By Anthony Caciopo
Regional News Editor
Public safety and the look and feel of Palos Heights were on the minds of local residents who questioned this year’s aldermanic candidates at a public forum.
Economic vitality, Lake Katherine, business development, break-ins and the video gambling debate were among the topics the candidates fielded from a room of more than 40 attendees.
The candidates agreed more often than not as they took questions from the audience in a March 14 event facilitated by the League of Women Voters of the Palos Orland Area.
Jeffrey Key is the incumbent of Ward 1. Political hopefuls Patty Schwartz and Brett Lewandowski are squaring off for the Ward 3 seat being vacated by Ald. Alan Fulkerson, who is not seeking reelection.
Key’s opponent, William Moran, chose not to attend the forum. Moran stated in a letter that he learned about the forum only after he heard he had agreed to participate.
He also objected to the fact Mayor Bob Straz was the sponsor of the event, an aspect that the League says was not partisan but merely a formality. Moran also complained that the “right questions” would not be asked at the forum, among other charges.
The Regional reached out to Moran with a telephone voice message that has not yet been returned.
Schwartz has been a resident of town since 1979. She has raised a son in Palos Heights said she has lived a life of public service, all of which includes Palos Heights and the surrounding communities.
She has a bachelor’s degree from Governors State University and a master’s degree from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.
“I’m responsible for budgets in excess of $15 million,” said Schwartz during introductions. “I work for the 10th largest non-profit integrated health system in the U.S. I am in operations and manage 150+ emergency room physicians and advanced practice clinicians as well as a behavioral health team.”
Schwartz was a firefighter/paramedic for the fire departments in Palos Heights and Worth.
Palos Heights has two aldermen in each of the four wards and Schwartz has been endorsed by Ald. Dolores Kramarski of Ward 3, which is roughly bordered by 127th Street, Harlem Avenue, the Calumet-Sag Channel (including Lake Katherine Nature Center) and the City’s border on the west.
Lewandowski has lived in town for about four years with his wife Amy and their three daughters.
“Right away we’ve been embraced by this community,” he said.
“I’ve been in public service for 18 years. I was a Cook County Sherriff for 15 years; spent 10 years in Cook County Jail, five years on the street doing house arrests,” Lewandowski said.
“In between I went to Chicago State and achieved my criminal justice degree. I was elected to the pension board and served for five years,” he said. “The pension board oversees $10 billion of assets. Management is responsible for all the retirement benefits and disability benefits for 20,000 county employees. I was chairman of the Legislative Committee, chairman of the Investment Committee and was vice present and secretary.
Lewandowski said he also was a union steward and participated in many contract negotiations with the County.
Key and his wife, Diane have lived in Palos Heights for 16 years. They have three adult children and four grandchildren. He has been an alderman in Ward 1 for 8 years, a ward roughly bounded by 135th Street, 125th Street, 70th Avenue and Ridgeland Avenue/city limits on the east.
“I’m retired from two separate professions. I was a junior high band director for 35 years in Alsip, retiring in 2009, and I was a music minister,” he said.
“Ald. Don Bylut is my work partner. It’s been a pleasure working with him the last six (of Key’s eight) years. Both of us do not take this job lightly. We work very hard to help not only help the residents of Ward 1 but the people all through town.”
“Each alderman is on four committees,” said Key. “Mine are Public Safety (which includes police); Roads and Construction; Zoning; and Parks and Recreation, of which I’m also the chairman.”
Key is the liaison from the City Council to the Beautification Committee. He also serves on the Business and Economic Development Committee, which “works with the business development person from the City, with the chamber of commerce, with our business owners in town, and with both residents and non-residents to think of things that are going to draw people to our business community and shop local.”
A selection of the evening’s questions follows.
(The most recent referendum, non-binding, was held Nov. 6, 2018. “No” votes were cast 57 percent to 43 percent in favor of video gambling).
Schwartz: “I believe there’s a place for gambling In Palos Heights in a limited capacity. I don’t believe Palos Heights is the type of place, or has the community character, for a Dotty’s, with no offense to any of those full gambling locations. It’s an opportunity to bring additional revenue into our city when those machines are placed within local eateries and pubs.”
Lewandowski: “It’s a settled issue. It went to referendum. It lost. It goes to the people, let the people speak, it’s settled. I do not want a Dotty’s in Palos Heights. I think it’s atrocious to look at, driving by and seeing ‘7-7-7, come try your luck’ and enticing people to come in. If you’re business model is reliant upon video gaming to be successful, it’s a poor model.”
Key: “It came up to the City Council a number of years ago. I was a no-vote. I’m still a no-vote. The people of the First Ward wrote me many, many emails. I got more emails on this subject than all the other emails put together. The people said ‘please vote no.’ When there’s something of this magnitude, I believe the residents should have a voice and not just eight of us (Council members). The business community wants it. I can understand why. By ordinance, if there’s any gaming expansion, it has to be through referendum.
Vacant properties, including the old Dominick’s and Rinni’s Pharmacy
Schwartz: “This isn’t a new problem that we have. We’ve had vacant stores off and on for decades. From what I understand, Jewel has a lease on it (former Dominick’s building) and we can’t do anything about that until the lease is up.
I’d love to work with business development and try and bring in some big-name stores so that we can get that tax revenue. I have my own fantasy about Trader Joe’s coming in and I’d love to have a Target closer. Whole Foods would be wonderful.
I think a lot of different stores (would be good to bring to town) and I’d love to work on a team and figure out how to do that. I look at around at our neighboring communities—Crestwood—I don’t think they can fit another chain store in that town. Last I heard, they were bringing in Chick fil-A and an Aldi there. I’d love a Chick fil-A and an Aldi here in Palos Heights. We need to look at our neighboring communities and see what they’re doing and see if we can have that success.”
Lewandowski: “I’m going to start off with Rinni’s. I view Harlem Avenue as our main thoroughfare, our main street, and I look to Roscoe Village (in Chicago), I look to Western Springs where you develop small businesses like what we see with Franklins Public House. I know we have a Chinese restaurant coming in. I think we have an opportunity there to make it a destination for dining, maybe the ‘rooftops of Palos,’ something like that, something small.
The mom and pop drugstores are never coming back. I don’t want big box stores in Palos Heights. I don’t want to be Crestwood. I want to bring Western Springs, LaGrange, Roscoe Village, and what did they do? The have little shops that you help develop and I think our City has done an outstanding job of trying to push people to shop locally.
We have to think big for the Dominick’s. I like the Pete’s idea and we need to get aggressive when that lease is up. It has to be well-thought out and well planned and get community input. One of my thoughts is maybe the city buys it and turns it into an ice rink. We have an Olympic gold medalist here (Kendall Coyne).”
Key: “The thing that makes it very, very difficult in both cases is that they’re private property. So, a municipality does not have the right to fill them with something that we want. That being said, we can help the situation. The Business and Economic Development Committee works on the occupancy report and one of the reasons we want to bring people to town is to bring more retail here. We would love to see the stores come back onto Harlem and fill Rinni’s.
The City has tried to help out the situation. Pete’s was very interested (the old Dominick’s property). The City offered almost a million dollars in tax incentives but they couldn’t close the gap because Pete’s doesn’t lease, they buy.
I think the City could do a little bit better job in terms of maybe identifying the kind of businesses that we would like there, and maybe package something and then actually go after those companies.”
Schwartz: “I’m not a fan. You know what goes on in there. I’d rather have a vacant storefront. We want to preserve our community’s character and we don’t need massage parlors here. There are legitimate massage parlors, really nice places, reputable. A place like that I’d be happy to have in town.”
Lewandowski: “I was pretty harsh on Dotty’s earlier. The only thing worse than Dotty’s are these massage parlors. In my former life as a Cook County Sherriff, I know what goes on in those massage parlors. These are not good places to have in this community. I would rather take a vacant storefront than a massage parlor. I’d like to do everything we can to get rid of them in our community.”
Key: “I think we’re all aware that there’s a difference between a massage parlor and a day spa. When the problem with the massage parlors came up, there was no mechanism in place to really do something about it. At that time, you couldn’t pull a business license because an employee broke a law. But the City responded to that by passing an ordinance. If you’re in Palos Heights and an employee breaks a law now, at the discretion of the mayor, a biz license can get pulled. That’s how we responded.”
Elimination of stop signs on 76th Ave., between College Drive and 127th Street following resurfacing.
Key: “The reason is that the stop signs aren’t warranted, which means they’re useless. There have not been any injuries on 76th Avenue. If the police were here they’d say ‘stop signs do not slow you down.’ Stop signs do not add to the safety. That’s why a traffic engineering firm is brought in. Sometimes, over the years, maybe there was an accident or people say there’s a lot of kids in the area, some stop signs have gone in. People who want to speed on 76th Avenue are the people who live on 76th Avenue. The police write the tickets and we (City Council) hear about it.”
Schwartz: “I still stop where the old stop sign used to be. I’d like to put the sign back. It did help me slow down.”
Lewandowksi: I live on 75th Avenue. The (police department’s portable) speed sign is terribly effective. A police officer would sit there making sure everybody was doing the 20 mph. I’d be a big proponent having multiple stop signs.”
Insufficient parking at Lake Katherine Nature Center
Key: “The current parking lot is going to be repaved and expanded, the same size again, to the east. The great thing is that the mayor got the Southwest Conference of Mayors to pay 80 percent of it and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is paying the other 20 percent. It’s not going to cost the city anything. It will happen in 2020.”
An additional entrance/exit will be on College Drive.
Lake Katherine: finances supposed to be self-sustaining? (citizen stated $100,000 of taxpayers’ money is still going to the Nature Center annually).
Key: “During the last several years, a new agreement between Lake Katherine and the city was reached., The goal was still to be self-sustaining. Things were put into place to try to get them to do it. A new naturalist was hired and the idea is to go after corporate partnerships so they have a new revenue stream. Their board is a fundraising board and that is their objective, to raise money and be self-sufficient. To a person, everyone involved with Lake Katherine and the city agrees to that end, it’s just very complicated getting there.”
Lewandowski: “It’s imperative to get the input of the residents around Lake Katherine if anything’s going to change there. If we’re going to see corporate sponsorship to turn it into some kind of concert (venue), I want to hear from people in my ward if they are OK with that. People bought their townhouses there to enjoy the quiet, peaceful setting and if we’re going to change it into a Ravinia, I want to hear from the residents. Their voice should speak loudest.”
Schwartz: “With any expenditure within the city, it needs to be evaluated and re-evaluated. If we have an expense within the city that is the reason we need to raise taxes, then we need to take action on that expense. Do our due-diligence and make sure every single penny of your hard-earned tax dollars that’s being spent is worth it. I understand folks bought those beautiful townhomes—I’d love to live there myself. If it’s a situation where we have to raise taxes on the entire city, that’s a problem.
Lake Katherine: seasonal crowding and safety (establish a bike lane to get people to ride in a designated area, rather than all over the street?)
Lewandowski: “I was out there and especially on beautiful days, people are out there in force on their bikes and there’s a problem, with bike riders respecting the rules of the road for cars, as well. I don’t like the safety issue going on, the potential for someone to get hurt out there due to the heavy traffic. I would be a heavy advocate to looking into having a designated bike path that’s paved to take those rides off the streets and not have potential for any kind of injury. Also, to ease up on those residents on Lake Katherine who are experiencing heavy traffic trying to get to their homes.”
Schwartz: “Anything that increases the safety of our residents, as well as our guests in this community, is a win. Lake Katherine is an amazing place, it draws so many people to our community and anything we can do to make it a safer place and more enjoyable place, I’m all for that.”
Key: “The bike path was actually planned and started to be worked on 12 years ago. IDOT is involved because they choose where paths can be and where. Eighty thousand to 100,000 people walk the path. The mayor went to the Southwest Conference of Mayors and actually got funding. I voted for that when it came to vote (in the City Council), but it was not voted on and it lost.
Rental homes in Palos Heights
Lewandowski: Yes, with municipal oversight.
Schwartz: Yes, with municipal oversight.
Key: Yes, with municipal oversight.
Schwartz: “I love chickens! I was just at the Big R in Homer and they have baby chicks and ducks there. Oh my gosh, they’re so cute. I’ve done quite a bit of research about chickens. I have a huge garden, I do some canning, self-sustenance is really important to me. I’d like to see Palos Heights be pro-chicken for the purpose of gathering eggs. There’s so many pollutants and chemicals and terrible things in our food now that I think it’d be delightful to have your own fresh eggs. I know some people with chickens and it’s really something fun for your children and the whole family.”
Lewandowski: “I have a wife and three daughters and they love chickens and chicks. There’s no difference between me and Ms. Schwartz. I love chickens.”
Key: “For every person that wants them, there are several people that don’t want them or the critters that come into the yard because the chickens are there. There’s other varmints that come. Palos Heights is surrounded by forest preserves and we have a lot of coyotes. They are on the bike paths. Coyotes will jump over the fence and take your dogs, your cats…and your chickens. Do you want a chicken, do you want mice, do you want coyotes? As far as I’m concerned, I’d be very happy not to discuss chickens anymore.”
Reducing burglaries and vehicle break-ins. A sting operation?
Schwartz: “I don’t see why we can’t. Our police department is amazing. I see the signs, Lock It or Lose It. I would defer to our police chief and deputy chief to come up with some strategic plan on how to do that (a sting). That’s their area of expertise.”
Key: “I agree with Patty that it’s the police department’s responsibility. Every month at Public Safety, our police force has hundreds of hours of training. If the police were here, they’d tell you the number one thing is crimes of opportunity, when you don’t lock your home. You leave your car in the garage and it has become very popular to leave your fob in the car. You go into Jewel just for a gallon of milk and you don’t lock your car. Those are all crimes of opportunity.”
Lewandowski: “A bait (vehicle) would work if you’ve got some kind of comic-book mastermind that was breaking into cars and breaking into houses. The truth is the criminals are very smart and adaptive. They steal cars, drive into affluent neighborhoods where people are more lax with their security (and find) unlocked cars, unlocked houses.
The true answer to this, and I think this would be echoed by our police department, is community policing. The most effective policing, besides locking your doors, is watching out for each other.”
Early voting for the April 2 election is available at the Palos Heights Recreation Center, 6601 W. 127th St., every day through April 1, including weekends. Hours vary by date. More information can be obtained by calling the Rec Center at (708) 36-1807.