New village board takes village hall test drive

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DAN HALEY

There's a lot of "new era" talk in town right now. New trustees. New political party. New president. But has anything really changed?

Maybe yes.

Last Wednesday evening the three holdover trustees?#34;Johnson, Milstein, and President-elect Pope?#34;joined the three newly elected but yet to be sworn in trustees?#34;Baker, Brock, and Marsey?#34;for a hybrid official/unofficial meeting. The topic was economic development issues in town. It was show-and-tell with the staff presenting their Powerpoints on the new public works center, Whiteco, Downtown redevelopment, the village's shuttle and the smorgasbord of business support services recently OK'd by the outgoing board. While the presentations were interesting, let's face it, the purpose of the meeting was to see how this prospective village board got along.

Would they be snippy, snappy? Serious or light-hearted in that forced-laugh sort of way? Come on, you were thinking it, would anyone lunge across a table?

Well, chalk it up, if you will, to best behaviors learned in childhood, but this group of six and the senior staff they will spend hours with, got along well. They listened attentively, they asked good questions. They went out of their way not to make digs but to offer compliments to each other and to the staff.

Along the way, the new trustees and the new president revealed themselves in interesting ways and ways consistent with their campaign personas.

Most importantly, David Pope was a generous president. He actively listened to the new trustees and respectfully attempted to draw them out. He didn't need the spotlight. He didn't call attention to himself. What an enormous relief. And because it seemed to come naturally to him, I'm hopeful this calming, thoughtful approach can be continued into the real life of the board when the issues are real, the audience is wired and the cable TV light is on.

The soon-to-be trustees were fascinating to watch. When the talk turned to Downtown Oak Park development and demolition along Westgate, Martha Brock was not standing tall for the faux Tudor buildings some people have fallen in love with suddenly. Rather she keyed in on the street's importance as the geographic center of Oak Park's first African-American neighborhood. That neighborhood and its church were demolished in the 1930s to make way for modern day downtown. "Areas of Westgate are important to African Americans. Much of it is lost. How do we go about seeing there is a monument erected there?" Now that's a question worth asking.

Geoff Baker and Greg Marsey did not raise a stink over Whiteco, accepting that that decision is gone. Instead they wanted details on how the Design Commission recommended for Downtown by the consultants, Crandall Arambula, would be picked. "I understand Crandall Arambula will be offering training for the Design Commission. But how about local people who have a greater sense of the village?" asked Baker.

After Brock cast doubt on the value of most local traffic studies to predict actual levels of gridlock, a flustered village official started in on the methodology of traffic modeling. This time it was Pope who brought the conversation back with the simple follow-up, "But what about overall congestion?"

Baker wants a non-voting high school kid on the board. Brock wants to know why so many small businesses, especially minority-owned businesses, "feel disenfranchised." Marsey is all in favor of the "green" aspects of the new public works center "but what does it add to the cost of the building?"

It's clearly early. And honeymoons happen in Oak Park just as in D.C. But so far it feels different. Good different.

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