Not enough discussion at the Oak Park village board table?

Some worry that elected officials are overusing 'consent agenda'

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In a tight budget year, Oak Park Village Hall is creating two new positions in its police department, costing an extra $100,000. And last year, the village board gave the developer of a controversial Oak Park hotel tower extra time to get started, because of the soured economy.

The Oak Park Village Board of Trustees approved both moves unanimously recently, without any discussion. That's because they were lumped onto the "consent agenda" portion of the meeting, a list of typically routine items that don't usually require any discussion from elected officials.

Gathering certain things together on a consent agenda is meant to save time in trustees' busy schedules. But some, on the board and in the community, worry that the timesaver is being overused.

"We might be creeping into putting things on there that might need a little bit more discussion or might not have been fully vetted out," Trustee John Hedges said at a meeting last week. He brought the gripe up after the village board approved the two new posts in the police department — a budget coordinator and "police community liaison."

The board had previously touched on the idea of creating those new positions during a closed meeting last month to discuss police strategies. Hedges agreed with making the hires, but still thought the board should have further discussed the hires in public.

But how, exactly, does village hall decide what does and doesn't warrant discussion, Hedges asked.

Each week, Village Manager Tom Barwin, along with several other staffers, pull together a list of items for the board to address at each meeting. Trustees receive the outline at least a few days ahead of time, with the chance to pull certain items off the consent agenda, Barwin said.

The board has a heavy workload each week, and there isn't time to discuss every single topic, Barwin said. So, elected officials usually defer to staff on more routine items. Barwin said the village isn't trying to hide discussion from the public, rather, it's about striking a balance between over arguing versus rubber stamping everything.

He pointed out that the materials from each meeting are on the village website at oak-park.us, and village hall tries to put information about its efforts on Twitter and Facebook.

Even if the board has no ill intent, Lynn Kessen — an Oak Parker who is running for village trustee in April — believes the board sometimes overuses the consent agenda. She'd like to see village hall cut back or eliminate the practice.

"It tends to look like things haven't really been discussed and you're just rubber-stamping, almost," she said. "Even if that's not reality, it's the perception to the community."

Oak Parker David Barsotti was bothered last November, when trustees unanimously gave a Chicago-based developer more time to obtain financing for a 20-story hotel in downtown Oak Park. He fought to stop the project from being built and wanted to hear the board's reasoning.

"I just want to know how they come to decisions," he said. "That's the purpose of open meetings."

Barwin pointed out that the board had already given its approval to the hotel. He figured it was assumed that trustees still supported the project, and that the developer needed more time because of the rough-and-tumble state of the real estate market.

"Extending the start of the project, I think, speaks for itself; I don't think there's anything sinister behind it, even though most people probably perceive it that way," he said.

Village President David Pope believes that the board has struck the right balance in using the consent agenda. In more contentious boards of the past, trustees spent hours debating every last "crossed T and dotted I."

Still, "If we had to err on one side or the other, I'd rather err on the side of having more discussion rather than less," Pope said.

Reader Comments

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john murtagh from Oak Park  

Posted: February 28th, 2011 3:30 PM

I don't buy the argument that a hefty consent agenda is a way to reduce the amount of time the board has to spend at the meeting table. 1)Less ceremonial activities at the meetings -- If they want to honor 100 students with certificates, do it at the school. 2)Drastically reduce the operating expense approvals and concentrate on policy issues i.e. move responsibility down the village org, 3) Assign more operating authority work to commission. 4)Make open communications the board Mantra.

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