By Dan Haley
Ray Johnson, the Oak Park village trustee who offered up the compromise that allowed Anan Abu-Taleb to be sworn in free and clear as village president on Monday evening, said afterward that he had spent a long weekend trying to sort out "why this is so hard" an issue to resolve.
Since the election and as the issue of a conflict between Abu-Taleb's liquor license and his service as local liquor commissioner/village president became more intense, he said "a lot of discussion took place. A lot of people came to the table." But, he added, "everyone was focusing on politics and I was asking, 'What's the policy?'"
Johnson, God bless him, believes he found a policy-based solution that moved the village board from a likely 4-3 vote against Abu-Taleb's simple swearing in to a generous 6-1 vote in favor of a cloudless launching of a village presidency.
I'd say that, to his full credit, Johnson found a sound solution along a narrow path between politics and policy. Then, as the senior trustee, he used the respect he has rightfully gained in 10 years on the board to make his middle way an obviously satisfactory solution for all but one of his colleagues, that being Colette Lueck.
Early in the 70-minute first meeting of the evening, Johnson spoke and, at the close of his spirited defense of principle and his declaration that "I don't make calls based on popularity," he quietly offered a compromise. He'd back the liquor ordinance change proposal on the agenda, but then wanted the entire liquor ordinance sent out to the Liquor Control Review Board for review.
Because the board was in its "everyone gets a chance to speak" mode, Johnson's possible solution just sat there, overshadowed by his "I will never hold any issue hostage to progress" rhetoric.
It wasn't until after Village President David Pope gave his extraordinarily thoughtful and nuanced summary of the options and the pitfalls before the board and after a small language issue in the ordinance, raised by Trustee Glen Brewer, was resolved with a suggested change by Trustee Bob Tucker, that Johnson came back around and reiterated his offer.
The lawyers on the board — Tucker and Adam Salzman — took a few moments to poke at what Johnson had offered, making sure that what they had heard was what he was actually offering. It was. Johnson would vote to change the Oak Park liquor law outright Monday night, creating a permanent solution for Abu-Taleb, if the board agreed to then involve a citizens commission in a broad public review of the overall liquor ordinance.
Swiftly, two other votes — trustees John Hedges and Brewer — shifted into support and the dance on knife's edge turned into a convincing show of support.
Overlooked last night is that the same citizens commission completed a thorough-going overhaul of the liquor ordinance just 18 months ago. But if this show of citizen involvement and the glory of government process made a solution possible, then I'm all for it.
However the need shown by Johnson to diminish the simple political solution his compromise represented is confounding. Ray Johnson did a hero's work on Monday night. He was in the most critical and influential position at the table and, in the best sense, he found a solution that worked. That's politics. That's laudable.
It is going to take some time, though, to sort out Colette Lueck's thinking as the sole vote against solving this problem. You could say it is irrelevant, that 6-1 is plenty good. But this board is going to need Lueck's voice and perspective, and she is going to have to find her way back from the outer orbit she has placed herself in. She could start by deciding to never again lecture the village president on how he should have run his campaign, how he should have come to the village board, hat in hand, before he filed his petitions and asked them to change the liquor laws. But that is for her to sort out.
Monday night belonged, of course, to President Anan Abu-Taleb. It was delivered to him by the strong steady leadership of David Pope and the, yes, political courage of Ray Johnson.