By Dan Haley
Contested elections are good. They force candidates and political groups to think and adapt. They demand that local media step up and perform. They give voters responsibility to take their job of choosing seriously.
Far too often around here — in towns that bray about all their opinions and activism — we are stuck with uncontested elections. Just two years ago, the District 97 elementary schools were promoting their tax hike referendum and the local electorate was all agog with thoughts supportive and condemning. Did all that intensity over funding and curriculum and fancy computer software and expensive playgrounds lead anyone over the minimum number of necessary candidates to run this year? No. A school board that collects $57 million in property taxes in Oak Park is uncontested.
Also uncontested is the race for village trustee in Oak Park. Three people, two of them incumbents, are already guaranteed to sit behind the oval table at village hall.
All, however, is not lost. There are strong and competitive races for village president in both Oak Park and River Forest, for village trustee in River Forest, for elementary school board in River Forest and the race for seats on the school board at OPRF has produced a gaggle of candidates. And, based on our endorsement interviews here at the Journal, so far there are more strong candidates than there are seats at the table.
Last week, Wednesday Journal hosted packed forums at the local libraries for the respective candidates for president of the two villages. After spending 90 minutes moderating these two discussions, I'd call these races compelling.
In River Forest, Mike Gibbs and Cathy Adduci, two current trustees, are seeking the seat being vacated by John Rigas. The two served contentedly alongside each other for four years and now are looking for ways to distinguish their records. Adduci announced plans to involve more expert local citizens on new committees and Gibbs razzed her for not doing more with the committees she chaired as a current trustee. Gibbs and his hand-picked slate are touting their lifelong roots in the village as a reason to back them. Adduci says she has been here 15 years and that counts as roots, too. Not startling revelations.
And so one is left to just watch the nuances between the two. They don't disagree much on the issues, so which one do you think would provide the sort of leadership you're looking for? How much change do you seek? How great was 1979 in River Forest anyhow?
The Oak Park forum was intense, with incumbent trustee and the fully-vested-in-local-government John Hedges going head-to-head with Anan Abu-Taleb, a through-and-through entrepreneur and local restaurant owner who wants change and wants it now. These two men disagree about how local government ought to be conducted, with Hedges uncomfortable being cast as the status quo candidate but taking the mantle as Abu-Taleb outlines ways to dismantle government processes he sees as slowing what needs doing.
No one in the Veterans Room at the main library was left assessing nuances when Hedges and Abu-Taleb were finished. These are two highly distinct candidates. Hedges is counting on a generalized sense of well-being in town, coupled with his sincere desire to wring efficiencies out of local government as a way to contain costs and speed up services. Abu-Taleb is counting on frustration boiling over when it comes to high taxes, sub-standard customer service and decisions that take too long to make.
April 9 is coming. And it is exciting to have choices.