Oak Park Villager of the Year: Village President Anan Abu-Taleb

First eight months of presidency marked by 'a sense of urgency'

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

He had a foreign-sounding name, no experience in government, and a free market philosophy, making him an unlikely candidate to take the helm of the Oak Park village board. But Anan Abu-Taleb, who became village president in May, has surprised many by acting quickly and aggressively on issues and not being afraid to rock the boat.

Abu-Taleb, an Oak Park restaurateur who owns Maya del Sol, ran his campaign on a message of efficiency, transparent government, better service to constituents and, maybe most importantly, shaking up the status quo at village hall.

It's the kind of political rhetoric common in any election, but it struck a chord with voters, and since taking office, Abu-Taleb has kept his promises — holding community forums and taking residents' concerns to village hall, pushing hard for a quick restructuring of the village's economic development efforts and putting the brakes on projects he considers imprudent. 

"I take a great deal of pleasure in being part of a team that is succeeding, and I feel the board now is succeeding in moving quicker on issues," he said in a recent interview. "Everyone is feeling a sense of urgency."

Abu-Taleb, 54, says running a successful village isn't just about moving quickly on issues but really listening to constituents' concerns. He has held three community forums since taking office because he says the three-minute time limit given residents to speak at village hall meetings often isn't enough for them to get their point across. 

Village Trustee Adam Salzman said in an interview that the forums aren't just an empty gesture but have resulted in real change at village hall. He said recent debate on the overnight parking ban came from residents' criticisms at Abu-Taleb's first community forum held earlier this year.

"[The discussion at village hall] was directly linked to those forums," Salzman said. "It's easy to look at the town halls he's been holding and say it's circular chatter, [but] he's kept a clear record and brought [the issues] back to village hall and acted on them."

The overnight parking ban requires residents to get a parking pass from the village in order to park on the street overnight, but only three passes were available per year. Trustees debated the issue for months and ultimately made more free passes available — three per month — and created a new system allowing residents to purchase seven additional passes per month for a fee of $7 apiece.

Salzman said the parking ban creates a "negative bond" between residents and village hall. "Whether you get a ticket or not, you go to sleep thinking you might," he said.

Abu-Taleb has acted quickly on high stakes issues as well. Earlier this year he began pushing for a restructuring of village hall's economic development initiatives. It's widely agreed that Oak Park needs to do something to attract more business development, but upon taking office, Abu-Taleb began pushing for village hall to act quickly to restructure its relationship with the Oak Park Development Corporation. The development corporation serves as a private contractor to the village to spur economic development, but in recent years has been criticized as being ineffectual and often out of the loop concerning village-led development projects.

In October, the village board began debating what to do about OPDC, with Abu-Taleb leading the charge. The board told the organization, which historically receives $300,000 annually from the village, to develop a plan and return in November, or else. The development group returned with a proposal to restructure its board to include members of village hall as well as the business community. The proposal dovetails with village hall's plans to consolidate multiple building and housing-related departments. During final budget meetings, Abu-Taleb pressed trustees to act quickly on the restructuring by increasing the village's financial commitment to $750,000 a year.

"We are at a tipping point where you need to reinvent yourselves," Abu-Taleb told OPDC members at the meeting. "We feel there is a need to put an investment in our community, so if we ask developers and business people to invest in our community, we have to do it ourselves too."

Trustees have gotten behind the quick restructuring effort but took a more measured approach on the budget increase, agreeing to wait until early next year to address the issue. 

Abu-Taleb has tried to compensate for the increased spending by putting on hold a $350,000 request from the Oak Park Police Department to fix its dysfunctional shooting range. He scrutinized the budget request, prompting Police Chief Rick Tanksley to provide an alternate solution. The department now is inquiring with neighboring police departments on what it would cost to train at their facilities. An early estimate puts the price tag at about $10,000 a year.

Abu-Taleb, who defeated Village Manager Association-backed candidate John Hedges in the election with 58 percent of the vote, says he is not a new political movement in Oak Park and was vague when asked whether he would create his own slate of candidates for the village trustee election in 2015, but noted, "we don't want an old guard to say keep Oak Park where it is right now.

"I'm really focused right now on trying to continue to change the mindset on how we do things at the village," he said, adding that his perspective on government was shaped largely during his time growing up in the war-torn Gaza Strip in the Middle East. 

"I grew up under harsh occupation, corrupt leadership, very poor economic opportunities and growth, and danger in a sense, so I have a much deeper appreciation for this idea of us being equal, that we are all created equal." He said his experiences as a child left him with scars that he will carry forever.

Abu-Taleb, who is married with four children between the ages of 18 and 26, said the support of his family has given him the strength to take on the full-time work of village president while also operating his own business.

Contact:
Email: tim@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

28 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

Dea from Oak Park  

Posted: January 7th, 2014 10:13 AM

I'm a Dooper, let's talk about something other than the weather, how about what's best about Oak Park and for Oak Park. Buck up the weathers the weather.

Resident  

Posted: January 5th, 2014 10:02 PM

Congratulations Anan. Anan has done a lot in a short period of time. I hope the board will stop the politics and join Anan in moving the village forward. We are stuck with dysfunctional management at village hall and changes need to be made.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: January 3rd, 2014 11:41 PM

Myth - Politics is a dirty word. Myth - Most politician/elected officials are corrupt. Myth ?" Anyone could serve on the Village or School Boards. ABILITIES and SKILLS are required. In no special order here are some of the ABILITIES/SKILLS -- Communications, Negotiating, Networking, Analytic Instinct, Public Speaking, Team Player, Charisma, Salesmanship, Financial Knowledge, Decisiveness, Vision, Community Awareness, Social Astuteness, Emotional Balance, Perceptiveness, Forthrightness, Honesty/Fairness and Common Sense. Not all elected officials have it, but most do.

Great, another dude  

Posted: January 3rd, 2014 12:35 PM

How many years has it been since the WJ recognized a woman as OPVotY? Please don't tell me there aren't women making a difference here every day.

Amy Williams  

Posted: January 3rd, 2014 9:32 AM

I have been so impressed w/ how accessible Anan is. He answers emails, calls, and even took the time to come to my house to meet about 20 neighbors on my street concerned about the possible D97 admin building. Everyone may not always agrees on village policies/politics, but the man is really trying and hats off to him for that! It's a tough job not many people would want or could handle...

Matt Baron from Oak Park  

Posted: January 3rd, 2014 8:55 AM

Anan was a great choice---by the voters in April and by the WJ for Villager of the Year. One of the facets of his leadership that I find most encouraging his his inclusiveness. He earnestly strives to build bridges with those who don't see eye to eye him on one or more issues. He has a "marathon mentality," with a long-term view of change over an extended period of time. That takes discipline & restraint, qualities among the most seriously underrated in our instant-gratification society.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: January 3rd, 2014 6:57 AM

Too many people, frustrated with the the very real political corruption at the national, state, county and (some) township levels, conflate that issue with the dedicated and unpaid public service of many good people in Oak Park and River Forest. I could go into detail, but I'll leave it at this- do your homework before you level criticism and attack people's motives and character. The broad brush attacks I see here against "politicians" just show some folks don't know what they're talking about.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: January 3rd, 2014 3:20 AM

Hi Brendan, Most elected officials do not "show up for work" because this isn't their day job. Most get paid zero dollars, or a small stipend. So what they do, serving our community, can actually be viewed as volunteer work. The runners up for Villager of the Year are two elected officials of the D200 school board. Would you call them politicians? They, like Anan, are not politicians. They are all public servants. And I thank them and their families, for their commitment to this community.

Adam Wallace from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 9:25 PM

On a more positive note, I coudn't be more happy that Anan was chosen Villager of the Year. He got me excited about Oak Park politics, has engaged many previously disinterested citizens and worked to shake things up. I'm thrilled to see the overnight parking ban revised and Oak Park becoming a more pro-business community. Keep up the work Mr President, were behind you!

Adam Wallace from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 9:23 PM

@OP Resident # 545 from Oak Park , I'm guessing you would also be complaining in a dry winter why the Village has such a massive snow removal budget? Sure it's possible to have all of the snow removed within hours of a storm beginning, but the cost would be ridiculous. Public Works does a great job of getting the roads cleared. on New Years Eve and Day I saw countless plows working the streets while dedicated drivers were away from their families. It costs more money to have enough plows to hit the streets more quickly. I think PW does a great job getting the streets clear, and would honestly be happy to have the streets more snowy if it meant we saved a few thousand dollars as a village.

Dejordy  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 5:31 PM

Good grief, Brendan. Guy comes in finally shakes up an encrusted system, and you begrudge him this recognition by a newspaper? It's not exactly a high-glory position.

Brendan  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 4:18 PM

Anan ran for public office in an electoral race. He is a politician. To name him villager of the year shows that the recognition is not thoughtful. There are many that give to this community through volunteer work, charitable contributions, etc. To name an elected individual villager of the year because they have showed up to work is a complete waste.

You're both right  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 1:42 PM

Yes it has been snowing forever. But this is Chicago in winter. It would be more impressive if the village was on top of these things, but OP usually does the bare minimum to be acceptable.

Bill D  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 1:42 PM

"Now that the snow has stopped falling?" Famous last words, huh?

John Murtagh from Oak Park  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 1:06 PM

Bill D is probably correct. With the snow ending, the DPW will begin clearing side streets. That means get your shovels and snow blowers out. The snow trucks are about to throw snow onto the sidewalks and driveways that you have been shoveling for the last 48 hours.

Bill D  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 12:20 PM

And I'll say it again, OP res. It snowed for nearly 48 straight hours with two very brief lulls. The criticism is misplaced. There is no way for the PW department to keep up with that sort of slow but steady accumulation. It's barely possible to keep the main arterial thoroughfares clear under those conditions. Now that the snow has stopped falling, they have a real window to clear and salt. Judge them on how they do over the rest of today, when the task is manageable.

OP Resident # 545 from Oak Park  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 10:51 AM

I know it's a tough situation, Bill, but I can't agree completely. It's not a "nightmare situation" for PW workers, it's their "reason for being." It's why they are there, & why they are paid what they are paid. Most of their days are much easier than this, but they get paid a premium based on their skill set to handle scenarios like this. It's not an unreasonable expectation of customers, i.e. taxpayers, to demand ongoing plowing of streets in a snowstorm. It's minimum acceptable performance.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 10:37 AM

The current ongoing snow fall is a nightmare scenario for public works crews. It's been snowing nearly non-stop since 1:30 Tuesday afternoon, with more to come. There is no way, short of having plows out non-stop as well, i.e, for the last 48 HOURS, to keep up with this mess. To blame PW staff for this just shows ignorance of the reality they're forced to deal with.

Marty Bracco from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 9:28 AM

Anan is, first and foremost, a long time OP resident & as important, a long time OP business owner; one who also chose to invest even more is his community by serving as Village President. He is in no way someone who should be lumped into the category of "politician" with that connotation being a negative. Also, the responsibility of snow plowing & removal falls on the Village Manager & Public Works staff. Any complaints or kudos should be sent in that direction.

The Brad from OP  

Posted: January 2nd, 2014 9:08 AM

Which Public Works Dept head decided to pay the snowplow drivers double-time last night and Christmas night when the snow events had essentially ended. Plows were out last night well after the streets were cleared. Meanwhile, this morning, Oak Park streets are virtually undriveable.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: January 1st, 2014 9:11 PM

Brendan - Not that unusual to have a politician as Villager of the Year. In 2007, President Pope shared the award wit Tom Barwin.

Jed  

Posted: January 1st, 2014 1:54 PM

Can't wait to see Anan at the ribbon-cutting for Sleepy's

Mrs Mosely  

Posted: January 1st, 2014 1:33 PM

Does anyone think the Toronto Mayor was voted Person of the Year in Toronto??

Cdonovan2  

Posted: January 1st, 2014 10:58 AM

I volunteered for Anan's campaign and I am generally satisfied with his actions these first seven months. But, he is just one vote on the board and needs allies more than just cooperation. Hopefully there will be more candidates to choose from on the next ballot.

OP Resident #123 from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: December 31st, 2013 10:23 PM

@Brendan - so were you a better choice for some reason?

Mimi Jordan from Oak Park  

Posted: December 31st, 2013 2:29 PM

As evidenced by all the details in this article, there really was no other choice. Glad to have Anan energizing this board and shaking up Village Hall.

Brendan  

Posted: December 31st, 2013 9:21 AM

Are you kidding me?! A politician for villager of the year?

Dave Schiavone from Oak Park  

Posted: December 31st, 2013 6:21 AM

A great choice! Anan has shaken up those in village government who were the business as usual folks. But he has done this in a considered and classy way. A true breath of political fresh air.

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