Flood control, DEI, attracting business among issues in Downers Grove council race

Six candidates vie for three seats in April 4 race

The First Methodist Church polling place in Downers Grove for the General Election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

(Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote about the social and political climate in Downers Gove to candidate Michael Davenport. In fact, the quote should be attributed to candidate Jm Devitt).

A crowded field that includes one incumbent and a former mayor are vying for three seats on the Downers Grove Village Council in the April 4 consolidated election.

The six candidates for the four-year seats are incumbent Leslie Sadowski-Fugitt, Michael Davenport, James Devitt, Tammy Sarver, Denise McCann and former Mayor Martin Tully.

Sadowski-Fugitt, 38, has lived in the village for 10 years. She is running for a second term to continue momentum on initiatives she began in her first four years, such as successfully advocating for both a diversity, equity and inclusion plan to ensure representation in all levels of municipal government and additional funding for environmental sustainability for the new village facilities.

“I also care deeply about our community, and believe it is important to model the future I want to see for my daughter’s generation and beyond,” said Sadowski-Fugitt, who is married and works for the American Hospital Association.

Other priorities include handling the sale of village land in the next phase of the facilities project in a way that is both fiscally responsible and maximizes the likelihood of affordable housing within the community, reviewing the village’s comprehensive plan with not just an economic development eye but also with a look toward walkability, cycling and environmental sustainability, and completing the next phase of the DEI initiative, which will result in strategies designed to increase diversity beyond just hiring and promotions practices.

“As we review the comprehensive plan, we need to balance economic development with quality of life,” she said. “I would like to see Downers Grove be a place where people can bike from the south to the north safely. I’d like to see us reduce our reliance on cars and make it a more walkable area. The downtown has been making strides in this area, and I would dedicate more time and effort to how those outside the downtown can access it via bicycle more easily. It will certainly require time and money in the short term, but will be beneficial for the community in the long term.”

Sadowski-Fugitt said she’s proved herself to be a leader who approaches problems objectively and listens to all points of view but is also not afraid to make difficult decisions.

“I have thick skin and am able to separate criticism of the decisions Village Council needs to make from personal criticism,” she said. “I have a scientific background and am adept at evaluating data, doing research and recognizing reliable sources of information. I am highly empathetic and can recognize strengths and weaknesses and lead in a way to maximize strengths.”

Davenport, 56, said he is running because in his almost 30 years as a resident and architect, he’s encountered many issues where “I know we can do better.”

“Issues like fair and effective stormwater management, adoption of updated building codes and the need for sensible development in many areas of town, especially in and around downtown,” Davenport said.

Additionally, Davenport, who is married with four children, said volunteering always has been important to him.

“We need good people willing to serve if we want to continue being a place where families can thrive, diverse people can flourish and opportunities abound,” Davenport said.

Davenport said he has much to offer, including being a problem-solver who can bring people together.

“Thanks to my professional experience and my last 12 years serving on the Community High School District 99 Board of Education, I’m well versed in working with people of wide-ranging experiences, abilities and opinions,” he said.

As an architect, Davenport said he is the most qualified candidate to address future development challenges.

“I actually enjoy working with codes and ordinances, and I’ve been quite successful at interpreting them in ways that benefit my clients,” he said. “I look forward to being on the other side of the equation, helping to improve codes and ordinances for our collective advantage. Perhaps we can even shift a little of our focus from preventing development we don’t want and instead look for opportunities to encourage the development we do want. I think we need to be better at anticipating and planning rather than reacting to the latest historical building loss or multi-story building on the edges of our cherished downtown.”

The social and political climate prompted Devitt to run for a seat, he said.

“I realized that someone had to step up and attempt to bring both sides together for the better of the village I love. Seeing residents voicing their opinions referred to as a ‘hate group’ really was the last straw,” Devitt said. “It seems to me [that] more and more that the citizens are the ones whose opinions and desires are being listened to the least, and I intend to change that.”

Devitt, 55, has lived in Downers Grove for almost a decade. He is married with one daughter.

If elected, Devitt, who works in sales, plans to implement monthly sessions in which residents can meet with him and discuss issues over coffee.

“I will be the council member that uses resident feedback to determine how I vote on issues and will make sure that deliberation at the council level is all out in the open as much as legally allowed,” Devitt said.

Devitt said he has an outsider’s perspective, which he said has been lacking in village government.

“We need fresh ideas and solutions for situations we are currently faced with, such as meeting monthly with residents to discuss local issues important to them,” he said.

Additionally, Devitt said the village needs someone who has left political and personal agendas in the past.

“And desires wholeheartedly to do what is best for Downers Grove residents,” he said. “I will be that person.”

Sarver, 55, said she opted to run because she is ready to give back to the community that has welcomed her for the past seven years.

Her experience as a trained researcher and educator in political science and law has prepared her to serve the community on a practical level, she said.

“I am well-equipped to put my vast knowledge of government and how it works to best serve Downers Grove,” she said.

McCann, 60, is seeking a seat because after more than two decades of volunteering for organizations, schools and village events, [this is] “the right time for me to serve the community, and all the community, as a village commissioner,” she said.

“As a gay parent having raised my sons in this wonderful community, I feel that I can represent not only unbiased village governance and leadership but also inclusion and diversity,” she said. “I spent 26 years at a Fortune 100 company and am now a small business owner. I will bring collaboration and thoughtful compromise to the continued growth and development of the village.”

McCann said as a commissioner, she will use the same professional skills she has learned in her career, including collaboration, project management, negotiating and leadership.

“Being involved in so many organizations, clubs and Downers Grove schools for 24 years has given me a perspective that I will use as commissioner to continue supporting the efforts that make Downers Grove one of the very best places to live,” she said.

Tully, 57, said he wants to return to the Downers Grove Village Council because he has more to give back to the community.

“And I have the experience to make a difference,” Tully said. “I have a proven track record of working collaboratively to achieve successful results for Downers Grove.”

Tully, an attorney, said Downers Grove residents deserve representation on their Village Council from proven leaders with a history of integrity, transparency and good public stewardship.

“As a former village mayor and village commissioner, I have shown that quality public services can be effectively delivered without hiking property taxes for local government operations,” he said. “I will work with the mayor, commissioners and our residents to leverage my extensive experience and institutional knowledge to help keep Downers Grove a safe, welcoming and thriving community.”

Attracting businesses

Sadowski-Fugitt said in some cases, the village scope with regard to zoning has been too narrow.

“Two areas, in particular, are the Fairview Avenue corridor, which includes those properties on Rogers Street that are zoned mostly industrial, and the plaza at Main and 75th streets, which is currently commercial but vacant,” she said.

For the former, Sadowski-Fugitt said she would push to review plans for the Fairview corridor and expand zoning on Rogers Street to retail and other commercial operations. As for the latter, she said the plaza at Main and 75th streets has been difficult to improve because of complex ownership agreements.

“However, I am in favor of revisiting the zoning and potentially adding multi-tenant housing or green space there, given that its use as an outdoor mall never reached its full potential and a large portion of it is unmaintained pavement,” she said.

As to business in general, Sadowski-Fugitt said she would like to attract more minority-owned businesses and diversify options.

“Everyone benefits when we have unique, independent businesses owned by people who may have different experiences from our own. We can learn from one another and bring out the best in the community when we celebrate the diversity of cultures our country and our community have to offer,” she said.

Davenport said attracting new businesses to the community begins with “taking the absolute best care of” existing businesses.

“There’s a virtual quagmire of regulations, ordinances and codes that dictate and restrict commerce,” he said. “Helping our existing and prospective businesses navigate the process is essential to their and our success and growth.”

Davenport said he would like the village to bring back the downtown improvement grant program, which he helped oversee during his time as chairperson of the Architectural Development Review Board.

“The intent was to encourage attractive development and thereby improve both commerce and the appearance of our storefronts,” he said. “I think we also need to find a safer, more attractive solution for outdoor dining than the current concrete barricaded-on-the-street dining we have now.”

Devitt said to attract businesses, the village needs to be presented in its entirety.

“Not just parts like the downtown,” he said. “We have amazing parks and bike paths, state-of-the-art schools, a great mix of businesses, historic homes, an amazing theater and much more. We need to remind people we have businesses and services on Ogden, 75th Street and others while maintaining the small town charm of our downtown.”

The village does not need more large developments or downtown stores that will sit empty, Devitt said.

“We need to look at shopping centers like the one on 75th and Main as a great source for new and varied development,” he said. “I have some ideas for that area that I would like to explore once elected.”

As for supporting existing Main Street businesses, Devitt said the Downtown Downers Grove Management Corporation receives $400,000 a year.

“And that is a very good start,” he said. “But we also need to have events that will bring people to the downtown, and bring them back during the week. We need to make sure the businesses get the training they need to market to different groups at different events, rather than just closing for that event.”

Sarver said the greatest challenge facing the council is managing growth while maintaining the community feel that makes Downers Grove unique.

“Careful planning and limits on large-scale development could assist in helping Downers Grove thrive, especially our small business owners,” she said.

The village, she said, is already greatly supporting existing Main Street businesses.

“But we can surely do better,” she said. “Specifically, we need to continue to allow restaurants to maintain their outdoor seating areas, work with developers and property owners to charge realistic rents and encourage new businesses to move into some of the spaces that have been empty for a while.”

McCann lauds both the Future of the Downtown Plan and the Downtown Management Corporation as “doing very well” to attract businesses to the community.

“We have a vibrant and amazing downtown district. The Burlington Station apartments rank in the top 1% nationally regarding resident experience,” she said.

The Downers Grove Economic Development Corporation, McCann said, also has “done a remarkable job bringing business development to Downers Grove.”

A recent example, she said, is Hirose Electric USA’s decision to locate its new Americas headquarters on Butterfield Road.

Additionally, McCann said because of Downers Grove’s downtown tax increment financing district, which was established in 1997, the district’s property value has increased by more than 420%, with $48 million in public investment and $161 million in private investment.

“As commissioner, I will support the continued growth of both the downtown district and other business areas in Downers Grove,” she said. “I am especially interested in expanding the Fairview business district, which the village has already developed a proposed plan.”

In her opinion, village officials have done a “remarkable job creating an exciting and vibrant downtown.”

“Despite the challenges of COVID, Downers Grove has expanded the growth of downtown and the foot traffic, which helps both the restaurants and the small businesses,” McCann said.

Tully said Downers Grove has seen considerable progress over the past 20 years, including the creation of a downtown that has become a destination for diners and shoppers, attracting several global companies to locate their headquarters in the village and investing in delivering quality public services at a reasonable expense.

“Our village is viewed as an innovation leader among municipalities in DuPage County and as a desirable place to live, work, learn and play,” Tully said. “But we cannot rest on our laurels. Maintaining and extending this success will require a combination of continuous creativity, lean practices, responsible and balanced economic development and community collaboration,” he said. “For example, attracting and retaining businesses of all sizes to our community takes both mindful planning and creating an environment in our community that they find attractive.”

Tully said this also requires listening to residents and working closely with the business community and organizations such as the Downers Grove Economic Development Corporation, Chamber 630 and the Downers Grove Downtown Management Corporation.

“It also means thinking creatively and seeking consensus solutions to challenges that reasonably meet the needs of downtown business owners, our residents and municipal government objectives,” he said.

The village also should remain flexible when it comes to outdoor dining, shopper parking and signage, explore licenses that support new business concepts and continue to provide exceptional public services at reasonable costs, Tully said.

DEI initiatives

Sadowski-Fugitt said she “absolutely” supports DEI initiatives in the village.

­”In 2019, I successfully proposed a priority action item that is currently underway. So far, it has resulted in an increase in the diversity of village hires and promotions, with new hires now better reflecting the demographics of our community compared to past years,” she said. “I’m proud to see how far the village staff have come already and am looking forward to continuing the efforts.”

Davenport said he is a practitioner of the English proverb “Live and let live.”

“I believe in accepting, caring for and respecting our neighbors regardless of ethnicity, race, gender, disability or any other way people choose to self-identify,” he said.

He said job postings on the village’s website state that “Downers Grove is an equal opportunity employer.”

“This means more to me than just a legal requirement for hiring practices. It’s an ideal we should strive to uphold in our policies and processes. I will aim to ensure our village employees and the volunteers who serve on our numerous boards and commissions know they are supported and deeply appreciated,” he said. “Further, I believe our employees and volunteers should be a reflection of our community as a whole. Diversity is an asset and we’d be foolish not to embrace it.”

Devitt said there is one thing that must be done before initiatives such as DEI can be discussed.

“We need to have people come together and have some sort of dialogue to find common ground. Otherwise, we are just wasting time,” he said. “Right now there is so much hatred, so much dissension out there, and it is ugly. It minimizes all the great things about Downers Grove, which hurts me personally. It seems like when one group gets lifted up, it is at the cost of another group, and how is that helping anyone? I would welcome DEI done in a way that no one is made to feel marginalized and that all have a chance to speak.”

Sarver said she “of course” supports DEI initiatives.

“We have a diverse community and that is one of the things I love about Downers Grove,” she said. “And I believe that combating ignorance through honest communication would help spread tolerance, kindness and acceptance to all residents.”

McCann said she values the thoughts and contributions of all people and understands that diversity, equity and inclusion are critical to sustainable economic growth.

“As a gay woman, and parent, I believe I have the experience to support and recognize more opportunities for diversity within the village,” she said. “Raising our sons with gay moms, I have never experienced anything but inclusion for all my 24 years in Downers Grove.”

Her family has represented diversity in all its forms for years, McCann said.

“I fully support Downers Grove establishing an annual MLK Day, Civil Rights Week and Pride Month. I recognize these efforts and will support continued growth in helping Downers Grove continue to be an inclusive place for all residents,” she said.

As a commissioner, McCann said she will fully support the Human Services Commission and the Community Social Services Referral Program that the administration reinstated.

“And will, where possible, strengthen and expand these services to continue to address homelessness and mental health,” she said.

McCann said there are more than 1,000 subsidized units in the village.

“I would like to create more outreach between property owners and the options to offer low-income housing opportunities in our community,” she said. “Regarding the homelessness, I believe if we created a position that was a sort of liaison between the various social services, we may be able to assist a number of those individuals along with the social services referral program that is already in place.”

Tully said as a member of his law firm’s DEI Committee, he appreciates the important role diversity, equity and inclusion plays in the success of any responsible organization.

“Of course, actions speak louder than words when it comes to DEI,” he said. “As a partner at several large and small law firms over the course of my legal career, I have served as an ally and champion for more diverse case teams and promoted professional development opportunities for my female colleagues. Likewise, I have striven to identify, recruit and appoint diverse candidates to leadership roles in the professional organizations of which I am a member.”

While Downers Grove mayor, Tully said he sought out and encouraged diverse residents to apply for appointment to the numerous boards and commissions and recommended more diverse, qualified candidates for appointment approval by the Village Council.

“Each of us brings a distinct and valuable perspective, and each person is a unique asset that cannot be duplicated,” he said. “Accordingly, it is important to remember that DEI also means including in the conversation those whose views we may not necessarily agree with. After all, if we merely surround ourselves with others who have the same background, experience, ideas and perspectives, we invariably limit our breadth of vision and opportunities for growth and success.”

Addressing flooding

Sadowski-Fugitt said she is proud the village has a stormwater utility fee that funds new stormwater projects and maintenance.

“We also have one of the strictest stormwater ordinances that requires property owners to account for displaced stormwater when adding more impermeable surface onto their properties,” she said. “Realistically, I think we need to consider environmental sustainability when we revisit our Comprehensive Plan.”

She said while the village’s capital projects have significantly improved flooding over the past decade, businesses and residents also should be encouraged to consider permeable surfaces, greywater systems, rain gardens and other options that will reduce the impact of stormwater.

“I am in favor of creating incentives for businesses and residents to install these systems and would be open to discussing how to fund such efforts with either existing or potentially new revenue sources,” she said.

Davenport said the village needs to reexamine some of the elements of its stormwater management ordinance.

“Thanks to my almost daily experience working with it, I am almost certainly the most qualified candidate to suggest improvements,” he said. “I’ll be able to help demystify some of the technical jargon and help my fellow council members understand what works versus what doesn’t work …for instance, rain gardens that aren’t maintained after a project is completed. The composition of soils, rate of runoff and size of a lot all create unique stormwater management problems that can’t and aren’t solved by our current ‘one size fits all’ regulations, particularly for our residential districts.”

Devitt said the village needs to remember “that every bit of earth in our community does not need to be covered with concrete, blacktop or buildings.”

“Longfellow School is a perfect example of how village agencies failed the residents in that respect,” he said. “That would have been a perfect place for a park, especially with the majestic 100-year-old oaks that were there, which are now a distant memory.”

Downers Grove has several creeks running through town, Devitt said, which could be cleaned and widened to allow for water runoff from storms.

Sarver said council members have done much already to help with the stormwater problem that plagues the area.

“And we need to continue that good work,” she said. “We also need to help the community recognize that excessive development contributes to an already inevitable problem, and we need to make more sustainable decisions with regard to developmental planning.”

McCann said the village created a program where residents are eligible for credits and incentives to offset stormwater fees if steps are taken to reduce runoff on their properties. She said rain barrels, rain gardens and permeable pavers on properties are included in the incentives.

“As credits, the village offers implementing a detention basin, volume reductions and a partnership to manage stormwater drainage,” she said. “With our aging infrastructure, I believe this is a viable long-term plan to manage flooding.”

Tully said the area’s topography and soil conditions mean that stormwater always will be a challenge.

“However, the village has made a serious commitment to enhancing stormwater management and mitigating flooding in our community,” he said. “These efforts require both focused determination and the investment of considerable resources to create new stormwater management assets and maintain those we already have.”

Downers Grove, Tully said, should remain on pace with its master plan for sustained funding and investment in effective stormwater management, seek opportunities to partner with other public entities on stormwater management opportunities, and where appropriate, adjust village ordinances aimed at minimizing the impact of residential redevelopment on neighborhoods.