. People can't move, so they're stuck. New home and condominium construction has evaporated.

It creates a different mindset, Schmidt said. When people see their home value appreciate 10 percent annually and their equity explode, and they know they can sell in a matter of days, they're relatively unconcerned about paying higher property taxes or government fees. When property values have plunged and property taxes increase, they definitely do care about government spending, he said.

"I held the line on taxes," Schmidt said, noting that a 2012 staff estimate of projected 2013 city spending increased the property tax levy by $1,863,036, an 11.16 percent hike, to roughly $16.7 million. The Park Ridge budget is $60 million, of which about $30 million comes from general tax and fee revenue, and half of that from property taxes. "So we cut $1.5 million," Schmidt said, including pension contributions, library improvements, legal expenses, personnel and service costs. "It had to be done," he said, noting that the 2013 property tax levy increase was $364,829, or 2.15 percent.

Schmidt's budget ax didn't stop there. He vetoed appropriations for community groups, defibrillator replacement, Meals on Wheels, the firefighters' contract, $1.5 million in police station renovations, two contracts for the city manager which he called "bloated," $1 million for the Uptown Tax Increment Financing District and a myriad of budget add-ons. Schmidt called those expenditures "nonessential." Ryles called it "grandstanding." Schmidt opposes spending $16 million to build a new police station, which the alderman approved.

The mayor claims he is succeeding, citing a city sales tax revenue increase from $4.5 million annually when Frimark left office to $5.5 million in 2013. His philosophy is that low taxes spur economic growth.

Ryles cites the departure of a number of Park Ridge businesses, including American Eagle, the Big Ten Conference office and the American Society of Anesthesiologists headquarters, the closing of the George May Company, a plethora of vacant storefronts, plus delays in construction of Whole Foods and Mariano's Fresh Market stores, as proof of Schmidt's failures. "We have to work out our problems," he said. "We have to spend what is necessary." His philosophy is that higher spending, even if it requires higher taxes, spurs economic growth.

In 2009 Schmidt, who then was an alderman, was regarded as a "fringe" candidate, and his campaign as Quixotic. Frimark, a Republican, had soundly defeated Democrat Mike Tinaglia in 2005 by 4,889-3,225 (with 60.2 percent of the vote), and he was viewed as a visible, voluble mayor. Park Ridge municipal elections are nonpartisan, but no prominent Democrat deemed it wise to challenge Frimark, who was thought to be unbeatable. Schmidt was in mid-term, and he faced no risk if he ran and lost.

Schmidt attacked Frimark from the right, blasting him as a big spender, a fiscally incompetent mayor, and a liberal. He ran a low-key campaign, spent $34,000, and had four negative mailers. He made the election a referendum on Frimark, whose doom originated in the torrential rains and flooding of September and November of 2008, when almost 40 percent of Park Ridge basements were flooded. Schmidt's pieces hammered Frimark for "failing to fix the flooding," for failing to obtain the 10th casino license (which went to Des Plaines), for attending only two meetings of the Suburban O'Hare Commission in 4 years, and for failing to repair "terrible streets." Schmidt, who broke into politics as an ardent Reaganite, stayed on message -- which was "Get Rid of Frimark." He didn't digress into irrelevant social issues. As a result, he created a unique anti-Frimark coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, who hated the mayor for engineering a City Council reduction from 14 to seven, wiping out the Democratic presence.

Frimark compounded his problems by emphasizing support for a new police station while ignoring flooding issues. He spent $51,000, did not go negative on Schmidt, and lost 4,616-3,615, getting 43.9 percent of the vote. Frimark won 13 of the city's 45 precincts.

This year's election is a referendum on Schmidt, who expects to spend $50,000 and who hopes to get 70 percent of the vote. "I need a mandate," he said. The key issue is Schmidt's style of governance, coupled with his spending, taxing and vetoing policy. Ryles has lived in Park Ridge since 1995, has two children in grammar school, is active in civic groups, and is a thoughtful and credible contender. He will spend $35,000, and his economic plan can be summarized as "stay home, bring home, and sell home," meaning keep current businesses and residents satisfied with city services, then bring in more businesses, then convince outsiders that Park Ridge is an advantageous place to shop and live.

The stalled Mariano's project proposed for Touhy and Cumberland avenues, which would be a sales tax cash cow, is an emerging issue. The developer blames chaos and staff turnover in city government for zoning delays. Ryles blames Schmidt's refusal to allow TIF district tax breaks for the delay. Schmidt wholeheartedly endorses the project and says tax breaks are not a problem, but he blames the delay on the developer's "lack of funding."

Barack Obama won Park Ridge 8,329-7,562 in 2008, but he barely carried it in 2012. Turnout was 19,543 in 2012 but only 8,231 in 2009, about 30 percent of registered voters. The Republican and Democratic base is 30 percent each.

Prediction: Schmidt wins if he's perceived as principled and responsible, and Ryles wins if Schmidt is viewed as cantankerous and obstructionary. In a turnout of 7,800, Schmidt will win with 54 percent of the vote.

Maine Township: It's a political killing field. A decade of vicious ideological warfare among Republicans, with the socially liberal, pro-choice wing battling the conservative, anti-abortion wing, has decimated the party. The schism erupted in 2001, when the faction of Bill Darr, Bob Dudycz and Bob Provenzano dumped Supervisor Mark Thompson, an ally of pro-choice Republican state Representative Rosemary Mulligan, and replaced him with Dudycz. Thompson ousted Darr as committeeman in 2002, and he beat Provenzano in 2006. Thompson lost for Des Plaines mayor in 2009, Mulligan ousted Thompson in 2010, and Mulligan bungled her nominating petitions and was knocked off the ballot in 2012.

Provenzano, the township road commissioner, is the "Last Man Standing."

Mulligan's ineptitude paved the way for Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan, a Democrat, to win the 55th Illinois House District seat. He beat pro-life conservative Susan Sweeney by 2,285 votes, getting 53.2 percent of the vote. Mulligan endorsed Moylan. Provenzano was neutral.

Prediction: Moylan and Provenzano are very close friends. Moylan made sure the Democrats did not run a slate in the 2013 township election, leaving Provenzano unopposed for his $80,000-a-year job. Both Moylan and Provenzano will run for township committeeman in 2014 of their respective parties. The "Killing Field" is now the "Love Boat."