Change agents rewrite 2005 script

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Drew Carter

April's election, where the mainstay Village Manager Association lost every race but that for village clerk, was clearly the most important Oak Park event of 2005. But just who was responsible for the VMA's defeat is less clear.

But because Wednesday Journal casts the deciding vote in our annual Villager of the Year designation, this year's honors go to a group of people who started meeting to effect change and?#34;with much help?#34;did just that. They called themselves the "Gang of Six" until they became "The Six Who Were Seven," then eight, nine. Finally they called themselves Citizens For Change before shortly disbanding the group.

Rock stars of local politics, whose brightness burned out fast? Not hardly.

The group realized that to make changes in village government, they needed to bring in many more people. There was already an opposition party?#34;the Village Citizens Alliance, which slated Trustee Bob Milstein (and others who were not elected) in 2003. The two groups needed to work together?#34;and pull in others?#34;to be successful, CFC members recall.

"The CFC became a name solely to create a coalition," said Nile Wendorf, a member of CFC and co-founder of REDCOOP (Responsible Economic Development?#34;Citizens of Oak Park). Wendorf and his wife, Mila Tellez, were the 2002 Villagers of the Year for founding that organization.

Wendorf and others said the CFC (yes, local politics is rife with acronyms) shouldn't be this year's Villagers of the Year?#34;that the coalition under the banner of the New Leadership Party was the real winner. And they have a point: what can nine people do on their own?

Making the case

But these nine clearly made an impact.

"By combining our views we looped in a much larger group of voters," said Brian Farrar, whose conversations with now-Trustee Greg Marsey led to the formation of what became the CFC. Farrar, Marsey and others were part of a neighborhood group that fought the size and density of Whiteco Residential's proposals for developing the southeast corner of Harlem Avenue and Ontario Street.

"I was just amazed at the number of people who kept coming forward," said CFC member Jerry Delaney, who worked on many campaigns before seeing the likes of the 320 volunteers who helped the New Leadership Party (NLP).

The CFC also brought a lot of money. Farrar and Craig Williams, another member of the group fighting Whiteco, together contributed $28,592.28 to the campaign, roughly three-fourths of the NLP's $39,000 war chest, according to state records.

Most of the money was given in the form of loans so it could be returned in case it wasn't needed. Farrar got back $1,872.47 of the $10,250.44 he loaned, while Williams got back $2,990.27 of his $13,302.56. The two also picked up the tab on other election expenditures.

"We wanted to make it an even playing field (with the VMA)," said Williams, who at 49 is a semi-retired owner of an advertising agency.

"Where we started was, look, we're not going to let this organization fail because of a fundraising disadvantage," said Farrar, an entrepreneur and businessman who authored a handful of books on technology to market his services at the time.

That disadvantage is seen in the state records: the VMA names twice the number of contributors, despite having raised almost $5,000 less than the NLP.

Williams and Farrar said their donations reflected their belief in the group's success and their abilities to give, and nothing more. Neither has business interests in the village.

"Whatever their motivations [were for giving], they weren't corrupt in any way," said Gary Schwab, campaign manager for the NLP. Like many of the NLC leaders, Schwab left the VMA after finding fault with that organization.

CFC members downplayed the importance of the donations.

"That's not to say this wouldn't have happened without their money," said Al Whitaker, an attorney with the federal government and longtime Oak Park activist.

His friend, fellow member of the CFC, and former trustee John Troelstrup agreed. "But I sure would have missed their energy," pointing to the canvassing, leaflet distribution and other tasks the two tackled in the campaign.

"I'd like to think that that work was equally important," Williams said.

A complementary pairing

Pushed past modesty, most admitted the members of the CFC brought something to the coalition that wasn't there previously: a "pragmatism" or "process and business-decision-making focus."

Wendorf gave this example: traditionally in the last week before an election, last-minute negative campaigning pops up in flyers or leaflets to discredit one party or another. Expecting that, the NLP had arranged for printing and distribution of their response to what they knew would come.

"We smothered that response through discipline," he said.

But members of the NLC emphasize how the CFC members' skills fit into what Milstein called a jigsaw puzzle that fit well together, and that members of the former VCA brought their own skill pieces.

"We like to have fun when we run," Milstein said. "It's not all drudgery.

"Both groups contributed by realizing you can't be separate entities."

And if the NLC crossed a finish line for change, the race began years ago, and the VCA won an early leg in breaking the VMA hold on elections in 2003. Wendorf said many in the organization have been working for change their whole lives. But he puts the origin of the recent fight at the controversy around Tasty Dog?#34;when citizens started to get the feeling that village hall was making deals outside the public watch.

The Harlem-Ontario group coalesced under similar circumstances: a deal struck without public input.

"Substantively, there wasn't an inch of daylight between our views and [the VCA's], which made it very easy," Farrar said.

Others agreed. Their strength was in the realization that they needed each other to succeed. But that wasn't easy for everybody "because it's not easy to give up something you've created," Milstein said, referring to the VCA. "We all put our egos aside."

NLC digs in

The NLC is not going away. Members expect to have a fundraising mechanism in place for the April 2007 race, and are meeting Jan. 8 to elect officers?#34;a first for the group that was governed informally until now. Many of the CFC members are among the 17 people vying for 10 posts.

"We're trying to sustain ourselves between elections and draw a larger participation," said Carol Gulyas, a CFC member and librarian at Columbia College.

The group eschewed the VMA's "select, elect and shut up" approach, and will continue to be involved between elections, and will continue communicating with the board.

"The alternative is to have disengagement between a board of trustees and a group," said Troelstrup, who is an attorney in town. "We're not a disengaged group."

Permanence is good for Oak Park voters, as would be a rejuvenated VMA.

"Oak Park politics will be better off?#34;now and forever?#34;if there can continue to be at least two alternative points of view from which folks can choose," Farrar said. "It just clarifies issues more rapidly and leads to better decisions."

The NLP-led board has already made changes, some argue, pointing to a budget that held the line on spending while earmarking funds for improving four business districts over the next two years, and holding an open debate with much public input over the fate of the Colt Building.

"It may have taken longer, but you can't say it was done behind closed doors or without the input of the citizenry," Whitaker said.

The NLP now must transition from being outsiders to the ones in control. "It's not as simple as we thought it might be," Marsey said.

The major changes are still ahead, Schwab said, when the board can have more time with the budget, and select a new village manager. Change will take time, he said.

"Our hope is to create a site where everybody is listened to and there's majority rule and democracy," he said.

"If nothing else, we proved that if you desire change and work hard enough to effect it, you can make it happen," Marsey said.


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