New project, old ways
On a recent tour of Rosemont, Bradley Stephens showed off the crown jewel of the expansion: a made-to-order town square amid the din of the Tri-State Tollway and overhead jets.
MB Financial Park at Rosemont, previously called The Park at Rosemont, is packed with a comedy club, bowling alley, bars and restaurants, all of them built big and topped with spare-no-expense finishes. The grown-up play land is anchored by an artificial-turf park that hosts bands in the summer and converts to an ice rink in the winter. All of it is publicly financed.
As Stephens dodges construction trucks in his SUV, the blunt-talking 49-year-old former carpenter could easily be confused with the CEO of a family-run development company.
He talks of jetting across the country to personally woo owners of bars and other attractions to set up shop in his village. He pauses at times to inspect the craftsmanship. He offers primers on development strategy, filled with phrases like “vertical subdivision.”
Through it all is a confidence that the project is well on the path to profitability.
“Things are going to start really coming together,” he tells a reporter. “Absolutely.”
Rosemont’s veteran financial adviser said the $100 million makeover has been thoroughly vetted. And he points to the staying power of the suburb’s convention center and arena as evidence the plan will work.
“Understand that nothing has failed in that village,” financial adviser Merrill Ring said. “The fact that nothing has failed is a testament not only to that location (near O’Hare), but to the care and attention of the management.”
But the village does not routinely employ a commonly accepted practice of good governance: competitive bidding.
Degen, Rosato and their partners, Northern Builders, did not have to directly compete with anyone for their contract from the village. In essence, the no-bid contract puts them in charge of hiring firms that help build the complex.
Even contracts given to firms with ownership ties to the Stephens family are done without bidding.
Beyond the cleaning contract with the mayor’s brother, two other companies tied to the family have reaped deals at Rosemont’s convention center — where the taxi tax money is flowing.
Rosemont Catering Co. has the exclusive contract to provide food to conventioneers. Donald E. Stephens’ widow as well as his daughter — Bradley Stephens’ sister — were listed as owning a combined 15 percent stake in the company in 2006, the last time such detailed records were filed with the state.
It is unclear what stake they hold today, if any. Neither of the Stephenses could be reached for comment; the company didn’t return phone calls.
Then there is Rosemont Exposition Services, which has the exclusive contract to set up trade shows and is paid more than $5 million a year to manage the convention center and provide labor at the arena and theater.
Bradley Stephens said that some family members are shareholders. One of them is his nephew, town police Chief Donald Stephens III, according to disclosure reports.
The convention industry is well-known for markups, and Rosemont is no different. For a recent trade show, exhibitors found a 24-ounce bowl of pretzels cost $23, while renting a standard table, two chairs and a wastebasket cost $185. Those prices are before various service charges, taxes and late-order markups.
Stephens said that no-bid deals — even those offered to family members — are actually good for taxpayers. If the village needs to tweak duties in contracts, low bidders could refuse or gouge the village. No-bid vendors are flexible.
And, the mayor said, he is hard on his family.
“Believe me,” Stephens said, “those people who are my family members that do jobs here, have employment here, have contracts here … I hold them to a different standard.”
Stephens also says the village employs “a gaggle of lawyers” to ensure everything is legal.
The bar isn’t high. Illinois’ laws on bidding and nepotism are notoriously lax.
For example, in Texas, town leaders are forbidden from hiring relatives for government jobs. In New Jersey, towns must open most contracts for public bids. And in Alabama, a no-bid contract to a relative of a mayor would violate its state law in multiple ways.
Illinois, however, lets home-rule towns largely decide for themselves what’s ethical, leading to a patchwork of rules.
Cook County elected officials aren’t supposed to hire relatives.
Evanston officials can’t oversee relatives’ contracts.
Naperville not only bans relatives from jobs and most contracts, but also requires bidding for almost all purchases. That even includes comparing proposals before hiring city lobbyists.
Yet in many towns, such as Rosemont, there are few, if any, rules. The attitude of many officials is that such matters should be up to a town’s voters.
“I’m always concerned with nepotism and insider dealing on contracts,” said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican who has long gotten political support from the Stephens family. “But in some of these instances, it would be the citizens of Rosemont that need to be the most observant and vigilant.”
Residents got a rare choice at the ballot box after Donald E. Stephens died at the helm at age 79. Bradley Stephens was appointed acting mayor, then faced a challenger in the 2009 local election.
Opponent Joseph Watrach campaigned on the message that the family and its friends profited too much from town spending.
On Election Day, 1,096 votes were tallied. Only 98 of them were for Watrach.
“Our people understand what we are doing,” Stephens said. “And honestly, that is who I’ve got to respond to.”Pages: 1 2 3 4 5