On a recent morning, the Walker Bros. in Highland Park is feeling less like The Original Pancake House and more like The Original Pancake Monastery.
An elegiac song plays on the speakers — all strings and flutes — or what a bard would strum around a campfire in days of yore (or what modern-day imitators would play at a Renaissance Faire).
The stained-glass windows depict various floral arrangements. Breaking the medieval spell, exposed light bulbs overhead are in contrast with the various Christmas and Chanukah decorations. Walker Bros. on Central Avenue, it turns out, is an equal opportunity holiday employer.
It also happens to be part of a Sunday ritual for Highland Park’s Mayor Nancy Rotering, her husband Rob, and her four boys; a place that can easily handle their growing, vociferous appetites. Today, however, the mayor is eating alone, save for this writer.
Rotering places her order without even glancing at the menu. Though she usually orders The Dutch Baby (think German pancake; not Netherlands infant) she’s currently in the mood for oatmeal.
“Now that we know what the mayor had for breakfast,” she quips, her jade eyes glowing. (At one point, this journalist misspeaks, asking if the city is installing more storm prevention systems when he means to say storm protection systems. “We cannot prevent storms, I’m sorry to tell you,” she says, laughing.)
Some mayors like to be called “The Honorable,” or “Your Honor,” or even “Madame Mayor.” Rotering says Nancy works just fine.
That casualness is pervasive: she’s downright chummy with the server, and later explains that many of the staff’s children play soccer together with her boys. But when certain issues are raised, she immediately becomes Madame Mayor.
Like “silos,” for example. Whereas Don Quixote waged war against windmills, Rotering has established a culture that breaks down policy silos, or the lack of transparency and communication between departments and even residents.
When the food arrives, Rotering is in the middle of explaining one of the first things she implemented as newly elected mayor: a retreat for the City Council, where members could brainstorm together for an entire day. (Since then, they have done that at least once a year.)
At that time, there was a turnover of the majority of the council, and “it was a nice opportunity to say, ‘What direction do we want to go?’” explains Rotering.
They settled on three priorities to concentrate on: fiscal stability, investing in infrastructure, and public safety.
“It was interesting; through all of the brainstorming, through all the things that mattered to everybody on the council, when you boiled it down — it came under those three categories,” says Rotering.
“It came under those three categories,” she says again, this time leaning closer into the journalist’s phone, which is recording the conversation, to make sure that she is understood and also to poke a little bit of fun.
Highland Park has had a balanced budget for all four years she’s been in office.
“We’re in great shape,” she says proudly. “We’re one of a handful of AAA-bond-rated cities, and we work hard to maintain that.”
The most recent budget had been passed only a few days earlier by a unanimous vote.
“There’s no tax increase,” notes Rotering, “and we’re able to continue to invest in infrastructure. We’ve added sidewalks for the first time in decades, which has really helped people develop a sense of community and connectivity.”
Speaking of connectivity, Rotering is practically humming. She utilizes everything from a newsletter, blog, Facebook page, and Twitter to communicate news updates to her residents. On Twitter she has tweeted about missing teens, offered alerts notifying drivers to avoid specific intersections, and promotes her son, John’s (aka Boy of Silence’s) electronic music mixes.
On Nov. 3, that was put to the test. In 24 hours, Highland Park experienced three public safety incidents: a shooting at Highland Park Hospital and two robberies downtown.
The day after, she assembled her staff for a meeting. What she told them was “heaven forbid this happens again, or something like this happens, we need to be putting the word out with schools.” Schools in districts 112 and 115 had soft lockdowns, but some parents were uninformed of the reason why. Rotering is adamant about fixing that going forward, and she says they are focused on apprehending the thief who still remains at large. A blog post titled “What Happened Today?” on her website gives a detailed account of what happened and a description of the suspect.
Rotering happens to be the first female mayor of Highland Park, but says she never really took it to heart. (As of January of this year, of the 1,351 mayors of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000, 18.4 percent of them were women. Illinois has 11, and a majority of them are in the North Shore.) Instead, her goal was to bring a new voice of leadership to city hall.
Although, she does say that as a mother of rambunctious boys, she does bring a certain energy to contentious meetings.
“I have to have control of my dinner table, and I bring that to those kinds of meetings,” she says laughing.
She also takes an interest in the youth of the community. Between keeping the shelves of the food pantry stocked to giving high school students a chance to sit on planning commissions to adapting a new program where every third grader spends a day at City Hall.
For the third graders, she holds a mock council meeting and talks to them about the importance of using their voices. It must be working. Rotering says when she runs into them on the street, they come up to her and scream, “We had the best time at City Hall!” and she screams back “Go run for office when you’re a grown up!”
Though her salary for the part-time job is about $13,500 and her work schedule is effectively 24/7 — “because that’s just how I roll” — she says she wouldn’t have it any other way.