By Anna Lothson
It didn't take long for Anan Abu-Taleb to make his way into the inner circle of local governance.
Oak Park's president-elect spent the days following April 9 reaching out to trustees, spending time with President David Pope, talking with Village Manager Cara Pavlicek and getting to know more about the town he's called home for 23 years.
Now that he's got the approval of a majority of Oak Park voters, he said, he's ready to learn the answers to some of the questions he asked in the campaign — like where village finances stand. He's also prepared to step back from campaign mode and shift to learning from his more experienced colleagues on the board.
Abu-Taleb recognizes that he's a newcomer to government and that there may be differences among members of the board, but he hopes politics will be laid to rest in the interest of governance. He got voters to buy into his message in the campaign, but Abu-Taleb said his goal is to get everyone to work together so people inside and outside of Oak Park will buy into the village.
"I'm not going to leave any stone unturned," Abu-Taleb said Monday. He plans on reaching out to determine the priorities of each trustee and how their diverse perspectives can balance each other.
"I can bring people together. I hope to use that skill of bringing people together so that when we make decisions they are good decisions — that they are inclusive and sustainable," Abu-Taleb said. "I want to get on the same page as everyone. I am going to learn from these people a lot. … I want to compromise for my lack of experience."
Although his fellow village board members were John Hedges supporters, Abu-Taleb doesn't anticipate any obstructionism. He hopes personal views will be set aside so the elected body can work for what's best for the community.
"If they give me a hard time, I'm going to take the responsibility for not making it work. I can't control how someone is going to behave, but I can control how I approach the situation," he said. "So far everything is good. If anything, things are going too well."
Abu-Taleb attributed much of his success in the campaign to the many volunteers who dedicated endless hours to getting his message out through flyers, phone calls and home visits. The support from his wife and family kept him going, but he said it was also a dynamic group from around the community that delivered the victory.
He had people constantly on the phone and when people had questions for him, Abu-Taleb said he personally called them back. It's his ability to connect with people and make them feel heard that helped him then and it's a quality he plans to continue as a leader in Oak Park, he said.
"I'm going to commit the next four years to enhancing the board and adding a different perspective to how they make decisions on policies. I don't do anything half way. I'm all in," Abu-Taleb said. "I want to be efficient. I don't want to have as many meetings. I want to create trust between the board and the management. I want to trust the board. I want to trust the management and the staff to do their work. If they can't do their work, then we are going to make quick decisions."
Both Abu-Taleb and members of the Oak Park Together slate agreed during the campaign that it's time to get the board out of the weeds of policy and rely more on the expertise of management and staff at village hall. Abu-Taleb said he wants to be the face for Oak Park and doesn't want to get stuck in the minutiae. Just like at his restaurant, Maya del Sol, he wants to have a presence but not run the day-to-day operations.
As far as priorities go, he wants to create better relationships among trustees; he also wants an attitude and culture shift at village hall. He plans to learn the basics — e.g. the current financial state of the village and where opportunities for economic development exist. He intends to focus on the "big picture" of what people want and he hopes to bring a more efficient and focused approach to village policy-making.
Abu-Taleb said he plans on holding monthly open forums at the library where he'll invite leaders from other government bodies who can ask questions and get necessary updates about the village. Transparency was a key component of his campaign, he said, and he wants the public to stay in the loop with projects like Lake and Forest and the sale of Whiteco.
"In order for us to be effective, we have to be involved," Abu-Taleb said. "I want a change. I want the community to be involved. … I want people to know where their money is. … If we are serious about this tax burden issue, we have to share information. We have to be accountable. I want people to know what's going on."
Abu-Taleb had only one opponent in the race, and that's another trend he wants to change. The Oak Park trustee race was unopposed.
"We are not doing our trustees justice by not making them campaign and earn their vote. To me it's the underlying issue of what is wrong with our town," Abu-Taleb said. "One of my goals is to end this madness of having elections that are unopposed. … This is a Middle Eastern democracy as far as I'm concerned. I've lived in the Middle East and I don't like it. I don't like their kind of democracy. People need to step up."
That's why Abu-Taleb threw his name in the village president ring four months ago. Nine days ago he was a hopeful restaurateur, and eight days ago Oak Parkers gave him the next four years to deliver the changes he promised.
"I'll never take that for granted," Abu-Taleb said.