By Dan Haley
Editor's note: This is part of publisher Dan Haley's opinion column. This is not an item from our editorial news coverage.
Simply looking at the agenda for Monday night's Oak Park village board meeting you'd have seen some seriously in-the-weeds discussion planned about zoning and variances — the sort of story that might make page 17 of the news section.
But based on the sidebar conversations that have been taking place over the past 10 days between some elected officials — President Anan Abu-Taleb, trustees Adam Salzman, Peter Barber — and local business people, it was not a total shock that the "first reading" of agenda item XIV turned gradually, and then hotly, into the first flashpoint of this new village board.
The contested April election was about something. It was about changing the metabolism of village government when it comes to taking up issues and making decisions. A lot of the "we've got to get nimble" discussion during the campaign came down to how Oak Park deals with local business and development opportunities. And while Abu-Taleb won the election night argument with a convincing 58-42 percent drubbing of the status quo, he didn't change over the entire village board.
Representatives of the status quo were sitting on the dais Monday evening and they were the opposite of nimble. Trustees Colette Lueck, Ray Johnson and Glenn Brewer were urging patience, review, historical perspective. Abu-Taleb was leading his first charge for change, and he had his board supporters, too, in the impatient Salzman, Barber and Bob Tucker.
Oddly the two aspects of the zoning issue that were planned for a vote were not the cause of the division. Everyone agreed that putting a Tae Kwon Do school in the middle of the Hemingway District retail core on Oak Park Avenue was a bad idea and the board was supportive of the work of staff and the Plan Commission in substantially closing loopholes which allowed that use and might allow other non-retail ventures.
And everyone agreed the basis for getting a variance such as the one that allowed a dentist to open on Lake Street in the Hemingway District ought to be better spelled out and tougher to accomplish. Finally the entire board agreed that, ultimately, they should make final judgments on any variances.
So at the end of the meeting — and it did end by the board's new 10:30 curfew — the items on the agenda had been settled peaceably and pretty much unanimously. (Full disclosure: I was at the meeting to offer a public comment on behalf of the Hemingway District of which I am a vice-president. I did not expect news to break out.)
But on the free-wheeling path to get to those decisions, it was clear that Abu-Taleb and his let's-get-a-move-on colleagues wanted to open a broader discussion about just how many Transit Overlay districts ought to exist in town and how big they ought to be. They were supportive of ending the Hemingway District restrictions south of South Boulevard and of ditching the retail-only designation for the Southtown district at Oak Park Avenue and the Ike.
Intense debate and some deft politicking followed. Lueck offered historical perspective and wanted more of that served up to the whole board by village staff in the form of an Overlay Retrospective. The history lesson deeply offended a seriously annoyed Salzman who said that history is well and good, but the current situation on the ground is what is most important. He pushed hard to have the board direct the Plan Commission to take a new look at the two overlays listed above and got the matter to a vote. With the village attorney advising Abu-Taleb not to vote on a matter involving the block where his Maya del Sol is located, the vote ended in a tie — meaning no referral to the Plan Commission.
But Abu-Taleb, who is still butchering his way through Robert's Rules of Order, proved a savvy vote counter when he asked the attorney if the board could vote on simply referring the Southtown area to the Plan Commission. They could, they did, and with the president re-enfranchised, the issue was nimbly decided by a 4-3 vote.
Passions were high. Johnson and Lueck were in constant eye contact. Tucker made conciliatory suggestions but voted for speed. Salzman was profoundly frustrated. Abu-Taleb oversaw a rambling but fascinating discussion on the role of government and the pace of governance. He came out with a first victory on what is going to inevitably be a divided board on this key issue. Divided but interesting.