Re-deconstructing OPDC

Opinion: Editorials

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter

By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

Finally, finally … on Monday night there was a determinedly honest conversation about economic development at Oak Park's village hall. And there was remarkable consensus among the village president, board members and the head of the Oak Park Development Corporation, who testified.

Economic development in Oak Park is broken. Just plain broken. The last time it worked right, well, no one is quite sure.

There are chronic failings internally at village hall in permitting and inspections that had Village Trustee Ray Johnson abandoning his "praise staff publicly, criticize privately" policy.

"How many times do we need to say this?!" he said of the perpetual board complaints about permits and code enforcement.

There are chronic failings in the relationship between village staff with roles in business growth and the staff at OPDC, the alleged partner agency charged with economic development. Marty Noll, chairman of both OPDC and Community Bank, told the board in the most candid conversation I've heard publicly, "This is a delicate matter. It is about personalities, and it is about who is in control of what." He argued, and was strongly supported by Village President Anan Abu-Taleb, that OPDC needed to be "empowered" as the clear and accountable lead in economic development.

Some trustees weren't sure OPDC has the moxie to play such a key role. Responding to Abu-Taleb's assertion that he wanted to "double down" on OPDC, Trustee Glenn Brewer said he "wasn't a gambling man" and would need to see much more from OPDC before he bought in. Trustee Colette Lueck closed the intense but cathartic meeting saying, "There has been lots of finger-pointing tonight in both directions [toward the village and toward OPDC]. That's healthy. The partnership has not worked well." A very clear assessment.

While Noll called the village government "the 900-pound elephant in the room," I'd suggest the real unspoken issue on Monday night was staffing at OPDC. While Abu-Taleb, Noll, trustees and even public commenters all used the "re-" prefix as a euphemism for drastic change — calling for OPDC to be "reinvented," "re-imagined," "reconstituted," "re-energized" — Brewer came closest to the plain statement when he asked Noll if the remaking of OPDC would include "staff changes." Noll's response: "It could."

Abu-Taleb ran on the issue of development and fixing what is broken; Village Manager Cara Pavlicek knows the last village manager was bounced largely because he couldn't fix code and permitting; OPDC is facing a giant cut in village funding in the current draft budget; there are many and immediate development issues such as the Dominick's departure, Lake and Forest, the Colt project, the Madison and Oak Park RFP; and there is a window offered by the improving economy, so trustees are looking for a fast-track resolution. Let's see how fast Oak Park can move.

The real discussions can't be had until it is acknowledged that OPDC needs new staff leadership. Sara Faust, the longtime president and before that the number two at the organization, needs to step aside. That's a hard truth because Faust has devoted herself to this organization. The next truth is that hiring a new chief won't fix OPDC by itself. There was no golden age at OPDC. Everyone, including me, loved Art Replogle, the founding chair, and some critical things happened, but a good bit of the same silly nonsense went on. The Stankus Hole, for instance.

We need an actual and profound re-invention of OPDC. We need internal systems that work at village hall. We need to put the power and the responsibility for development in one place and put an electric charge into the effort. Monday's meeting, with its candor and its catharsis, was a necessary start.

Email: Twitter: @OPEditor

Reader Comments

27 Comments - Add Your Comment

Note: This page requires you to login with Facebook to comment.

Comment Policy

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 9:34 PM

Q, my focus is on a new approach to conflict resolution. The Village needs to get a handle on costs for outside legal counsel. The many millions spent did not always produce the desired results. Board members need to take a more active role in awarding contracts for these services. They unfortunately relinquished those responsibilities in the past by not insisting on an open and competitive bidding process and providing adequate oversight. That's where I "hope" to see real change.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 7:56 PM

JimCoughlin, " Let's hope that new Village Attorney". This is the problem, everyone just hoping that things will work out. In successful businesses, people don't hope the CEO, will work out, and continue paying the CEO, for years until there is no longer a business. In government, there is not the problem as in private business because when programs turn out to be a waste of money, government covers losses by dropping other programs or raising taxes.

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 7:11 PM

Q, the last thing Oak Park needs is to engage in expensive court battles with employees, residents and business owners. Taxpayers have been on the hook for millions in legal fees to outside counsel who were awarded contracts without a competitive bidding process or any oversight by the board. Let's hope that new Village Attorney has a better approach to resolving disputes and the new Village President and trustees will demand the selection of firms to represent Oak Park interests have been properly screened and their fees are more in line with what other communities are paying.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 6:36 PM

Q -I agree that workers with major poor performance issues that can not be resolved should be fired.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 5:36 PM

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois, I agree with the requirements to fire someone and that is why I said that is 50 percent of the problem, but you don't want the person to remain in a position the person is not competent at. Go ahead and fire the person, and if the person sues, go to court and prove why the person was not competent.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 1:14 PM

Q - You are solid on the business development issue, but off base on the firing. Firing requires a reason (not appearing at work, drugs, sex abuse, etc.) The reason will be challenged by the unions and the courts. If your reason is weak, the result is the return of the disgruntled worker. Downsizing is different. If reduces the number of positions. That means some workers will not be needed. Downsizing is a reality resulting from vastly improved technology. It has to be handled with compassionately and with dignity.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 11:12 AM

John Butch Murtagh, I will give you a example. Dominick's is closing. The village wants a new business to replace it. Logically, the village thinks another grocery store should replace it. They will spend all their time on just a grocery store. You don't do that, what you do is take the retail space, parking, and demographics. You then match businesses who fit to those specifics. You research each business how they are developing until you find the one that fits. You now are ready to pitch it.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 11:06 AM

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois Posted: October 17th, 2013 11:14 PM, John, unfortunately the thinking of it takes time to professionally to fire people is wrong. That technique has been the biggest problem in businesses, and government. The people who should be fired aren't and they complete 20 years at a job by never addressing problems but have plenty of excuses why something can't be done, and people accept it.

Neighbor from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 9:04 AM

JBM- thanks. A good systemic explanation is very helpful.

Tired of Taxes from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 8:13 AM

In recent years, OPDC has seen its funding cut considerably by the VOP. They have had to cut staff positions and are not real players on any of the big deals that the VOP is unable to close. They seem relegated to small projects. The Village Board must decide to either fund OPDC adequately or incorporate its mission. Or, let the market do its own work and stay out of the way.

J Roy Burton from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2013 7:26 AM

Let's start by finding the owners of the unsightly slum on the Northwest corner of Chicago and Austin and convincing them to do something attractive to that building. It's a business district gateway. I talked with Sara Bode, and then Barbara Furlong, and then David Pope, and then Tom Barwin on this issue, and am waiting for one/either/anyone to get back to me on this issue. 708-912-0336. Roy


Posted: October 18th, 2013 4:55 AM

The Board needs look no futher than themselves. Strategy starts with them on OPDC is tasked with execution. Strategy = differeniation, TIF, marketing, value prop. .... Like CEO blaming COO for poor strategy...

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 11:43 PM

Business - Economic Development requires sharp analytic skills, a wide range of expertise (marketing, finance, planning, etc, and a capability to identify risks early and continuously.) The rules of the game are the same fro a major corporation to a small businessman in Oak Park. Keep your eye on the ball and don't hesitate to swing.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 11:37 PM

Neighbor - The term that is used in business, running a village is business, is "Silos". A common business definition of "Silo" is "A functional group or department within an organization that acts as a silo or island in its lack of interaction with other groups and in not sharing its internal data or processes." The definition can be applied to entire organizations. The more clerical an organization, the more likely that "silos" exist. Simplified, it is the guy in the corner that has lots of contacts and information and does not share willingly and only when it is to his advantage.. Silos make an organization slow and cumbersome. Oak Park Village, largely because of lack of transparency, closed communications, and a antique computer and data processing capability is plagued with silos. Like a virus, the silo mentality spreads to partners, vendors, and support volunteer organizations; for instance, commissions, committees, and staff working group. Pointing fingers at each other is common.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 11:14 PM

Jim B - In this day and age - the days of swift information distribution and powerful communication capabilities, downsizing an organization is common. The worst thing you can do when downsizing is to fire people. Most downsizing is not the fault of the worker but a technological capability improvement that cannot be ignored. The path to downsizing is early retirements, buyouts, attrition job retraining for other jobs in the organization. Business needing to downsize do not do it hastily. It takes time and has to be handled in a professional manner. That is; you don't poke no one in the eye.

Neighbor from Oak park  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 10:58 PM

Am I correct in my understanding that a major part of business development dysfunction in O. P. Is due to too many layers of bureaucracy, many whose purposes sound vaguely similar, and retard the process of anything getting accomphlished? If so, it looks like it's going to be very hard to untangle the the knots without blaming a new scapegoat of the moment for quite some time.

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 10:01 PM

Jim Bowman, the Village doesn't have much of problem getting rid of employees. In fact, staffing numbers have been significantlly reduced. Oak Park's current policy is to just eliminate the position from the budget and privatize those duties. Interesting that no Village President or trustee has ever requested any comprehensive study or asked to review outsourcing decisions to determine cost effectiveness. It may be very difficult in the future to find qualified and dedicated people willing to work in government or teach in our schools. Who wants to work in a profession where you are constantly subjected to unfair criticism or told you are to blame for budget woes. The practice of awarding no-bid contracts and hiring of paid consultants are rarely subject to any real scrutiny or proper oversight. White collar patronage is out of control at all levels of government.

Business Owner as well from Oak Park  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 8:29 PM

Murtagh - I agree with you. Faust is a scapegoat. When I need guidance and expertise, I turn to Faust and OPDC. The problem is that OPDC doesn't have control of development, they are advisory. They can't fast track a permit, they can't get a variance. Brewer, Luecke, Johnson, approved the purchase of properties, and they didn't have a buyer. Now they turn their stare at OPDC. Give OPDC power to oversee the building department, including staffing, and we will see change. Won't happen.

Jim Bowman from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 8:22 PM

Q from Oak Pk has it. How do you fire incompetent people who are unionized? Or who aren't if the boss has to be squeamish about it for what are essentially political reasons? The fired garbage man led ultimately to the ouster of the village manager, long time ago.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 7:26 PM

If there is strong reasons to cut OPCD's budget than the board members, press, and the VM should reveal why. This whole affair has a rotten smell. The fact that someone????? released budget information on possible OPCD budget cuts is amazing revelation of how devious the silos can be!

Business Owner from Oak Park  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 7:13 PM

@John - I think what Dan was trying to do was name "the elephant in the room" so to speak. It seems like board members were talking around a major concern: staffing. Can no one say this out loud? No it isn't very nice. Sorry Dan it's not. But I would never support an increase in funds to the OPDC with their current leadership. I'm willing to bet the questions from the meeting mean that some board members wouldn't either.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 7:11 PM

Everyone who is in business or has been, ask yourself if someone brought you to a location or if you did your own demographic's, spent your own money, and opened your own business. Building permits is a mess because no one understands how it works, even the people who work there. The building chief spends to much time with nothing, and the same follows through the entire process. It's a very simple task to get things working but it requires firing people and that is 50% of the problem.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 5:14 PM

James - This is Oak Park. Everything is the same -- always. That especially goes for the local press. Dan Haley decides that the OPCD President should take all the blame for TIF's, overspending, poor customer service, bad developments, a bloated staff, etc. and we all are supposed to jump. Dan has spoken. He didn't offer any solutions. He did not explain how he chose the victim for his hatchet. He did not explain why one organization gets the blame for twenty years of bad developments and debt accumulation. It is time to roll up ours sleeves and get the village moving forward. The days of Everything is the Same is over. That is particularly of the Silo Blame Game that serves no one's interests.

OP Resident # 545 from Oak Park  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 5:00 PM

Thanks, Dan, for naming names regarding needed changes at OPDC. I don't know Ms Faust personally, but the fact that she's not a household name in town is a clear part of the problem. The other "900 lb gorilla" problem is white collar union employees at Village Hall. Customer service skills & union rules are not compatible, therefore any citizen-or-business-facing employee should not be unionized. Period. Harsh, but true. Citizens & businesses are their reason for being, not the other way around.

Business Owner  

Posted: October 17th, 2013 2:26 PM

We need someone both in the village and OPDC with good customer service skills. I hear honest complaints from community members about the lack of customer service for the businesses from both of those departments/orgs/individuals. And thank goodness someone is finally saying the tough things that need to be said.


Posted: October 17th, 2013 11:34 AM

But this is the same OPDC as it has been for the past dozen years or so. Bloat old guys sitting around a table that don't do a whole heck of a lot. You know, they're all bankers and control a lot of power but what have they ever done? A jewerly store here and there but let's not pretend this is a sudden issue. It's same ole same ole and you guys just finally started to pay attention.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 15th, 2013 10:45 PM

Everyone agrees that the village government is a bloated mess and the WJ and too many of the board members decide that the village's problem is at OPDC. Life is always black and white in Oak Park. Do we ever consider the "grey" like finding solutions that come from considering a broader alternatives; not just rocking the ship. For instance; would the village be more functional if OPCD concentrated on strategy and development and gave retail back to the village which already has a Retail Manager. Frankly, I get the feeling that the board does not have the wherewithal or guts to take on the village staff problems. So instead it focus on a partner. Remember if you cut the OPDC budget/staff, the responsibilities go back to the staff. That does not sound like a solution!

Facebook Connect

Answer Book 2017

To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2017 Answer Book, please click here.

Quick Links

Sign-up to get the latest news updates for Oak Park and River Forest.

MultimediaContact us
Submit Letter To The Editor
Place a Classified Ad

Classified Ad