By Dan Haley
A week ago I bundled up in the cold (I know, poor boy) and headed over to Oak Park Village Hall for a Monday night meeting. I wanted to be there when Anan Abu-Taleb accomplished his first major feat as village president: unanimous backing to remake Part 2 of the village's thoroughly and historically muffed economic development process.
But then at the very end of the meeting, Ray Johnson up and announced his resignation after 11 years as a village trustee and the lede changed from looking forward to looking back. I've spent some time this week talking to Johnson, and while he is rightfully proud of his service and work accomplished, there's also a sense of lost opportunity over the past decade as Oak Park got stuck in infighting, both within various versions of the village board, with staff, and with some segment of grumpy citizenry.
Last week there was no infighting, just urgency. In the space of four months, Abu-Taleb had turned aside a plan that tinkered at the fringes of fixing the problem while leaving all the same players standing, just in weakened form. Instead, as he said, so many times, he wanted to "double down" on a remade, unleashed version of the Oak Park Development Corporation while demanding that village hall finally figure out how to streamline its business-related systems.
And that is the plan that was enthusiastically and unanimously approved by the board. Longtime trustees, new trustees, village hall lifers, bankers serving time on the OPDC board and local newspaper editors all knew that what passed for economic development in Oak Park had devolved into a sad sack of finger-pointing and excuse-making.
OPDC couldn't work because its hands were tied by village hall, whose staffers always explained delays and hiccups in permits and inspections and general unhelpfulness on the department upstairs or down the hall, on aged software that divided information, on the paralysis of working for a divided village board. Everyone yelped about endless and mean-spirited public meetings that elevated anti-growth critics and encouraged rampant NIMBYism.
With passage of the OPDC redo last week, Abu-Taleb gave notice that the crabbing and sniping had to end,Some on the inside will say that Oak Park's image as business-averse is just a perception and an unfair one. Abu-Taleb would say unequivocally that he's not buying it, that perception is reality, that perception is earned.
Even if the fixes to OPDC and the internal creation of the Development Customer Services Department work well, there's still the matter of Oak Park's absurd public processes — Plan Commission hearings; zoning board hearings that leap in five-hour bursts from week-to-week, giving a platform to those who oppose everything; the spectacle of village board members offering opinions on what type of window frames a 21-story project ought to have.
I asked Abu-Taleb on Monday about this third phase of actually making something happen and how to tame it. He doesn't have an answer yet, he said, but he is clearly working on it.
Making growth happen in town is about the day-to-day operations, the experience of the business person trying to get a store open and facing inspection delays. On the same night, the village board seared Steve Witt, the head of the Building and Property Standards Department, as he presented potential code changes. Trustees Adam Salzman, Johnson and President Abu-Taleb were forceful in telling Witt that the job of his department, with safety always in mind, was to find ways to help business, to solve building issues, to make friends for Oak Park.
"The board's comments tonight on code issues were very instructive," said Village Manager Cara Pavlicek.
We can only hope.