The VMA lost. What's next for the venerable institution?
The Village Manager Association (the establishment) lost to the New Leadership Party (the critics), but the contest was between two conservative visions. The VMA sought stability in finances and senior village staff. The NLP seeks stability in physical infrastructure and junior village staff.
If the Swenson doctrine ("development mania") succeeded in holding the line on property taxes the VMA would still be in power. But even with activist government tinkering, the village couldn't shoehorn in enough taxable development to keep ahead of government spending increases.
The VMA may be tempted to wait to see if the NLP implodes. Will the coalition motivated by a list of grievances hold together? This strategy risks that the NLP will start attracting stronger candidates than the VMA since its selection process is open. The openness makes it flexible to meet the demands of the activists du jour. If stronger candidates prefer running with the NLP to the VMA irrespective of their personal politics, the VMA will cease to be.
In what direction can the VMA move that is consistent with its existing membership, but won't be co-opted by the NLP before the VMA can get traction? Here are some possibilities:
1. Younger voters. Does it seem like the same clique of people has run the VMA since the early 1970s? If the VMA is going to survive it needs to recruit younger Oak Parkers into leadership positions and attract younger voters at the polls. The VMA should survey younger voters to see what they want. I suspect younger Oak Parkers want liberalized overnight parking ($5 per night?) and bars. Both these things are consistent with increasing village revenue.
2. Online discussion of policy. The VMA should create a website that allows people to freely discuss public policy in Oak Park. What vision do people have for the village? What complaints do they have? What suggestions do they want to make?
3. Quality of service. The VMA should explain how it intends to improve the quality of work and service by the village. What sort of qualify feedback mechanisms do the technocrats favor?
4. Use clout creatively. The VMA should work with other local governments and elected officials in and out of Oak Park to lobby the county, state and federal government for policies that better serve local government. The county should be lobbied to eliminate waste and improve the property tax assessment process. The state should be lobbied to provide property tax relief. The federal government should be lobbied to protect local government from skyrocketing health care costs.
5. Evaluate major projects. The VMA should make a list of major projects from recent history and evaluate each one. The VMA should get public input. They should go back and interview the people that opposed these projects. What aspects of the projects were for the better? What aspects were disappointments? In what ways was the process the problem? The VMA has projected arrogance by not taking criticism seriously. If it wants to govern again, it needs to convince citizens that it's heard past criticisms and is going to adjust.
6. Openness and competence. The VMA needs to explain how to make village government more open. It also needs to have a plan for making it more competent. It's hard to take the competence of VMA candidates seriously when they are apologists for the dishonesty and incompetence of Swenson's senior staff.
The VMA has made mistakes, but hopefully it will continue to exist 50 years from now. Its candidate selection process has generally provided capable, honest elected officials to shepherd village government. Hopefully even the VMA's strongest critics will acknowledge it has provided better local government over 50 years than other surrounding communities.
If the VMA is going to exist in 50 years, it needs to make it through the next 10 years. And this is going to require new people and new ideas. Being out of power allows greater flexibility. The VMA should use this opportunity creatively.