Village Board Candidates Discuss Experience, Priorities

Village Board Candidates Discuss Experience, Priorities

Northbrook voters have a number of choices to make in this spring’s local elections, including contests for Village President and three Trustee seats. To help its members understand the differences between the candidates’ positions, the Chamber invited each individual to respond to questions of interest to the community.

In November 2020, the Northbrook Caucus process endorsed current Trustee Kathryn Ciesla for Village President and supported incumbents Muriel Collison and Dan Pepoon along with Joy Ebhomielen for the Trustee seats. The Caucus slate is challenged by a group called United4Northbrook, supporting Gene Marks for Village President and Robert Burns, Christopher Lay, and Ana Mendez McGuinnes as Trustees.  The election will be held on April 6, with early voting and mail-in options available.

The Chamber asked each candidate to describe their professional and civic experience, unique strengths they would bring to the Board, and connections to Northbrook’s diverse business community.  They were also asked about current topics including support for businesses impacted by COVID, the impact of retail declines on Village revenue, and the development of the former Green Acres Country Club property.  The following  summarize their responses.

Kathryn Ciesla, Caucus Candidate for Village President
Attorney and current Trustee Kathryn Ciesla is seeking to succeed President Sandy Frum after serving 12 years on the Village Board, the longest tenure of any current member. Ciesla has chaired the Board’s Administration and Finance Committee, the Ad Hoc Labor Relations Committee and the TIF Joint Review Board.  She also has been active over the last 20 years as a volunteer with a variety of organizations. She cites an ability to connect with people as strengths she brings to the Board.  “I am collaborative, approachable, and in touch because I am involved and engaged in the community,” says Ciesla.

A partner in the law firm Ciesla Beeler LLC, Ciesla feels that her personal experience as a small business owner informs her views. She describes herself as a strong advocate for businesses and intends to foster collaborative partnerships. “Business is essential to our local economy, but more than that, our local businesses are an integral piece of our community,” states Ciesla. As examples of recent pro-business measures she supported, she points to the Board’s allocation of grant money to help stores and restaurants operate within COVID restrictions; to the Village’s longstanding marketing partnership with the Chamber; and to the establishment of new business liaison roles on the Village staff.

Looking at future trends, Ciesla notes that the first step toward shoring up revenues is to remain financially conservative. Her strategies include exploring economic efficiencies and technologies to reduce personnel costs; engaging in cost-sharing arrangements with municipal partners; incentivizing business entities to promote initiatives like sustainability and community events; and pursuing Federal, State and local funding/grant opportunities for infrastructure projects.

With regard to the Green Acres property, Ciesla emphasizes that the Village’s comprehensive plan envisions that area’s current zoning as open space.  Any development of Green Acres with a zoning change would require widespread community input, especially regarding impacts on schools, traffic, property values, and the environment. “We certainly would want something that benefits all of Northbrook,” she says.

Gene Marks, Independent Candidate for Village President
Gene Marks is returning to local politics, seeking to regain the role of Village President that he held from 2005-2009.  His professional career includes his current sales position representing security equipment manufacturers, as well as a variety of public sector roles including Deputy Director of Public and Intermodal Transportation for IDOT, Chairman of the Northbrook Alarm Commission, and 20 years as a paid-on-call firefighter for the Village.  He believes that his diverse experiences set him apart as a candidate.

Marks notes several business developments that took place during his term as Village President.  “I was extremely business friendly,” says Marks.  “I worked hard to bring Willow Festival to town, McDonalds, worked on getting Marcello’s, worked with Optics Planet and its growth, [and] visited many businesses in town to get their aspects.”  A resident since 1984, he states that he was a member of the Chamber and had a business in town. He believes the Village needs to discuss how to help businesses impacted by COVID, “possibly with tax breaks or see if we could get creative with other forms of support.”

Marks sees new development as key to the Village’s revenues, including the “rejuvenation” of Northbrook Court which he describes as “our crown jewel,” and the sale of the Village-owned Grainger property on Shermer Road.  He claims that Grainger has “set for years causing us to lose millions of dollars in jobs, shopping and taxes.” He also asserts that Green Acres should be developed, but that “the builder cannot financially afford to build it and include affordable housing as the plan is written now. It’s not feasible if you run the numbers. We also need to look at what the market will bear. I believe a good proposal that will not affect the schools would meet our approval.”

Robert Burns, Independent Candidate for Trustee
Candidate Robert Burns believes that his professional experience as a corporate trade compliance officer has developed his strengths in global project management, budgeting, forecasting, cost reduction, and common sense in spending. Currently employed at Leica Biosystems, he has 30 years of experience working with a wide assortment of federal government agencies. “I have also held several global sales positions in my professional career and will make it my mission to promote and market Northbrook in order to grow and get more business into the village,” adds Burns.

A resident of Northbrook for 17 years, Burns states that he has always “supported the local business [community] by spending our money here first.”  He suggests a number of possible approaches to help local businesses recover from the pandemic, including waivers from annual inspection fees, exemption from local fees, the refund of local taxes for businesses that experienced more than 25% loss of local sales revenues from 2019-2020, and other financial assistance.

Regarding the impact of a changing retail landscape on the Village’s tax revenues, Burns believes that the top priority should be attracting new businesses to Northbrook. “We first need to survey local retailers and residents to hear what they have to say about this issue,” says Burns. “We also need to revitalize Northbrook Court and get 1 or 2 large retailers in there ASAP.”

Similarly, Burns believes that residents also should be surveyed regarding development of Green Acres. He says the Board should then meet and talk with the developer and understand the full impact of any proposal on schools, roadways, environment, costs, taxes and community. “Residents will have a say in this decision,” he asserts.

Muriel Collison, Incumbent; Caucus Candidate for Trustee
Muriel Collison, an attorney, was elected as a Trustee in 2017, following four years as a member of the Plan Commission. On the Village Board, she has served as Chair of the Communication & Legislation and Planning & Zoning Committees. She feels her years in these positions have been invaluable. “I am just hitting my stride and look forward to four more years [as a Trustee],” says Collison. “Experience is key, especially in unprecedented times like this.”

As the owner of a small law firm. Collison says that she has personal insight into the concerns of other local small businesses.  She also cites her perspectives as a lifelong resident and a parent of young children as important points of view to have on the Board.

During the pandemic, Collison says that she has been accessible to the business community through calls, texts and emails. She takes pride in Village initiatives like the business grant program, and is open to continued flexibility regarding ordinances and additional financial assistance. Sustainability is another of her priorities. Collison pledges to work closely with the Chamber to identify business needs.

To protect the Village’s future revenues, Collison states that the Board must be proactive in monitoring sales taxes while also working to attract new development like the Greenhouse dispensary. She also believes that the Board has done everything possible to position Northbrook Court for a successful redevelopment once the pandemic is resolved.

Regarding Green Acres, which she describes as “the Emerald of Northbrook,” she stresses the area’s current open space zoning. “I envision development (far less than previous proposals) that has affordable housing for seniors, walking trails, open space, and a park for the east side of Northbrook,” says Collison. “The right developer will do their homework and listen to the village and park district and come up with something of benefit to all.”

Joy Ebhomielen, Caucus Candidate for Trustee
Joy Ebhomielen describes her professional background in financial management as a particular strength that would serve her well on the Village Board.  Currently a Senior Financial Consultant for OptumRX in Schaumburg, she holds an MBA in finance and has worked as a commercial lender as well as a corporate finance and strategy professional. “My strong financial background will be important as we analyze various project feasibility studies and prioritize development projects presented to the Village,” she notes. “My background as a commercial lender/banker working with small to medium size businesses has helped me understand the challenges our local businesses face.”

Ebhomielen also has been involved in various community organizations since moving to Northbrook 16 years ago. She served four years on the Community Relations Commission and is now a Director for Hunger Resource Network. “I come from a family of philanthropists and love the opportunity to help others. That is why I decided to run for Village Board,” she explains. She also notes her skills in working collaboratively with different individuals and groups.

To help businesses coming out of the pandemic, Ebhomielen plans to partner with the Chamber to brainstorm ideas and strategies. She offers a similar response in addressing changes to the Village’s revenue stream: “With the impact of the pandemic on our economy, the normal budgeting process will need to focus more heavily on reviewing current and future revenue sources. Continued and ongoing discussions with our Chamber and local business partners will be key.”

Ebhomielen says she is open to development proposals at Green Acres with an eye to the benefits for residents, the Village, and local businesses. She stresses that the site “is prime property with 127 acres of beautiful natural landscape….. Keeping a good portion of its natural environment should be a priority.”

Christopher Lay, Independent Candidate for Trustee
Christopher Lay is an attorney with the Buffalo Grove firm IPHorgan, specializing in intellectual property law and litigation. In that work, he has represented multi-national, medium-sized, and small businesses in diverse fields including power generation, online retailing, medical devices, tools, automotive fluids, and hotels. Prior to becoming an attorney, he worked as a music composer and crafted marketing solutions for business clients. He says that his professional experiences “have taught me to listen, observe, contemplate, and then provide creative, well-reasoned solutions. I will use these skills to advocate tirelessly for Northbrook residents.”

His volunteer activities include representing pro bono clients in civil rights lawsuits against Illinois correctional institutions. A Northbrook resident for 11 years, he served for two years on the Board of the Glenbrook North Band Parents Organization.

Lay states that it is important that the Village Board “must not enact new mandates or fees that might impede a swift and complete recovery: from the pandemic. Instead, the Board should proactively engage with our businesses – what do they need and how can we help? The Board must treat Northbrook businesses as friends and partners, not as adversaries.”

Lay believes that the Village will be able to reverse retail revenue trends by attracting new business. “The current Village Board has provided a blueprint for what the next Village Board should not do,” he argues.  “We will bring in restaurants, arts festivals, and high-volume retailers to entice Northbrook residents and people from surrounding communities back to Northbrook Court, downtown Northbrook, and perfectly situated areas in our town.”

For a future Green Acres development, Lay lists his priorities as respecting the surrounding residents; preserving the natural beauty of the space including open areas and trees; maximizing the value of the property; and ensuring high standards of construction and aesthetics.

Ana Mendez McGuinnes, Independent Candidate for Trustee
Ana Mendez McGuinnes is an attorney with international experience specializing in mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, subsidiary creation, and government incentive negotiation. “The focus of my professional life has been to assist investors (primarily US) to initiate and maintain their operations,” explains McGuinnes. “I believe that this experience could strengthen the Village Board by having someone that has always been “at the other side of the table” negotiating on behalf of the businesses.”  She also notes that her background includes negotiating with companies all over the world in different types of industries.

McGuinnes would like to see the Village Board be proactive in aiding businesses during the pandemic.   “I think one of the most important actions is to strengthen communication with the businesses, not only to understand their needs but also to allow them to explore existing alternatives,” she says. “Other villages hired consultants or took other actions to help businesses navigate the existing federal incentives and changes of rules.”

She says she also supports programs and incentives to attract investment as a means to shore up Village revenue. She suggests sales tax sharing programs and incentives to back-fill vacant restaurant spaces, initiatives that she states have worked in other communities. “The Village Board should engage and partner with the community to create a win/win environment,” says McGuinnes.

At Green Acres, she cites impacts on schools and public services as elements that would need to be evaluated in any proposal. “The project would have to be viable for the developer while being good for Northbrook,” she comments.

Dan Pepoon, Incumbent; Caucus Candidate for Trustee
Appointed to fill a vacancy on the Village Board in 2020, Dan Pepoon is now running in his first election to hold his seat.  Prior to joining the Board, he served on the Northbrook Plan Commission for 15 years, as well as the Bicycle Task Force and Senior Services Commission. He has been a Northbrook resident for 35 years.

Professionally, Pepoon is a Senior Vice President/Senior Financial Adviser with Merrill Lynch. “Coming from the financial services industry, I understand the importance of spending the taxpayers’ money wisely,” he notes.

Pepoon emphasizes the need for a collaborative approach between the business community and the Board. “I understand the competitive nature of the business world and how important it is to have the Village work with our businesses so that they can thrive,” he says. “As a Trustee I want to partner with our diverse business community as they’re the backbone of our revenue.”

He argues the current Board has been a positive force in support of  businesses through the pandemic, as shown by the grants offered to stores and restaurants and regulatory accommodations made possible by the State’s emergency orders. “Anything we hear of others doing, we try to add to our own toolbox to help,” states Pepoon.

Cost control has been an important tool to shore up revenues, according to Pepoon. He lists the elimination of non-essential services and the use of staff early retirement packages as effective  strategies used by the current Board.  He also notes that the Board has helped Northbrook Court adapt for a changing retail landscape.

Like the other incumbent Trustees, Pepoon points out that Green Acres is currently zoned open space. “Its best and highest use is not merely another residential neighborhood,” he asserts. His goals for the property’s development incorporate bike trails and pedestrian walkways through wooded green space, co-existing with mixed use development. He also notes the need for a water feature to support stormwater management.

Read more about candidates for the Village Board on the websites for the Northbrook Caucus and United4Northbrook.