By Anna Lothson
Follow our ongoing election coverage at OakPark.com/elections
After back-to-back forums last week, John Hedges and Anan Abu-Taleb made it clear they have very different perspectives on how Oak Park has been, and should be, run.
A newcomer to village government, Abu-Taleb cited his experience as owner of Maya del Sol, and vowed to bring a new, fresh face to the village, while restoring the public's trust in local government. His opponent, Village Trustee John Hedges, a veteran Oak Park government official, disputed his challenger's claims about Oak Park's poor financial state and said the village's outlook isn't as gloomy as his opponent suggests.
Abu-Taleb said the village needs a leader who listens to residents; Hedges noted that it's important to have a leader people can follow.
Both agreed there's room for improvement in customer service at village hall, that technology needs to be better utilized to increase efficiencies, and that the village board needs to meet less and let management do its job.
The difference between the two candidates, however, is most striking in how they think the job should get done. They made this clear at two forums, one on March 13 hosted by Wednesday Journal at the Oak Park Public Library and the other on March 14 at Buzz Café.
"There are problems. We've gone through this recession. We've gone through foreclosures. We have high taxes. … All those things going on," Hedges said Wednesday night at the forum hosted by the Wednesday Journal. "There is work to do, there's no doubt. … I think we're ready to turn some corners on some issues … we're turning the corner."
Hedges referenced a 2011 survey conducted in Oak Park in which a majority of people responded that the quality of life in Oak Park is "good" or "high." Nonetheless, he said he understands the burdens and said Oak Park needs to embrace its intergovernmental groups and work as a community to address the rising needs of both residents and business owners.
Hedges also pointed to the influx of restaurants and businesses that continue to come to Oak Park and the high occupancy rate across the village, the progress of developments that were once halted by the economy, and the village's focus on economic development.
Abu-Taleb, however, insisted the village isn't doing enough to help encourage businesses coming into town, and the rising tax burden is making the village unobtainable to current and prospective residents.
"I'm running because our government needs some financial discipline. I also feel the neighborhoods, the residents, the businesses — they need much better customer service and they deserve, for the amount of taxes we pay, excellent customer service," he said. "I have no doubt in my mind that, given the financial conditions today, something has to be done. Our economic situation we have today is not sustainable."
Hedges said his opponent's view on the finances paint an inaccurate picture. The village has reduced its manpower without raising taxes for six years, he said.
Quibbling over the details caused a few tussles throughout the forums, which turned into full-fledged debate at times.
Hedges and Abu-Taleb clashed on how they would maintain current service levels without raising taxes. Neither advocated raising taxes. Hedges said he's comfortable issuing short-term debt because the village is in good financial standing and has a good bond rating. Abu-Taleb wants to cut back spending levels and increase efficiency, but didn't name specific departments or services he'd change.
"All of them," Abu-Taleb responded, drawing laughter from the audience.
He wants quicker processes for people who do business in Oak Park. He claimed his wealth of experience from running successful businesses would be valuable in that role.
Hedges told his opponent that government can't be run like a business; it has to be run in a collaborative manner, taking into account the view of the board, staff and the 52,000 residents, he said.
"That doesn't work in government. I know it works in business. But in government you have to bring all the viewpoints together," Hedges responded. "It doesn't work that way and it doesn't work that way in Oak Park."
During both forums, Hedges and Abu-Taleb clashed on how the other one would address village finances and the tax burden. Hedges said the village's processes are "nimble"; Abu-Taleb said Hedges is out of touch with reality.
Night two: the Buzz
On the second night, Abu-Taleb wasn't up against just one candidate. Instead, he spoke along with the full slate of candidates endorsed by the Village Manager Association (VMA), which includes Hedges, current trustees Colette Lueck and Glenn Brewer, along with District 97 school board president Peter Barber. All three trustee candidates are uncontested in the April 9 election.
The discussion reflected similar themes, including economic development, business approval processes, and taxes. The VMA candidates stood united with Hedges, touting his legacy of leadership in the village as a reason to support him and the group. Although Hedges has served six years under President David Pope, he spoke Thursday about how his leadership style differs. He was asked specifically what new ideas he can bring to the board if elected president.
"The president's role is different than a trustee. … Coming in as president, I think it's just a fresh beginning. I have a different leadership style than David," Hedges said. "I'm going to be more inclusive, more collaborative, and look to trustees to help."
Hedges said would take a step back from getting involved in village staff and let them do their jobs; he'd also take a step back and re-evaluate how the board makes decisions. He looks at the opportunity as an "exciting" time to evaluate the protocol of how the village board operates within the village.
Abu-Taleb is running his campaign on the basis that the village has inefficiencies, isn't being fiscally responsible and isn't listening to its constituents. He repeated those themes Thursday evening when he suggested a newcomer like himself is needed to bring an outsider's perspective.
"We can collaborate, talk to each other and figure out how we can make a difference together," Abu-Taleb said. He highlighted what he said are budget flaws and problems with cash flow. "If we don't look at some fundamental things to do — if you don't have a mind like me that comes to the board to show how that could be done and together we could move forward, it's going to be more of the same."
The big theme throughout the forums has been essentially about whose leadership can bring the village what it needs to move forward. Abu-Taleb relies on his outsider perspective that would bring a new outlook to the board. Hedges pointed to his wealth of knowledge and experience in Oak Park village government, promising to be a balanced leader people can follow. Abu-Taleb said that strategy isn't working. Hedges said the last time non-VMA-endorsed candidates won, the board became dysfunctional.
"I know the village inside and out," Hedges said. His colleagues on the board, along with Barber, backed up this point and said there is a "steep learning curve" in serving on the village board. Hedges said he never considered running as an independent candidate and suggested that Abu-Taleb could have brought a slate of candidates with him but didn't.
"You have to bring people with you," Hedges said. "You can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way."
Trustees Lueck and Brewer said that as a board they rarely have identical perspectives and always share their honest views, have no problems questioning their colleagues and don't follow the status quo. Abu-Taleb has said he wants to shake up processes. The trustees, however, said they take their commitment seriously and are not as dismissive toward the public as Abu-Taleb suggests.
Still, Hedges' opponent stood his ground that his voice is needed to lead the board and the community.
"As a business owner and a longtime resident, I am in touch with the community and the needs," Abu-Taleb said. "The experience I bring is the experience needed on the board today. The experience on the board today is really theoretical and almost like an academic experience many times. I want to bring that practical experience and the new way of thinking — to challenge assumptions and to ask questions."
After two nights of talking, the opponents stuck to their claim that their leadership styles, despite their different experience levels with village government, would bring a fresh outlook toward village government. The difference is in how they're going to get there.
Village presidential candidates Anan Abu-Taleb and John Hedges shared their views on economic development, taxes, village customer service, leadership skills and more at two forums last week. Here are a few talking points from the candidates:
Abu-Taleb on taxes: "This tax burden is working against the diversity overall. It's becoming almost an economic barrier for many people to move into town, people like us who feel their sense of belonging in Oak Park and feel they are accepted in such community. The economic barrier is becoming the wheel."
Hedges on taxes: "[It impacts] businesses certainly. It hurts profits. It keeps new businesses from coming into town. Fortunately we still have businesses and we still have businesses coming into town. But it still makes it difficult. … Walking around and talking to people, that's the number one thing that comes up. It's taxes: 'I don't know how long I will be able to stay in my house.' It's difficult and we have to take that seriously. We need to have that intergovernmental approach."
Abu-Taleb's final thoughts: "There might be 1,000 things wrong with Oak Park, but there's a million things right with Oak Park. I'm really encouraged to do this because I want to make a difference. I want to make a difference in this community. … It really worries me that [my opponent] is insisting financially we are OK. … To me, it's important to be socially responsible but you cannot be socially responsible if you are not economically responsible. … I want to provide that leadership. I want to provide that energy. I want to provide that passion and I want to do that for Oak Park."
Hedges final thoughts: "We have a double AA bond rating. We don't have a debt problem. We don't an expenditure problem. We could solve this. If we want to raise the amount of money we have in our village accounts, all we have to do is raise taxes. We're not going to do that. We've been working for four or five years not to raise those taxes. ... I think this village is a wonderful place to live. We need to keep it wonderful for the people who are living here. … We want Oak Park to stay good. We want it to stay solid. ... We have a passion for this community and we are going to work really hard to make sure this community works."
Where to hear the candidates next
What: Village president/trustee candidate forum, sponsored by South East Oak Park Community Organization (SEOPCO) and Wednesday Journal
When: 7-9 p.m., Thursday, March 21
Where: Irving Elementary School Auditorium: 1125 S. Cuyler Ave.