Siegel to say so long after 38 years as Ridge mayor

Village Clerk Chuck Tokar to run unopposed for seat

By Laura Bollin

Eugene Siegel was the mayor of Chicago Ridge before the village had sidewalks.

After nearly four decades in office, however, the southwest suburbs' longest-sitting mayor is calling it a career. Siegel will not run for reelection in April. The mayor has endorsed Chicago Ridge village Clerk Chuck Tokar, who is running unopposed for the soon-to-be-open seat, to be his successor.

Siegel moved to Chicago Ridge in 1956, and first ran for mayor in 1975. He was elected, then reelected nine times.

Siegel began his life in government long before he was elected mayor. He was the deputy Cook County coroner from 1962 to 1971, worked as the assistant chief the Cook County sheriff's office from 1971 to 1986, and was the administrative assistant to the state treasure from 1986 to 1992.

In 1993, he became a mayor full time. Before then, it was per village ordinance a part-time position.

"This is my fifth decade as mayor," Siegel said. "My first salary as the mayor part time was $1,500 a year, so I had to have a second job to support my family."

Siegel today earns in excess of $80,000 a year in salary and benefits.

Siegel's first run for mayor came after then-Mayor Joe Coglianese and five village trustees were indicted on charges of receiving kickbacks in return for rezoning properties, Siegel said. Coglianese went to prison for a year, and the Village Board was all but wiped out. Don Pratl Sr., who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board the week before the indictments were handed down, village Clerk Mary Macarol and treasurer Richard Tranowski maintained the village for five months until the election.

Siegel' after being elected, presided over a board that included Trustees Thomas Cooper, William Herrington, Paul LaChance, Chuck Tokar, George Rwyniak and Mary Susan Zelis.

"When I got elected, there was no government left," Siegel said. "All that was there were the village clerk, an appointed trustee, and the village attorney. Fortunately, village attorney George Witous decided to stay with me."

Witous is still the village's attorney today.

One of Siegel's first big projects was creating a pumping station and a two-million gallon reservoir. The village bought its water from Oak Lawn, whose mayor, Fred Dumke, advised Siegel to build a pumping station and reservoir in case there were ever problems with Oak Lawn's distribution system.

"The second big thing we did was the Chicago Ridge Mall," Siegel said. "The mall made us. It made Chicago Ridge."

Siegel said the plan for the mall originally began with the outdoor movie theater on the property where the mall was eventually built in 1981.

"We had the theater, which was nothing but trouble for our police and our village," Siegel said. "Young people were getting drunk there, there were illegal drugs there. We went out and tried to get somebody to develop it."

The first plan was for apartments and stores on the site, but village officials wanted something bigger. When Oak Lawn turned down a development for a Sears store at 95th Street and Pulaski Road, Chicago Ridge officials got in touch with the developers and told them about the property in the village at 95th Street and Ridgeland Avenue. The board during his time as mayor also created the Commons of Chicago Ridge, at 98th Street and Ridgeland Avenue.

"The mall was built in the early 1980s, and it gave Chicago Ridge a tax base," Siegel said. "We didn't have paved sidewalks to go from one side of the street to the other, so this was a big improvement. With that money, we were able to pave the streets, put in curbs and gutters, and put in storm sewers and low-vapor street lights. Our little village became modern."

Creating a fire department with full-time paramedics is one of Siegel's proudest accomplishments.

"We had a volunteer fire department, and the chief came to me and said, mayor, I'm having trouble getting people to answer ambulance calls at night," Siegel said. "We went and put a referendum on the ballot to hire full-time paramedics. We hired full-time firemen that were certified paramedics."

The village had to raise property taxes to pay for the firefighters in the early 1980s, Siegel recalled. He knew money was going to come in from the mall as sales tax revenues, and once it did, the board repealed the property tax increase.

"I told them once we started getting revenue, I would take the tax off, and I did," Siegel said. "I think that put me in a good place with the residents."

After nearly 40 years in office, most of the people who came in with him when he was first elected - like youth counselor Hank Zewarski, who was hired to help keep kids out of the criminal justice system - have long since retired. Zewarski still volunteers as a counselor in the village.

Along with being the mayor, Siegel has served as the vice-chairman of the Southwest Council of Mayors, and is the legislative chairman for the Southwest Conference of Local Government. He is on the board of directors for the Illinois Municipal League and on its executive committee. He is a former president of the Illinois Municipal League, a past member of the Midway Airport Task Force and is on the executive board of directors for Southwest Central Dispatch. He serves on the executive committee for the Mayor's Caucus and was one of two mayors representing Illinois on the National League of Cities Council in Washington, D.C.

The village has changed a great deal since Siegel first moved into the village, which had 1,500 people at the time.

"We're like a jigsaw puzzle," Siegel said. "We zig and zag when our boundaries should be kind of square. We are divided by two sets of railroad tracks, which made the community harder to police and harder to get around."

Siegel oversaw the creation of a tax-increment financing district at Southwest Highway and Harlem Avenue, and advocated building a bridge over Stony Creek so police officers and firefighters could more easily get to residents.

He also made it a point to let people know he would not rezone an area for one apartment building, which is what caused legal trouble for the previous administration, Siegel said.

"We convinced apartment owners to turn units into condominiums on Southwest Highway, so we have a class of people that have ownership and take care of the property better," Siegel said.

Though he is looking forward to retirement, Siegel said he was a little worried about having so much time off.

"It is bothersome to me," Siegel said. "I'm not a golfer, so I won't be on the golf course. I'll be doing something, but I'm not a youngster."

Siegel said he believes Tokar - who has served as clerk since 1989 after spending 14 years as a village trustee - will continue many of the same programs started under Siegel's watch.

Residents will still see Siegel in the village, he said.

"I'll be around," Siegel said. "I've been in politics and I've devoted my whole life to it. I'll still be able to serve in some capacity. I've made politics my life. I always felt that I wasn't better than anybody. I am on the same level as the people, that's why I've been so successful."