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Local News

Year in review: A look back at Downers Grove's top stories in 2016

Each year, Suburban Life rounds up some of the biggest stories around the community.

Here are the highlights of Downers Grove's 2016:

1. Sandack out; Hose, Olsen vie for seat

In mid-July, then-prominent Republican state Rep. Ron Sandack abruptly and startlingly resigned his post, mere months before a re-election bid. He also suddenly deleted his various social media accounts, which the highly visible and longtime politician had used extensively in his years of public service, citing “cybersecurity issues.”

Through a trickle of information from the Downers Grove Police Department, including Freedom of Information Act requests and an appeal to the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office, details emerged. Sandack was the victim of an international crime ring based in the Phillipines. The group specialized in luring high-profile individuals to engage in inappropriate online conversations for extortion.

Sandack’s absence after years in the state house and previously as mayor of Downers Grove left a void in the local political landscape unclear. Eventually, local Republicans tapped village commissioner David Olsen to take both the representative’s place in Springfield and on the ballot. Olsen found success in November against his former Village Council colleague, Greg Hose, winning the seat for himself.

2. Community says no to stormwater referendum

Downers Grove, as with many communities across DuPage County, has been plagued by increasingly frequent stormwater issues in recent years. And, like many others, the village has explored a variety of solutions to abate the problems as well as raise money to do so.

On the ballot this year, the village asked the community how it wanted to go forward with the funding: exclusively through its current stormwater fee system, relying exclusively on property taxes or a mixture of both.

Overwhelmingly, voters rejected the latter options and voted to keep the stormwater fee. In response, the village has since passed a slight planned increase of the stormwater fee.

3. Village Council turnover

Olsen formally stepped down from his place on the Village Council after he was nominated to fill Sandack’s seat in the House of Representatives, leaving a seat available. The council eventually approved the addition of Marge Earl, chairwoman of the village’s Zoning Board of Appeals and member of its Comprehensive Planning Ad-Hoc Committee.

Just when they thought they had returned to a full dais of commissioners, Gina Vattimo abruptly resigned her seat, only 15 months into her four-year term and days after Earl’s selection. Her replacement was Nicole Walus, a special education teacher who is active with the Downers Grove Rotary Club.

4. Movement on new civic center

For years, the Village Council has been struggling to come up with a solution for a needed revamp of its village hall and police station, both located on the village’s civic center property off of Burlington Avenue in downtown Downers Grove.

After the community soundly rejected a proposed $50 million referendum in 2015 to build new police and fire facilities, the council approved a potential plan for a new police headquarters earlier this year. But the body also has been exploring the possibility of opening up part of the property for a mixed-use development to generate enough TIF and tax dollars to substantially fund a new shared facility.

The village has formally accepted proposals for said development and hired a consultant to assess the feasibility of each for a future vote.

5. New leadership in District 99, library

Two of the community’s largest educational organizations – Community High School District 99 and the Downers Grove Public Library – both sought out and found new executives.

Superintendent Hank Thiele began his tenure at the head of the school district July 1 after half a year of transition work with former Superintendent Mark McDonald. The next month, Julie Milavec took over the library after 16 years of work as the director of the Plainfield Public Library – just in time to celebrate the library’s 125th anniversary.

6. District 99 moving forward with community engagement

The district moved forward with the next steps on its long-digesting community engagement plan Dec. 12, formally hiring a pair of consultants to begin work on the months-long process of educating and informing community members about its Master Facility Plan and listening to their concerns and perspectives.

The board was delivered a $100 million list of proposed upgrades in April 2015 but soon scaled it back to about $70 million later in the year.

The first step of the process will be a kick-off strategy meeting with the board, estimated to take place in January 2017. The process also would include performing additional voter analysis, finalizing costs and recruiting a citizen task force before even beginning to reach out to the community.

7. Food trucks and happy hour come to Downers Grove

Diners in Downers Grove got a couple more options in 2016, namely happy hour specials and food trucks.

The former aligned the village's restrictions with what was signed into law in July 2015 for the entire state. The specials are allowed, provided the price of the drink is not changed during the time it is discounted, the period of time during which any drink of liquor is discounted does not exceed four hours per day and 15 hours per week, divided by the licensee in any manner they choose, and notice of the discount during a specified time is posted on the premises or on the licensee’s publicly available website at least seven days before the specified time.

Mobile food vendors can currently serve Ellsworth Esplanade, Highland Landmark, Highland Oaks and The Corridors business parks and Park District parks, pending district approval, along with other restrictions. The council decided to change its provisions due to lack of participation.

8. All-day kindergarten across District 58 schools

Though several schools already had the option, the Downers Grove School District 58 Board of Education approved a plan to bring optional, all-day kindergarten throughout the school district in the 2016-17 school year in March.

The program had previously been piloted at El Sierra, Henry Puffer, Highland, Indian Trail and Kingsley. The Optional Kindergarten Enrichment and Enhancement Program, or OKEEP, takes place in the afternoon and costs participating families $2,450 for the year.

9. Historic houses

In 2015, a divided village saw the historic Edwards House near downtown Downers Grove be torn down despite the protests and organization of many community members – including the dismay of some on the council.

A revamping of the village’s requirements for historic preservation to reduce high standards and promote the program has led to an explosion of officially landmarked homes in 2016. Prior to March 22, 2016, only two homes bore the distinction – The Drew House in the 5200 block of Carpenter Street in 2008 and the Wayne House in the 4900 block of Highland Avenue in 2009. In 2016, the council approved nine additional locations.

To learn more about the current houses and requirements for approval, visit downers.us/govt/historic-preservation.

10. First-ever Harvest Festival

Those who love the feel of fall got a new way to celebrate the season as well as explore the offerings of the Downers Grove Park District.

The district’s first Harvest Festival on Oct. 1 showcased fall foods, crafts, drinks and more at the all-day event at Fishel Park.

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