The Unofficial Mayor-elect Accepted Campaign Money from the Realtors. Why that Matters for Park Foresters.

Illinois Realtors "Park Forest Reform" postcard
One side of the “Park Forest Reform” postcard sent to Park Forest residents in the latter half of 2018. (Photo: Illinois Realtors)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- In the wake of the election, the unnoficial Mayor-elect Jonathan Vanderbilt seems to feel good about the election, “I feel great,” he told eNews Park Forest. “I felt that the people of Park Forest spoke and they want change and, so, I am happy to start building bridges and start working together to bring everyone together and start moving Park Forest forward.”

He says he knew about the endorsement piece by the Rich Township Democratic Organization before it arrived in the mail, but insists he was not told he would be endorsed, “I was never asked to be endorsed and I never received any funds or any support from RTDO.”

He does admit to receiving funds from Realtors, “From the same realtors organization that our current mayor, John Ostenberg, has also received funds from, yes.”

Except now there is a dispute with the realtors,” I said.

The Mayor-elect was careful with his response, “There is no financial dispute, the attorneys are not involved in any kind of litigations, so, there is no real dispute.”

That appears to be a distinction without a difference. The circumstances now are far different than they were in previous elections.

Retiring Mayor John Ostenburg shared his views.

On the outcome of the election, still unofficial, Mayor Ostenburg said, “Well the election is over and voters made a decision. I think we respect the decision no matter what it is.”

I informed Mayor Ostenburg that Mayor-elect Vanderbilt said there was no legal dispute currently with the Realtors, no attorneys involved, no litigation.

But Mayor Ostenburg pointed to a definite dispute over policy, one that was so important to the Illinois Realtors that they sent postcards to every resident of Park Forest late last year.

In an August 30, 2018 blog post, the Illinois Realtors specifically targeted Park Forest:

Park Forest residents are being urged to pressure village leaders to change a policy that delays the results of municipal home inspections until after a closing in some cases.

Postcards have been distributed to Park Forest homeowners, encouraging them to contact village leaders and demand changes to the mandatory inspection process, also known as “change of occupancy inspections.” REALTORS® in Park Forest can refer area residents to:  ReformParkForestInspections.com [Editor’s Note: The links in this paragraph are now dead links.]

The postcards explain that residential transactions can be delayed because Park Forest conducts home inspections after sales contracts are signed, says Illinois REALTORS® Government Affairs Director Tom Joseph. As a result, buyers and sellers do not receive inspection results until after closings. In some instances, home buyers may seek to avoid the delays altogether by choosing homes in communities without such a policy.

Mayor Ostenburg provided background for the dispute with the Illinois Realtor, “We have had long standing building code standards in place that relate to property inspections that occur at times when a property is being sold. A handful of the realtors have at different times complained that they found that this process made it more difficult for them to complete sales.

“Our understanding in going through it has always been that it’s not that it makes it more difficult necessarily but that it does involve more time and the reason it involves more time is because we are very comprehensive and thorough about our inspection. They have complained that other villages don’t necessarily do what you do and that is true they don’t.

“But we have long had standards in place in Park Forest that are different from some of the other villages, that is not anything new. That goes back to the establishment of the community. We entered into a series of different discussions with representatives of the Realtors Association particularly Tom Joseph who is the executive director for the association.”

Mayor Ostenburg went on, explaining that the current process was put in place at the recommendation of former Village Trustee Harold Brown, who was a Realtor.

“In the process of those various discussions we heard recommendations that they were making and suggestions,” Mayor Ostenburg said. “We analyzed them very carefully, staff did. Staff made the decision that the way we do it right now which in large part was designed by [former Village Trustee] Harold Brown. Harold Brown was the one who laid out very carefully the best approach. Larry [Kerestes] in the building department followed the recommendations that Harold made and at the time those were based on things that were coming from the realtors.”

Then, the housing bubble burst.

“Now as a result of the housing crisis some of the circumstances in some of the homes have changed dramatically by the time the realtors are in the process of trying to resell them,” Mayor Ostenburg said. “But that just makes it more crucial than ever that we follow the building codes very carefully. That is what we’ve always done.

Mayor Ostenburg said some Realtors “argued with this and disputed that and we just finally just said, ‘You know we’re just simply not going to change our code,’ and a number of realtors came with Tom Joseph to one of our meetings and they made comments. One of the realtors who made the comments afterwards told one of our staff members, ‘I’m sorry I was here. I was under the impression that we were going to be talking about something else.’

“But in any case, it was clearly that Tom Joseph and the people who he was working with within the association they wanted us to streamline the inspection process in a way that we thought would be detrimental to the community,” Mayor Ostenburg said.

“As a result of the realtors being upset with us the first thing that Tom Joseph did is, he prepared this email, it was exactly the same wording that he broadcast an email to all of the members of the association, many of whom never do business in Park Forest at all and asked them to bombard the village the mayor and the Trustees with this email saying that we should change the law,” the mayor said.

“Many of the people who sent me those are people who have never sold a house in Park Forest,” Mayor Ostenburg said. “The point of the matter is and I sent back to each one of them a very polite answer saying, ‘Thank you, but at this particular time the staff is considering every suggestion that comes in but we’re not in a position at this point that we are going to change anything.’

Then, according to Mayor Ostenburg, Illinois REALTORS Government Affairs Director Tom Joseph “and his group mailed out a massive postcard to every resident in the Village of Park Forest urging that the residents complain to the Village and get this changed.”

After the mailing, how many residents complained to the Village?

“Zero,” Mayor Ostenburg said firmly. “After a mailing to every resident in the Village of Park Forest, zero residents of Park Forest, tax payers in Park Forest, sent any kind of contact or made any kind of contact or phone call or anything about the inspection process.”

So why was candidate Jonathan Vanderbilt’s acceptance of money and a mailer from the Realtors so troubling? Why, indeed, if no residents responded to the mailer or complained, did he take money from this particular group at all?

Mayor Ostenburg said, “[The Realtors] are trying to influence the board and that is where I felt that was an inappropriate thing for them to do. It was inappropriate for them to enter into our campaign and do a mailer on behalf of a specific candidate when they have an issue that they are lobbying on behalf. Is it illegal? Of course not, they can do whatever they want.

“The law doesn’t restrict, doesn’t go contrary to what has generally been the practice in Park Forest. But what goes contrary to the general practice in Park Forest is we have never had candidates who necessarily jumped on board with special interest groups like that.”

The mayor shared more.

“Several years ago we had somebody who ran for mayor against Ron Bean who was supported by the realtors. There were different realtor issues back in those days but that was something that happened. But in terms of changing our codes or anything like that there has never been any circumstance like this,” Mayor Ostenburg said.

“I don’t think it was particularly wise for a candidate to accept that kind of a mailer. That is my personal feeling,” the Mayor said.