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Crestwood mayor was trusted, water tainted

A Crestwood water tower is reflected rapuddle. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

A Crestwood water tower is reflected in a rain puddle. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 3, 2011 1:37PM

If people didn’t like the way he ran Crestwood, he wouldn’t have been mayor for 38 years, Chester Stranczek used to boast.

A federal grand jury now claims that for 20 of those years Crestwood officials purposely falsified water quality reports, exposing residents to drinking water that was not adequately tested for contamination.

Stranczek is not named in the indictment, released Thursday. But there is little doubt he is Public Official A, “an elected Crestwood government official who had and exercised authority over Crestwood’s community water system.”

Two former water department officials were named in the 23-count indictment, but anyone who lives in Crestwood knows no public official there did anything without the mayor’s approval.

People trusted Chet Stran­czek. Voters loved him.

In 1993, he initiated a program to rebate a portion of the village’s property tax to homeowners, apparently the first time this had happened anywhere in the nation.

He ordered his public works crews to salt and plow snow off the driveways of senior citizens’ homes in the winter.

If you were a senior who didn’t make political waves in the village, public works employees might also come out and unplug your kitchen drain or fix your running toilet.

But if your were a community college student campaigning for a property tax increase for your school, you were likely to end up in handcuffs at the Crestwood police station on election day.

Brian Hopkins, who would become chief of staff for Cook County Commissioner John Daley, was later released and Stranczek would say he had nothing to do with the arrest.

But Stranczek, 81, a conservative Republican, vehemently opposed tax increases for the schools and police chiefs did what he told them or were fired.

He is retired now and living in Boca Raton, Fla. According to a doctor who testified in a water contamination lawsuit, he suffers from dementia.

The last time I talked to Stranczek, about a year before the water scandal broke, he cried on the phone, admitting he suffered from Parkinson’s and couldn’t remember simple facts.

The facts are that for years Crestwood distributed drinking water to its residents from a well that the Illinois EPA had told the village to shut down.

The contaminant discovered in the well in 1986 was vinyl chloride, known to cause cancer as well as damage to the liver and nervous system, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Stranczek pledged not to use the well after that. The village purchased Lake Michigan water from Alsip and claimed repeatedly on government forms that was their exclusive source of drinking water.

It turns out the village was regularly mixing in the well water, sometimes in small doses, sometimes as high as 20 percent. Several class-action suits have been filed by thousands of residents who now claim they or their families were physically harmed by the water.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if Stranczek ignored the government’s demand to stop using the contaminated well.

He had a conservative’s disdain for government regulation. As the owner of a trucking company, he regularly complained to me about government interference in his business.

As the mayor, he once tried to build an incinerator in his village to save money on garbage disposal. Hundreds of angry residents showed up at hearings to complain about the potential pollution and health hazards.

Stranczek dismissed their fears but eventually had to bow to public pressure. It was one of the few political defeats he ever suffered.

The mayor, who grew up milking cows and picking crops on a Crestwood family farm, didn’t much care what other people thought.

His village boards always voted unanimously in favor of his plans, usually without discussion.

He built a sign near the village hall with his own money and used it to denounce gays, atheists, newspapers and liberals and support political causes he favored.

The number of businesses in Crestwood boomed from 50 to nearly 600 during his reign. He built a baseball stadium in the village and brought in a minor league team to play in it because he had been a minor league baseball player and wanted one.

“I run the village like a business,” Stranczek always bragged. “I’m more like the CEO than the mayor.”

And now the people of Crestwood know why government should not be run like a business.

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