It became crystal clear, after the Illinois attorney general scolded the Oak Park village board earlier this month, that an outsider, an independent voice is needed at village hall. But only if that voice was thoughtful and multi-dimensional. Fortunately, one of the two independents in the race, Lynn Kessen, fills that bill admirably.
The Village Manager Association — the political party that's dominated nearly every village election in the past half century — is by no means an evil empire pulling the strings behind the scenes. That is all overdone. And the current makeup of the village board, made entirely of VMA-backed candidates, doesn't vote in lockstep on every issue. The "Johns" (John Hedges and Jon Hale) often go against the grain and disagree with their five counterparts more often than not.
However, we didn't publicly see Hedges or Hale fighting to keep the November meeting, where the alleged violation occurred, in the sunshine.
That's why we enthusiastically endorse Kessen for village trustee. She has views that are counter to some of the VMA's long-held principles. Kessen at first expressed interest in abolishing the village's TIF districts outright (something we disagree with), but later relented and took the more moderate position that Oak Park should gradually wean itself from the pot of money used for development initiatives in the coming years.
She's anti-establishment, but strikes us as calm, rational, and not prone to starting shouting matches at the board table if a vote doesn't go her way. In a forum last week, we saw her agree occasionally with her political rivals, and when she disagreed, she was direct but peaceable. Kessen has a background in engineering and architecture and has served on her condo board for several years. While she doesn't seem quite as polished as the VMA candidates on the inner workings of village hall, we're confident that she'll be a quick learner.
Two-term incumbent Ray Johnson has been the epitome of a good public servant during his eight years on the board of trustees. He comes to meetings well prepared and ready to ask questions. He actively listens to what villagers have to say. He seems genuinely compassionate about the challenges that village hall faces. The village board has seen its share of successes over the past eight years with Johnson as a member (Whiteco, Barrie Park and Marion Street come to mind), and bungles (Whiteco, Barrie Park and Marion Street also come to mind). We feel completely comfortable endorsing Ray Johnson for a third term.
Bob Tucker voluntarily admits that he's a bit of a nerd about village government and budgeting. He's spent the past 13 years serving on citizen boards and commissions in Oak Park, most recently on the village's community design commission. His background in affordable housing will be helpful to the village board, particularly as one of the first big decisions for trustees in May will be whether to approve a controversial affordable housing complex on Madison. He expressed "deep" concern about pouring money into lavish street projects that might not necessarily spur business development in downtown Oak Park. And in addressing the board's recent violation of the open meetings act, Tucker said, as an elected official, you should "go out of your way to bring things into the sunshine."
Adam Salzman is simply the unlucky man out in this race. He no doubt would make an admirable addition to the village board, with his experience on the universal access commission and background as a labor and employment lawyer. However, he doesn't have as solid a résumé as his two VMA running mates, and we worry that, at 32 years old, he may defer to his more tenured colleagues on the board.
The other independent in the race, Lewis Carmichael, seems to have some pointed criticism of village hall — particularly that the board appears dominated by the business class, and that there could be more interaction between local police and residents. But he strikes us as disinterested in many of the issues that are facing the village, and mostly running because he has an axe to grind with the police department after an alleged incident that happened several years ago.