The citizen commissions may be getting restless in Oak Park. And that might be a fine thing.

First you had the Board of Health pushing a smoking ban in restaurants last year. They didn’t get it past the previous village board but indications are they will get a strong version of a ban through the current board.

More recently the Liquor Control Review Board recommended that the village board provide a liquor license of a sort that doesn’t exist to accommodate a use that is perfect for, but currently illegal in, Oak Park. Monday night the village board acquiesced.

Last week the Plan Commission, likely still punch drunk from years of Whiteco hearings, stepped out and said it would like to find some actual facts on how development is helping or hurting the village so that it can move beyond governance by anecdote.

If the still new village board is true to its campaign rhetoric of loving up the commissions as dedicated citizen volunteers who are closest to the issues they review, then the board will be open to ideas burbling up from below. In the past, it was verboten for commissions to move beyond “their charge.”

The “new day” lore of the new board, though, says grassroots are best, bottom up is healthy and “power to the people” whenever possible. That’s easier lore to embrace before you’re elected, so we’ll see how actual power-sharing sits with the sitting board.

The specifics: After an initial post-election mini-push, the forces behind a ban on smoking in public places in town have gone quiet. They took the temperature of the new board and found significantly greater support for their ban. Something is up. Just quietly up. And the health board will be involved.

The forces active in opposing the smoking ban, largely the restaurant and business community, have been dispersed and distracted. The leader of the anti-ban focus was Downtown Oak Park. Donna Ogden Chen, the group’s executive director, has decamped for Tampa. And the principal focus of the overall organization is now on how to conduct business without parking, asking why legitimate developers are being given the same 10 minutes to make their case as amateurs off the street, and wondering whither Whiteco. And my hunch is that the wrath of the restaurateurs is about to shift from smoking to a raft of proposed new taxes and fees on eateries which are being patched into the 2006 village budget proposal.

Oak Park has been cautiously (timidly?) expanding the sale of liquor for 30 years. Until the early 1970s, remember, Oak Park was famously “dry.” When an entirely new class of liquor license has to be invented to allow a wine bar into town, maybe it is time to step back and look at the entire liquor ordinance. Wine bars are hot and hip. Hell, Brookfield has two. Now, after a special dispensation Monday night by the village board, Oak Park will have The Abbey on Lake Street near Oak Park Avenue. The liquor board ought to keep pushing for an overhaul.

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The other night, as the Plan Commission and its most regular visitor, developer John Schiess, gathered to anoint more townhomes, the commission actually got off subject and started to talk about taking a big-picture look at how economic development really works in town. Enough, said some members, with the anecdotal evidence pro and con that development is the boon or the bane of Oak Park. What, they asked, are the facts? Good question. Worth studying.

Played right, the commission system in Oak Park could once more become a genuine proving ground for ideas?#34;and for talent?#34;in town. The village board needs to send welcoming signals to the new initiatives we’re seeing.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...