Why the VMA mattered

Opinion: Columns

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By Colette Lueck

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The recent press release issued by the Village Manager Association (VMA) lists some of the many significant accomplishments of VMA-endorsed village trustees. I would add another accomplishment: the VMA's selection process.

For me personally, and I suspect for others, the process of appearing before the VMA selection committee was designed to elicit introspection. One had to be prepared to answer questions like:

Why are you running? (Hint: Can you keep your ego in check and really focus on what is best for Oak Park?)

How do you understand the role of trustee? Meaning, do you really understand and agree with the collaborative Village Manager form of government? Or, would you be inclined to micro-manage and second-guess staff who generally are more knowledgeable about the complexities of village finance, infrastructure, public works, police and fire, and the inner workings of village government. (Your answer indicates if you will treat staff with respect and still hold them accountable when there are hard questions to be asked.)

Can you balance competing concerns, conflicting desires and keep the needs of the entire village as the central underpinning of every decision? It is hard to fathom the amount of information given to a trustee each week, the short timeline to analyze that data, and come to a recommendation. If you come to the selection process with a pre-determined position on any issue affecting the village, that will indicate to the committee that you would value your pre-conceived opinion more than an open and transparent deliberation at the board table. (If a potential candidate indicates how they would vote before the processes that assure public input occur, then what is point of any public process? It is only with a 360-degree review of every issue, guided by listening — especially to those who disagree with you most — that the best solutions can be found. Decisions made at the board table, and not before, are informed by the wisdom of staff, residents and other trustees.)

How do you respond to criticism? Can you look in the faces of even your best friends or longtime neighbors and say, "I respectfully disagree" — perhaps even when they are sitting on the selection committee? Do you sincerely believe that teams are stronger than individuals and that others have much to teach you? Or, will your service as a trustee be ego-driven? If the latter is true, the VMA selection committee can quickly anticipate that your term would be marked by dissension and dysfunction.

Those questions cannot be answered convincingly by a tweet or Facebook post.

The VMA understood that they were looking for candidates with specific qualities that would enable them to do a good job — not stances on issues, opinions or pre-determined ideas about how things should be. Sadly, in our national, state and even local political landscape, there are numerous examples of candidates who believe they have all the answers, can solve everything by themselves, and have nothing to learn. Some of those candidates have won, and I view with dismay what happens when they are confronted by the realities of a job they are ill-prepared to undertake.

The VMA was extremely helpful to me as I contemplated running for village trustee. They provided a sounding board for ideas during the campaign and remained helpful providers of advice and sound counsel thereafter. I could not have become a trustee or served nine years without them.

Without the VMA selection committee's extensive interview process, it will now rest on all of us to get to know the candidates who run in the next election, listen to what they have to say, assess how well they listen, decide if they reflect the values that have made Oak Park great, and only then — vote. 

We have our work cut out for us.

Colette Lueck is a former Oak Park village trustee.

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