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.