By Anna Lothson
Watching Trustee Peter Barber conduct business with his colleagues on the village board, you wouldn't necessarily assume he's new to the group. His eight years on the District 97 school board, most recently as president, gives the governance aficionado an edge when it comes to tackling issues.
Barber jokes that his fellow trustees might get sick of how often he refers to his D97 experience, but when it comes to being more efficient, overcoming unnecessary tedious processes and gearing up for more collaboration, he is on board and ready to adapt.
"It's absolutely a different environment," he said. "I think I'll be able to make contributions more quickly than I could have when I started at the school board. … I know the right questions and I know how to be a board member, but I also want to make sure I'm doing that in a quick context."
Barber learned during his time at D97 that he has a knack for connecting with people and pushing consensus on measures he supports. With the village board, he wants the group to "stick to its guns" and stay focused on its goals.
"One of the things I know I got frustrated [with] is that is does seem to take a long time. … Sometimes we do use process as a crutch. I don't think you have to do that all the time."
Barber would also like to see more outreach to nearby communities when it comes to solving larger issues. When it comes to addressing economic development along North Avenue, he suggested, why not see how the other corridor towns address the matter.
"We're not the only medium-sized town along North Avenue," he emphasized. "There are lots of others that seem to be doing things better, some that seem to be doing things worse, and we're not the only town with this type of highway as a border. … Does everyone have the same problem?"
When it comes to governance, Barber doesn't want to reinvent the wheel. Collaboration with other governing bodies, in and outside of town, is critical to moving forward in an efficient manner, said the new trustee. He, like new Village President Anan Abu-Taleb, wants to address processes that frustrate residents and business owners — everything from parking to business permits — that should be easier and have more customer-friendly solutions.
Oak Park's reputation of taking too long to get business done has created tension in the community, and Barber has seen and heard of this firsthand. He wants to find more expeditious ways to implement Oak Park's processes and re-evaluate what's not working.
"Having a process is smart. It allows people to be treated consistently and fairly," Barber said. "It can become a crutch when you really know what you need to do, when it's a pretty obvious solution, but you decide to go through the process anyway just to make sure. I think that's where a lot of people get frustrated."
Collaboration among governing bodies is one way he believes Oak Park can address inefficiencies and residents' questions and concerns. When a resident has a specific problem, for instance, there should be a quicker way to connect the person with the department that addresses the matter so residents aren't wrung through the village cogs seeking answers. Communication among taxing bodies is the first step, he said.
"One of the few ways we can limit the tax burden, and maybe in the future lower it, is by having some of the taxing bodies work much closer together than we are now," Barber said. Collaboration happens, but not often enough, he added. "We need to get to the point where there are even more shared services. … Those are the discussions we need to have"
Barber believes recent goal-setting discussions among the board have set a real and positive trajectory forward, but he wants the group to maintain that focus and avoid tedious distractions. Moving forward, he has a few major goals to address during the next four years. His mantra remains the same: collaboration, economic development and getting people to feel "proud of Oak Park and to talk about it that way."
"Taking collaboration to a new level between governments and actually reducing the expense of government," Barber said, "that would be one thing.
But bigger than those first two goals is getting people to love the community again. To change this mindset, he said, it's going to be important for the village to make changes but also convince them that the money they spend to live here is worth it.
"Everyone outside of Oak Park immediately says wonderful things about it. Most people within Oak Park immediately have criticisms about it," Barber said. "There is that sense that it's never good enough. … In four years, I hope people feel a little better about Oak Park."