The night Ed Plaza won his first term as Lake in the Hills village president, he was excited but also concerned about who else won that night.
Plaza, who is wrapping up his 12th and final year as village president, found himself heading a deeply divided and highly confrontational community.
A previous village president, Tina Thornrose, had been forced out of office, but with some of the people she had supported newly elected, she wasn’t ready to give up power, Plaza said. For the first couple of Village Board meetings, she was there, sitting in the front row.
“I’m faced with what could be. ... I would reach what would be the pinnacle that night and yet at the same time, these four years could be the most miserable four years I could experience,” Plaza said.
Some new McHenry County village presidents and mayors may find themselves in a similar situation after the upcoming April 9 municipal election, having to tackle tough issues with conflicting board members.
Plaza solved his problem by taking the board out of the community.
Over a retreat where new trustees got brought up to date, the board discussed how they wanted to address issues and everyone got to know each other personally, and some of the tensions started to dissipate, he said.
Plaza isn’t sure that what he did is possible nowadays with more frugal spending. Lake in the Hills still does strategic planning conferences but at Village Hall, not retreats.
But the idea of keeping things professional and not personal is still relevant, he said.
“You see the stories, you see which communities are at each other’s throats, and it’s always personal,” Plaza said. “It may not come out in print that way, but you know. I’ve been through it. Grafton Township, clear example. The village of Cary has gone through a couple of administrations now. Same thing is going on there.”
The problem, he said, is a lot of people get into local government because of personal reasons.
“I’m not saying it’s the wrong reason,” Plaza said. “It should not be the only reason. You need to have a vested interest of some sort in order to do it.”
Former Cary Village President Steve Lamal, who served six years before stepping down in 2009, advised newcomers to stay away from special interests.
“It’s a slippery slope when you attach yourself to people in the community or outside it whose goal isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the taxpayers,” he said.
Woodstock City Manager Tim Clifton also recommends being careful what you say about someone and who you say it to because – especially in a smaller towns – many people are related or connected in some way.
Clifton is retiring this spring after 20 years in the position, but for the past eight or so years, he has been presenting his 10 commandments for local government officials at a workshop put on by the law firm Zukowski, Rogers, Flood & McArdle, which represents many area communities.
The 10 commandments – which includes being careful about what you say – also has been printed in the firm’s “You’ve Been Elected! Now What Do You Do?” handbook.
Lamal recommends getting a handle on the budget. That – the complexity of it, understanding all the different funds and their different requirements – was his biggest learning curve after being appointed in 2003. (He won re-election two years later.)
And once the budget is understood, personnel becomes the biggest issue.
It takes a large portion of the budget, and personnel concerns, including union negotiations and employee discipline, take up a lot of a village president’s or mayor’s time, Lamal said.
His advice: “Look them in the eye and be honest whether it’s a good situation or a bad situation, whether it’s praise or critique, and deal with it right away. Don’t let it fester. It won’t get better; it will only get worse.”
10 commandments for local government officials
Retiring Woodstock City Manager Tim Clifton has 10 tips for local leaders:
10. Don’t believe anyone who says, “Your predecessor promised ...”
9. Especially in small communities, be careful what you say and to whom.
8. The walls of City Hall have eyes and ears.
7. Prepare for meetings.
6. Listen to the public, staff and other elected officials.
5. Keep everyone informed.
4. Communicate with the public, staff and each other.
3. Don’t get into fights with the media.
2. Work with staff and the other elected officials as a team.
1. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Source: “You’ve Been Elected! Now What Do You Do?” by Richard Flood and Ruth Schlossberg