‘Regionalism’ Must Play A Vital Role In Crucial Local Decision-Making

John Ostenburg

By John A. Ostenburg

Unless one resides in some truly remote region, where the nearest other human is hundreds of miles away, we all must depend on others in order to fulfill our daily needs.

I became acutely aware of this reality a few years ago when I went on a five-day retreat at Gethsemini Monastery in rural Kentucky. I had been on retreat at the monastery before, but for this particular time I gained permission of the monastery’s abbot to do my retreat at the hermitage where the famed spiritual writer and poet Thomas Merton had resided during his last years. I long had been a student of Merton’s writings and I felt that staying at his hermitage for a brief time would bring me closer to a fuller appreciation of his words.

Certainly my goal was attained, but what I also gained from the five days I spent there was the reality that even living as a hermit, about a mile removed from the larger society, required the assistance of others in order to subsist: one of the brothers from the monastery had to provide me with food and water, to attend mass each day I had to make the mile-long walk down to the monastery, the power-source for the electricity at the hermitage was generated by folks somewhere miles away, etc. 

The sartori moment of my hermitage experience has had an impact on my thinking as an elected official. While recognizing the need and value of individualism, I also have come to better appreciate the need for the larger collective. What government provides are the things that individuals cannot necessarily acquire on their own. Few of us, as individuals, could afford police or fire services, water and sewer services, streets and recreational services, etc. So, we come together as a people and contribute our individual tax dollars in order to be a part of financing the larger services that benefit us all. 

But my thinking in this regard does not stop there. I also have come to appreciate the concept of regionalism as it relates to all government. I know that – even in the best of economic times – my town of Park Forest cannot possibly acquire enough business activity to generate sufficient jobs to satisfy the needs of my residents; folks who live in my community, therefore, benefit from the economic success of other communities that are near us. The examples of how this mutual benefitting takes place are legion. My philosophy of government thus is based on the notion that what lifts up one of our area cities is of benefit to us all. Obviously, my main point of focus as a mayor is on the success of my own village; yet, if I can help some neighboring village be successful – providing it would have no negative effect on my own town – I’m going to do everything I can in that regard.

Elected officials need to move beyond their selfish interests to assure that the larger good is served. Sometimes, for example, I hear some of my fellow suburban mayors make disparaging remarks about Chicago. When they do, I want to shake them and shout in their faces, “Without Chicago, would your town even exist?” The reality is, all our suburban communities have come into existence because of the benefits our citizens accrue due to our proximity to Chicago. Chicago, even with its down-sides (which are numerous), is the economic engine that drives our region and our state.

My support and activity over the past decade on behalf of a south suburban airport fits into the same category. I’ve had the privilege of serving as vice-chairperson of the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission (ALNAC), working closely with Congressman Jesse L. Jackson Jr., to bring a private developer to the project, lobbying state and regional leaders to work with the private developer, trying to find a governing structure for the airport that serves the needs of all segments of our region. It’s been a long and arduous task – one often marked with one step forward and then two steps back – but the project has progressed and today is closer to fruition than ever before.

Folks often ask me, “Why are you involved in the airport project? Park Forest isn’t adjacent to the footprint.” My response is simple: I believe in regionalism. If the airport is built, it will affect not just the small area of eastern Will County where it will be sited; it will affect our entire region. And, truthfully, in addition to the many benefits, the airport also will have some negative impact on our region. Increased traffic, noise, air pollution, etc., are among the many side-effects that have to be considered and dealt with. Both the positives and the negatives impact everyone in our region, from the southside of Chicago to the Kankakee County border, from Joliet to the Indiana stateline.

That’s why we all must work to assure that the airport project is not dominated by one single point of view: it can’t be just what the south suburbs want; it can’t be just what the communities surrounding the airport site want; it can’t be just what Joliet or Kankakee wants; it can’t be just what the folks in Springfield or Washington want; it must be what’s best for us all.

And that brings me to one of the major reasons why I support former State Representative Robin Kelly to replace Congressman Jackson in representing the Second Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. I believe in my heart that sending Representative Kelly to Washington is our best assurance that the work done over the past 17 years by Congressman Jackson in regard to the south suburban airport ultimately will be successful. 

First of all, Robin Kelly has a wealth of expertise and experience that is unmatched among all the individuals who have voiced a desire to replace Congressman Jackson. She holds a Ph.D. in government-related studies; she was a successful administrator at the municipal level when she worked at the Village of Matteson; she has state-wide experience as a member of the Illinois General Assembly, as chief of staff for the state treasurer, and as a candidate for statewide office; she currently is the director of administrative services in the administration of Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, playing a key role in many of the reforms that have taken place in the county over the last several months; her personal ethics are impeccable; and she works well with everyone, successfully avoiding the kind of street-fighting that too often has been exhibited by elected officials of our area in the past. 

Certainly a number of the other candidates match Representative Kelly on one or two of the above points, but none has a combination that is completely equal.

State Senator Toi Hutchinson unquestionably also is a qualified candidate for the congressional seat, but sending her to Washington at this crucial time could very well send the south suburban airport project into oblivion. In her brief time in the Illinois General Assembly, Senator Hutchinson has brought together many of the divergent players in the airport drama and has had them sit down together – face to face – to discuss their differences and to seek resolution. She has the confidence of nearly all the regional players, plus Governor Pat Quinn, and is the best catalyst for making the airport a reality. She personally has moved the airport project forward at a faster pace than has been seen in the past. Were she to leave the Illinois State Senate at this time, it very well could throw everything back into the argumentative and chaotic state that was there before her arrival on the scene.

Some might argue that having Senator Hutchinson in the congressional seat would enhance her ability to further the airport, but I cannot see that as valid. Congressman Jackson, despite all his years of working on the airport project, and his seniority within the Democratic caucus in Congress, could not move the airport project beyond the level to which he was successful in positioning it; truth is, the playing field for the south suburban airport right now is in Springfield and not Washington.

Robin Kelly in Washington, working with Senator Hutchinson and other elected officials on the local scene, offers the very best opportunity for our region – regarding the airport project and numerous other needs that we have – as we move into the post-economic-downturn times ahead.

The story is that James Carville, during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the White House, kept a sign at hand that read, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Well, today my sign reads, “It’s the region, stupid!”

John A. Ostenburg is in his fourth four-year term as mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He retired in July 2010 as the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union after holding various CTU posts over a 15-year period. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he also has been a teacher and/or administrator at elementary, secondary, community college, and university levels. E-mail him at [email protected].