By Anna Lothson
Oak Park's village board presented a united front during a special Saturday morning meeting as leaders outlined key goals for the group, some of them being identical to those of President Anan Abu-Taleb's spring campaign points.
With the campaign months behind and Oak Park entering the early stages of its 2014 budget-planning process, Abu-Taleb and his colleagues dove into topics the group plans to address within the next two years. This included tasks like enhancing customer service at village hall, boosting employee morale and citizen satisfaction, addressing economic development in each of its business districts, staying on top of the Eisenhower Expressway expansion discussions and improving intergovernmental cooperation.
Although these topics are far from new for this board, the elected officials vowed now is the time to tackle the tough topics if Oak Park wants to remain an attractive and feasible place to live.
Abu-Taleb opened the meeting by highlighting its purpose, which he explained was to "define the strategic direction" of the board in order to create a solid foundation moving forward.
"The goals we develop today will set the tone for the type of leadership we want to bring to Oak Park. We cannot forget that the voters chose us to make Oak Park a better place," Abu-Taleb said. "They chose us to get things done, not to put up self-imposed roadblocks. The goals and protocols we establish today must reflect this. And, protocols designed to slow progress and hinder change must be removed."
Abu-Taleb kept up his theme of looking beyond the status-quo and making quicker, more strategic choices for the betterment of the community. Board members agreed, and focused much of the discussion on promoting business vitality, engaging business owners and residents and promoting Oak Park outside the area.
"We need to do a lot more direct outreach," Trustee Ray Johnson stressed during the early part of the five-hour goal setting and protocols meeting. Johnson said business owners don't always report issues on their own because they don't feel the village will help resolve the problems. Interacting with business owners used to be the norm, the senior trustee said, but he hopes a culture shift in the village will bring that model back.
Going to block parties, having trustee office hours, message boards on the village's website, hosting more community forums and being more receptive to resident's questions and concerns were all talking points of the June 8 meeting.
Technology upgrades were another key component, specifically stressed by Trustee Bob Tucker, who said the village needs to get aligned with the 20th century. He emphasized he didn't slip up, and the 20th century was in fact an accurate depiction of Oak Park's technology.
Change means making it easier for people to find village services online and submit payments, forms and other tasks on the village's website without having to come to village hall.
The website is currently undergoing a massive overhaul, but trustees stressed the need to keep the user in mind first when completing the project. This, they hope, will bring about more community building and civic engagement.
What are their goals?
Previously this year the board defined 12 goals for the group; most have always been objectives, but the board agreed it's time to be prudent and devise concrete plans to turn discussion items into action. Among the goals are: Retail strategy and commercial district vitality; fiscal responsibility; sustainability; user-friendly village hall; intergovernmental cooperation; public safety; housing and diversity; infrastructure and public works; tourism and the arts; community building and civic engagement; governmental transparency and communications and the legislature.
While the above goals are broad and could branch in multiple direction, trustees were able to break those items into more specific plans that directly address issues, many of which the group said were overlooked in the past.
Among the dozen categories, it was determined the village needs to find direction for completing key downtown parcels (Colt site), adopting a design and financing a plan for Madison Street, and decreasing retail vacancies and increasing retail/commercial and retail mix. The board also asked for more regular progress reports back from staff and Oak Park Development Corporation for each business district.
"I think we have struggled to find accountability to find the players involved in economic development," Trustee Adam Salzman said. "It's OPDC, the village, residents and businesses in that huge soup. Ultimately, the village is accountable. We don't make progress without identifying who is the infantry and who is the general."
Overall, economic development and the communication gaps between leaders among the various departments and relevant organizations in town was a recurring discussion Saturday, and trustees said it's time for accountability and regular reports so progress can be better tracked.
Fiscally speaking, the village wants a more structured capital improvement plan, wants to adopt a pension scenario evaluation plan, and implement a five-year budgeting approach.
The concept of a user-friendly village hall took up a good chunk of discussion, with the board agreeing the culture needs to change. Trustee Colette Lueck talked about how she's always treated great at village hall, but suspects that's because everyone knows she's a trustee.
"It's not a good happy feeling when you go in," Lueck said. Trustees said change starts with improving customer service, and addressing technology from a user perspective and operational perspective.
Intergovernmental cooperation was another theme of the day, and the group suggested it's time to find a way to work together better, especially so lawsuits (Downtown TIF district settlement) don't happen again. Finding ways to share services, address community needs jointly, and pursuing a joint agreement on how to resolve disputes were items addressed in this category.
Tackling these complex and multi-layered topics must be done in a strategic manner, which trustees said begins with the annual budget process. Johnson reminded the board it's important to have specific items budgeted; otherwise it's easy to overlook goals from year to year.
Lueck said it's important for village leaders to make promises they can deliver when it comes to these outlined areas. It's important for goals to be written down, but said she was "cautious" when it came to giving guarantees.
Salzman, however, reminded his colleague that "no goal is a guarantee," but suggested backing off aspirations gives the village a life raft to not follow through with its goals.
The board ended its discussion of board objectives by comparing them with the village manager's 12-month performance goals that were reported in March. Although many of the objectives align, trustees stressed it's important to keep the board and staff on the same page.
Listed among the 10 goals for the next year from the village manager's office are: Improving the village's commitment to economic development; developing a transparent and efficient annual budget process, improving the use of technology to enhance village services, establishing Oak Park as a regional leader in the delivery of public services to its customers, continue a performance management program, find ways to positively improve community life and engagement in Oak Park, improve efficiency of public services, and improve employee relations and human resources.