Usually, appointments of citizens to Oak Park’s various boards and commissions fall into the category of ho-hum, requiring only a quick, unanimous vote. However, subtle tensions surfaced at the village board table last week when the topic came up for discussion.
Trustee Ray Johnson asked if there were any applications for a vacancy on the Village Plan Commission. Stacy Sorg-chair of the Citizen Involvement Commission (CIC), which makes those suggestions-said, simply they “forwarded recommendations.”
Johnson asked if the board would see those applications, and President David Pope said no, adding that the CIC wanted to wait for more applicants and has a desire to encourage diverse representation on boards and commissions.
Trustee Greg Marsey took issue with the idea that the village president has full authority over who is appointed as chair of Oak Park’s 25 or so citizen boards and commissions, noting that it recently took months to fill a vacancy in the plan commission chair and someone who had served nine years was forced to stay on the commission an extra nine months while waiting for a new chair to be appointed.
“I don’t see that as wise, and I’m not prepared to accept another multiple months of delay because of whatever criteria you think are important that you don’t seem willing to articulate tonight,” Marsey told Pope. “If you don’t like the recommendation, then you need to inform this board as to why you don’t and let us decide if that’s valid and we should wait. It irritates me because it puts you in a position of solely influencing the recommendation that comes to this body, which I don’t find democratic,” he said.
Pope said he didn’t receive a recommendation, just an indication that the CIC had an applicant it interviewed, and it was holding the application for a period to see if any more diverse applicants came in.
Village Clerk Sandra Sokol, staff liaison to the CIC, said there’s been several issues with the CIC over the past seven years, including the lack of diversity on various commissions. Sokol said diversity is strictly a policy issue and the board needs to determine if diversity should be a priority when appointments are made. It would be helpful, she added, if some time in the future, the board could sit down to discuss the chairperson’s manual, which hasn’t been revised by a village board since 1994 although the CIC has made its own changes.
The board has tentatively scheduled to do so on Feb. 25.
Sorg said she’d like to see changes as to how commission recommendations are forwarded in the future.
“We’re all at a point where we’ve needed to revise these processes for many years,” she said Monday by phone. “I’m not saying things are totally wrong the way they are, but a lot of things aren’t set in stone and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.”
Under state statutes, the CIC forwards recommendations, particularly for the plan commission and certain others, to the village president who has some amount of discretion.
Three issues to address in next month’s meeting are: the process of how the CIC makes recommendations and how heavily diversity should factor in, the out-of-date chairperson’s manual, and whether or not the president should have discretion over commission appointments.
Sorg said her commission is “falling over backwards” to facilitate the discussion.
“It is long overdue,” Pope said. “It’s something we have raised at multiple meetings over the course of the last 18 months, and for whatever reason, this board has not made the time to sit down and deal with it.”
However, Pope said aspects of the appointment process are written into Oak Park’s codes, as well as Illinois state statutes.
“Greg, you may not like the fact that, ultimately, the responsibility of replacing appointments resides with the village president, but that’s a state statute-related item,” he said. “So it entails you to changing state statutes and the form of government that exists here in the village.”
In his entire tenure as president, Pope said, hundreds of recommendations from the CIC have come to him, which he said all went before the entire board, except for one, which he held at his discretion.
“I think citing state law as a justification for having one individual decide whether or not a recommendation makes it to this board, regardless of the number that you pass through or hold back, simply doesn’t strike me as being fair or democratic,” Marsey said. “That’s why you have seven board members.”
Marsey said he has an issue with the rules and statutes, not with Pope.
“At the end of the day, there are certain responsibilities that reside with the village president, like it or not,” Pope said. “Whether it’s me or anybody else, it doesn’t matter who it is. I am happy to have this conversation. I think it’s an important conversation for us to have.”