VMA opens talks in search of path back from defeat

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By DAN HALEY

After suffering the biggest defeat in its 50-plus-year history on April 5, the Village Manager Association will begin its hoped for resuscitation this Thursday when current and former, died-in-the-wool and tangentially connected VMA supporters will gather for a wide-open discussion of "the election, the campaign, what the VMA has done in the past, what the VMA does next," Gene Armstrong, president of the group, said Monday.

The venerable organization lost the village president race for the first time ever and saw all three of its trustee candidates fail. Only Village Clerk Sandra Sokol won re-election with the VMA's backing.

In an election campaign in which the VMA was criticized for having too few people involved in its candidate selections, Armstrong said, "We're inviting a lot of people. We want their reactions. Their ideas. To tell us what it means. We're trying to include new people, a lot of people in Oak Park's black community, past board members, selection committee members. A cross-section of people who have been interested. We need an open, free-wheeling exchange of ideas."

While the goal of the meeting is basically to look ahead, Armstrong said, "I'd be naive to think there won't be people there who won't want to vent a little."

Armstrong, a local attorney long involved in the VMA, had praise for the New Leadership Party, a first-time political organization which swept the three available seats on the village board. "The 4,500 votes for NLP trustee indicates that they worked very hard. They were focused on message. It is not that the VMA lost. The NLP won." Calling the NLP's message "'That we will do something different than they were doing' clear and understandable," Armstrong said the VMA message "was not clear and understandable."

Jay Champelli, a VMA stalwart for three decades, is open to the discussion. He played a less active role in this year's campaign after concern two years ago that there was "an attempt to unduly influence the [candidate selection process] by outside groups. I said, unless limits are placed on participation that I wouldn't participate."

Champelli's frustration reflects a fundamental issue for the VMA. It takes pride in its openness yet because it is not a traditionally issue-driven political organization, the VMA has lost members to other political groups and factions.

"I don't know the solution," said Champelli. "I certainly don't want to go back to 'the back room.' In the early days of the VMA there was a small group of knowledgeable people who knew a lot of people in the village. In the past, we had lists of over 100 people," to talk to about an election, he said. "This year the selection committee didn't have a lot of choices."

In the 3-way race for village president, Champelli actually went quietly outside the VMA and urged personal friends to support independent candidate David Pope over the VMA-slated Diana Carpenter. "I didn't think Diana could win. I'll pay for that. It got back to the VMA campaign committee," he said.

Armstrong said all topics are fair game at Thursday's meeting. He said the VMA's tradition of slating candidates, mounting a campaign and then going into post-election hibernation will certainly be "a hot topic." And while he says he is trying to keep an "open mind" on such issues, he expresses a caution on what he perceives as the increasing politicalization of Oak Park.

"We are heading down a path of Oak Park being a two-party town, and this is a pretty small town. We could be spending a whole lot of energy and division on running our highly qualified candidates against your highly qualified candidates. How much of a community fight do we want to launch?"
CONTACT: dhaley@wjinc.com

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