The idea that government officials in Crestwood, Ill., were less than open with the public with regards to the quality of their drinking water supply is not the least bit surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the municipal activity in the 200-plus towns that surround Chicago.
While just about every government entity has its moments when it tries to keep quiet about their activity, Crestwood is a place where municipal officials have turned secrecy into an art form.
THIS IS A place where officials take the attitude that people don’t have any right to information about law enforcement activity in the suburb. Anybody who has ever had to deal with Crestwood police know they follow the lead of municipal officials in thinking that a police report is not a public document.
I’m not talking about getting police to elaborate about incidents in ways that would give the public a greater understanding to what degree there is crime in Crestwood. I mean the actual sparse reports themselves.
While municipal officials theoretically have periodic “press conferences” to answer questions about police incidents, they are worthless unless one is aware of what incidents have been reported so that questions can be asked about them.
In fact, the whole attitude behind Crestwood government throughout the years has been one of, “None of your business!” The town had as its long-time mayor Chester Stranczek (1969 to 2007), and his son, Robert, now heads municipal government.
CRESTWOOD IS TYPICAL of other suburban towns in one aspect – the reason it has a longtime mayoral family is that there really isn’t anyone else interested in taking on the job.
Whenever anyone tried questioning Chester (or now tries questioning Robert), they get a response something along the lines of, “This is the way we do things in Crestwood.” No one has been willing to stand up to that approach.
So with that being the prevailing attitude, does it really come as a shock to learn that not only did Crestwood officials have a clue that there was something wrong with a portion of their municipal water supply, they were more than willing to ignore it.
Maintaining the status quo allowed them to provide drinking water to their 11,000-plus residents at a rate lower than any other town in Cook County. And to the powers that be, they figured that people would be more impressed with paying a lower water bill than they would be to receive better drinking water.
LOWER TAXES TRANSLATED into happy voters. And that was all that mattered to Crestwood officials.
So I can’t help but wonder how the powers that be in Crestwood are reacting to the Chicago Tribune, which on Sunday came up with a story about how municipal officials ignored the concerns of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency about water quality.
It’s probably something along the lines of “liberal media” and “Springfield meddling in our business.”
State officials are focusing their attention these days on trying to understand why the Illinois EPA did not take it upon themselves to notify Crestwood residents about the possible harm from their water supply, which had levels of vinyl chloride and other soil and groundwater pollutants dangerous enough to be carcinogenic (that’s cancer-causing).
STATE OFFICIALS TOLD the Tribune that Crestwood was first notified more than two decades ago that chemicals from a dry-cleaning solvent had leaked into the well from which Crestwood got about 20 percent of its water supply.
That might be a legitimate question, although I would expect someone within the state agency had an ideological problem with overriding the responsibility of the municipality. After all, it should have been the village itself that took action on this issue.
This puts Crestwood in an awkward position. They’re used to being able to ignore things like this, not have to respond to questions. In fact, Stranczek the elder went so far as to tell the SouthtownStar newspaper that he still can’t talk about the issue, citing that old reliable municipal claim of “pending litigation.”
“If there is a lawsuit, our lawyers will be very unhappy if I talk about it,” he told the Tinley Park-based newspaper.
SO FOR THOSE people who think they can show up at the next municipal meeting in Crestwood and “demand some answers,” the answer is likely to be “forget it.” This is going to be one of those issues where no one is going to give a direct answer – and the people who live in that town are now going to get a chill when they turn on the water spigot.
“Is this water from the tainted 20 percent, or from the 80 percent that probably is good,” they will ask themselves, even though it appears that officials stopped using the tainted well about 17 months ago.
It would be nice if this incident started some sort of pressure from the “outside” that forced Crestwood municipal government to be more open about the way it behaves.
Not that I’m optimistic. This is the suburb whose claim to fame in recent years has been the village “sign.”
IT SITS IN front of the village hall on Cicero Avenue and usually contains some “pithy” slogan, which is updated periodically. The slogans are usually the conservative political thoughts of Chester Stranczek – who paid for the sign out of personal funds so he could specifically control its message.
Do you really believe a municipality where leaders are determined to ram their thoughts down your throat (remember a few years ago when the “sign” touted English as the U.S. official language?) is going to willingly admit it was more interested in scoring political points from voters by talking about cheap water, than worrying about the water’s quality?
This is one of those cases where “big government” (as the social conservatives rant about it) is what it will take to get the right thing for the residents of Crestwood.
EDITOR’S NOTES: In what has been an ongoing debate in Crestwood, the village does not maintain a website (who wants any information easily accessible to the public?). So this highly unofficial website (http://www.villageofcrestwood.com/) will have to suffice.
The state says Crestwood promised they would only use their local well water in an (http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2009/04/crestwood-pollution-water-well-cancer-carcinogen-mayor-gov-pat-quinn-epa.html) emergency.
The political behavior of Chester Stranczek (http://buyo.blogspot.com/2007/06/mayor-chester-stranczek.html) has gained attention overseas.