Combined, the Village Manager Association and Village Citizens Alliance have a monopoly on the Village of Oak Park's local elections. In the 2009 election, the VMA received 61 percent of the vote, and the VCA received 34 percent. About 5 percent of the voters either made a write-in vote or registered a vote, but did make candidate selections.
The VMA and VCA are essentially clubs that act as private political caucuses in Oak Park. They select candidates for village elected positions, fund the candidates by contributing generously to their election campaigns and run their candidates on a political slate. That is, their candidates' names appear together in advertising, lawn signs and act as a slate in meet-the-candidate events. The slate process makes it very difficult for candidates to show their unique talents. It also makes it difficult for voters to differentiate the candidates in terms of ability or positions on the issues.
In the 2009 election, the VMA's five candidates individually received between 55 percent and 65 percent of the vote. The VCA candidates received between 31 percent and 37 percent. Whether the candidate was a longtime incumbent or was running for the first time, they received a comparable number of votes. That is the power of the slate for the VMA and VCA. Their power is a defeat for the election process. Only 17 percent of Oak Park voters went to the polls in 2009. Low turnouts indicate low interest, and 2009 was a year of low voter interest despite the village's painful financial problems. Perhaps voters sensed that their vote did not matter.
Both the VMA and VCA treat themselves as nonpublic organizations. Their work is not open to scrutiny. There are no minutes of their meetings, no specifics on how they select individual candidates, no press releases on who applied for interviews by their selection committees, no available list of members, and worst of all, the community has no insight as to why candidates were not selected.
Both organizations provide money to candidates by financing campaigns. Reportedly, in 2009, the VMA spent $30,000 or nearly $8 per voter and the VCA spent $10,000 or nearly $5 per voter on the election. Where does the $40,000 come from? Where did the $70,000 that the VMA reportedly spent in the 2007 election come from?
Independent candidates face a high financial hurdle if they wish to compete for an elected village position. To get financial support, they must supplicate themselves to the rules, traditions and political platforms of the two organizations. The political clubs' processes restrict the ability of Oak Park to avail itself of all of its residents' talents. We need a broader range of ideas and pluck in Oak Park. We need independent candidates for office.
In a review of the Oak Park Board of Trustees minutes from June 2009 to July 2010, there were 141 (excludes procedural votes — minutes, proclamations, appointments, etc.) board votes. And 94 percent of the votes were "unanimous." That is a startling result, particularly since all seven board members were elected on VMA slates. It is not as if the village board has a shortage of conflicting issues to resolve.
John Hubbuch pointed out on his Wednesday Journal blog that the VMA has won 97 percent of the elections since 1952 [Is VMA a good thing? Oct. 4]. Perhaps it is time to for the village to study the VMA's power over the village's election process.
John Murtagh is an Oak Park resident and the former chairman of the Oak Park Community Relations Commission.