Longtime residents and colleagues say Pradel’s style — which he, himself describes as Naperville’s No. 1 cheerleader — suited the suburb well as about 42,000 new residents brought the need for new schools, fire stations and grocery stores during historic growth.
Naperville faces a new era now, as Pradel, 77, prepares to step down after five terms in office in May. His departure leaves one of four mayoral candidates with a new task of leading the nearly built-out city through its next set of challenges, from filling empty storefronts to countering an unwanted reputation as a party town after several high-profile, alcohol-fueled incidents downtown…
Since 1969, Naperville has operated with a council-manager form of government, which uses a full-time city manager to run the community’s day-to-day operations, while the mayor serves as the city’s public face, available to grand marshal parades and have dinner with girl scouts.
It’s an arrangement that Pradel said he’s been grateful for since he won his first election in 1995, a victory that caught him by such surprise that he didn’t even have an acceptance speech ready.
This is the sort of story that can feed the “big leader” narratives of history. But does it really fit here? Pradel was an outgoing character and a cheerleader. He was very visible. He had a long history in Naperville as a police officer. Yet, the story even reminds us that the mayor was a figurehead with the day-to-day work falling to the city manager. Naperville, like many cities its size, has a large professional staff. The city has a number of business and civic leaders who contribute.
This is not intended to downplay the role that figurehead leaders can play. Perceptions matter a lot within and among communities. At the same time, larger-than-life or long-serving leaders can often get the blame or credit for things that they didn’t do. Pradel was mayor over a particular period of time that saw Naperville peak in population (at least at this point without serious efforts to grow up), continue to grow a vibrant downtown, and encounter a few issues including traffic, some crime, and thinking about how to connect disparate parts of the city. Was he responsible for all of this?
This is where a more complex picture of Naperville or other communities can help. Some people indeed have more power and influence. But, communities have more going on than just one person.