By Anna Lothson
Hiring a community and economic development director has been on the village hall to-do list for more than a year, but with Village Manager Cara Pavlicek moving from interim to permanent, the hiring of a new village attorney, and a shift in village board leadership, it got pushed to the backburner.
According to a job posting listed by the consultant hired by the village for recruitment, resume reviews for the position, which has an earmarked salary of $135,000, begin this week.
But Village President Anan Abu-Taleb has raised the question of whether the position, as currently designed, is the best way to achieve Oak Park's economic development goals.
At least that's the conversation Abu-Taleb wants to have Monday when the board discusses the topic at a special meeting. That discussion likely to include deliberation about the merit and purpose of adding another director-level position to the payroll.
Abu-Taleb's presidency has included shaking up the "status quo," and he said this theme will continue as the village addresses a major hurdle he thinks Oak Park needs to tackle: business retention and attracting new businesses.
"We have a disadvantage that we cannot do a whole lot about today. And that disadvantage is that our taxes per square foot for a business are much higher than other communities around us," Abu-Taleb said in an interview Friday.
He worries that, coupled with "red tape" and "bureaucracy," this makes business owners think twice before setting up shop in Oak Park. Being a businessman himself, the president's frustration grows with each layer of government he sees businesses work through.
"If we keep on shooting ourselves in the foot, why would we expect a different result?" Abu-Taleb asked. "What we need is someone who is fully committed to economic development. We need a full-time, real economic development director."
But he believes the posting for the job is too focused on adding other administrative duties, designed to fix issues that village leaders have identified in areas the position would oversee: planning, building and property standards, housing and business services.
"This is not going to work," he said. "This is just another layer of bureaucracy."
Abu-Taleb said he thinks the skillset for a community and economic development director and an administrator are vastly different. He wants someone who spends every day working with developers, realtors, and business owners to recruit people to Oak Park. This won't be achieved if the person is stuck in an office, he said.
"I don't prescribe bureaucracy and red tape. And businesses are not going to do that," Abu-Taleb said. "Either we are going to get our act together or we keep our heads in the sand and think that by hopes and prayers and continuing the same processes today, that we are going to have a better outcome."
His vision includes recruiting a person who has the track record of development projects and business growth in communities like Oak Park. He doesn't want to hire someone who will simply be absorbed into Oak Park's already established system.
"How is this going to help our economic development?" Abu-Taleb said, questioning the description of the posted job.
These lingering questions spurred Abu-Taleb to request that the topic be part of a broader discussion with the entire board before moving ahead with hiring the administrative level position. Finance Committee members — where this discussion started about a year ago — agreed the discussion was needed and sent the matter to the Oct. 14 special board meeting.
'Boots on the ground'
Pavlicek, in describing why this director position is needed, explained that Oak Park's current organizational structure is "flat." The challenge, she says, is not having one central person to report to on aspects that relate directly to economic and community development. Pavlicek suggested workflow and services will improve by having one intake person for day-to-day operations.
Abu-Taleb agreed that Oak Park's structure needs that dimension, but adding another layer of management will not get the village to its goals. He pointed to the fact that Oak Park already has a deputy village manager and an assistant village manager and would like to see any new management level person bring a different skill set.
"The village of Oak Park is not good at economic development. That is a fact," Abu-Taleb said. "Economic development has to be a separate unit that has autonomy and is accountable to the board."
What does that mean for the person Oak Park is hoping to hire?
"I want boots on the ground," Trustee Bob Tucker said.
This means having someone who can market Oak Park, work to retain businesses, recruit businesses, convince people to invest in Oak Park and close on development deals. He, too, expressed uncertainty about hiring another administrative-level position.
"That is a unique skill set," Tucker said. "It is slightly different than the community and economic director position that is being proposed."
Tucker understands Pavlicek's desire to revamp the organizational structure and recognizes there's room to shake things up, but he'd like to see the conversation shift to a policy level discussion about what economic development means for Oak Park. His goal is to reach consensus at the board level about how to implement a vision quickly.
"One thing I don't want to do is delay any progress in economic development. Things are poised now for some things to happen. We don't want to lose the momentum," Tucker said. "If there is a better way, I'm all for talking about it. … via this position or something different. Time is of the essence now."
Trustee Adam Salzman said the conversation and attitudes about economic development, since it was discussed a year ago, have shifted. Salzman believes it needs to be determined whether another director will generate a positive return on investment.
"We need to make sure this is the most effective investment possible," Salzman said. "We all agree our priority is: fix our economic development solution. It's up to the board to see if Cara's solution is the best."
Salzman cited Abu-Taleb's philosophy that "Oak Park suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen," and said he believes the president worries a director position adds another cook without yielding real results.
"My view is asking whether that person is necessary. I think that's the conversation we need to have," Salzman said.
Adding another salary to the already tight budget is what needs to be evaluated, he said. He expects this conversation to spark broader talks.
"I hope that it's a global discussion that doesn't just involve this position," Salzman said. "I hope we take a total look at our system of economic development and whether it may be possible for us to simplify that system."
Abu-Taleb, in particular, and other trustees appear to want to act expeditiously on this matter. "I think that we need to have a clearer strategy in place by January," Salzman said. "I think that would be ideal. That would be more than achievable.
I just think we need to have the right conversations." That conversation begins Oct. 14. To read the brochure about the community and economic development director position, visit OakPark.com.