By Anna Lothson
Executive sessions in Oak Park are typically labeled on public agendas in general, vague terms. The merits of the meeting are not immediately known, and, per Illinois Open Meetings Act, village officials don't have to divulge what happened behind closed doors.
That changed on Monday.
Village President Anan Abu-Taleb didn't spill specifics, but his statement about negotiations held during an executive session Monday evening with leaders from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 — which represents most village employees — didn't settle well with some of his colleagues.
The employees in this union, which includes non-management staff at Village Hall, have been working without a contract since it expired at the end of 2010. The union held a two-day strike in early July 2012 after negotiations hit a snag. Workers went back but negotiations continued.
Tim McDonald, vice president of the union, has spoken publicly at meetings since then about the village's failure to reach compromise with its employees over two major talking points: overtime pay and merit-based pay increases.
McDonald was at Monday's village board meeting following the collective bargaining executive session. He did not speak during public comment. Abu-Taleb, however, took a few moments during his comments to address the matter.
"It is public knowledge that we as a board have been meeting in the executive session about collective bargaining," he said. "We as a board are committed to a positive environment. We are committed to our staff and we want to have the best possible relationship."
Trustees didn't have the chance to pipe in during Abu-Taleb's comments, but three trustees said they were puzzled about the village president's comments. They also were miffed he was speaking for the board as a whole since that's not a standard procedure in Oak Park.
Abu-Taleb finished his comments Monday by speaking in general terms, but still outlined goals for the village and union as it moves through negotiations.
"We are serious about trying to resolve this issue and I hope that the union is also thinking in the same terms because nothing would make us happier than getting it done," Abu-Taleb said. "I hope that the same positive attitude that we have on the board is going to be reflected in the union."
Trustees Ray Johnson and Glenn Brewer approached the media after the meeting to share their frustration about the president's comments.
"Very unusual. Unusual and inappropriate," Johnson said of the comments. Brewer agreed.
Johnson, who has been a trustee for more than a decade, said Abu-Taleb went "too far" with his comments and overstated what's happening in the process.
"There is nothing to say at this moment except that we want to be fair to employees and we want to be fair for tax payers," Johnson said. "We will move forward in a collective manner and we were not there yet."
Johnson is concerned Abu-Taleb's comments suggested that the board and the village were being represented as one voice. He approached Abu-Taleb after the meeting to relay his concerns; Brewer said he planned to as well.
"And speaking on behalf of the village board?" Johnson added, "That's not the time or place. There are lots of different perspectives in play at the moment."
Brewer was most troubled about the fact that Abu-Taleb spoke about what specific topic was being discussed in executive session. That's not a standard practice in Oak Park, and said the president should have recognized that, especially when it comes to union negotiations.
"We usually do that in closed session for a very good reason; that reason being because they are negotiations. We don't negotiate in public," Brewer said. "To the extent that the president said what he said, yes, it is our belief that we should, in fact, be fair to the employees but I think it was a bit of an overstatement to say we are in complete agreement about all aspects of what was said."
Resolving matters timely
Abu-Taleb's comments during Monday's meeting were an extension of his common frustration with how long it takes the village to get matters resolved. Abu-Taleb said he's tired of the lagging negotiations that waste time and money.
Speaking to Wednesday Journal on Tuesday, the village president stood by his remarks. "It is public knowledge that we have been meeting about collective bargaining," Abu-Taleb said. "So I didn't say anything that would jeopardize the negotiations. If anything I was urging both sides to come together to make this happen. The whole board is interested in making a positive working staff. You tell me: what is wrong with that?"
Abu-Taleb said both the union and board are interested in resolving the contract issue that's in its third year of negotiations. He believes his comments were encouraging and hopes they will speed up the process.
"I also urged the union to have a positive outlook. If anything I'm trying to send a message to the union that we as a board are interested in resolving the issue. It is not good for our staff. It is not good for our board…We cannot have a positive work experience if we keep dragging this out," Abu-Taleb said firmly.
The president also insisted there are more pressing matters that he wants to allow the board to focus on. He stressed that he'll continue to do and say what he feels is best for the community as a whole.
"I was not elected by the community to just put my head down and keep the way things are and not make changes," Abu-Taleb said. "I don't want to continue to live in the past."
Abu-Taleb recognized that he and trustees won't always share the same perspective, but assured he's committed to keeping positive dialogue going.
Two other trustees weighed in Tuesday with the Journal and both shared different perspectives.
Trustee Adam Salzman, one of three lawyers on the board, said he didn't feel Abu-Taleb's comments harmed the village's position in negotiating, but also suggested the president's comments didn't paint the complete picture.
"It's important for the public to understand that it's not an indication of where the negotiations are going," Salzman said.
Because Abu-Taleb's comments didn't provide specifics, he said he understood why the president shared his thoughts.
"I think that his comments were reflective that we have been mired in this process from upwards of three years. What I think Anan was doing was voicing his frustrations about it," Salzman said. "Historically, this is not something we've permitted ourselves to do. I can see where Ray and Glenn are coming from. That's one piece of it. The other piece of it is that all of us have been elected to represent the best policies in the village And from Anan's perspective, that's what I think he was doing."
Still, Salzman suggested it would have been a better practice to address a procedure in advance when it comes to situations like commenting on executive session matters in public meetings. Overall, he felt Abu-Taleb's comments were "perfectly legal," and said the village's position "remains secure."
Trustee Colette Lueck was among the board members shocked about Abu-Taleb's decision to speak publicly about this matter without giving trustees a heads up. She felt protocol was broken and felt making comments about private matters negates the purpose for holding the executive session.
"It wasn't the norm at all," Lueck said. "I was extremely surprised that protocol wasn't followed…And usually people speak for themselves. Again, it's sort of a common practice."
Lueck agrees that when it comes to how a process works in the village, that the public has a right to know. But revealing any specifics about where the village is at in union negotiations—and the sense of where the process is— in inappropriate, Lueck said. The full board, she added, is also not fully involved in the negotiating process.
"Particularly, when we are in negotiations our policy has been that negotiations are between the negotiating team. The contract is between the board and the union," Lueck said. "It's not our place to say everyone is on board. …The board is not represented in the process."