It is like a teacher on the first day of class who pledges to stay calm in the chaos, the reporter who promises to stop pushing deadlines, the baseball player determined to start taking a pitch once in a while. Newly elected boards pledge and promise and are sincerely determined to break the bad habits of their predecessors.
The newly constituted Oak Park village board made its pinky swears at a recent meeting and kept to the promises of shorter meetings, more focus and less unnecessary blathering at a subsequent meeting.
We are duly impressed and offer nothing but encouragement. No deliberative process ever improves after the first 90 minutes of talk. Good decisions are seldom made near midnight. And not everyone needs to talk on every topic.
Last month's village board election was a referendum on multiple aspects of governance. Everyone heard the message that voters don't want endless process where choices take nine months or three years. Most people heard the message that village hall has to work better, that building permits and business licenses need to be handled more efficiently and the hall has to make use of more technology.
But how about the message that the village board itself has to work better? That's an essential message, too. Yes, it is meeting length. Yes, it is collegiality. But we'd suggest it is also about changing the decision-making culture. Let the hired staff make more decisions. Actively choose to delegate more decisions to staff. And then also actively choose to make more decisions, more quickly as a board. Everything does not need to be studied or reviewed by a commission. Most things don't need to go back to staff three times for tweaking.
Decide. And if, six months from now, the conclusion is that a decision was wrong or partially wrong, then change it. It's OK.
In the post-election towel-wringing, someone who has been around, has been on the inside of local village government, said that Oak Parkers want to be included in decision-making, that they will demand processes that force inclusion, that slow was all right.
Are we really so sure of that? When only handfuls of people turn out to be part of the important crafting of a new Comprehensive Plan, what does that tell us about demands to be included? When voter turnout is so chronically low in local elections even when people are rightly fried over excessive local property taxes, what's the message?
We're not arguing against the important role of citizen commissions. We've got no interest in a strong-mayor form of government. But somewhere between Oak Park's over-thinking, plodding ways and Mayor Daley the elder, there is a path to better governance.
For the past decade we've touted the work of the Park District of Oak Park as a board that has actively, consciously engaged with residents in making decisions. But the board has also stuck to a timetable and remade our parks. We present the parks as a governance model.
On the newly formed Oak Park village board, there is an energy that seems to sense this opportunity and we urge them on.