Mayoral hopefuls in rematch
HOPKINS PARK — Mark Hodge and Walter Jones III, the two candidates for Hopkins Park mayor, are a study in contrasts.
Although both grew up in Hopkins Park, Mayor Mark Hodge left home to join the Marines. After that, he spent 26 years working in the California prison system, retiring as a captain a few years ago. He moved back to town in 2012. According to OpenTheBooks.com, he collects a nearly $100,000-a-year pension.
For two decades, Hodges has bought properties all over town, both commercial and residential. His real estate holdings are striking in Hopkins Park-based Pembroke Township, where the median household income is $27,000, among the lowest in the nation.
Until last January, Jones, who served as mayor from 2011 to 2015, owned Pac Waste Collection Services, which handles garbage collection in Hopkins Park. He retired from Reynolds food packaging company in Grant Park. He has lived in the area his entire life.
His house is near the town’s main intersection. He likes to work in his small home office, which is full of historical memorabilia.
In the April 2015 election, Hodge won with 97 votes to Jones’ 53. A third candidate, Richard Michniak, finished third with 35 votes.
On a recent day, Hodge took a reporter for a tour of Hopkins Park. At one point, he saw a man walking on the street. The mayor stopped his pickup truck. The man told Hodge he was heading toward the school. The mayor offered him a ride.
“I do that all the time,” the mayor told the reporter.
During the tour, Hodge showed houses that he purchased and renovated, going back to 1998, long before he moved back.
Hodge owns the building where a taqueria is. He also owns what is known as the “blue building,” which is where the local chapter of the National Association of Black Veterans has set up a center. He said the chapter would pay for the building in a couple years.
He also leases another building to a church. Sharing space there is the temporary village hall, where Hodge has his mayoral office.
He said he is buying all these properties to improve them — to make Hopkins Park a more attractive place.
‘NEGLECTED FOR YEARS’
The village hall, which is at the main intersection, is a point of contention between the two candidates. Hodge blames his predecessor for letting the building deteriorate to the point where it’s unusable.
Hodge said the village government under Jones mismanaged a $300,000 state grant to improve the building. He said the village could have replaced village hall’s roof and prevented other problems.
During Jones’ one term, the village government moved into a mobile unit.
“When I became mayor,” Jones said, “village hall had been neglected for years. At that point, the roof was bad.”
He said the village went out to bid to fix the building. He said he wanted to go with the low bidder, but the village board chose a higher bidder. He vetoed the decision, but the board overrode him, he said. (Hodge said the low bidder was unqualified.)
Near the end of his term, Jones said, the village board’s decision was to have the contract improve the driveway. He said he wanted to take care of the roof and building first. Hodge, however, said Jones had the ability to make sure the roof was done first.
As for the grant, Jones said the village never received the money, while Hodge contended Hopkins Park was forced to return it because of mismanagement.
After Hodge took the helm, the village moved into the mayor’s church building.
Hodge said that even if he loses, he would let the village government continue to work out of the building. He has let the village use the building for free, an arrangement that he said he would continue if Jones prevails in the April 2 election.
“If he wins, I will help him do everything I can to make this community successful,” Hodge said.
Asked if he would work in Hodge’s building, Jones said he would — at least temporarily. But he said he would like to get grants to construct a new building next to the current hall for village offices. The older building would then be used for public works, he said.
Hodge said he would like to renovate village hall, which would probably have to be done in phases, given the expense.
‘DON’T HAVE TO WAIT’
Since taking office, Hodge said the village has much more equipment for the public works department.
“We didn’t have a truck to do snow removal before. They would ask the township for help,” Hodge said.
Jones said it makes sense for the township to plow village roads, saying it’s better for taxpayers for one entity to handle that function, rather than two.
Hodge disagreed, noting the township covers an area of more than 50 square miles.
“Their area is a priority for them. If the village is plowing snow, then we don’t have to wait,” the mayor said.
Hodge said the village used to pay $1,000 or $1,500 each time a company came to help the village with sewer lift station issues. Now, the village has the equipment to get the job done itself, which has saved the village at least $20,000 over the years, the mayor said.
Both candidates agree the village needs to have a police department. It has been without one for years, so the Kankakee County Sheriff’s Office handles that function inside Hopkins Park.
The men said they have no criticism of the sheriff’s office’s performance, but they said a local department could better handle issues such as loitering at a local gas station.
Jones’ office is something of a museum for American history and patriotism. He has dozens of commemorative plates on his wall with previous versions of the U.S. flag.
“This home office is my sanctuary. It gives me a lot of peace,” Jones said.
Two of the plates include portraits of Lincoln and Washington.
“Abraham Lincoln is my favorite president. He was awkward, he was different. He was able to convince the people. He did some great work,” Jones said.
One side of Jones’ office features shelves with displays of miniature buildings — schools, a courthouse, restaurants, grocery stores, a bank, an opera house, among others.
He points to this small community of buildings as the type of town he would like to see Hopkins Park become.
One way to bring that about is to attract job-creating businesses, Jones said. He said that includes finding an occupant for the old Nestle factory building, which Pembroke Township owns. Hodge said this is a focus for him as well.
Documents show that Jones was working with a Chicago architectural firm before he lost the 2015 race. The company was discussing a proposal for a greenhouse as well as retail and commercial development.
A 2013 email from Bill Wallace of WTW Architects to Jones said, “The Greenhouse Project will provide training and employment opportunities for the children and adults of Hopkins Park as well as the residents of areas surrounding Hopkins Park. It will most certainly add to the tax base of the village.”
Jones said the firm pulled the project after he lost the election, saying the company wanted to deal with him, not Hodge.
Jones said he knew this would happen and pleaded with Hodge not to run in the first place.
“We were close to being self-sufficient, bringing economic development, and we lost that,” Jones said.
Hodge, though, said Jones first told him about the greenhouse project a couple months ago.
“He should have given me this information after I won. I would have welcomed them in,” Jones said. “Had he told me about it then, we could have gone on speakerphone together and talked to the company.”
In the interview, Jones said his accomplishments as mayor include completing a park and allowing a cell tower that generated money for the village. (Hodge said he, too, brought in a cell tower into the village, which he said brings $1,800 a month to the village, or nearly $22,000 a year, compared to the $18,000 onetime payment for the previous tower.)
In the last election, Jones filed a complaint with the village, contending Hodge did not live in village limits, as required. He said Hodge lived in a large home outside Hopkins Park, but Hodge said he actually was in a small house in the village at the time.
Hodge said he lives in the larger house now because the village annexed it. Jones said he decided against filing a complaint this go-around, saying he has not researched whether Hodge’s residence meets the requirement.
“I respect the mayor’s office, but he has to apologize to the people,” Jones said. “I don’t want to let him off the hook for that.”
Hodge said he lived in the smaller house for the first two years of his term, until the larger home was annexed.
“You can’t live outside the village and be the mayor,” he said.
While Jones took issue with Hodge’s residency in the last election, Hodge said he had an ethical problem with Pac Waste being the garbage contractor for the village while Jones was mayor.
But Jones said the company served Hopkins Parks both before and after his term. It just simply continued while he was at the helm, he said.
Hodge said that explanation did not satisfy him.
“Once he became mayor, he had an obligation to end that contract,” the mayor said. “He had a direct conflict of interest.”