By Dan Haley
How to grow Oak Park
You sit through a long and contentious village board meeting like the one Oak Park had Monday night, and you wait for some moment of clarity. With all the unnecessary drama and tension between factions of a board on an issue — economic development — that every person agrees is screwed up, you wonder if anyone was actually listening.
And then, sometime after 10 p.m., after offering up some futzing of her own, it turned out that the village manager, Cara Pavlicek, was actually listening and counting votes.
Trying to steer the conversation forward, board members were assigning "homework." They told representatives of the Oak Park Development Corporation to go back and flesh out an actual budget and job descriptions for the proposal they had previously forwarded. And they told the manager to come back with thoughts on what sort of economic development model would work best and how the interaction between village staff and an independent OPDC should work.
These dual assignments seemed certain to add a month to the conversation and invite both the manager and OPDC to sail right past each other as they tack toward their strongest positions. It was then that Pavlicek said simply, "How about we do this homework together?"
The board, she said, wants to find out if a sharply revised model for growing business in Oak Park can work if most of the development effort is housed in a private, nonprofit company whereas the machinery of development — permits, zoning, inspections — works inside village hall.
The best way to find out how to make this work, Pavlicek implied, is for the two entities to start now and work to craft a model. They've got a mid-January deadline to come back to the village board with many more details. And Village President Anan Abu-Taleb and a majority of the board have a target of late January to implement the strategy.
When you move as quickly as Abu-Taleb wants to move, especially on this topic, you are going to create some havoc in a government setting. That was apparent early on Monday when Trustee Colette Lueck suggested that the board's October directive to OPDC to come back quickly with plans for an overhaul of economic development was "misguided."
Somewhat messy, yes. Misguided, no.
After Lueck laid out 20 questions and doubts, Trustee Bob Tucker focused the conversation on the essential question. Is the board interested in the broad concept of creating an external entity and placing resources and authority for growth in that entity? Over the course of two hours' debate, it became clear that the majority of the board, and possibly all of the board, is supportive of the concept.
There are inevitably lots of questions. Here are mine: Is OPDC, which has been both hamstrung by village hall limits on its work and lackluster in its performance, capable of a fundamental reinvention? Can village hall staff learn to play a more limited role but figure out how to excel at that role? In a quick and unanimous vote Monday, Pavlicek was critically given the OK to remake the internal structures.
Can the village board resist the urge to meddle? When Lueck asks if the full board will play a role in hiring key staffers at a new OPDC, I have my doubts. (The answer, Trustee Lueck, is no, no, no.) Can an essential level of transparency and communication be achieved as key roles shift into a private entity? How will success be measured? Where will the money come from?
Finally this effort will simply come down to who gets hired for the "new" chief executive position. Connections, some charisma, some political skills, an entrepreneurial bent, an understanding that Oak Park is both "special" and just the same.
Find that person and everyone on the village board will look like a genius.