After some residents complained that honoring a former mayor convicted of felony made Niles a joke, and others insisted the village honor the ex-mayor, Nicholas Blase, for successes during his 47 years in office, the Niles village board voted Tuesday to remove the "Nicholas Blase Plaza" sign outside of the village hall.
The controversy over the sign split opinion in the north suburb, which Blase presided over from 1961, when it was relatively small, until 2008, after prosecutors brought fraud and tax evasion charges. He was later convicted, and was released in March.
The village board considered whether to remove the Blase Plaza sign at its September 2010 meeting and deadlocked 3-3, with Mayor Robert Callero breaking the tie and . However, who was elected in April, proposed revisiting the matter, saying last year's tie vote was not decisive.
When the board entertained the idea of removing the sign Tuesday, residents spoke passionately during the public comments period.
Blase gets credit for village's success some say
Some maintained that Blase's efforts in making the village a thriving retail hub, the sales tax revenue from which created good public services, such as a free municipal bus, should earn him the honor of having a plaza named after him.
"Blase has brought great services to all of us. We are the only village of its size in the state that can brag of having two Targets, two Home Depots, three Jewels, two Walmarts and a Costco. Thank you, Mayor Blase," said George Alpogianis. "The fact that (Bloomberg/Business Week) that all started with Blase leading all of us."
'Do the right thing and lead'
Other residents said Blase sullied the village's good name. The former mayor admitted accepting kickbacks from an insurance agency, which businesses in the village were pressured to use, according to prosecutors' documents in court.
"I think we have to have at least the appearance of good government. I travel all around, people I talk to think it’s kind of a joke this sign has not been taken down," said Gerry Kirschbaum. "Sorry if I sound like a goody two shoes, but public opinion can be wrong. I ask the board to do your jobs and lead. Do the right thing."
Ex-mayor's wife has harsh words
Faye Blase, the former mayor's wife, scolded some of the trustees who had said they wanted to remove the sign after the former mayor violated the public trust.
"What’s holding Niles back is Niles trustees who love to create chaos for their own political aspirations," she said. "Grow up and work together with your mayor. Quit making Niles the laughingstock of the suburbs."
Words used to describe Blase
Another resident, Steve Doughty, argued in favor or taking the sign down.
"I’ve put together a list of published words and phrases that newspapers have associated with the name of Nick Blase," he said, and proceeded to cite a few: insurance scam, took bribes, took kickbacks, pleaded guilty, extortion, mail fraud tax evasion, violated public trust, abused public trust.
"I ask you to remove the sign," he concluded.
Weighing reliability of poll
Most of the trustees also weighed in with their opinions. Trustee Louella Preston showed photos of seven other plaques in Niles, mostly building dedication plaques, which featured Blase's name and said she would not vote to remove those, but would vote against the Blase Plaza sign because it honored the mayor individually.
Preston also cited mail delivery problems with the village's Fall 2010 newsletter, which polled residents on whether the sign should be removed. Those problems led to an unscientific survey result, she said, and did not provide a reliable gauge of residents' opinions on the matter.
Trustee Joe LoVerde countered that, however, saying that the 910 residents (a majority) who indicated in the survey they wanted to keep the Blase name on the sign should not be discounted.
Palicki commented that keeping the name of a convicted felon on a village sign sent the wrong message.
"Blase abused the office to which he was entrusted... Let us move forward in reestablishing our village as one that honors integrity and honesty above all else," she said.
The vote and aftermath
Trustees Palicki, Preston, Chris Hanusiak and Jim Hynes voted in favor of removing the sign; Trustees LoVerde and Andrew Przybylo voted to keep it.
According to the terms of the vote, the sign must be removed before the board's November meeting.
Blase's conviction spurred a movement in Niles towards ethics and transparency. Within the past two years, the village board passed an ethics ordinance and created an ethics committee.