By John Hubbuch
Sometimes I feel a little like Neo in the 1999 movie, The Matrix. You may remember this science fiction thriller, written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers. The film depicts a future in which reality, as perceived by most humans, is actually a simulated world created by sentient machines to pacify and subdue the human population, while their bodies' heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source. Neo becomes aware that perception and reality are not the same thing.
Oak Park is like The Matrix. Most of us believe we live in a village where important decisions about education, taxation, economic development and the village's future are made by democratically elected officials who are responsible to an informed and engaged electorate. Helping to ensure this good governance is transparency, robust contests for office and a discerning press.
But every so often there are just the briefest of glimpses that maybe everything is not quite what it seems. Last week's cover story in this paper carried the headline, "What's the big secret?" and reported on a 4-3 vote by the village board to approve paying $585,000 to two companies to cut down trees. There was no discussion, and the three trustees who voted "no" declined to explain their votes. A Wednesday Journal FOIA turned up no e-mail correspondence. Curious.
Then there was the lengthy litigation between the schools and the village over divvying up TIF funds. That litigation lasted two years and involved hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and no one has ever given a meaningful explanation as to what it was all about. Given the secrecy surrounding the whole matter, there is absolutely no way any meaningful evaluation of the settlement is possible. I sure hope it works out.
In addition, there are all kinds of quasi-public organizations that impact our lives and we have no idea what they do. Can you explain what Down Town Oak Park, Oak Park Development Corporation or the Oak Park Plan Commission actually do? They are frequently in the local news, but what's the real story — budgets, power structure, how decisions are made — you know, the inside scoop. Where is our Morpheus (the guy who figured out The Matrix)?
So, as in The Matrix, not many Oak Parkers know what is going on, and, as in The Matrix, we think we do. We think contested elections protect us. Really? Come on. The VMA loses an election about as frequently as the Cubs win a Word Series. Openness and transparency? That often means we get our information from people paid to tout the good and bury the bad. We have websites with lots of data but no one to interpret it and public hearings where the citizenry redundantly rants over issues already decided. Meaningful discussion is conducted in private under the cover of statutory privilege.
The real Neos of this Oak Park Matrix are the Wednesday Journal's three staff reporters — Terry Dean, Devin Rose and Marty Stempniak. They are charged with figuring out what is going on and reporting to us. They at least ask some questions, even if they often get no answers. Alas they are overworked and spread very thin. Just where would we be were it not for the local press? Think about it.
To be sure, Oak Park is not nearly as sinister as The Matrix. David Pope is not a sentient machine. In fact he and all our elected officials probably think that we are well governed, and that the body politic is a vibrant and informed one. We are not.
I must close now. Agent Smith is coming for me.