By Anna Lothson
David Pope has seen his share of challenges and accomplishments.
But when he departs his post next week as village president, the Oak Park native said leaves with a feeling of overwhelming gratitude for the community he's dedicated himself to for the past decade.
"I feel incredibly fortunate to be a resident of Oak Park, much less to be the village president," he said in a recent interview. "Given my background as a child who was born into Oak Park and immediately given up for adoption, it's sort of a small-scale miracle to end up as the chief elected official in this community."
It was his "loving and supportive family" that nurtured him with a solid foundation, he said, but it was the evolution of Oak Park into an economically and culturally diverse community that made him come back as an adult to raise his own family.
"I've also really tremendously enjoyed the opportunity to be able to work with some very talented people who give a great deal to our community both as employees, elected officials and volunteers," Pope said. "There is no place else like Oak Park. And when you serve as village president you have an opportunity to see the very best of the unique community that we all share."
Pope said it's hard for anyone to imagine what it's like being village president until you've stepped into the role; this was something he learned as he moved from serving as a trustee for two years into the president's post. From the myriad of organizations and leaders that keep the wheels turning to the interrelationships among municipal bodies, Pope said what he realized most was how connected everything in the town is.
"What's happening with the schools impacts public safety, which impacts commercial districts, which can impact neighborhoods," Pope said. "And I think you get a deeper appreciation of many different aspects of life here in the village."
Opportunities and challenges
Eight years later after taking office as president, as Pope finishes his second term May 6, he's ready to "hand the mantle off." Pope's civic involvement — from his interactions locally, regionally, statewide and nationwide — are ones that have reminded him why he chose Oak Park to be his hometown. This includes his ability to represent the needs of residents and be an advocate for them when it comes to policy making.
"Given our history and a lot of the innovative efforts that have been initiated here, Oak Park is in a position to be a model for the region and in some respects for the nation and beyond," Pope said. "Sometimes, living here we lose sight of that. But it's been really fulfilling to be able to engage with people both inside Oak Park and outside Oak Park regarding ways to help enhance overall quality of life and to strive to improve the experience that people have here in our community."
Pope didn't tread through eight years as president without a few hiccups. Starting in 2005 when he was freshly elected, Pope was met with a divided board with strong opposition on many matters. That made for long nights and "approaches to issues that were probably not optimal," Pope said. In the end, Pope said he was proud of the group for putting aside differences and finding common ground for the sake of the community.
The challenges got worse with the economic crash in late 2008, which followed with two years of tough budgeting decisions that included village government salary freezes and layoffs. He believes the board came together that year, despite the tough reality, and led Oak Park through a historically tough time. Today, however, Pope recognizes that the growing tax burden on residents of varied economic backgrounds is taking a toll, and is an issue that must be addressed in the coming years under new leadership.
"I think that's clearly a message that resonated with residents during this most recent campaign season," Pope said. "And not just for the village but also for the other jurisdictions as well."
Looking back, moving forward
Since Village President-elect Anan Abu-Taleb was elected, Pope has been showing him the ropes and introducing him to key players in the local government sphere. Pope has valued creating strong relationships in and outside the village, but said he's ready to step aside and let Abu-Taleb lead.
"Oak Park benefits if we have a village president and a village board who are successful in their ability to be able to reach out and establish those connections. And so I'm committed to do everything I can to be able to help provide those introductions for Anan as he steps into the role of village president," he said. "It's really just to help facilitate a transition and handoff to Anan, but at this point, it will be his role going forward and not mine."
Pope doesn't have plans to run for anything else at this time and he's still weighing options for what his next venture will be. He's worked in the private sector, the public sector and the nonprofit sector, and he's enjoyed different characteristics about each of them. He wants to stay involved with his wife in the community in interests they've already established, but he's not sure where else his role may extend. Pope was a private consultant until 2006 when he set aside his business to be village president full time; he doesn't anticipate going back to the private sector though.
So after a decade being part of village government, what will Pope miss most? The long meetings that crept into the next day won't be on his list.
"I think the opportunity to serve and have a positive impact in a way that crosses so many different disciplines. Oak Park is a community that is so incredibly fortunate to have so many dedicated volunteers for not-for-profit entities and government entities," he said. "At the same time, the breadth of perspective you get as either the village president or a member of the village board I think goes beyond any other role you can fill in the community in terms of understanding those interrelationships and also the tools that can be employed to help move things forward."