When the Oak Park village board gathered last Tuesday to receive and discuss the report from HOPE Fair Housing Center that spelled out multiple instances of discrimination in rental housing, it did a lot of things well. And Village President Anan Abu-Taleb badly overstepped the boundary between a board that sets policy and one that manages the village and its staff.
It is to the credit of the village board and administration that this damaging report ended up quickly and prominently on the board's agenda. The board made no attempt to hide the findings or to downplay the import. Housing discrimination based on race or disability, which the report documented, is totally unacceptable in Oak Park, the village board made plain.
In discussing the report, the board clearly emphasized that strict enforcement actions, including litigation, ought to be part of the village's response, along with heavily stepped-up education and training measures for both landlords and potential renters. That is the proper balance the village's response must achieve.
The board also took a very wise step in rethinking an initial proposal that this report be sent out to three separate village commissions for their independent review and recommendations. Talk about a good way for an important topic to be buried. This would have been it, even with the best of intentions.
Instead, the board created an ad hoc commission made up of the three village board members — Colette Lueck, Glenn Brewer and Bob Tucker — who serve as liaisons to those commissions: the Housing Programs Advisory Committee, the Community Relations Commission and the Disability Access Commission.
By gathering all the key players into a small working group and giving it a short timeline to bring back recommendations, the board has ensured that this issue will be addressed, that weaknesses in the current systems will be identified, and that the village will refocus on its historic support of fair housing.
The misstep at the board table came from President Abu-Taleb who, during testimony to the board from Tammie Grossman, the village's lead staffer on housing and business issues, aggressively interrupted and demanded to know who ought to be fired from the staff. "I would like to know," he said to Grossman, "and you don't have to name names for me. If you say by tomorrow, 'Fire the person in our village who should be accountable for this,' do you have somebody in mind? And if you don't, why don't you?'"
The village president and village board have a single employee. That is the village manager. Everyone else at village hall works for the manager. That line is clear and it is there for very good reasons.
As this ad hoc commission goes to work, we suspect it will find accountability issues at the staff level, the village board level, the commission level. To us this feels like everyone took their eye off this ball. Perhaps, in the end, the village manager will decide staffing changes are necessary. But that will be her decision to make.