Oak Park does not suffer from political corruption or special interests controlling campaigns, but it does have a problem with holding competitive elections, according to David Melton, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Establishing a small donor matching system for local elections would give more residents an opportunity to run for office, Melton told a group of about 30 residents on Wednesday night at a public forum held by Anan Abu-Taleb, Oak Park's village president.
Melton said his non-profit group is targeting Oak Park and Evanston as potential communities to adopt the program, which would match candidates on campaign contributions up to a certain level in an effort to give them a competitive advantage against more well-funded candidates.
Candidates would not be required to participate in the program and could take money from special interests and outside donors, Melton said.
In comments leading up to the forum, Abu-Taleb suggested the proposal is primarily a challenge to the Village Manager Association (VMA), which recruits and endorses candidates for village government offices. VMA-backed candidates have frequently but not always gone unchallenged. Abu-Taleb beat VMA candidate John Hedges in last year's village president election after donating $23,000 of his own money to his campaign.
VMA president Lynn Kamenitsa could not immediately be reached for comment.
Melton said his group chose Oak Park as a potentially ripe community for the proposal "because we felt this is a community that is open to the possibility of reform and has a pretty well-informed citizenry and a good history of trying these kinds of things."
The system would require candidates to raise a certain level of money or collect a certain number of voter signatures in order to be eligible for the matching money. Melton said the matching funds could be around $60,000 or whatever level the village board determined.
He noted that municipalities in as many as 25 states are implementing such a public finance system.
Roughly 70 to 80 percent of candidates running for city council or mayor in New York City participate in the voluntary system. Melton said it gives candidates a chance to run without relying on "being independently wealthy or having to raise special interest money and thereby selling their souls to special interests."
"You typically only match funds from qualified donors within the jurisdiction, so you don't have outside money getting matched and you don't have corporate interests getting matched," Melton said.
Resident Frank Vozak, who campaigned for the VMA in the most recent election, said the slate of candidates proposed each election cycle by the organization "crowds out people from running."
"It's embarrassing that one of the most educated communities in the United States sometimes can't run but one group of candidates," he said. "I used to be a member of the VMA. I remember campaigning really hard for the VMA. It's really hard campaigning when you're campaigning against a blank slate. It's the VMA against nobody. There's something radically wrong with that."
Abu-Taleb said he is still gauging the public's interest in the idea of implementing such a system, but noted that the concept is about creating more choice.
"Our choice right now is to be slated or raise the money like I did," he said.
As a restaurant owner in Oak Park, Abu-Taleb said it's like having one place to go eat in town.
"Imagine if I owned the only restaurant in Oak Park – I can guarantee you the prices would be a lot higher," he said.
Adam Salzman, a village trustee who was endorsed by the VMA when he ran for office three years ago, joined Abu-Taleb and Melton at the forum which was held at the main library on Lake Street and attracted some 30-40 people. Salzman said Oak Park adopted a radical change in government in 1952 in choosing the village manager form of government. He said it might be time for another "transitional period."
"I think that's partly because of the demand, really, I think, from the younger families that are moving to town to have a government that's more accessible and more equitable, so I think this is a fantastic thing to discuss," he said.
He said the financing program could be put into place within a few months if approved by the village board, but added, "I think it's important to make sure there's significant public support for it in the community before we try to get the ordinance passed and ram it down people's throats."