Ever since their drubbing at the polls in April, members of the long dominant Village Manager Association (VMA) have been trying to figure out what went wrong and how they can recover.
Last week, at its first public meeting to assess its plight, the VMA got some free, if unsolicited, advice from three members of the rival New Leadership Party. And since just 12 people showed up for the meeting at the main library, the NLP represented 25 percent of the audience.
Since April the VMA has held a series of four invitation only meetings at the law office of its president Gene Armstrong. Ten days ago, the group held a nearly four-and-one-half-hour meeting at the Oak Park Conservatory attended by approximately 30 to 40 VMA activists. The conservatory meeting, also invitation only, featured two professional facilitators who are preparing a report on the meeting for the VMA according to Bob Kane, VMA treasurer.
The public meeting included several VMA stalwarts but also New Leadership Party trustee Greg Marsey and NLP activists Barbara Mullarkey and John Troelstrup.
Kane said he was not too discouraged by the low turnout at the public meeting.
"The fact that Barbara Mullarkey, Greg Marsey, and John Troelstrup was there made it all worthwhile," said Kane.
Troelstrup, who was once active in the VMA before becoming disillusioned with the organization, praised the VMA for its institutional memory before saying that the VMA has become resistant to change and even to open discussion.
"The VMA has been instituting the strategies and policies that have dominated Oak Park for a long time," said Troelstrup. "At some point the VMA became out of communication with the community in a big way. The VMA became insular and resistant to discussion and sincere questioning. Those who did were chastised and demonized. I felt that I was being told I was unworthy."
Most within the VMA reject this analysis although concede that perhaps the VMA needs some shaking up and new blood.
"We are not arrogant, not self-important, not insular. It's a bad rap. I'm evidence of that," said TQ White II, who served as co-campaign manager for the VMA backed Oak Park First slate in the April election. White, who is not part of the VMA's old guard, has only become involved in the VMA in the last few years. White did say, though, that it is often "the same old faces" at VMA meetings.
One persistent topic of discussion within the VMA has been whether it needs to change its hands-off philosophy toward governance and taking positions of local issues. That approach has been succinctly put by Armstrong as "select, elect, and sit down and shut up."
"We have to change something in a substantial way to move forward to power," said White. "We were deeply injured by the practice of laying low between elections. It made it difficult for us to develop an adequate message."
White said the VMA must adjust to the new competitive political landscape in Oak Park.
"There needs to be a countervailing force to the NLP," said White. "It's a brave new world in Oak Park. The idea of political parties has been foisted upon Oak Park."
White, and some other VMA members, said that to get new people involved in the VMA, it must take stronger, specific, even, polarizing viewpoints and even invite people to argue with it. White said the VMA must make a concerted effort to reach out to those new to Oak Park and those who have not been involved in village politics.
"We don't have a broad enough reach," said White. "We must reach beyond the old stalwarts."
But within the VMA there is still significant resistance to becoming too political an organization. The VMA was founded after World War II to take politics out of village government. It's philosophy has always been to select good people, let them make policy and get out of the way. The VMA has traditionally avoided having a written platform, though many think it is now time to have a specific, public platform although that idea still creates unease among many within the VMA.
"There are a lot of people who are fearful of putting a lot of influence on trustees," said Kane. "I think we have to take some positions, but it won't be like we oppose all Whiteco like development. It won't be that specific."
The conversation will continue with more public meetings to come.
"It's the first one," said Kane. "It won't be the last one."