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By Dan Haley
John Hedges acknowledged Monday what has been quietly discussed for months: He will seek the nomination of the Village Manager Association for Oak Park village president in the April election.
He demurred from acknowledging that he is, by some talk, the pre-chosen candidate of the VMA, even as that politically powerful group begins its fall selection process for three open trustee seats and the village president's seat.
This all raises the question of what happens to current President David Pope, who has twice won election to the top spot, first as an independent in a three-way race and four years ago as the VMA candidate.
Tuesday morning, Pope said he is still considering his options and, with his wife, Beth, expects to finalize a decision within two weeks. "It is less an issue about if I want to run or would continue to do a good job and more about whether it works for us as a family situation," he said.
Pope said Tuesday that if he chooses to run for an unprecedented third term, he would "certainly appear before the VMA" as part of an effort to "reach out broadly to all constituencies."
But within some quarters of the VMA, the tide has turned away from Pope. Here are three reasons:
- Oak Park has never had a three-term village president and there is an underlying and increasingly vocalized worry over encouraging a Chicago-style mayor-for-life political culture.
- At least several of Pope's fellow trustees and those close to them are frustrated that Pope has not involved the full board in decision-making. Pope, insiders say, seldom consults with trustees on issues or agenda-setting. His self-imposed isolation is increasingly evident in split board votes.
- There is concern that Pope has become too enmeshed in day-to-day staff operations at village hall. Especially with a new village manager about to be hired, political insiders want to ensure that the line between a policy-setting village board and the operational role of staff is reset.
Pope presumably would offer rejoinders to these objections, though he wasn't ready to engage in that debate Tuesday, beyond saying that if he ran and won a third term "it would be very clear that this would be the last time I'd run."
Equally important, VMA leaders are enthusiastic about the prospects of a John Hedges presidency. The 68-year-old Hedges has a sterling resume: six productive years on the village board, 20 years as executive director of the Park District of Oak Park, a stint as acting village manager. He is steeped in Oak Park history and connections and is seen as thoughtful, inclusive and fiscally conservative.
While praising Pope, Hedges said that he would "be a different president than David. I am more interested in board perspectives, having us move together. This is not meant as criticism of David, but I would be much more open in relationships."
Hedges noted his long park district experience as the top staffer working for an elected board. "I have a perspective on how it should work. The manager and staff do what is expected of them. The board works as policy makers. But sometimes we have gotten too deep in the weeds," he said, acknowledging concerns that Pope has become too involved at the staff level.
Hedges emphasized the need for village government to operate within its economic limits and to continue to actively find efficiencies in delivering services. Reminded that he had once told this reporter that village hall had laid off 70 staffers "and I can't tell the difference," Hedges said, "We need to find out what it really costs to run the village." He pointed to expansion of pay-for-performance as a necessary step in improving efficiency and containing costs.
Asked for his reaction on a bullet point list of issues, Hedges said he "could not support the whole ($17 million) plan" for the remaking of Madison Street though he thought the village "could make a difference in smaller ways." On Madison Street, he said, the village is "not attacking the root problem, which is that a lot of the buildings on the street are economically obsolete."
Hedges said the coming expansion of lanes on the Eisenhower was his "Number 1 concern." He is confident that the highway will remain within the existing ditch but said the current proposals for high-flung on and off ramps leave him "very concerned."
On the issue of crime being at a historic low as measured over four decades while wariness of crime seems to remain high, Hedges said, the worry is "always there. There is such a primary need for safety. So people put pressure on us and that's fine. We are an active community and that response is fine. We can always find new ways to be more responsive."
It will be interesting to see what happens if Hedges and Pope both seek the VMA's nomination. Being forced into such a choice will renew scrutiny of just how inclusive the VMA membership and selection process actually is. How many people will be in the room during candidate interviews? How do the internal politics of the organization work in support of Hedges over Pope?
Over 60 years, the VMA has been extraordinarily successful in pushing its good-government mission and in electing nearly everyone it slates for office. But it is not invincible and there is a path to election for independents, as has been sporadically evidenced.
Whether a battle for president takes place within the fall's VMA selection process or in an actual campaign come spring, it will be incumbent upon the VMA to define and explain itself to voters.