Barwin and the Cone of Silence

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

I wanted to write a column on Tom Barwin's five-plus years of service as Oak Park's village manager. He deserved a column. Certainly, a lot happened on his watch. He was hired in 2006. Talk about bad timing. About the time he figured out the crazy politics and minefields of our town, the worst economic collapse in almost 80 years hit the nation and the village.

So it was never going to be an easy ride for Mr. Barwin. Oak Park village managers, like Oak Park school superintendents, are not easy jobs in the best of times. Part of your professional duties is to explain the mistakes and miscalculations of the amateurs who are elected to office. Given their lack of experience, it's hardly surprising that the village manager often gets the blame.

Following Mr. Barwin's rather abrupt resignation, there were a number of reports, columns, postings and comments, but none of them seemed very informed. There was a lot of the usual vitriol from the usual suspects blaming Mr. Barwin for the high crime and high taxes. Never mind that crime rates dropped during his employment, and the village's rather small portion of our taxes remained relatively flat. Even worse, he got absolutely no credit for the mild weather we have been enjoying this winter. For my part, I met Mr. Barwin twice. I interviewed him when he first arrived in town, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And I sat with him at a table at a YMCA fundraiser. We talked NFL football (his son plays for the Houston Texans).

So I really don't know anything about Tom Barwin.

I was hoping that either he or the village board would have some comment, data and analysis on his performance, but other than the usual PR B.S. — nada. Just as soon as the board put away the Cone Of Silence that it and the school districts had used to make sure no one knew the basis for the settlement of the interminable, expensive TIF litigation that resulted in the re-allocation of millions of tax dollars, the cone was used to make sure the public and press had no idea why Tom Barwin was gone. I doubt there was even time to do any maintenance or cleaning of the cone between uses. Too bad.

So I'm unable to provide any thoughtful analysis on the rise and fall of Tom Barwin. It would be helpful if villages and municipalities had the equivalent of the state report card that annually summarizes data pertaining to public schools. These reports provide data on student performance, expenditures, salaries, dropout rates — lots of stuff that you, the taxpayer, can use to evaluate your school.

Better yet, you can compare your school to its historical record and to all the other schools in the state. I would love to compare our crime, sales tax revenue, taxes, foreclosures and similar data with Evanston, La Grange, Western Springs and Elmhurst. Then I could actually have something intelligent to say about whether the village is well run and governed. Some would argue that the school reports are flawed and measure only categories that can be easily counted. But something is better than nothing. District 97 is the Enlightenment and Oak Park Village Hall is the Dark Ages.

So no one really knows anything about whether Tom Barwin was a good or bad administrator. The ones talking don't know nothin'. The ones who know something ain't talkin'.

I'm left with this humble request of our elected official: Never use the word "transparency" at any public meeting except, of course, executive session. Here are some altenatives: opaque, translucent, dark, foggy, dusty, low visibility, visually impaired. Or blind.

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John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 16th, 2012 1:15 AM

There is a story behind the Tom Barwin resignation, but you will not uncover it sitting by the phone waiting for board members to call you.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: March 14th, 2012 7:20 PM

I would hesitate to say that "the ones talking don't know nothin". More likely that you aren't listening or don't like what you're hearing. I personally never met the man or had any interaction with him. My opinion is solely based upon the public record and what I've been told by people who worked at Village Hall during his tenure. Certainly not the best manager of the Village; nor the worst.

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