It is understandable but unfair for John Hedges to be portrayed in this campaign as the "status quo" candidate. Yes, he has been active and involved in Oak Park government — park district and village — for decades. Yes, he is the candidate of the Village Manager Association — Oak Park Together is the non de plume in the current race — and the VMA has been the dominant political force in town for better than a half century.
But by his actions as a village trustee over the past six years, John Hedges has proven himself to be an independent person with a critical eye, particularly on spending levels at village hall and the lack of forward motion in solving nagging process problems in village government. And so for his experience, and for his fresh eye, we endorse John Hedges for Oak Park Village President.
That said, Hedges and the VMA are getting rousted out of their comfy shoes in this election by Anan Abu-Taleb, an entrepreneurial restaurateur, who has tapped a legitimate vein of frustration with village government. It doesn't hurt that Abu-Taleb — simply Anan to his friends and myriad lawn-sign hosts — is a passionate voice with the credibility of a visible and successful business leader.
The Journal has long made the point that contested elections are good for our community and this one, even as voices are raised and brown lawns are festooned with gold and green signs, is turning into a doozy. Good.
When Abu-Taleb rails against development processes measured in years instead of months, he is right. When he says the village has obsessed about streetscaping in Downtown Oak Park to the detriment of other commercial strips, he is right. When he says Oak Park acts as if it exists in a vacuum and points out the gains in Berwyn and Forest Park, he is right.
"Oak Park is a very progressive town and then we're not at times," is Anan's apt description of our town, which is both groundbreaking and stuck in the mud. "We don't challenge our assumptions," he told the Journal during our endorsement interview, and he is right.
The problem — and it is not unusual among hard-charging challengers — is that Abu-Taleb is better at bringing heat than solving problems. So when at a Journal-sponsored forum he was asked to name specifically the stages of a development process he would eliminate in order to quicken the pace, he replied, "All of them." Sounds good in a heated moment on a debate stage. But try taking that concept out for a test drive when a restaurant wants an outdoor patio backing up to a residential neighborhood or affordable housing is proposed on a main street. That's when annoying process turns into inclusion and compromise and problem-solving.
While Hedges can also get frustrated by government inertia, he needs to go considerably further if he is elected village president. Together with his trustees (and we're counting on Trustees Tucker and Salzman), a Hedges board needs to knock out some props in our village government and send a decisive message that we can do better, faster and we can do it without denigrating the role of government in a community that demands a voice.
This tension between government and commerce is also mirrored in the ongoing debate over the concurrent role of the village president as the legally ensconced liquor commissioner. State and local ordinance clearly make it impossible for the president/liquor commissioner to hold a liquor license as the Abu-Taleb family does for Maya del Sol. These laws may be antiquated holdovers from Prohibition days but they are still on the books.
Abu-Taleb has been both candid and cagey in addressing this consternating issue. If elected, he says, he will transfer ownership of the restaurant. He is not direct in saying who he might shift ownership to and we think he owes the public a clearer answer. He also talks about working to change the laws. That's fine, but it would not solve the problem created immediately upon his election.
Certainly Oak Park could use business owner representation on the village board. It has been lacking for a long while and it shows. So clearing away impediments such as these liquor laws would be a good step. But, Anan, changing laws is a process.
We are completely accepting of Abu-Taleb's heartfelt explanation of his conviction two decades back on tax evasion charges. He is persuasive in admitting his culpability and explaining the many ways his contrition has made him a stronger, better man.
For his part, Hedges is a soft-spoken, tough-minded leader. Don't expect to see any $20 million streetscaping projects under his administration. Don't look for more excuses for why in 2013 Oak Park's village government is without a vision for how technology can solve customer service problems and wring greater efficiency on costs. While he respects Oak Park's history he will ask hard and long-overdue questions of organization's such as the Oak Park Development Corporation.
For us this is a hard endorsement and an easy one. John Hedges is the superior candidate. If he takes his challenger's message to heart, he will be a still stronger village president. As Abu-Taleb says, "Changing before you have to is the way to go." Oak Park's government needs to change. John Hedges is the person who can make that change actually happen.
If with his passion and his tough challenge, Anan Abu-Taleb has sparked the VMA's candidates and not just offended their sensibilities, then he will have done Oak Park a great service. We need Abu-Taleb's energy and his impatience. We wish, in this moment, that he was running for a seat as a village trustee. In that role we would have offered an enthusiastic endorsement.