By Dan Haley
Earlier in Monday night's meeting of the Oak Park village board, Trustee Ray Johnson was setting up his critical support for a plan to dramatically overhaul Oak Park's approach to economic development. The senior member of the board at 11 years of service, Johnson said the vote on economic development was the latest in what he called the village's "seismic moments."
Johnson listed five such critical turning points: Oak Park's pioneering support for Fair Housing in the 1960s; its consistent backing of rights for gays, lesbians and the transgendered; keeping faith with southeast Oak Park during the long years of the Barrie Park environmental remediation; the adoption by three taxing bodies of the Collaboration for Early Childhood's plan to actively reach out to at-risk families with very young kids; and then, tonight, a bold plan to remake how Oak Park looks at growth and development.
An hour later, as the board meeting wrapped up, Johnson made an announcement that registered less dramatically, but still notably, on the seismographic equipment: He announced his resignation from the village board.
By June at the outside, Johnson will relocate from Oak Park to New York City, where a major promotion at the bank he has worked at for 31 years will take him. Johnson stepped into the new role at HSBC on Jan. 20 but will remain on the village board through early March. In an emotional moment Monday, Johnson described his time on the village board and before that on a village commission as "one of the greatest honors" of his life, "the love of my life."
He said he was "a better person for my Oak Park experience" and when villagers would often thank him for taking on "such a thankless job," he would always assure them he felt it was an opportunity and "never a thankless job."
Certainly Ray Johnson had hopes of someday being Oak Park's village president and his relationship with the current village president, Anan Abu-Taleb, started off last spring in a rocky fashion. Johnson's VMA-backed candidate, John Hedges, had gone down to an unexpectedly wide defeat and emotions were raw for some months.
More recently, though, and in evidence Monday night, was a rapprochement between Johnson and Abu-Taleb, likely with the realization that they shared a passionate desire to turn Oak Park's economic development apparatus upside down and inside out. In a small gesture, Monday, it was Johnson's vote on the seemingly odd-duck matter of a vote on what to name a newly reconstituted village government department that set the stage for the unanimous vote later to remake the Oak Park Development Corporation.
From his comments, it was clear that Johnson thought inserting the word "Customer" between "Development" and "Services" in the new department's name was a little showy and unnecessary. But my sense of it was that knowing the issue was of strong interest to Abu-Taleb and that his vote would be decisive, Johnson offered up what was a small matter to him to support Anan's sense that a customer focus is a critical message to send.
The vote to remake OPDC — its board, its staff, its bylaws, its mission and more than doubling its village funding — was unanimous and enthusiastic, though some trustees rightly noted that the vote was the easy part. The hard work is ahead.
That hard work will go on without Ray Johnson. But neither the board nor the village will seem the same without his active, enthused omnipresence. There'll be more to say about Johnson over the next weeks and months, there'll be interesting politics over the appointment of his successor.
But for now there is a fifth seismic event on his list, and he gets credit for helping to make it happen.
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