By Anna Lothson
A vocal group of citizens, who were likely all Oak Park residents, turned out Wednesday evening at the library for the first community forum hosted by Village President Anan Abu-Taleb and Trustee Bob Tucker.
It was evident, based on a quick survey at the start of the meeting, that the group was an actively engaged one. Almost everyone had attended a village board meeting or spoken during the public comment portion. The rest had at least watched a meeting on locally televised Channel 6.
The lighthearted forum started with an important fact, a joke from the witty trustee, who revealed the answer to a less serious debate: "I'm boxers; Anan is boxers," Tucker said, to a drift of laughter throughout the crowd. This set the tone for the meeting.
Tucker and Abu-Taleb explained they wanted the forum to be a casual conversation where people felt welcome to share concerns. Abu-Taleb said numerous times throughout the meeting that the more vocal residents are, the more board members understand what policies they should focus on. He and Tucker presented a united front, remaining positive and taking a backseat, talking only when necessary.
Before diving into the real issues of the evening, Tucker acknowledged an oversight in not extending an invitation to the full village board to take part in the forum before it was announced. More board members are expected at the next forum, which is scheduled for Oct. 8 at the Maze branch of the Oak Park Public Library.
One hot-button issue of the evening was the Lake and Forest development — a long-delayed, 20-story high-rise proposal that has been at the center of many heated debates at the village board level. Residents asked questions about when the board is going to stop granting delays to the developer, one asking when the village will "hold [the developer's] feet to the fire," listen to what people want, and possibly scrap the whole project.
Abu-Taleb and Tucker pointed to the fact that while the project did hit glitches, there has been a serious commitment recently to move the development forward. The next deadline is approaching and should be on the board's docket next month.
"That area needs to be developed. We're happy to have a developer that is willing to invest the money and bring some jobs for residents to our community. We need that," Abu-Taleb said.
The village president reminded the group he is just one of seven votes on the board and said it's up to residents to be vocal and hold board members accountable. He also said people must remember that the board makes the decisions for the community as a whole. Roughly two-thirds of the crowd had questions about Lake and Forest.
"We need to galvanize the community behind decisions we need to make," Abu-Taleb said.
The village president kept up a theme of civic engagement throughout the evening but also reminded Oak Parkers that moving forward as a community can't be done alone. He pointed specifically to negativity about development proposals.
"I urge you to change your mind about how you view developers and developments. Because developers will come in here and invest in our communities, we need them. We need them because they create jobs. We need them because they create vitality. … We need them to help us at least maintain the taxes at the same level they are," Abu-Taleb said. "At the end of the day … I want our community open-minded and welcoming to developments that make sense for our community."
That comment brought applause, which he followed by saying: "As you know, it takes all of us together to make this work. It's not just the board and it's not the staff. We need the community to be engaged and welcoming to the businesses and developers that come in here."
Abu-Taleb and Tucker assured residents that wheels are turning on projects and said village leaders understand that now is the time to make things happen in terms of development and creating a "pro-active" approach to attracting developers and businesses to town.
Lake and Forest, commercial vacancies, economic development on Madison Street and North Avenue, the future of village-owned properties, and concerns about the possible joint administration building involving District 97 and the village, made up the bulk of talking points during the evening. A few odds and ends like red-light tickets, concealed-carry regulations, a living wage discussion, forestry department policies, and parking concerns were also brought up by the lively crowd of about 85 people.
It was clear from the discussion that Wednesday's town hall meeting was about engagement, opening up lines of communication and making people believe Oak Park leaders want to hear from the community. Tucker reminded the crowd that the conversations were just the start of ongoing talks. Abu-Taleb shared this sentiment.
"At the end of the day, each trustee is interested in making the best possible decisions for the community," he said.
The village president had a few brief statements throughout the evening that were popular with the crowd, including this comment: "If you can't think outside the box, make the box bigger."
The audience agreed. Abu-Taleb and Tucker emphasized that the village is ready to think differently and move Oak Park forward — themes from Abu-Taleb's campaign.