Kadner: Crestwood voters not ready for reform
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org April 11, 2013 9:58PM
Updated: May 13, 2013 6:25AM
It appears that voters weren’t ready for change in Crestwood.
Contaminated drinking water, millions of dollars in legal bills and more than 100 lawsuits would seem sufficient justification for voter rebellion in many communities.
But in choosing longtime Trustee Lou Presta as their new mayor, Crestwood residents seemed to say they didn’t welcome reform.
For decades, Presta was a staunch ally of former Mayor Chester Stranczek and his son Robert, who decided not to run for re-election as mayor this year.
But Tuesday’s election results are not that clear.
Presta received only 44 percent of the votes cast in the mayoral race, or 1,132 votes. John Toscas, a trustee who had criticized the Stranczek regime, got 37 percent of the vote (950 votes).
And Dino Pavoni, a restaurant owner in Crestwood who Toscas claimed was a stalking horse for Presta and the old Stranczek gang, received 19 percent (490 votes).
Only 33 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the mayoral race. That sounds low until you realize that voter turnout in the Cook County suburbs was only 19 percent, according to the Cook County clerk’s office.
But 14 suburbs in the county recorded higher turnout numbers, and four of those were in the Southland. Fifty-six percent of voters cast ballots in Bedford Park, 44 percent in East Hazel Crest, 42 percent in Thornton and 35.5 percent in Robbins.
None of those municipalities experienced a scandal anywhere near the level of Crestwood’s during the past few years.
The federal government indicted two Crestwood water department officials for falsifying documents to hide the fact that the village was supplementing its drinking water supply with water drawn from a contaminated well.
Two village documents filed with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency “contained materially false information” according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
One was a monthly operating report that falsely stated that the well was on standby status and that no water from it was being distributed to Crestwood residents, the government contends.
It says a second document, annual consumer confidence reports, stated that Lake Michigan water was the sole source of Crestwood’s drinking water.
An annual report filed with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources also contained information that Crestwood was not using well water.
Yet, as I spoke to village residents on Election Day, many told me they didn’t believe the allegations made by the federal government. Several told me they felt newspaper accounts of the scandal were exaggerated.
Would it have mattered if they knew that Frank Scaccia, the chief water operator for Crestwood, would plead guilty to one of 23 charges against him two days after the mayoral election?
In his plea Thursday, Scaccia said he was merely following orders to keep his job.
Well, several voters made it clear to me that they believe Presta had no clue on what was going on, even if the newspaper stories were true.
“Why would Lou, who lives in the village, allow contaminated water to be distributed?” one Presta supporter asked. “He couldn’t have known. It wouldn’t make sense to take that risk.”
Because Presta was seated in a van outside the polling place on Tuesday, I suggested the questions be put to him — what did he know and when did he know it?
He didn’t answer. Presta claims I only write negative stories about the village and so he doesn’t like answering my questions.
During the campaign, Toscas claimed that Presta had to know what was going on because Crestwood was paying less for its water than Alsip, which was the distributor of Lake Michigan water to Crestwood.
I’m not sure what Presta actually knew.
From the few village board meetings I attended over the years, it didn’t seem that Presta questioned much of anything the Stranczeks did.
In fact, even after the federal indictments, he voted with the majority of the board to pay the legal fees of Scaccia and Theresa Neubauer, the other former water official under indictment, who was later named police chief. She continues to earn her chief’s salary while on leave.
But there might have been another factor, other than the water scandal, at work in Presta’s election.
He promised homeowners a property tax rebate, originally initiated by Chester Stranczek.
Toscas had been telling people that the village didn’t have enough money to offer rebates, in part due to the large legal bills incurred from the water contamination issue.
Toscas told me Wednesday that he could have won the election if Pavoni had not entered the race, drawing disgruntled voters who might have been inclined to vote for Toscas.
Looking at some of the other races on the ballot, I’m not sure that’s the case.
The candidate for village clerk on the Crestwood Independence Party ticket, spearheaded by Presta, received 54 percent of the vote compared with 46 percent for the candidate of the New Leadership Party, headed by Toscas.
With three trustee seats up for election, Presta’s party won them all, each receiving about 16 percent of the vote.
So although Presta failed to get a majority of those voting for mayor to support him, it seems voters in Crestwood rejected the Toscas slate that promised reform.
It is often said that people get the government they deserve. I still believe people in Crestwood deserved better, even if many of them do not.