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Pena’s career is ‘field of opportunity’

Joe Pena is serving as village administrator and director of public safety in Channahon.
Joe Pena is serving as village administrator and director of public safety in Channahon.

Joe Pena never imagined he would ever be working as a village administrator. Then again, he also had never imagined he would ever be a police officer, either.

In 1974, Pena accepted an unexpected opportunity with the East Dundee Police Department to join their force as a part-time officer. Nearly four decades later, having served a remarkable law enforcement career, Pena is taking advantage of a new opportunity as Channahon’s village administrator and director of public safety.

“Quite honestly, I guess my entire working career has always been a playing field of opportunity,” Pena said. “It’s all been an opportunity. I guess, up to this point, I feel I’ve made some very decent choices and choices that have been helpful to the organizations that I’ve worked for.”

Pena was officially presented this new role in January 2012, when the Channahon Village Board granted him the opportunity to transition from being the village’s police chief into the role of full-time village administrator. He admits he’s still adjusting to certain aspects of the job, but the past has proven he’s up for the challenge.

“I decided it would be an interesting challenge, something different than what I’ve done for the last 40 years,” Pena said. “I’ve been trying to learn since then.”

Q: Tell us a little about yourself.

A: I was born and raised in the city of Chicago. I went to St. Michael’s Catholic grade school and high school, which is actually where I met my lovely wife. We were high school sweethearts. I joined the United States Marine Corps in 1968 because I was the smartest kid that I knew. I did that on June 15th, and on June 16th I realized how dumb I really was. I joined the Marine Corps in 1968, served in the Corps for 3 1/2 years and served a tour in Vietnam. ...

After being discharged from the Marines and moving to East Dundee to look for work, at some point I had a conversation with the then Chief of Police who asked if I had ever thought of being a police officer. I said “It’s the furthest thing from my mind.” He said “Why don’t you think about it and why don’t you come work for us part-time and see how it works out.” I went to work as a part-time police officer in East Dundee in 1974, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I love being a police officer. I’ve enjoyed, for the most part, being a police administrator. I think it’s one of the very few jobs where individuals can make a difference in the communities that they work and live. ...

I was a police officer full-time in 1975. In 1982, I was asked to take over as police chief in East Dundee.

I stayed there until I retired in 2006. ... I started working here in December 2007.

Q: You served 13 months in Vietnam with the U.S. Marines. What was your role in this conflict and what was your experience like?

A: I actually went over to Vietnam as an administrative clerk in the Marine Corps. I spent some time carrying a radio. I guess it’s the same as a typewriter in some instances. I was stationed with an artillery unit. We started out in Danang and moved around a little bit here and there. I was over there for a little more than a year, and then I returned home.

Being as young as I was, and hindsight being what it is, it was life-changing. It gave me the perspective that I returned home with and have carried with me all that time. That is that, life is very short, very precious. You should respect everyone’s situation that you deal with, good or bad, and try not to judge. Nam was a life changing experience which helped me to appreciate and develop people skills, that ultimately helped me in my policing career.

Q: After 32 years in law enforcement, what led you in 2007 to pursue the position police chief in Channahon?

A: My former boss in East Dundee had come here to Channahon and was the village administrator. He had called me and asked for the association to come out and do an evaluation of the police department because the police chief here at that time was getting ready to retire. So they were just looking to see what could change, what’s good and what was bad. I came out and started doing the evaluation process.

I became very enamored with the young officers that work in this police department. It’s a very dynamic group of people that really just wanted to do the job and were looking for some change. The more interviews and the more part of the process I decided this was a pretty good place to be. I decided to throw my hat in the ring for the position of police chief. ... When I saw all those dynamics, I guess I felt I had a little bit left in the gas tank. I decided one more time.

Q: Describe your current role with the village of Channahon. What makes your position vital to the operations and success of the village?

A: My role here, as I see it, is to provide the village board with information and recommendations on what would be the best course of action for the community to continue to grow and be prosperous. My other role is to make sure the staff, both in the police department and the village side, have the tools that are necessary to provide the services they do for the community.

I’m still learning a lot of the role over here as it pertains to development, commercial growth and industrial growth. But for the day-to-day operational standpoint, it’s simply to make sure that the budget is balanced, make sure we have all the tools necessary for our people to do the job correctly and give the board as much information as they can have, so when they vote, they are voting on the best course of action.

Q: In January 2012, the Channahon village board officially made you the village’s full-time administrator. Describe the past year and any challenges or successes you may have faced.

A: From a practical standpoint, when I came over to this side of the house, we were experiencing some financial issues. We were working on a deficit budget. I guess one of the first areas we had to focus on was how we could turn that around and get back to a balanced budget. During this past year, we’ve done just that. We’ve gone from using a little over $1 million of reserve money to this upcoming budget in 2013-14 we’ll be looking at a $205,000 surplus. That’s a pretty dynamic change.

Things are beginning to break as far as development goes. The economy is very slowly turning around. We’ve had some developers come in and talk to us about proposed projects. We’ve had some land annexed at U.S. 6 and Interstate 55 into the village. There’s a major project going on there and proposed to start going on next year. It’s been an interesting transition, weening myself away from the police department and those sorts of duties.

I guess, from a challenge standpoint, I’m still trying to get my hands around all of the land agreements, acquisitions and understandings of TIFs and things of that nature. That’s the challenge of it all, refocusing from law enforcement to those kinds of issues.

Q: What are the similarities and differences between your role now as opposed to roles you’ve had in the past?

A:  From the standpoint of needing good people skills, they’re very comparable. On the law enforcement side, as police chief, you’re dealing with the officers and the community. On this side of the house, you’re dealing with the police and the village staff, as well as the residents. Many times, they want answers. Many times, the answers that you provide or that you can provide aren’t the ones they want to hear, but you need to do that anyway. From that standpoint, people skills are a very comparable trait.

On the law enforcement side, there’s a hierarchy. If something doesn’t go correctly, you know you can go to whichever division or to whichever unit that was responsible for that. On this side of the house, it’s a little different.

On this side of the house, you have to sit back, take a look the whole picture and then try to figure out what went right or what went wrong, and then try to adjust from there. It’s a completely different paradigm on this side.

As police chief, I was always asking for money. I was always asking for services to be added or for equipment. On this side of the house, I have to say “Well, let’s take a look. Is that something that is completely necessary?” ... The paradigm shift of how those funds are allocated has certainly been a learning experience.

Q: What are some of the improvements, projects or plans the village of Channahon is working on that its residents can look forward to in the near or even distant future?

A: With the opening of Brisbin and I-80, we need to think about our infrastructure and growth out west. Now that interchange is in, development will be forthcoming. We need to think about providing water and sewer services out to that area. We need to continue to work with the community. One of the things I heard when I got here as police chief was “We need a grocery store.” I guess those are the kinds of things we’ll take a look at, see what the best fit is and see how we can best move in that direction.

Q: At one point in time, you were statewide director of the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Illinois and were inducted into the International Torch Run Hall of Fame. First, tell us what the Torch Run is and why you feel it so important to lead this effort.

A: The Torch Run is the single largest fundraising mechanism for Special Olympic athletes in the state of Illinois. There are over 22,000 individuals who actually participate in these sporting events. Special Olympics was created in the city of Chicago in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The Torch Run is one of those programs that really allows police officers an opportunity to work with a group of people who truly want your help and are truly appreciative of that help. There’s no politics. There’s no gaming involved. It’s sincere. All athletes want is an opportunity to succeed. Let me get on the field, let me play, let me do my best and I’ll be happy.

To take care of more than 22,000 athletes here in the state of Illinois has just been a dream. I’ve said this many times over my career, other than being married to my wife and watching my children be born, this is probably one of the most inspiring and heart-warming projects I’ve ever been involved in. The hugs are sincere, the smiles are sincere.

These athletes, each and every day wake up with the same affliction. They don’t know that they have an affliction. I see Special Olympics as one of the true community policing initiatives law enforcement can benefit from, working with the communities to help those in the community that need that.

I just really believe that Special Olympics is one of those programs that law enforcement needs more than they need us. We help people who ask for it, and we can see the results from that.

Q: Are you active with any other organizations, and why do you feel it important to provide your time and efforts to these groups?

A: Throughout the years, I’ve always tried to be diversified in making certain that if there are causes out there that need recognition that we step up and do something about it. My heart belongs to Special Olympics, but I’m open to helping in any capacity I can.


Q: What is your favorite hobby?

A: My favorite hobby used to be running, because of all the stuff with Special Olympics. I think I’ve gone from running to reading. I just enjoy reading. I love Dean Koontz’s novels. He does the ultimate good versus the ultimate evil kind of things.

Q: What is your favorite music?

A: Rock. 1960s rock. I tend to enjoy most of it.

Q: What is your favorite movie or TV show?

A: Mike and Molly. It’s just good comedy relief.


WHO: Ignacio “Joe” Pena

AGE: 62

TOWN: Channahon, Ill.

JOB: Director of Public Safety/Village Administrator

FAMILY: Wife of 43 years, Leona; three children, Ignacio “Joe” Jr., Christina and Jacob; three grandsons and a granddaughter.

HIGHLIGHTS: Past-President of Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. 25 years involvement with Law Enforcement Torch Run.

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