The mother of a 14-year-old Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School student who was fatally struck by a truck while crossing Southwest Highway near Cicero Avenue last May made an impassioned plea Tuesday for Oak Lawn’s village government to help speed up the proposed safety improvements at the intersection.
The Village Board has been looking at an Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) plan that would upgrade the intersection of Southwest Highway and Cicero Avenue with repainted crosswalks, “pork chop” islands, pedestrian signals with countdown timers, and curb ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. IDOT has said a traffic review study must be completed before a project can be authorized or go out to bid, and the process could take between 36 and 42 months, according to Hometown resident Krista Wilkinson.
Wilkinson’s daughter, Kaylah Lentine, was struck by a pickup last May 24 at the intersection and died the next day from her injuries.
“The crosswalk striping is barely visible, even less than the day Kaylah was struck,” Wilkinson said. “The pork chop islands that are there are not accessible without leaving the crosswalk, but they are supposed to be a safe place to stand for pedestrians. Why are we putting $1.6 million into a project at Southwest Highway and Central Avenue instead of at Southwest Highway and Cicero, which is twice as dangerous?”
Wilkinson claimed there have been 210 accidents at Southwest Highway and Cicero between 2005 and 2011, compared to 100 at the intersection of Southwest Highway and Central Avenue one mile west. The $1.6 million project she referred to was the installation of left turn signals at Southwest and Central.
“Those numbers don’t include the fatality of a child – my child,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson asked the village board to meet with IDOT to hasten the project’s progress. Oak Lawn village manager Larry Deetjen told Wilkinson village officials have met with IDOT and expressed their desire to speed up the project, and were also working with state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36, Evergreen Park) on the project.
“We would support improvements sooner rather than later,” said Mayor Dave Heilmann said.
Wilkinson believes the proposed improvements would make the intersection safer for everyone.
“Please do what you can with the state to speed up the process or adding safety measures,” Wilkinson said. “How many kids, elderly people and bicyclists have to die while we are waiting?”
Three incumbent trustees and a man making his first run for office are vying for three seats on the Worth Village Board.
Trustees Rich Dziedzic, Jim Serpico and Colleen McElroy are running for re-election, while political newcomer Tedd Muersch Jr. is hoping to unseat one of the three for a spot on the board. Dziedzic and Serpico are running with Mayor Randy Keller, while McElroy – a former member of Keller’s party – and Muersch are running as independents.
McElroy, 39, has lived in Worth for 12 years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Northern Illinois University and works as the curator of the Worth Park District Historical Museum. She served as a trustee on the Worth Library Board from 2003 to 2009 and was elected to the village board in 2009. She serves on the Economic Development Committee and the Public Works Committee. McElroy wants to see more commercial development in Worth.
“Economic development is a major priority,” McElroy said. “We need to look at ways to utilize a good town plan to draw in bigger corporations or finance small businesses. We need to give them incentives to come to town, like façade [improvement] programs or possible tax breaks on properties.”
McElroy is looking forward to working with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning on an attainable town plan for Worth.
“It doesn’t just include ideas for how to design the town, it could lead to an intern position or a permanent position in village hall for someone that can seek out businesses and bring them to Worth,” she explained. “It will also help with streetscape – not only will it make the town look pretty, it will make people want to be there.”
Worth does not have the available property for a large mall like Chicago Ridge or Orland Park, so Worth businesses need to focus on its history and small town charm, McElroy said.
“We can create that small town atmosphere by bringing in businesses and drawing people to the community,” she added. “We want residents to be able to stay in town to do all of their shopping rather than go outside of town. Having a walkable, livable community is a very big trend right now. We want to make our town pedestrian-friendly.”
McElroy believes she has created good connections with people in the community during her first term as village trustee.
“I am a good listener, and I will try to find any answer that you need,” McElroy said. “I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of where the community is and where they want to be. I can communicate with people and keep an open mind.”
Dziedzic, 49, has lived in Worth for 19 years and has been a trustee since 2009. He is the general manager of Richards Bicycles just across the Calumet Sag Channel in Palos Heights. He is the chairman of the Village Board’s building, licensing and ordinance committee, and co-chairman of the economic development committee. He runs the Neighbor in Need program, which helps Worth seniors.
“I’m running for the same reason I ran four years ago,” Dziedzic said. “I want to get involved and do something good for the community. You can stand on the sidelines or play the game, and I want to make good changes.”
His biggest success is the Neighbor in Need program, he said.
“They might need yard work, so we have volunteers who will cut their grass in the summer, and shovel their snow in the wintertime,” Dziedzic said. “It is the accomplishment I am most proud of.”
Dziedzic would like to see Worth improve its retail development, especially in the tax increment financing (TIF) district at 111th Street and Ridgeland Avenue. The special taxing district has seen no development since being created nearly 10 years ago.
“I want to try and bring more businesses into town and make things better for people,” Dziedzic said. “In general, the economy needs to be better, but the business environment seems to be getting better. Our TIF district is not large enough for big box stores and a lot of people are still very cautious with the idea of expanding.
Jim Serpico, 50, is a lifelong resident of Worth and is running for his second term as trustee. He is a project manager and planner for Advanced Technology Services in Chicago. He is a member of the Village Board’s golf course and finance committees.
“I am running because I believe we have put Worth on the right path and we are going in the right direction,” Serpico said. “Financially, we went from a $1.7 million deficit to a 71-day surplus. I was part of a team in the village that took Worth from financial ruin to a positive cash flow.”
The $1.7 million deficit Serpico referenced was a one-time payment in 2009 -- $1 million for the repairs and repaving of Oak Park Avenue, $500,000 toward a golf course bond payment, and the rest for payouts for sick and vacation time for Worth firefighters when the department was absorbed by the North Palos Fire Protection District. It was not a recurring payment, as some village residents and trustees originally believed. The village’s budget in 2010 had $8.9 million in expenditures and $8.6 million for a $249,250 deficit. Since 2011, the village’s budget has had a surplus. The 2013 budget is expected to have $9.6 million in expenditures and $9.8 million in revenues for a surplus of $229,699.
“We are moving in the right direction,” Serpico said. “We are going to develop the business district and the TIF district. When good people do nothing, towns fail. We have good people here and we want to see successful improvement of our town and bring revenue-generating businesses here.”
Tedd Muersch Jr.
Tedd Muersch Jr. is hoping his background in finance and business will help bring new life and new perspectives to the village board. Muersch, 29, is a lifelong resident of Worth. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Illinois State University. He is a financial advisor and planner with Principal Financial Group in Downers Grove, and a former trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade. Muersch is enrolled at American College, where he is pursuing professional designations in financial advising and planning. He is a member of the Lucas Berg Nature Preserve Committee and the Village Board’s Life Safety Committee. He also worked on the political campaigns of former trustees Sharon Plahm-Wierenga and Georgia Duffy when he was a teenager.
“I went to village hall meetings and worked on their campaigns when I was 14 years old and got an idea of what it is like to run local government,” Muersch said. “I don’t know how many young kids you come across that have gotten involved in politics at such a young age. I have had a lifelong passion for politics.”
Muersch’s family has owned Krapil’s Steakhouse in Worth since 1996, and as a youth spent many hours at the restaurant. If elected, he wants to improve the village’s business climate, and has proposed creating a committee that will work with business owners to bring businesses to town.
“I started taking a look at the businesses in Worth,” he said. “I drove down Harlem from Southwest Highway to 111th Street and on 111th Street from Harlem to Ridgeland, and I counted 45 vacant storefronts.
“With running a business here, and my great uncle Chuck Muersch was the chief of police, we have deep family roots in Worth,” he added. “There is only so much I can learn as an outsider. Once I am inside [as a trustee] I want to bring my experience from helping run a business into the village.”
The TIF district at 111th Street and Ridgeland Avenue is a key issue, he said..
“It has been sitting vacant for years. It is a cornerstone of our village and I want to get something developed there.”
Muersch has contacted people that can put him in touch with grant writers in an effort to seek out federal and state aid to help develop the village’s commercial base. Some of Muersch’s financial clients also run construction companies, so he wants to use his connections to find out what kinds of developments would be possible in Worth.
“The residents are my ultimate bosses, so I answer to them,” Muersch said. “I want to get their ideas and create focus groups to find out what the community wants."
The challenger in the race for Oak Lawn mayor says she wants to bring more transparency to village government.
The incumbent candidate she hopes to unseat, meanwhile, wants to continue bringing retail developments to Oak Lawn and keep the village a “great place for families.”
Sandra Bury and Dave Heilmann will comprise voters’ choices for Oak Lawn mayor on the April 9 election ballot. The incumbent Heilmann was first elected in 2005 and is running for his third term as mayor of one of the southwest suburbs’ largest municipalities. Bury is an optometrist who has never held elected office.
Heilmann,50, has lived in oak Lawn his entire life and is a former Oak Lawn Park District commissioner who founded the district’s theatre program. He earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Illinois and his juris doctorate from the DePaul University College of Law. He works as a partner at Clausen Miller PC.
Heilmann believes he understand Oak Lawn and what it needs.
“I have four children, and as a person who grew up here, went to these schools and played in these parks, I was given a great community to grow up in and enjoy,” he said. “I want to give my children a better life. Many people leave and go to other places to live. I want to see Oak Lawn be the best place anywhere to raise a family.”
Commercial development is at the forefront of Heilmann’s agenda. He cited the Mariano’s grocery store to be built in a tax increment financing district at 111th Street and Cicero Avenue as the types of developments needed in Oak Lawn.
“What I think we always need to do is see not just what is here, but what can be here,” Heilmann said. “When we were asked to redevelop the 111th Street and Cicero Avenue corner, it was a big opportunity for the village. In a bad economy, Oak Lawn is going to see hundreds of jobs and thousands in tax revenue. We have to be able to look at something and say, ‘I think we can do better, let’s try this,’ rather than being a maintenance-only posture.”
Heilmann wants the Village Board, of which the members including the mayor have argued contentiously at public meetings, should instead work together, he said. The three incumbent trustee candidates and incumbent village clerk candidate who ran on Heilmann’s Unity Party ticket in 2009 have since left his party.
“In the midst of the tense environment in the Village Board, I wanted to have round table meetings to get over the animosity, but I couldn’t get the whole board there,” he said. “Other communities are not doing what we see happening in Oak Lawn. It shouldn’t be controversy constantly. That is why I am running with a new group of people who are interested in governing, not all the back and forth.”
Safety is one of the main issues Heilmann sees in the village. The village plans to create a comprehensive safety plan and reach out to the community about safety, he said.
“We have been having safety meetings,” Heilmann said. “We see neighborhoods [in other places] that have changed and become unsafe. We all know those neighborhoods, and we can’t let Oak Lawn become that.”
Another concern of Heilmann’s is vacant properties and homes being rented to neglectful and irresponsible tenants.
“People destroy neighborhoods by renting to tenants who do not take care of the property,” he said. “People they rent to neglect their homes, cause disturbances and have parties until all hours of the night, and people’s lives are affected. We need to look at ways to make it difficult to rent or get those people out of those homes. We can’t rent to somebody who wrecks a neighborhood through wild parties or potential criminal conduct.”
Bury, 51, has lived in Oak Lawn since 1979. She owns Complete Vision Care, an optometric practice in Oak Lawn. She earned a painting and drawing degree from Northern Illinois University and her optometry doctorate degree from the Illinois College of Optometry.
Bury is running to bring better leadership to Oak Lawn, she said.
“It’s still vision,” Bury said. “I went from visual art to visual sciences, and now it is about better vision for Oak Lawn. Now you have a board that barely talks, but a leader finds ways to talk, even with disagreements. It should be a civil board that respects each other, but that is not what we have. Voting for four more years of that would be very bad.”
Bury wants to be a leader that goes out and advocates for the community.
“A leader goes out and shakes hands when the camera is not on, and energizes the community through being involved. There are regional and local mayors meetings, and we do not have a presence there. I think Oak Lawn suffers because of that.”
Bury believes she is an honest person, and that honesty will make her a good mayor.
“I have no agenda other than putting what is best for Oak Lawn first, plain and simple,” shesaid. “We need board members who are putting their residents’ interests above everything else. The trustees represent the residents, and together, represent Oak Lawn.”
One of the biggest problems Oak Lawn faces is a lack of transparency, Bury said.
“At the start of every board meeting, I think we should ask trustees to declare any conflicts of interest with items on the agenda,” Bury said. “If someone is someone’s best friend from school, or a [political] donor, that party should recuse themselves from voting. When people think other people are trying to get away with things, they fight.
“I also think there should be a searchable, easy to find schedule of meetings on the village website, so people know when technology meetings or department of public works meetings are.”
Bury wants all public village documents to be published online.
“My plan would make the Freedom of Information Act not even necessary,” she said. “Checkbooks and financial statements, meeting schedules, contracts, meeting minutes –anything done on the taxpayer’s dime would be put online.”
Bury would also like to see more small businesses in Oak Lawn. She is concerned about some businesses that were recently licensed by the Village Board, including a massage parlor and several establishments that will offer video gambling.
“I am very, very opposed to things that are not aligned with the values of Oak Lawn being approved,” Bury said. “You have local brick-and-mortar places that already have bars or restaurants, and if you want to put little gambling machines in there, that’s fine. But if their entire reason to exist is gambling, that’s a big leap.
“I did not want it to be a green light for the casino and gaming mentality everywhere. I think that diminishes our community. It’s a source of revenue, I agree with that, but it is on the backs of quite a bit of loss. I don’t think that is the Oak Lawn most people think of. I don’t think that represents the families that make Oak Lawn great.”
Bury believes Advocate Christ Medical Center, which is in the midst of a billion-dollar expansion project, should pay impact fees for their use of village services including the police and fire departments.
“Like any other resident in Oak Lawn, I am thrilled that Oak Lawn is expanding and doing so well,” Bury said. “It is good for Oak Lawn and it gives Oak Lawn a distinction that is wonderful. That being said, [the hospital is] the largest user of village resources, and if they can partner with the community in some fashion with impact fees, I am in favor of that. I am not talking about socking it to anyone, just a partnership based on what is utilized. They have hundreds of police calls every year, and that costs everyone money.”
Hunting for eggs, hanging out with the Easter bunny, designing colorful bonnets and enjoying quality family time was the case last Saturday at the Frontier Fieldhouse in Chicago Ridge.
An estimated 150 people attended the residents-only event, at which the main attraction was the Easter egg hunt. Youths scrambled though a large pit filled with hay as they attempted to gather the colorful prize-filled ellipses.
“It’s a great free event for the kids and the community to come out and enjoy,” said Chicago Ridge Park District recreation superintendent Dominic Malito. “We have a nice crowd this year and the event is great, especially a free event in our current economy, and the kids are having a lot of fun.”
Children of all ages dug through the hay, submitted creatively designed bonnets in a bonnet contest, played on inflatable attractions, and entered a jelly beans-guessing contest.
“It never gets old…It’s always fun to dig through the hay and find eggs,” said Paula Murray of Chicago Ridge. “We used to come to this when we were kids and the Easter egg hunt is always the best part of the day.”
Lojan Demian, 5, was among the waves upon waves of children who stormed the hay pit.
“I don’t know how many eggs I got but I am having a lot of fun,” Lojan said.
Abagail Nowatski, 2, said all morning that she was going to “go shopping” for Easter eggs, according to her aunt, Jen Herodes.
One of the most popular events besides the egg hunt is the raffle drawing.
“The kids love the raffle, guessing the number of Jelly Beans in a jar; what kid doesn’t love candy, and they love getting the eggs out of the hay,” said Chicago Ridge Park District secretary Jody Murphy. “The bonnet contest is something we’ve always done and it’s part of the Easter tradition for girls to wear bonnets during Easter.”
A plot of land the Oak Lawn purchased five years ago is expected to be developed as the village’s newest park by mid-summer.
The Oak Lawn Park District is ready to begin the $250,000 to $300,000 project at Commissioners Park, 52nd Avenue and 89th Street adjacent to Brandt Park. Money for the park’s development will come out of the district’s capital project funds. Improvements to the property will include walking paths and flower gardens, said Oak Lawn Park District director Maddie Kelly.
Residents are invited to the park board’s next meeting, where renderings of what the park will look like will be shown. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Monday, April 8 at Oak View Center, 4625 W. 110th St.
“There is not going to be a playground or ball fields,” Kelly said. “We will have flower beds, walking paths, benches, art in the park, hopefully a water feature or water fountain. We want this to be a place where people can sit and enjoy nature.”
The Commissioners Park site has been vacant since the park district purchased the property from a private developer five years ago, Kelly said.
“It was privately owned, and a developer bought it, and one of our commissioners saw it and saw how beautiful it was,” Kelly said. “It had a lot of mature trees on the land – nice, big pines.”
About six residents attended a meeting in mid-March and were vocal about their desire for walking paths, Kelly said.
“This will bring a beautiful area in the middle of the street,” Kelly said. “It will provide a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of suburban life. It will be an area for people to sit and read a book, or bring their kids to enjoy nature.”