Just over a year ago, 52 percent of Highland Park voters
As I wrote about extensively at the time, the mayor's race was starkly political and rhetorical. With her term one-quarter complete, I felt like it was time to measure Rotering's progress, including a check on those vocal campaign promises.
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Overall, I believe Rotering is doing a good job as Mayor. She has clearly embraced the leadership aspect of the office. I see the mayor frequently at events and activities around town, everything from the HP Fashion Week to . She is chief cheerleader for Highland Park--on her Facebook page, Twitter and in the city newsletters. She seems attentive to issues, has worked on making the city activities more open and transparent, and is starting to partner with other government officials on Highland Park issues.
Rotering has championed a few obvious causes during her first year in office. Until events of the last week, the most notable has been the city's response to last spring's frequent power outage issues. At first, it seemed like Mayor Rotering was merely politicizing the obvious, letting residents who have suffered for years vent steam with no impact. However, the back page of last month's Highlander Newsletter lists ComEd projects planned in Highland Park this year. It seems that the pressure has worked, at least to get some actions underway. It of course remains to be seen if they are the right ones, but at least it is more than talk. The city also passed a referendum to lower electric bill rates, though the power itself will still be delivered by ComEd.
Another issue that Rotering campaigned on is streamlining city operations. Thus far, I haven't seen much in the way of a difference in how Highland Park runs. During a mayoral candidate , Rotering opined that requiring dog owners to sign an affidavit regarding responsible pet ownership was unnecessary. Yet that law is still on the books a year later, with no discussion of changing it. Clearly, there are opportunities that remain to deliver on this campaign promise.
One surprise for me was Rotering's endorsement in the 2012 budget of using city reserves to cover standard city projects. During the campaign season, she steadfastly objected to this approach, with frequent emails titled "It's Your Money!". More recently, a headline in the Highland Park News, highlighted by Rotering in her email newsletter, trumpeted how the "Mild winter saves $300,000 for city’s taxpayers." With all this focus on city finance, I would have expected a 2012 budget that lowered my taxes. Instead, Highland Park reached deeper into our wallets by raising water and sewer rates, with substantial sewer increases planned for years ahead; and for many of us, the Lake County equalization of Moraine Township real estate taxes has resulted in paying more actual dollars to Highland Park in 2012 than 2011.
Further, the budget allocations are different. In 2011, the City budget covered road repairs for 11.4 "lane miles" of streets, but in 2012 only 4 lane miles of street work is planned. All of this is down from a statement in the proposed 2011 budget that planned for 28 lane miles of repairs annually, out of the 400 lane miles in Highland Park. In other words, the 2012 budget streamlined road repairs by cutting them to only 1 percent of the overall city street surfaces.
At the time I started writing this column, my second surprise was regarding the Highland Park Theatre. The in September, 2011, looking for buyers or other approaches to the theater's future. Until last week, nothing further had been said about the future of the theater in public. This didn't speak well to the supposed-transparency goal of the Mayor and Council, letting over seven months go by with no update or progress, or to the politics of the campaign trail that called the theater a liability on the city balance sheet.
In the crisis that has developed over fire safety at the theater and Port Clinton parking garage, Mayor Rotering has won a lot of respect, even from harsh critics . I, too, find myself impressed with her leadership and decisiveness , and more importantly, that she and the council have not spent much time looking to point fingers or politicize how the situation developed. I am disappointed that Deputy City Manager Patrick Brennan has departed in the wake of these safety issues, especially with the recent exits of City Manager Dave Limardi, the City Finance Director and the City Public Works Director. Highland Park has lost a lot of talent and historical knowledge.
We will lose more in the next year, too. Councilman Steve Mandel is likely to vacate his position in favor of the Lake County Board, and Councilman Jim Kirsch's term also expires at the next election. A potential scenario has all seven City Council members with two years or less experience in office after the 2013 election.
A year into Rotering's term, the City of Highland Park seems to be running solidly, managing challenges and developing new opportunities. Downtown retail is filling up, home prices are starting to stabilize. Still, not that much has fundamentally changed about Highland Park in the last twelve months.
While and still at times am not, comfortable with Rotering the politician, Rotering the mayor has earned my respect. Perhaps through the recent fire safety crisis Rotering will recognize that her leadership will buy political currency in Highland Park more than her sound bites. If so, I look forward to writing the mid-term status report a year from now.