Wilmette, Elections

How the 5 Wilmette Village Board candidates answered 5 questions at the League of Women Voters forum

The five candidates for Wilmette village trustee met virtually Saturday, March 13, to give their thoughts on a series of questions from the local League of Women Voters.

The league worked in collaboration with the Wilmette Public Library to broadcast the event on Zoom, and more than 200 guests tuned in.

This Saturday, March 20, the groups again team up for a forum with candidates for the library board, Wilmette District 39 board and New Trier District 203 board.

Wilmette’s Village Board has three open seats for five candidates (click names for candidate websites/bio info): incumbents Peter Barrow and Kathy Dodd, and newcomers Justin Sheperd, Kate Gjaja and Brian Locke.
(Not running: Joel Kurzman)

Below is a summarized transcription of the event. Candidates answered in an order selected at random by the League of Women Voters. A video of the event is below:

You can use the below shortcuts to jump to any question and candidate answer.

SHORTCUTS
INTRODUCTORY STATEMENTS: Kate Gjaja |Kathy Dodd | Brian Locke |Peter Barrow | Justin Sheperd

MOST PRESSING ISSUES: Kate Gjaja |Kathy Dodd | Brian Locke |Peter Barrow | Justin Sheperd

CAPITAL PROJECTS: Kate Gjaja |Kathy Dodd | Brian Locke |Peter Barrow | Justin Sheperd

REVITILIZATION: Kate Gjaja |Kathy Dodd | Brian Locke |Peter Barrow | Justin Sheperd

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: Kate Gjaja |Kathy Dodd | Brian Locke |Peter Barrow | Justin Sheperd

PREPARATION: Kate Gjaja |Kathy Dodd | Brian Locke |Peter Barrow | Justin Sheperd

SUMMATION: Kate Gjaja |Kathy Dodd | Brian Locke |Peter Barrow | Justin Sheperd


Introductory Statements

KATE GJAJA: I’m a longtime volunteer in our community, first in the schools, and then for the leadership for the successful District 39 referendum a few years ago, and then for the past 10 years for the League of Women Voters. In numerous positions on the league board, including president, I have gained a deep knowledge of the issues facing our community and the different governing boards. I’ve advocated for issues such as good governance and transparency, environmental sustainability, gun violence prevention, minimum wage and sick leave, and affordable housing. … With openings coming up on the board, I am running for trustee because I think I bring a valuable set of experiences, perspectives and skills to work together with the rest of the board and serve Wilmette. I have an MBA from Northwestern and background in construction management and real estate development and I feel I am well trained to handle the financial issues facing the village as we come out of the pandemic and chart a healthy fiscal future.

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KATHY DODD: As trustee, my approach has always been to seek out varying residents’ opinions and perspectives on issues and then use a balanced thoughtful and open-minded approach to all board decisions, and I hope to continue to do that. I’m proud of the work of our current board. We are in very strong financial standing even with the pandemic. We’ve continued to maintain our excellence in delivery of core services, made very prudent investments in our infrastructure, and continued to keep Wilmette a vibrant and welcoming community. … As chair of the Administration Committee, the process I led to reshape our Housing and Human Relations Commission that was open, transparent and collaborative. I love Wilmette. We have amazing residents, an incredible staff working on our behalf, and I feel lucky to live in this community.

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BRIAN LOCKE: I am a resident of Wilmette for the past five years. I’m an engineer by trade and work in the manufacturing industry, which I have for my entire career. I have a lot of experience in management, in budgeting, in capital equipment, in efficiency improvements and cost savings. …. As far as my thoughts on the village, obviously we love living here. We all do or we wouldn’t be here today. I would like to see Wilmette continue to grow and thrive. As many of us do, I do have concerns about the future. We all know that Illinois is challenged as far as population loss and there are financial challenges at the state level. Wilmette is well-run and has an excellent financial condition, but it’s going to continue to be increasingly challenging to maintain that in the environment we have today. We are seeing businesses leave. We see lots of vacant stores and storefronts, and that’s really the main reason I am running for the board.

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PETER BARROW: This was surely a challenging year for all of us. Our board met that challenge by focusing on village finances, reducing expenses significantly and by moving forward with critical programs. We also supported our local businesses, including our restaurants. The board’s careful financial management along with substantial reserves have allowed us to respond to the pandemic without reducing the services that we all expect. We’ve also taken real steps to improve the quality of life and make Wilmette a more open and welcoming place. … Our board and our residents have accomplished much, but much remains to be done. We’re surely not out of the COVID-19 woods. Revenues are challenged with pension obligations and debt increasing. How we address this is the job of our board and it is crucial to our future. We don’t elect our trustees by district or geography and if reelected I’ll continue to be independent and continue to serve the interests of the village as a whole.

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JUSTIN SHEPERD: While I am originally from outside Cleveland, I’ve lived in the Chicago area for 25 years. My wife — Robin a high school teacher— and I moved to Wilmette over 15 years ago. We have two boys students at Highcrest and the junior high and a new puppy. My career has been in financial management, ultimately as a managing partner and chief investment officer for a large local investment manager. … I’ve been an active member of the community. I’ve coached a number of my kids sports teams. I am past chairman of board for the Cancer Wellness Center and currently am a member of the Wilmette Plan Commission. So why am I running? I feel incredibly fortunate to live and raise my kids here with my wife. With great schools, great parks and a village government that works very well, and over time, I’ve come to understand that the volunteers across the village really help make Wilmette work. I want to build on that legacy and I feel my career in financial management is ideal for both embracing the opportunities and addressing the challenges that lie in front of Wilmette.

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What do you consider the most pressing issues facing Wilmette and how will you address them as board trustee?

KATHY DODD: I think we have two pressing issues facing the board. … The first … is our declining sales tax revenue on our increasing operating costs. I think this is a real problem for us, but one I am confident we can address. I think all of us see many retail vacancies in our community … and I think we have to really look at the changing landscape of the retail industry and what that means for our community and what we can be doing. I am hopeful that the redistribution of sales tax at the state level is going to help us … but that won’t help us with the issue we really need to focus on, which is trying to continue to attract new businesses into our community. … The second thing I think is another challenge but probably a more difficult one is what the post-pandemic looks like. I don’t know that we have the answers to that. People’s behaviors will change and I think people will be doing different things. I think that is something the board is going to really have to address.

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BRIAN LOCKE: I think without a doubt our biggest concern right now is declining revenue. We’ve seen revenue declining over the past few years in I think essentially every category, and that’s not currently a crisis, but if it is not addressed quickly and effectively, it is going to become a crisis. I think the first approach I would take to that is increasing revenues specifically from businesses in the community. As I mentioned in my opening statement, attracting businesses to the community I think needs to be a very, very high priority. I don’t have all the answers on how to do that, but I would like to solicit input from the business community. Find out what issues they have, what they think would make their work easier, what would make their lives easier, what would attract businesses to the community.

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PETER BARROW: Economic development is really essential to both our quality of life and to the maintenance of our tax base. … That’s easier said, because retail sales, at least brick and mortar, continue to be challenged and will be so in the future. Our internet sales last year were really strong and as Trustee Dodd has identified we expect in 2021 with the reallocation of internet sales tax the village will benefit significantly. We are doing several things currently to help improve our retail vision.

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JUSTIN SHEPERD: I will agree; economic development is the most pressing issue for the village. Not only it is important to our sales tax revenues, but it is also important to the vibrancy of the community. It’s where you run into your neighbors. It’s where small businesses are formed. It’s where jobs are had. And anything we can do to promote that, I think, is very important. … I think we need to — and again not having all the answers now — we need to think strategically. What are the anchors we could look at for different parts of town that hopefully we can build upon. … I think we could also spend time thinking further on how to better market Wilmette. I was very heartened to see the past boards actions to support our businesses during the pandemic with the rebates and I think that will pay dividends in the future when businesses have to decide whether or not they want to locate in Wilmette.

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KATE GJAJA: We’ve talked a lot about the economic development issues and I have no disagreements with what’s been said on the importance of that and the importance of continuing to support our local businesses, figuring out how to attract new businesses and, I think, working with the chamber of commerce closely on those issues. I think we have to balance that with the fiscal challenges around our infrastructure needs. … But I’d like to just mention that also we have some real opportunities and some real challenges around other issues in our community. I think we really need to be factoring in all of the environmental sustainability issues. There’s a lot of issues around opening our community to more people to move in around affordable housing, around making our community more welcoming. So I think … the perspective I bring is, yes, absolutely focus on the economic issues, but also to balance that with the other issues that our community is really interested in.

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What, if any, capital projects will you prioritize and how will you work to get it done?

BRIAN LOCKE: We briefly touched on the comprehensive plan and how that plan has not been updated for quite some time. I think it might be a little bit premature for me to talk about capital projects. I can talk about things that I see in the village, but I don’t know that those are the things that are the most pressing. … I really think what the village needs to do is really take a step back and reassess all of its capital needs for a long-term period, whether that is a 10-year plan, a 20-year plan or whatever that might be. … I think that’s the right approach to a capital plan, and I think this is the right time to look at the comprehensive plan and make those decisions for the long term.

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PETER BARROW: We’ve identified a few capital projects of particular importance. The first would be the stormwater project. We completed the first phase of that largely this summer on time and on budget. And we’re working forward right now with the second stage over in Hibbard Park. It’s important that we go forward and complete the third stage at Thornwood Park next year for stormwater protection. I would also … push for the continued emphasis on road repair. We’ve neglected that somewhat over the years and many of our roads are in need of repair and replacement. We also have looking forward we’ve done planning for the major repair for the water plant and the replacement of our police station. Both of those are large capital projects and we’re working right now on how we will effect those and how we will finance those.

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JUSTIN SHEPERD: In terms of infrastructure and capital projects, I think it always makes sense to have a long-term plan. We have a number of projects that are currently underway: the streetscape plan in downtown … the stormwater plan is well on its way and it’s coming on budget and on time and I’m really happy to see that. Things that still have to be specced out: The new police station, we have to figure out what we’ve going to have to do with that issue. The water plant and working on the intake upgrades that we need there, and then always the roads. We did get a little bit behind. But we have extra reserves and I think it would be prudent to try and get a little more caught up in terms of the road maintenance. On top of that, we’re going to want to pull in the master bike and active transportation plan into those discussions. The board just approved a great plan but it’s a conceptual plan that still needs feasibility studies and budgetary considerations.

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KATE GJAJA: What has been mentioned, I think, is absolutely what we see as looming infrastructure needs: the stormwater plan that’s ongoing. … Obviously the water plant issues — the water plant generates more than $6 million worth of revenue for our village and serves 150,000 residents, and so that huge infrastructure project really can’t be deferred for very long. And then the police station project … really that to me feeds into the comprehensive plan because if we’re going to go ahead and undertake a large infrastructure project around rebuilding our police station then how does that fit into our long-term planning, how does that fit into how we think about the different commercial areas in our village, and the different municipal areas, and how do we bring that all together. … And then obviously the roads, and combining that with the panning around active bike and transportation and making sure when we do our road projects that we take that into consideration.

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KATHY DODD: I concur with what the rest of the candidates have said. I think our capital projects, our most important ones are our stormwater project, which we’re very proud of, that it’s been started and making good progress on that; the water plant; planning the roads, which you all know the board has spent a lot of time over the last three or four years to really address the severity of some of our roads and really try to tackle that, as well as the planning for the police station and our central streetscape project. So I don’t want to repeat what the rest of the candidates have said except to say I concur with them. … What I want to address briefly is we have a capital improvement plan that is a 10-year, forward-looking plan that helps us be thoughtful as a board in terms of how we plan and invest in these projects and I think that’s the most important thing we can do in terms of making sure the board is looking at that on an ongoing basis.

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What plans do you have to revitalize business areas outside the central downtown area?

PETER BARROW: A couple of the areas outside downtown — like 4th and Linden, for example, or where I live close to Treasure Island at Lake and Ridge — continue to be challenges for our economic development. We need to continue our efforts to reach out to potential businesses to locate there. Both of those areas are … locations where people live, so most desirable would be businesses that provide goods and services that can be used by folks that live nearby those places. We’ll continue to reach out every way that we can and make the zoning and permit process as easy as possible for that.

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JUSTIN SHEPERD: I touched on this in one of the earlier questions, but I do think marketing these areas is really important in trying to find what can be anchors for these areas and taking a step back and really evaluating that and understanding what is the highest and the lowest use for that. And maybe the mix of residential to retail isn’t quite perfect and we may need to encourage some changes there. Some of these areas have struggled for a bit.

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KATE GJAJA: I live pretty close to 4th and Linden’s downtown area and that’s an area that’s had trouble for a while, and it would be great to really take … a step back in the comprehensive planning process and really think through the best and highest uses of this space. Really look at housing development issues and how those relate to commercial development. How do we attract people from our lakefront to come to our downtown areas, not just our village center but our other downtown areas. Also, how do we look at the Edens Plaza area, and I know that the village is working with a consultant to really think through what retail works best in the Edens Plaza area and that might really look different. I’d like to add one other issue. I really think we need to look at our vacant storefront issue. Vacant storefronts are problematic for lots of reasons. … I think we really need to understand where we have storefronts that have stayed vacant for longer periods of time.

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KATHY DODD: I think our comprehensive plan is going to be the most important thing we look at to address this issue. I am excited that the board will soon be getting proposals on this so we can really get this effort started. And the comprehensive plan is specific. It is going to look at some of our underutilized commercial areas and I would put Linden (Square), the Ridge Corridor in that and I would even put Plaza del Lago in that to some degree. … The second thing I’d say is Edens Plaza, and what we can learn from there. So I’m very excited about the fact that we’ve hired a consultant to help us, and our focus there really needs to be to get one or two anchor stores. … Thirdly, I’d say that I feel good about the fact that we got a new owner at Plaza del Lago and I think that developers at some point will have some great suggestions for us to help revitalize that area.

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BRIAN LOCKE: Two areas that I first think of: Linden Square, which is close to where I live, and of course Edens Plaza. … The thing that I think of — trying to tie a couple things together here — is what kinds of businesses that would be in demand and what kinds of businesses would people want to see and what kinds of businesses would be viable. I think those are important considerations and kind of going with what Justin said if we were able to have that input from the community and from the businesses about what kinds of things would be in demand and would be viable and make it a targeted search, if at all possible, perhaps a marketing campaign to try to find those businesses to bring into the community. I think that that’s an approach that might work.

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What are the affordable housing opportunities within Wilmette and how will you will advance the goals of the affordable housing plan?

JUSTIN SHEPERD: The affordable housing opportunities in front of us are strong. It’s something I believe in very strongly. I was very happy to see the new housing commission that’s been reconstituted. … I feel like we have the right people who are looking at this. … It’s come up earlier that Cleveland Place development, where we’ll have 16 units of affordable housing, the first project in the village that isn’t affordable housing for older people — this will be open to all ages. As part of the Optima building approval, they made a $1.6 million contribution to a housing fund that will be administered by CEPA to build 14 units across the village of affordable housing. And I think we’ll have opportunities as we continue to develop. And I think it’s very important because I think it increases the density of our village, which helps our businesses; increases the diversity of our village, which helps everybody be more rounded people; and I think these partnerships are really a good way to go with.

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KATE GJAJA: Let me start by being really clear on my position on affordable housing. Our village does not have enough affordable housing units available, and we really need to make this an area of focus. Affordable housing is a critical component of making our community a more welcoming community. It allows a single parent to keep their children in our excellent school system, it allows a differently abled person to remain in the village where they have their support structures, it allows people who work in our community to live close to where they work. So affordable housing really needs to be a focus of ours. We have some interesting models that have started in our village. … And what I’d be looking to if I was a trustee is our newly formed housing commission that has terrific members on it and can really provide expertise on how we think about this affordable housing issue. Also our village staff is really committed to this I believe, and they are constantly looking for opportunities for affordable housing.

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KATHY DODD: I agree with some of the things candidate Gjaja just said, which is affordable housing is a really important issue in front of our community and it is one that helps us make our community more welcoming and helps us keep younger families in the community or bring them in the community so they can afford to be here. It also helps some of our older residents, some of our parents, who want to stay in the community because that’s where their grandchildren are. … And I’m so glad we got this question because I’m super excited about it because I think we finally have some positive momentum here. I shouldn’t say finally, but we do have a lot of positive momentum here. … We have finally gotten our housing commission up and running. We got an incredibly talented group of individuals on that commission and I think they’re going to lead our efforts. … I’d like to end by saying I think what the housing commission is going to really help us with is housing-needs assessment to really understand where our affordable housing gaps are and help lead our efforts around affordable housing for our comprehensive plan.

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BRIAN LOCKE: I really just want to tie this in and emphasize why I think affordable housing is a very important issue for Wilmette, and that is it goes back to revenue generation and it goes back to being business friendly. In the manufacturing industry, I can speak to this work in the Chicagoland area for the last 20 years … finding enough candidates to fill positions has been incredibly challenging. … So I think that one of the things we really have to look at in terms of attracting businesses is are they going to be able to find employees who are willing to get work easily, show up on time and put in the work. Without that piece of the puzzle, those businesses are going to struggle in Wilmette. … We need to take an analytical approach to it, make sure the housing is adequate to meet the needs of the businesses we want to attract or keep.

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PETER BARROW: We’ve had some success in affordable housing in Wilmette, but we’re about to open a new chapter. Optima will provide a payment to Wilmette of $1.6 million with additional contributions that will be leveraged. … We’ll be able to utilize our partnership with community partners to put in place a rental and an equity model for affordable housing. It’s been done successfully in Highland Park. It’s been used successfully in Lake Forest. And I am confident it will be successful here. Our housing commission will be committed to working with community partners and working with village staff and the board to create appropriate programs and to oversee what we do for affordable housing to ensure we’re successful.

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What have you done to prepare yourself to serve on the Village Board?

KATE GJAJA: I have worked … for more than 10 years in our community on all kinds of issues and really advocated for different issues in front of all the different governing boards in our community. I have worked on affordable housing issues, on environmental issues, on gun violence prevention issues. I have really tried to help to make our community a better and more welcoming and more inclusive place and that is what I hope to bring as a trustee if I am elected.

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KATHY DODD: First I’d say, the biggest way I’ve prepared myself is that I am a current trustee so I have relationships with our staff and many of our other board members throughout the (area). But what I’d like to say is what’s so great about contested elections like this is the opportunity to talk to residents and business owners. So what I think I’ve done to help prepare myself is talk to a lot of people. In fact, I can’t believe how many people I’ve talked to, but I’ve learned a lot. I understand what are some of the issues. in front of the residents and I’m going to take the ideas to the board next year, I hope.

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BRIAN LOCKE: I feel like I have a lot more preparation to do, but I have spent a lot of time looking at really exciting things like budgets and comprehensive plans and meeting minutes to find out what’s been going on and where the village is going. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to some people who have been involved in village business, who have been involved in the community, finding out what their concerns are, just picking up as much information as I can. As I’ve said, I have along way to go.

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PETER BARROW: I’m currently on our Village Board. Prior to that, for 10 years, on our Transportation and Plan commissions. I’ve lived in Wilmette for upward of four decades and I know our village well. I’ve spent a lot of time walking around the block with my golden retriever and when I do I talk to people young and old and through that you learn what’s on people’s minds. I’ve encouraged people to reach out to me as a trustee by phone, by email and I’ll continue to do so as a trustee.

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JUSTIN SHEPERD: I’m going to put it in three phases. First I think my life experience in terms of the board work I’ve done and my professional experience have brought me here. More recently, as a member of the Wilmette Plan Commission, meeting people across the village who are working on issues, working on projects and during this campaign, I’ve talked to so many people around town, just so many business owners, and I’ve attended as many meetings as possible that are currently going on in the village government. And in the future, the selfish reason to do this is a lifetime of learning and I look forward to that and learning about a myriad of topics as we go forward.

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Summation

KATHY DODD: I’ve really enjoyed my first four years on the board and I hope to have more years to serve all of you. I feel I’m the right candidate to be elected for several reasons: I’m experienced, I’ve served on the board for four years, I have a proven track record by our strong financial position, our vibrant downtown, our excellence in delivery of core services and finally, I’ve been a leader on the board. I’ve continued to bring a thoughtful open-minded, collaborative approach, and I’ve spent lots of time talking to residents throughout the community about their issues. I’m hoping you’ll support me. I feel I’m the right candidate and if you feel I’m the right candidate, please consider putting up a sign and spreading the word about my candidacy. Thank you.

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BRIAN LOCKE: I think you have five candidates who if we were all the board together I think we’d work very nicely together to make these decisions. I don’t envy a decision that has to be made here. What I would like to say is the approach I tend to bring is a highly analytical, problem-solving, really detailed look at the issues and really just try to understand how everything fits together and be practical and get input from the community on what needs to be done. The good news is I think the future of Wilmette is very bright with our current situation and with the candidates that we have here. Thank you.

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PETER BARROW: Whether you are new to Wilmette or a longtime resident, think about why you chose to live here, why you stayed here. I’m confident your list would include beautiful homes, a vibrant downtown, a village government that responds promptly to its residents, and a welcoming community of neighbors and friends. Preserving and growing that is the job of our board. We’ve done that by spending our tax dollars carefully, preserving our resources, long-term planning and a commitment to keeping Wilmette affordable, safe and desirable. If reelected, I pledge to continue that, to be independent and to continue work with the board. I’m Peter Barrow. I’m first on the ballot and easy to find. I ask for your early vote March 22-April 5 or on Election Day, April 6. Thank you.

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JUSTIN SHEPHERD: Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many people during this campaign and I do feel my message has resonated and I am proud the last three village presidents are supporting me. I believe it is my experience that people are responding to, and that experience is ideal for Wilmette right now. My experience in finance and investment management have taught me the importance of doing deep due diligence and creating a long-term plan. My experience of growing a business from 630 employees taught me to motivate people, how to listen and how to create systems that work. My experience on board and investment committees has taught me how to work through hard decisions and build consensus in a collaborative fashion. My experience in public and philanthropic service has taught me empathy and my experience of the Wilmette Plan Commission has taught me a lot about Wilmette, its wonderful staff, how it works and its great volunteers throughout the village. So I think my experience can help Wilmette thrive. … Thank you.

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KATE GJAJA: I wanted to talk about what you can expect from me as as village trustee if I am elected. The first thing you can count on from me is nonpartisanship. Local government is one of the last places where public officials can be truly nonpartisan and I am really dedicated to keeping it that way. The second thing you can expect from me is transparency and good governance. Not just committing to the letter of the law, but the spirit of conducting the government’s business in the full view of the public. … And the third thing you can expect from me is civility. We may disagree at times, but as anyone who has worked with me knows, I am at all times respectful of others’ opinions and I think it is incumbent on elected officials to model the very best of civil discourse. So I am hopeful I will have the opportunity to serve you as village trustee and I am asking for your vote.

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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