By Dan Haley
Opponents of the affordable housing project on Madison Street pledge to fight approval of the Comcast project right up to Election Day on April 5. Trouble is, they don't have any candidates.
The minority of people in Oak Park who rail against village government over, you name it — Comcast, the Forest/Lake hotel project, TIFs, taxes, transparency — are left to sputter and spout because they have no cohesive message. They are against a bunch of specific, mostly unrelated things. But what are they for? Not much, it seems to me.
Running against the VMA (Village Manager Association) just isn't going to get the job done. The average person in town doesn't exactly know what the VMA is or does. And unless you have splintered off from the group over various real or perceived slights, as nearly all the opposition in the village has, a typical voter has no sense of injustice against "the machine."
Being solely anti-VMA is a prescription for breeding even more apathy than we have right now. In the coming election, there is the three-person VMA slate: one incumbent and two newcomers who have come up through the ranks of the village's commission system. This is textbook stuff, good government stuff. The commission system, imperfect as it is, is intended to be both a method of fostering citizen involvement and a training ground for future trustees.
Spit in the wind and call it blatant insider dealing, cloning or an establishment tool, but it usually does what it is supposed to do. It produces credible people with some broader sense of the community. That is typically going to get more votes than slating a batch of people with a grudge.
There are two independent candidates for the village board. That's good. A contested race is always best. But I'm not sensing great energy from the independents. There is still a month. We'll see if the energy builds. We'll see if either of the independents can articulate what they want Oak Park to become and not just crab about this decision or that action.
In Oak Park right now there are some people mad at village government over, well, see the list above. But this isn't an intense election season. There is a heated discussion about District 97's upcoming tax hike referendum. And there ought to be. This is a bad time to be asking for a tax hike though that is not the school district's fault. Plus, in this still tough economy, there is a perfect storm of debate about public pensions, school reform measures such as merit pay and tenure. It is a worthy conversation to have along with a profound recognition that education, at least education that includes art and intramurals, special needs and technology, isn't ever going to be cheap. It is an investment.
My point though is that while we have this debate, we also have an uncontested election for the school board. That makes no sense. If you are concerned about education, if you think tough choices need to be made at the nexus of education and financing it, then get in the game. Turn out at meetings. Run for office. Everything else is just blathering.
This is a small town. We need good people to step up to lead it. We need people who can offer a vision of the future of village government, not a tired rant on what used to be. We need new ideas on education that start with a common determination to innovate and excel. Screeching because the district bought a few iPads in an experiment tied to teacher evaluations is not that kind of leadership.