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'Always Be Mayor Tully'

Longtime Downers Grove mayor prepares to leave office

Outgoing Downers Grove Mayor Martin Tully recognizes the audience during a village council meeting in Downers Grove April 16 as Commissioner Nicole Walus (left) and other applaud.
Outgoing Downers Grove Mayor Martin Tully recognizes the audience during a village council meeting in Downers Grove April 16 as Commissioner Nicole Walus (left) and other applaud.

DOWNERS GROVE – Martin Tully can't see the finish line of his mayoral term just yet. He has less than three weeks left, and in that time, he still has meetings and small matters of business to tend to.

"It's like when you're waiting for a holiday to come or like a vacation, you know," Tully said, sitting down at the end of a long table inside a conference room at Downers Grove Village Hall.

Moments ago, Tully wrapped up an afternoon tour of village hall for a group of exchange students from Germany, and three hours of downtime stood between him and a village council meeting.

"I've known for years that I'm going to have to leave because of the term limits," Tully added, "so, I've been planning beyond that already. To get there, so I can really hand everything off, I still have stuff to do. It has been unwinding."

The 2019 general election brought a wave of changes for the Downers Grove Village Council. Like Tully, commissioners William Waldeck and Bill White have also completed their terms, leaving their spots open for newly elected mayor, Bob Barnett, and two first-time commissioners, Rich Kulovany and Leslie Sadowski-Fugitt.

Tully made it a point to stay out of the spotlight during the election. He showed no favor, nor did he endorse any of the candidates, so "there's no bad blood." Instead, he chose to think ahead.

"Even before I knew who won, I started creating an email folder called 'Next Mayor,'" he said. "Whoever it is, I could send them, 'Here, this is all the stuff you're going to want to know about right off the bat.'"

Before Tully became the mayor, he served as a commissioner for eight years, from 2001 to 2009. Unlike his fellow council members, Tully did not serve on any of the village's board or commissions until after he was elected commissioner. In fact, he was a board member of the Orchard Brook Home Owners Association, and he leaned on that experience, as well as his profession as a litigator attorney to help guide him into his political roles.

Tully recalled going to council meetings and studying past agenda items, but "even if you've done all your homework and you're fully prepared, there's a big learning curve," and "you can attend all the council meetings in the world, but there's a lot more behind the scenes."

Tully was sworn in as commissioner in May 2001. Four months later, the United States faced one of the most devastating tragedies in history.

"The world literally changed," Tully said of the September 11 attacks. "A lot of things changed around here because every single community all of sudden had to look at its policies, its procedures because everybody was on a super high alert."

And, in June 2011, a month after Tully stepped into his position as mayor, an EF-1 tornado touched down in Downers Grove. Through the years, he, along with the council, have seen rainfall damage homes in the community, work through the ripple effect of the state of Illinois' budget crisis and find ways to heal when sad events take place.

Those unpredictable incidents cannot be prepared for, and people often rely on each other for strength. As mayor and an elected official, Tully, at times, was under pressure to hold everyone together.

"You are the face of the village," he said. "You are the spokesperson. You're responsible for everything and to blame for everything."

But, Tully has a tried-and-true method of how to stay calm, cool and collected. He figured it out years ago, he said. Back when he was a college student, Tully worked in the customer service department of a Sears store. Whenever customers were unhappy or dissatisfied, he was on the first line of defense, and he learned to how to approach them.

"When someone's really mad, and they're blaming me for something, I'll just say, 'Yeah, you're right. It's my fault,'" he said, with a laugh.

Joking aside, admitting that something could have been done better creates room for an open, honest conversation. The thing is, Tully, the council and village staff have to come together and constantly think about the bigger picture.

Downers Grove is home to nearly 50,000 residents, several schools and thousands of businesses. Its bustling downtown is the heart, surging with people daily. Founded in 1832, Downers Grove's long, rich history prevails through its historic landmarks and homes.

Downers Grove is a typical Midwestern town with a "bit of sophistication," Tully noted.

It's the type of place where people who grew up there often find themselves coming back. Case and point, Tully, an Oak Brook native and graduate of Downers Grove North High School, returned to Downers Grove in 1992 with his wife to raise their two sons.

Keeping that in mind, Tully talked of the difficulties of making a decision. He thought back to an instance where the council had to figure out what to do with one neighborhood's man-made pond that was in need of restoration.

The council, then, had two options. "One was to spend, I think it was north of $1 million, to make the pond back the way it looked when the developer built it, understanding that after another 25 years, they'd have the same problem again," Tully said, "or we could restore it basically to wetland for I think a couple thousand dollars."

With a marker in hand, Tully drew two circles on the white board, labeling the larger one "community" and the smaller one inside it as "neighborhood." His thought-process came down to this.

"If it's good for the community, good for the neighborhood, that's easy," he said. "If it's bad for the neighborhood, bad for the community, that's also easy. "But what if it's good for the community, bad for the neighborhood?"

The council ultimately voted for the more affordable option and received backlash from the residents who lived around that pond. To this day, Tully said there are still some who are mad at him.

"But, it's about doing the right thing," Tully said. "That's the job. The job is not to please everybody. The job is to do the best you can for the entire community."

On May 7, the new village council will be sworn into office. Tully shared that he hopes they all embrace the coming changes and see them as opportunities, and he encourages them to plan long-term and consider the direction of Downers Grove in the next few decades.

When asked if Tully is excited about not being in the limelight, he laughed and said, "Yes, yes, yes," and added that he looks forward to dedicating more time to his law firm and spending time with his wife, children and own parents.

With a smile, he noted, "I think part of that will be impossible because [I'll] always be Mayor Tully, and nobody wants to be forgotten."