Kathleen "Katie" Brennan

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Below are candidate-submitted answers to a biographical survey the Wednesday Journal sent out to all trustee candidates running in this year's elections. Candidates full, unedited responses are printed. 

Age:           54

Previous elected experience:       No previous elected experience

Previous community experience:            Chairperson, River Forest Sustainability Commission (for 2 years, and currently serving); President, River Forest Parks Foundation (for 4 years)

Occupation:           Attorney

Education: J.D.,     Georgetown Law Center

                               B.S.,    Miami University (Oxford, OH)

1.      Economic development has been a major focus for the village board in recent years. What should the village board's role be in promoting economic development? What are the best tools for doing so and what else can the village board to help recruit new businesses and maintain the ones already here?

Economic development is a plus for River Forest because it diversifies our tax base and lightens the load on resident taxpayers. Attractive and thriving businesses also create a more robust community and offer convenience and financial benefits to residents.  The potential downside is that change is difficult and can more directly impact some of our neighbors more than others.  We need to move forward with careful consideration of these perspectives.

River Forest has a unique opportunity right now with TIF districts on the North and South corridors, and development at Harlem/Chicago, and along the Lake Street downtown area.  The Village should pay attention to which businesses are more likely to flourish and what the community wants and can support.  A thoughtful plan for economic development should balance the desire to entice new business with the practical infrastructure (right-sizing, complementary architecture, adequate parking, opportunities for green space, and accessibility) to support new businesses and help them thrive. 

The Village should work collaboratively with the Oak Park/River Forest Chamber of Commerce, Visit Oak Park, and the River Forest Economic Development Commission to identify good business candidates, promote the Village (including with incentives, if appropriate), and thoughtfully help support existing business in the Village. The Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and fellow municipal members of its Economic Development Committee are also valuable resources – RF can learn from our neighboring communities about what has worked and has not worked for residents in other towns and villages. Finally, community input should be carefully considered as we move forward with River Forest's economic development plans.

2.      Developments at Lake and Lathrop and Chicago and Harlem, while good for the village's economic and social bottom lines, garnered resident criticism for design, village funds used and more. Do you have an opinion on either of these developments? 

The River Forest Comprehensive Plan only has four areas primarily designated for development – Madison Street, North Avenue, Lake Street, and Harlem Ave.  The Village must balance the concerns of residents who live near these corridors with the responsibility to secure the best development advantages for all River Forest residents, while enhancing the appearance and image of the community. Change will always elicit conversation and different opinions.  It is expected that neighbors who live close to any new development will have concerns.

I believe that smart, thoughtful economic development along these commercial corridors is good for the entire River Forest community, because it broadens the base of taxpayers and helps control resident property taxes. The developments at Lake/Lathrop and Chicago/Harlem are the first major developments in many years in River Forest, replacing in part an abandoned bank building (which used to be a pancake house) and a commercial parcel contaminated by a prior dry cleaner business.  The scheduled developments will be improvements.  Nonetheless, neighborhood concern about what the new plans will bring (traffic, parking, differing architectural styles, loss of sunlight and privacy) is normal.  This input can help guide the best development plans for the community and should be carefully heard, studied, and evaluated.

3.      How would you describe communication in the village and what more, if anything, should the village be doing to engage residents?

Village Trustees can best represent River Forest if they are part of the fabric of the community. If elected, I intend to continue to be out and about in the community, at festivals, Village events, and at meetings of Village Commissions and other taxing bodies, so that I can understand what is important to residents in real time. It's important that River Forest residents know their Trustees and feel that their opinions are being heard. I will consciously make myself available for casual meetings and coffees with residents and neighbors so they can comfortably share their questions, views and concerns.

The Village does a good job of communicating with residents and providing public engagement opportunities, but we can do more.  The Village's Crime Prevention meetings are excellent, and I recommend that these meetings be live streamed and taped so residents who cannot attend in person can still participate. The new RFHappenings calendar is also a helpful, new resource for all community events. I have already begun relying on this community calendar and am optimistic that it will become the go-to resource about events in the Village for River Forest residents.

Communication is a 2-way street – the Board needs to speak on behalf of all residents, and residents need to communicate their views to the Board. Residents can and do send the Village emails which are then dispersed to the relevant staff and commissions to handle.  I know, because last week an email from a resident who had questions about the Village's solar policy was forwarded to me, as Chair of the Village's Sustainability Commission.  We can also actively seek out resident input through surveys.  The Sustainability Commission conducted a resident survey this past year and gleaned invaluable insight into resident desires and concerns, and how we can best direct the Commission's resources.

4.      How important is it to ensure preservation of River Forest's historic homes? What can the village do to safeguard those homes from demolition? How does the question of property rights play into the equation?

River Forest is one of the most architecturally historic towns in the state, if not the country.  The structures in our Village are based on at least 24 architectural styles, which is particularly unusual in a town so small – just 2.5 sq. miles.  The vast majority of our Village's structures are over 50 years old, including schools, churches, and other non-residential buildings.  New homebuyers move here, and residents stay, because they love the look and feel of the Village. River Forest's historic architecture is a major part of that aesthetic, and we are fortunate that our residents have been proud custodians of their properties.

Historic preservation programs help communities retain their unique heritage, culture and character by protecting buildings and sites that are reminiscent of the past.  River Forest's preservation ordinance identifies 298 homes as Significant Properties and requires Commission review prior to any construction, repair, rehab, restoration, or demolition.  The Commission may recommend actions to preserve the historical and architectural significance of a property and neighborhood, but it cannot prevent a homeowner from proceeding with construction plans. Accordingly, the current ordinance is not particularly burdensome on River Forest homeowners. 

There has been much discussion over the past few years about demolition of historically significant homes in River Forest.  It's difficult to find the right balance between maintaining the aesthetically pleasing look and feel of River Forest with the rights of individual property owners.  I am in favor of exploring ways to identify resident sentiment on this topic (e.g. through a survey, a public forum) and also ways to best preserve homeowner rights (e.g. through education, collaboration with realtors) in the process.  Proactively understanding the desires of residents is a good step toward addressing the issue. 

5.      The village approved a new tax increment financing (TIF) district along Madison Street last year. Do you support a TIF in the area and how would you describe the village's process for communicating the project to residents? 

The Madison Street TIF offers River Forest a unique possibility.  Thriving, attractive businesses along that commercial corridor can enhance resident quality of life and help control our tax bills. The Madison Street TIF is designed to help plan for and manage the transition from Madison Street's current underperforming state to flourishing and appropriate businesses. I support the Madison Street TIF concept and the Village Board's hard work to date.  

Change can be difficult; For the TIF to succeed, we need excellent communication, full information, and opportunities for resident feedback to be heard and incorporated into the plans. There have been real and valid resident concerns and complaints about the Village Board's communication on Madison Street TIF-related plans. The Board has acknowledged that it could have shared more information sooner, allowed residents to get up to speed on TIF plans before moving forward, and proactively checked in with residents to answer questions and engage residents in the process.

The Village now faces the crucial phase of identifying and enticing the best businesses to our Madison Street TIF District.  It will be key for the Village to keep up good communication and for residents to stay engaged as plans proceed to appropriately develop this commercial corridor on behalf of the entire Village. This is an opportunity with growing pains -- careful and thoughtful management, and full communication and resident engagement are needed to help River Forest through this transition.

6.      What other issues involving village government are important to you, and how do you plan to advocate for them?

My first priority is keeping River Forest a safe community, with a focus on prevention and communication.  I will advocate for the most up to date training and technology for our Police Department.  I will also prioritize livestreaming and taping our quarterly Crime Prevention Meetings to make them more accessible to all residents.

Second, it's important to keep River Forest a livable and more accessible community, with an eye toward attracting new residents and making it possible for those of us who love living here to stay.  We need a balanced, thoughtful plan for economic development in the Village's corridors and downtown. River Forest should continue to prioritize quality of life for all residents, so that those who no longer have school-age children still make the choice to remain in River Forest and enjoy all of its benefits.  I plan to continue to advocate for the needs of an aging population and identify opportunities for meaningful participation in community life, through initiatives such as Dementia Friendly RF, River Forest's many innovative sustainability programs, and a Village Bike Path Plan.

And third, I will prioritize offering the most efficient, effective government possible to River Forest residents.  For example, I will advocate for the best use of our Community Center, to ensure that residents receive the most benefit from their tax dollars.  I will also continue to support energy audits for River Forest's taxing bodies and institutions – a practice spearheaded by the Village's Sustainability Commission this past year.

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