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Elfstrom of Kane County: persistent innovator or power-hungry monarch?

Phil Elfstrom, president of the Kane County Forest Preserve Commission and longtime member of the county board, in his second floor office in the Kane County Government Center in Geneva.         Photo by Donnell Collins

One can't help but admire Phil Elfstrom's style. One day in May, Gov. James R. Thompson made a rare visit to Kane County to urge Philip B. Elfstrom and the Forest Preserve Commission in the strongest language possible to abandon their plans to wind a bicycle trail across a string of unwilling people's front yards. Even before the governor's trip, Sen. Doris Karpiel (R-25, Roselle) and Rep. Donald Hensel (R-50, West Chicago) had introduced anti-condemnation bills inspired by the property owners' plight.

The vast majority of the county's political establishment had taken sides against Elfstrom. And the normally docile Forest Preserve Commission was under such pressure from constituents that it was forced to retreat from Elfstrom's original plan to acquire a wider swath of land in the homeowners' back yards.

Less than 24 hours after the governor had departed by helicopter, Elfstrom, without so much as a word to acknowledge Thompson's visit or a hint at a change in direction, happily announced to the Kane County Board's executive committee that the governor had declared May as "Illinois Trail Appreciation Month" and the Department of Conservation was promoting the development of more bicycle trails throughout the state.

If Elfstrom, Forest Preserve Commission president and Kane County Board member, has ever been intimidated, he's never revealed it. Nonetheless, the 60-year-old potentate of Kane County government is facing the most intense and sustained opposition of his political career.

Critics contend that he is a brilliant but arrogant autocrat who runs the county as if it were a personal fiefdom. As evidence, they note that for years he has simultaneously held the posts of Forest Preserve Commission president, Public Building Commission chairman and solid waste coordinator, as well as key county committee assignments. "Everybody knows he makes all the decisions," says Arlene Shoemaker, an outspoken Aurora member of the county board's Democratic minority. "He's like a king. No one else has any power besides him."

Others prefer to think of Elfstrom as a dedicated leader with a plan and a selfless laborer for the greater glory of Kane County. It was Elfstrom, says Al Stob, an official with Waste Management of Illinois Inc., who insisted that the county's Settler's Hill landfill be contoured as if "God" had created it. "I have never seen anybody who is more willing to donate his time and efforts to work for the county," says Stob, whose company operates the landfill.

Elfstrom laughs off suggestions that he is the most powerful board member, assigning that title to Chairman Frank R. Miller, an Aurora Republican with whom he closely works. Whatever influence Elfstom has is attributable to the trust that board members have in him, he insists. "Just knowing the system," he adds, "gives you a certain amount of credibility."

When people meet Elfstrom for the first time, they are frequently struck by the uncanny resemblance to G. Gordon Liddy. His voice is unforgettable. It has enough gravel in it to shame a pirate captain, and in the otherwise quiet Kane County Government Center in Geneva, his unmistakable bellow and wheezing laughter reverberate in the halls as he swaggers from one corner of the building to the other. But Elfstrom's voice is possessed of a surprising range, sometimes dropping to a whisper so muted that reporters must strain to hear.

Elfstrom views himself as a "builder" and he certainly looks

July 1989 | Illinois Issues | 15

the part. Leaving coat and tie to regular county employees, Elfstrom rarely departs from the casual comfort of his trademark pullover sweaters. One might add the description "maverick" to builder. Consider Elfstrom's bachelor pad, a sprawling loft of his own contemporary design built into the top floor of a former dairy whose ground floor is rented out as commercial space. From street level, it appears nothing more than an ordinary old factory, complete with a towering smokestack. But from across the Fox River at Batavia City Hall one notices an outdoor deck, greenery and skylights. When, in the late 1970s, Elfstrom informed his longtime art professor girlfriend that he was "going to put an apartment up there," she told him "you gotta be crazy." He may be crazy
Kane County and its bike trails
but he kept his word.

If Kane County is his kingdom, it is a changing place. Growth is mushrooming in Kane County as development runs out of space in DuPage and spills over into eastern Kane. Mark Thomas, a planner with the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC), says the trend is expected to accelerate in the next 20 years. Physical evidence to substantiate what the figures indicate is seen in numerous sprouting subdivisions, new business and industry moving in, the construction of an addition to the Kane County Government Center and the fine-tuning of plans to add jail space and build a new court complex to cope with a rising demand for services.

Settled by Yankee entrepreneurs from New England and New York in the 1830s, Kane's communities are as old as Chicago. Yet, the county has always maintained its own identity, drawn upon a strong local employment base and kept its distance from the big city. In some senses a microcosm of Illinois, Kane County is a mixture of old industrial cities like Aurora and Elgin, small towns, affluent suburbs, ancient forges coexisting with high tech and rolling cornfields. Today, the westward march of suburban expansion that first moved through Cook County and then DuPage has reached Kane, establishing the county as a sort of dividing line between the Chicago metro area and the prairie. By the year 2010, according to NIPC forecasts, Kane's current population of more than 300,000 will grow to 434,000. And Aurora, with a population of 85,561, will almost double to 166,471 residents by 2010, making it the second largest city in Illinois.

The relative ease with which Kane is being developed is due in no small measure to Elfstrom's stewardship and planning, many say. Elfstorm and Kane County planners say that by studying DuPage County, their "living laboratory" to the east, they can avoid many of the pitfalls, including traffic congestion, that accompany rapid growth.

Elfstrom was born in Evanston, reared in Libertyville and Wheaton, and in 1958 he moved to Batavia, where he has lived ever since. Elected to the county board in 1969, he moved to the chairmanship the following year, where he stayed until 1982. Stepping down to assume the presidency of the Forest Preserve Commission, he also prepared for a 1984 stint as president of the National Association of Counties.

One advantage that Elfstrom has over most elected county officials is the luxury to devote all his time to the job. He's had that time since 1982, when he sold his small but successful Bader Publishing Co. He lives comfortably off the proceeds of investments, lunches daily at Geneva's clubby Twin-Dor restaurant and works morning and afternoon all week long in his second floor Government Center office, where he draws a combined Forest Preserve Commission president-county board member salary of $18,000 per year.

Few have suggested that he's in it for the money. Some say his thirst for power keeps him here, others speculate that his ego or a desire to leave a personal legacy are responsible. Elfstrom answers that he just wants to make Kane County a better place to live and work and prepare for the future. "I like to think that I've left things a little bit better than I found them," he says.

Statewide and nationally, Elfstrom is best known as a pioneer of bicycle paths. More than 60 miles of trails now snake through Kane County, including the popular Fox River Trail,

July 1989 | Illinois Issues | 18

built with the cooperation of the county and local park districts. Frequently these trails are laid out on abandoned railroad rights of way, a reminder to all of the Chicago area's transportation heritage and of special significance for Elfstrom, whose father was a general manager and vice president of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad.

With the Kane trail system well on its way to completion, Elfstrom has embraced the more daunting challenge of linking and expanding hundreds of miles of trail systems throughout northeastern Illinois. He hopes to accomplish this task as chairman of the regional Prairie Trail Authority, formed by the General Assembly in 1986. Past attempts to talk the legislature into enacting a gas tax or some other permanent funding mechanism to underwrite the project have proved fruitless, but Elfstrom is convinced that it is only a matter of time.

DuPage County Board Chairman Jack Knuepfer considers Elfstrom's positive outlook another illustration of his legendary persistence. "He's always got a bright new idea," Knuepfer says. "Some of these bright new ideas take a long time to fruition." An unabashed admirer, Knuepfer considers Elfstrom "probably the most knowledgeable" county official in Illinois and lauds his leadership in Kane as "superb."

If Elfstrom is primarily known for trails today, his innovative conversion of a 400-acre county-owned landfill into a showpiece recreational complex is also sure to bring recognition. Already a driving range and nine-hole golf course have been carved out of the attractively landscaped Settler's Hill, with plans to expand the golf course and add a minor league baseball stadium, ski hill, riding stables, ponds and picnic areas by the time the landfill is closed around 2010. "That thing out there is going to be talked about in Illinois for years to come, " Elfstrom believes. "Sometime, somebody will never believe that there was a landfill there."

But this project, like the bike path and other Elfstrom accomplishments, has turned into a double-edged sword. A minority of board members and some citizens have criticized the county's acceptance of a $1.2 million contribution from Waste Management to pay for the construction of a minor league baseball stadium that Elfstrom originated a few years back. Construction is on hold until Elfstrom can find a baseball franchise. Waste Management officials, noting that they show off Settler's Hill as an ideal landfill to hundreds of visitors each year, argue that the contribution is a public relations investment for the company. Others are distressed that the contribution has created a perception of impropriety since Waste Management is under contract to operate the landfill for the county.

An unfortunate consequence of Elfstrom's domineering political style, according to critics, is that the Kane County Board and Forest Preserve Commission — made up of the same 26 members — rarely challenge leadership. "If you boil it all down, he's the boss," says Donald Clute of Elgin, veteran county auditor, fellow Republican and a friend of Elfstrom's who retired last year. "He's got to learn a few things and one is his responsibility to his constituency. It's not the county board or Forest Preserve Commission. It's the taxpayers."

"You lose checks and balances, you lose discussion and you lose the value of good solid debate," asserts longtime Kane County Circuit Clerk Jan Carlson, who also serves as the county's Republican Central Committee chairman.

When she was a county board member, state Rep. Suzanne Deuchler (R-42, Aurora) recalls that public debate was discouraged. Most decisions were made at the committee level before they went to the county board and much was ironed out even before committee meetings. "There was always a feeling it would be better not to argue and fight in public but to present a unified front and move forward," according to Deuchler.

In Elfstrom's way of thinking, the smoothness of governance in Kane County is a favorable reflection of the committee system rather than an indictment of the decisionmaking process. "If you elect a leader, you elect him to lead," he says. "So one of your obligations is to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let him establish the program and support it whenever possible." Always, he adds, "there's some loyal opposition."

It may be growing. Some county board members say the revolt against Elfstrom on the bike path has given them a taste for independence that will not soon be forgotten.

The results of the April municipal elections also may be significant. Established incumbents all over the Fox River Valley were knocked out of office in campaigns that hinged on responsiveness to constituents. One of the winning challengers was North Aurora private investigator Al Imgrund, who is now his village's president. An unknown only a few years ago, Imgrund gained notoriety by penning

The results of the April
municipal elections also
way be a signal

lampoons of Elfstrom, who at one point dismissed the gadfly as a "looney tune."

Even Elfstrom concedes that "there's some message out there in city government, and it may translate to county government." But for the moment, Elfstrom professes not to be worried about threats to knock him off when his term expires in 1992. Similarly, he has downplayed the significance of an arterial blockage discovered recently when he went to a hospital with chest pains. Elfstrom will only say he is under medication and faces further tests.

Sitting in his office in the Government Center, which was a Roman Catholic seminary before it was converted into county offices, he reflects: "I bought this building about the first year I was chairman." It was actually Kane County that purchased the building, but in Elfstrom's vocabulary "the county" and "I" are frequently interchangeable. He is thinking that about 20 years will have elapsed between the seminary purchase and the soon-to-start construction of a new court complex. "It's kind of a nice end," he says almost wistfully. "It'll be a nice span."

Paul M. Krawzak has covered Kane County government for The Beacon-News in Aurora since 1985.

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