Grumpy board spits upthree prez candidates

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By DAN HALEY

Everyone is trying to grab the steering wheel down at Oak Park Village Hall.      

There are, by ordinance, six trustees and a village president. Right now three of those trustees are running for village president. And, on Monday, a fourth trustee said he has been seriously considering a run but has now decided, instead, to retire.

Don't recall three and, nearly, four trustees ever running simultaneously for village president before. It can't be a good sign. Sure, even in our small town setting, there is ambition and political intrigue. Becoming president of a town as interesting as Oak Park is not a small accomplishment. So clearly there is political jockeying underway. Oak Park has, inevitably and positively, become a competitive political town. The days of the Village Manager Association anointing candidates who then ran unopposed are well gone.

Oak Park is still trying on this new politics of multiple slates and independent candidates. We're still seeing if upset over single issues such as a specific development or its twin, demands for more open government, can translate into cohesive political parties which also have points of view on integration and public works and balanced budgets. So far the opposition has been home to the oversized personalities and limited-issue passions of people like Bob Milstein, John Troelstrup and Barbara Mullarkey.

For its part, the VMA becomes ever more earnest in its candidate selection as if confusing good government with bland governance. Its strong candidates become annoying public servants. Its weaker candidates become placeholders at the oval table in the council chambers. The VMA, by rights the keeper of "the vision" that got Oak Park to this quite amazing place, still run by an aging generation of the people who invented diversity and economic development as a tandem to save Oak Park in the 1970s, has become defensive and uninspired.

A situation that drives multiple trustees into a competitive race is one that also reflects a lot of frustration with the situation on the ground. This has not been a happy two years or four years on the Oak Park village board. The disagreeableness and crabbiness that has marked this board are not automatic in Oak Park. And the next board, whatever it looks like in terms of coalitions and factions, ought not to accept that mean-spiritedness is the norm.

Board members are properly frustrated with sitting Village President Joanne Trapani. She is hard to get along with, hard to work with. She has taken a board with a split and cracked it open. As unpleasant as it has been to sit and observe this board try to govern, it must be that much worse on the inside.

Trustee Gus Kostopulos, an old school gentleman, chose to walk away after contemplating a run for president. Trustee Galen Gockel, an idealist about government in general, is quitting both to be with his wife and grandkids but also with a surprising bitterness over how his final term of government service has gone.

The subtext to the division, and what will get played out in the spring election, is the age-old debate on who is actually running the village: the village board or the village staff. VMA presidential candidate Diana Carpenter will, presumably, be a defender of the strong role of Village Manager Carl Swenson and his minions. Trustee and New Leadership Coalition presidential candidate Bob Milstein is suspicious of staff strength. Where the third candidate, trustee and independent David Pope falls on the strong staff/weak staff continuum is not clear yet.

But it will all become clearer in the run-up to the election.

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