Making the case for nimble

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

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.

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John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 7th, 2013 10:07 AM

Bridgett - Merriam Webster's definition of "recuse" is: to remove (oneself) from participation to avoid a conflict of interest. It is a personal decision. The village attorney can only recommend. The decision was Anan's. Perhaps he felt he had a conflict, but I suspect not. Recuse should be used sparingly and with certitude as it established a precedent for the person.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: June 6th, 2013 5:43 PM

"Reclusing Anan for his business location is very, very over-the-top in terms of conflict of interests." Ya think? How can the Village board be "nimble" when the Village attorney is, at best, inconsistant with her counsel, and at worst, wrong with her counsel? There are three other attorneys sitting there. Could one have at least *questioned* the validity of her counsel? Heck, it didn't even have to be a lawyer. Common sense would have at least *asked* for her rationale.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 5th, 2013 3:08 PM

OPRF has completed its Strategic Master Plan and will present it this month. The WJ article stated "The strategic planning process began in fall 2012 after a bumpy start." It was competed in less than a year and will go to the board for approval this month. OPRF hired an educational consultant (one) to lead the development of the Strategic Plan. OPRF board member had minimal hands-on involvement. On the other hand, the OPV board approved an eighteen-month project to revise the 1990 Comprehensive Plan at its June, 2012 meeting. Housel Lavigne Assoc. was hired to lead the plan development. A HUD grant financed the project. The board formed a sixteen-person steering committee composed of village officials (elected and appointed), staff, and one business representative and one citizen. The project schedule calls for the Plan to be finished some time in 2014. The new board is demanding speed. The best way to generate speed is to simplify processes. It is no wonder that the "new board" is challenging the slow pace of OPV government.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 5th, 2013 12:53 PM

Bridgett - Interesting thought. There are lots of conflict of interest that could be noted. For instance; board members meeting with developers, potential retail renters, etc. No meeting notes, no minutes, no discussion with "outer circle", etc. We are a community that depends on trust and honesty. Reclusing Anan for his business location is very, very over-the-top in terms of conflict of interests.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: June 5th, 2013 11:51 AM

And to make sure there is no conflict of interest, or even the appearance of one, then the $300K the board approved for microfsurfacing and crackfilling various streets, and the $800K for improvements of 14 alleys, and the $120K for pavement patching should be reexamined, because any trustee who benefits from such expeditures, should recuse themselves from voting on such approvals, right? :)

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 5th, 2013 11:12 AM

Quote from Dan Haley's article "Trustees Colette Lueck, Ray Johnson and Glenn Brewer were urging patience, review, historical perspective." The voters are sick of patience, reviews, and historical perspective being used as a way to bury issues. Trustee Lueck's statement that we must consider all affected parities when making a decision is valid. The issue is who is we? Who are the affected parties? How do we hear the affected parties' voice? Before creating staff and plan commission reviews, there has to be conversations that include the affected parities.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: June 5th, 2013 11:11 AM

In addition, Simone's counsel was inconsistent. Why did she advise Anan to recuse himself for that vote involving two of the transit-related retail overlay districts, but not for the agenda item (XV) regarding the ZBA and all transit-related retail overlay districts? Or May 20th's meeting's agenda iitem (XIV) involving the same thing? Hopefully her advisement to recuse will be reviewed, and future issues will be handled properly.

Galen Gockel from Oak Park  

Posted: June 5th, 2013 9:17 AM

The board majority was deprived of an opportunity to refer a matter to the plan commission when the acting village atty advised Abu Taleb to recuse himself, which he did. (The result was a 3-3 tie, so the motion failed.) It is not clear to me that he must have recused himself; the issue did not materially affect his restaurant. Example: should a member of Congress recuse him/herself from a vote on Medicare because s/he might benefit from it? Our village prez and the 58% will prevail.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: June 5th, 2013 1:10 AM

How about Peter Barber's role? It all started when he noted his confusion on why a transit overlay wouldn't include businesses on South Blvd (since they face transit), which led him to ask how the overlays were decided in the first place. Colette Lueck noted (she was on the planning commission at the time) that a lot of thought and input went in to such decisions. And then later, Peter acknowledged that history, while suggesting it may be time to revisit it, since it had been several years.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 4th, 2013 5:24 PM

Kudos to Anan, Adam Salzman, Bob Tucker, Peter Barber, Sara Faust, and Cathy Yen. Clearly they understand the meaning of the words of PRESIDENT BARAK OBAMA "Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." Kudos also to the WJ EDITORIAL TEAM WJ which wrote last week about the "new board", "On the newly formed Oak Park village board, there is an energy that seems to sense this opportunity and we urge them on. Is there a risk in referring the issue to the Planning Commission? Is there risk in not referring the issue to the Planning Commission? There is a risk in both, but there was an important message to the board from the voters that can't be forgotten. They told the board to stop dithering and get to making decisions. The board is off to a great start by challenging the OP rules of history by delivering of the voter's message. Use more common sense and less reviews, studies, special meetings, forums, etc to solve problems.

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