A Secret Meeting of Citizens for a Better Bolingbrook

Bolingbrook has been ruled by its mayor, Roger Claar, for 23 years. His campaign fund has collected more than $5 million since 1999, in a village where the biggest campaign expense is yard signs and where typical voter turnout is only 4,000.
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Toward the end of last week the Chicago Tribune ran a couple of stories on Bolingbrook--one on its politically profligate mayor Roger Claar and the other on Claar's massive, money-losing municipal golf course and adjacent stalled housing development.

Having chronicled Claar's Bolingbook for a Chicago Magazine story a couple of years ago, I got word of a Sunday "secret meeting" of Bolingbrook's rabble-rousing residents, and their unlikely leader, one Bonnie Alicea.

When I realized I was going to be out of town, I turned to my most reliable Bolingbrook source, Tom Braxton.

Braxton has lived in Bolingbrook for three decades, and been politically involved in and around Bolingbrook for much of that time. A moderate Democrat, he calls 'em like he sees 'em, and from my experience, he sees 'em pretty clearly.

Here's Braxton's account of the secret meeting in Bolingbrook.


* * *

The conversation kept bursting from all directions. A dozen people had gathered in the back of a restaurant, comparing notes and sharing stories at a relentless pace. In the center of it all was Bonnie Alicea, holding fast to a lengthy agenda that read like the outline of a Raymond Chandler novel.

This was the meeting of the Citizens for a Better Bolingbrook, the organization founded earlier this year in the wake of Alicea's unsuccessful write-in campaign for mayor of Bolingbrook, Illinois. The attendees were the core of the group whose members have combined to share information and insight into the doings of the Village of Bolingbrook.

I've lived in Bolingbrook 30 years and have an interest in this subject. In those 30 years I've seen a wide range of people: heroes, fools, persons of letters and persons who couldn't put letters together, who, with the best intentions, have tried to engage in honest self-government. Some sputtered out and vanished, some gave up, some died. The CFBB is the latest manifestation of that righteous urge. I found myself at this gathering when journalist David Murray asked if I was interested. After 30 years I certainly was.

Bolingbrook's village government has been ruled by its mayor, Roger Claar, for 23 years. As the Chicago Tribune has reported, being mayor has been very, very good for Claar. His campaign fund, Citizens for Claar, has collected more than $5 million since 1999, and currently has a balance of over $1 million. This fund is for a village where the biggest campaign expense is yard signs and where typical voter turnout is only 4,000. His $129,000 salary from the village seems almost superfluous, since under Illinois' campaign-finance law, campaign funds can be used for nearly anything as long as expenditures are declared as being for campaign purposes.

The bulk of his contributions have come from companies doing business with the village, which invites the scrutiny of investigative reporters and fuels the outrage of the CFBB. Bonnie Alicea's agenda was a laundry list of topics for investigation. She and her CFBB colleagues have been filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the village for budget details, invoices, receipts, and other public documents that they think are questionable. The village has been slow in responding to the FOIAs, claiming that the requests are incorrectly prepared and that some documents aren't available.

In a well-researched profile for Chicago Magazine, David Murray spent time with Claar as he went about his civic business, during which he declared, "I am Bolingbrook." Claar is a man who suffers no fools and revels in his authority, insisting on knowing every action of every department and officiously dismissing those who question him or his actions. No surprise then that the village's offices view Alicea and the CFBB with a smoldering contempt.

But to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the village's intransigence has only hardened the resolve of Alicea and the CFBB. These are true believers who take very seriously Thomas Jefferson's admonition "that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it."

She tried to alter the village government, running for mayor in 2009. But her political naivete at that time led to her being knocked off the ballot. The local election board, consisting of three members of Claar's administration, ruled that her nominating petitions were invalid.

She ran as a write-in candidate and garnered 25% of the vote. The 25% was significant since she ran a campaign of only a few weeks with little money, and the law required that voters spell her name correctly, in a certain format, and in a designated space on the ballot, instructions not easy for voters to follow.

It was in the course of that campaign that she met others who became the core of the CFBB. They shared their stories and found common ground in their shared indignation over the taxpayers' costs and the mayor's actions.

My own experience in political groups and volunteer organizations has taught me that shared indignation can burn out quickly. It's easy to rage against the machine, but harder to build a machine from the rage. Little is accomplished without focus and patience, qualities that those in power have demonstrated for 23 years and used to their advantage. But we're living at a different point in history, one in which those out of power feel empowered, and that's apparent in the determined looks and the long agenda of the CFBB.

And that agenda keeps getting longer. Soon they're going to need to find a larger restaurant.

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