By Ken Trainor
The election is less than two weeks away. You can read our endorsements elsewhere in this section. But as you ponder the issues and candidates, here's some perspective — from someone who knows quite a bit about local governance. Last fall, I conducted an extended interview with Galen Gockel, former District 97 school board member and former Oak Park village trustee, who said some interesting things, which I thought I'd share.
Gockel served as village trustee, 2001-'05, and then came back briefly in 2006 to complete the term of a trustee who resigned.
Because of the economic bubble, he says, the village back then was "awash in money," so no one felt the need to conserve. "We didn't see the problems looming," he says.
It was a turbulent time. The entire VMA slate "went down in flames" in 2005, and board was divided. Gockel often found himself siding with the minority. He voted against Whiteco, for instance — twice.
Today, he's ambivalent about whether serving as trustee was a good thing to do. "A lot of things are beyond your control," he notes. "You're at the mercy of economic, political and demographic forces."
The contentiousness in Oak Park, he says, is both "good and bad." The worst part was too many evening meetings that dragged on too long. The volume of reading is overwhelming, on issues ranging from beekeeping to how many pets per household to the high school parking garage. Gockel calls the latter his low point. The village, he says, spent roughly $20 million on what he describes as "a gift from Joanne Trapani to [former OPRF Supt.] Sue Bridge [and OPRF's teachers]." It now stands a quarter empty most days, he says. A surface lot would have been much cheaper and would have provided ample parking.
On Oak Park's decade of development (1999 to 2008), Gockel gives the village a grade of "B-", mostly because officials were overly grateful to developers for showing any interest. "We were not in a strong negotiating position," he says, citing Whiteco as the prime example.
Seymour Taxman, on the other hand, "proved you could make money developing in Oak Park. His peers probably thought he was crazy, but he was smart enough to understand that the risk was not as great as conventional wisdom said. I was sorry to see him go."
Gockel liked the Crandall Arambula strategic plan for downtown Oak Park and believes Taxman would have made it a reality. He applauds the Marion restreeting project, but thinks the village spent too much. "The fountain is an accident waiting to happen," he says, and heating the sidewalks was an expenditure too far. "They're starting to degrade already," he observes. Nonetheless, he believes "Marion Street still holds great potential for revitalizing downtown."
Lake Street, however, is "cracked, dirty and unattractive." Developers look at the environment when they think about investing. Planting flowers isn't enough. "If the public sector doesn't invest," he asks, "why should the private sector?" Now, unfortunately, "we don't have the money."
Gockel is no Pollyanna. On the future of Oak Park, he says, "I'm not sure if I'm hopeful." He doesn't think Oak Park suffers from real estate "red-lining" anymore, but does suspect the village is "pink-lined."
"Investors will choose Downers Grove because it's 'safer.' They use economic terms, but there is unspoken racism," he says. "We're still battling that perception. It's just more subtle."
In the 1970s, Gockel notes, Oak Park was united against rapid racial change. "Conservative or liberal, the threat was very palpable. Everyone saw it and knew it. A lot of people had moved here from Austin. Now that glue is not holding people together. We don't have that common task."
He sees many newcomers as "just passing through. They settle for Oak Park till their kids are gone; then they live in the city. The sense of commitment isn't there as much. We're a way station."
Social consciousness brought some to the village, but too many think the battle has been won. Meanwhile, developers remain skeptical.
"The level of integration is just more than they can bear," he says. "They look at crime, the achievement gap, the streets, and they say, 'I prefer Glen Ellyn. It's safer.'"
Local investors, people like Mary Jo Schuler, may be our best hope, he says, because they have a genuine sense of commitment to the community.
"And don't underestimate the arts and tourism," he adds.
Not everyone is willing to be as straightforward as Galen Gockel about what has taken place and what the future may hold. Not everyone will agree with his assessment, but it's a good starting point for a community conversation.