By Dan Haley
Back in March of 2000, Gary Balling had just been hired, but hadn't yet started as executive director of Oak Park's park district. He wrote a letter to his future staff and attached it to a short questionnaire asking them to describe the highs and the lows of their experience on the job.
Here's part of what he wrote: "I work hard to ensure an environment of open communication by seeking compromise at all levels of the organization. Collaboration, negotiating, having a sense of humor and allowing creative ideas to flow are important ingredients in the workplace."
In our fractious political moment — always nationally, too often locally — how wonderfully dissonant it has been to see a leader extol the value of compromise, to embrace compromise as a way to create genuine change.
Sure, you say, but this is just a park district. How fractious could the politics have been back in 2000? Well, not so long before Balling was hired, a park board member resigned and the board had gone shorthanded for months, locked in a ridiculous 2-2 split because they couldn't agree on a replacement.
There were grating political tensions between the parks and village hall because they were still legally entwined. The full scale of the environmental calamity at Barrie Park was just coming into focus. And because of the village's control of the park's finances, almost no money had been spent to upgrade parks in many years.
Twelve years later, because of an approach that starts with "this isn't Gary Balling's vision," we have watched a park district create a board/staff/citizen model that all of our elected bodies ought to actively emulate.
Sitting last Thursday in the pocket park he helped create at Oak Park Avenue and Randolph, Balling pointed to his growing up one of eight kids on the Southwest Side of the city as the root of his tendency to compromise. "I had five sisters," he said, as if that explained everything. And possibly it does.
He went on to say that he never excelled as a student. "I'm not the smartest guy in the room," he said, in a statement seldom heard during an interview. "But there are a lot of smart people in Oak Park." In most cases, this is the point where a public official would go off the record and start ragging on opinionated Oak Parkers who always think they're right. Instead, Balling talks about how he worked to include the district's strong critics and found ways to bring them inside the process. He learned from them. They learned the complexities from him. And compromise ensued.
Future members of planning committees, the Citizens Committee, even the park board started as opponents of the skateboard park, avid proponents of dogs in the parks, and fierce advocates for resource-sucking neighborhood rec centers.
"We've always looked at the board, staff and citizens as a team. It keeps us away from those divisive situations," he said. "You have to trust the process. You have to work at it. You need the right people at the table — solution-oriented people — and then you need to take a leap of faith."
While he wasn't involved directly in choosing his successor, surely it is not an accident that Jan Arnold will come to the park's top job not only with interesting professional parks experience but as one more of Balling's active park volunteers.
Gary Balling leaves a record of accomplishment and an aggressive roster of projects to be brought to completion. Most critically, though, he leaves us with a culture of inclusion and compromise that we need to nurture.