Home rule bid shot down tops year’s news in River Forest 2012
River Forest resident Al Popowits speaks during a River Forest Service Club meeting about why voting for the home rule referendum is bad for residents. | Michael Jarecki ~ for Sun-Times Media
Top web stories
The five most-viewed stories in 2012 on the Forest Leaves website:
1. River Forest, Oak Park community stunned by Robert Gaskill sexual abuse arrest
2. Twice convicted pedophile charged with not registering
3. Fenwick fashion show features friars and styles
4. Hemingway home sold to Oak Park couple, restoration planned
5. Former River Forest attorney disbarred
- Two sides debate value of home rule in River Forest
- River Forest home rule referendum fails
- Lake and Lathrop parties in settlement talks
- River Forest foster parent charged with sexual abuse
- Gaskill case headed to grand jury
- Foster parent indicted; lawyer seeks reduced bond
- Accused foster parent free after bond lowered
Updated: February 25, 2013 2:21AM
RIVER FOREST — While everyone prepares for 2013 and a fresh start, Pioneer Press offers Forest Leaves readers the top five stories from 2012. The stories included a failed referendum and an environmental lawsuit. Here are those and other highlights.
1. Home rule referendum loses big
For the second time in two years, taxpayers in River Forest resoundingly defeated a referendum that could increase tax rates.
In November, voters rejected a village request to assume home rule authority by an 80-to-20 percent vote — 1,079 people voted for and 4,307 opted against.
“By a significant margin, the electorate has responded; and we accept their decision and continue to work together to move the village forward in a positive direction,” Village Administrator Eric Palm said.
Under home rule, River Forest would have had extended taxation powers, but River Forest leaders approved self-imposed tax caps to calm resident fears they would not have to abide by tax caps. If approved, the village would have had to abide by the tax-cap restrictions.
But critics such as Al Popowits, a vocal critic of home rule and an organizer of the anti-home rule effort, contended that a supermajority of five board votes could also rescind the self-imposed tax cap ordinance, giving the village power to raise property taxes.
The vote was nearly the greatest defeat of a referendum in the village’s history. In Feb. 2010, voters overwhelmingly voted down a request by the River Forest Park District to maintain a tax rate set to expire, 82 to 18 percent. That referendum was for the purpose of purchasing and renovating a building for a recreation center.
2. Environmental lawsuit close to settlement
After nearly four years, the legal issues over environmental contamination of several commercial buildings and a residential building on and near the 7600 block of Lake Street may finally be close to resolution.
Lawyers for Edward Ditchfield, the embattled owner of several environmentally contaminated properties on the 7600 block of Lake Street, have been holding settlement talks with Forest Park National Bank, which filed suit against Ditchfield in May, 2010, seeking damages of at least $200,000 for a property it foreclosed on at 423 Ashland.
The bank contends it has been unable to sell the property since 2009, due to environmental contamination from a dry cleaner Ditchfield had owned and operated at 715 Lake St. between 1978 and 2002.
A 2001 Illinois EPA investigation of the dry cleaner site and adjacent areas found a plume of chemically contaminated soil “roughly 270 feet long, 90 feet wide and 10 feet deep.”
A follow up investigation in 2009 found up to 14,000 parts per million under the dry cleaners, just a few feet from the rear of the 423 Ashland property.
A formal settlement conference before a federal judge is scheduled for Jan. 30.
Ditchfield has already been found liable for the $13,000 cost related to vapor mitigation systems ordered by the U.S. EPA to be installed in two contaminated Lake Street business, and $39,926 for the EPA’s “post response costs.”
The EPA also informed Ditchfield it considered him a “potentially liable party” and encouraged him to negotiate a administrative consent order and reimburse the EPA for past investigative costs.
3. Gaskill sexual assault charges
Citizens in River Forest and Oak Park were stunned and saddened when longtime social services worker and foster parent Robert Gaskill was charged with 16 criminal counts of sexually molesting two foster children in his care.
Gaskill, 64, was arrested at his home by River Forest police Feb. 3 and jailed in lieu of an astounding $50 million bond.
Gaskill pleaded not guilty and retained defense attorney Ellen Domph. On March 15, a second judge ordered him placed on home arrest and electronic monitoring, after he posted 10 percent of a $250,000 bond.
Prosecutors said Gaskill began sexually abusing the two girls at different times. The first victim was 6 or 7 years old in 1996 when the abuse is alleged to have started, according to prosecutors, while the other victim was “about 12” when the alleged abuse started in 2004.
The defense attorney called into question the girls’ motives for making the accusations, and argued that their allegation came years after their alleged abuse
Prior to working for social service agencies, Gaskill was publisher of the Pioneer Press west group, which published Oak Leaves and Forest Leaves, in the late 1980s.
4. New village board coming
The River Forest Village Board will look quite different come April.
For the first time in the village’s 132-year history, River Forest may have a female president. Two sitting village trustees, Cathy Adduci and Mike Gibbs, have announced they are running in the April, 2013 election for the village’s top elected position.
Gibbs has created a slate comprised of himself, Lissa Druss, Tom Dwyer, Jr., and Kevin Hanley.
Village clerk Roma Colwell-Steinke and Park District President Tom Cargie also are running for trustee seats, as independents.
Village President John Rigas, who also had a 10-year run as a trustee will step down after one term. He has not made any endorsements so far.
5. Red light cameras on the way
Fours years after they were first proposed, red light traffic enforcement cameras are coming to River Forest.
The village board approved the installation of cameras in August, 2011, but just last month receive approval from the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has oversight authority for Harlem and North avenues.
Contractor Safe Speed, Inc. completed installation this month.
The cameras faced harsh criticism when first proposed in 2008, due to well-publicized instances of other municipalities using the systems as lucrative revenue generators. Plans were scraped in 2009, after trustees could not agree on contractual terms with an initial technology provider, RedSpeed, Inc.
However, the board’s approval last year was based on police officer safety grounds. Traffic enforcement on the heavily traveled Harlem Avenue presents safety risks to officers exiting their vehicles to talk with motorists.