When Tom Barwin, the now departed Oak Park village manager, told us during a wide-ranging interview Friday that he was half technician and half facilitator/collaborator, it rang true for us. And it reminded us of why we believe Barwin has been among the best village managers Oak Park has had in decades. (Though we would admit Oak Park has also had a couple of pretty awful managers to compare Barwin to. See Swenson, Carl and Parker, Allen.)
Managing through extraordinarily tough times — he arrived in a village that had already blown through its reserves and was quickly facing this suffocating recession — Barwin sliced village hall staffing by 20 percent. He managed to improve village services across a range of areas, oversaw a continued decline in crime, began a very modest rebuilding of financial reserves and eased tensions on both the village board (remember, he was hired by a bitterly divided board) and within a very tense village hall.
Barwin also intuitively grasped that Oak Park is a town “that needs to be about something,” and so, with the support of elected officials, he made environmental sustainability Oak Park’s cause for this new century. While the past years could have been about nothing but shrinking staff and hollowing out any sense of mission, Barwin and his colleagues defined Oak Park’s place as being on the cutting edge of urban environmentalism.
Of course, a village board that has moved from distrust and dissension to a more respectful and thoughtful approach has also made these changes possible.
All of which begs the question, why is Barwin leaving his job, though not necessarily the village? He told us Friday that he had been “getting certain reads from the elected officials and I concluded it was time [to resign].” We think he was right because we were getting the same reads from elected officials that some had tired of Barwin and thought that his weaknesses, which he would admit to having, had come to outweigh his upsides.
We disagree, and in the name of the transparency that this board so boasts of, we’d have expected some straight talk from multiple trustees. Instead, Village President David Pope offered up some polite thanks at the board table and has since, along with his colleagues, clammed up.
No one here is threatening legal action. And Barwin told us that “if there is something hanging out there, it will be a big surprise.” The adult approach would be for trustees to offer thanks to Barwin and then to list their concerns: He talked too critically about the $100 million in reserves at the high school when the rest of us now want to make nice. He never solved our concerns about the building permit department. We weren’t confident that he could restart economic development as the recession finally weakens. He was never as focused on performance measurement strategies as we wanted.
Barwin deserves the straight talk. Voters deserve the straight talk. And it would do the trustees some good to practice their straight talk.
The reality is that Barwin is gone. A national search will begin. Most significant initiatives will slow at village hall. A hire will be made, hopefully a strong one. And then it will take that person a year or more to start to understand Oak Park’s issues, the politics, the way village hall works. That will bring us to the 2013 election.
Given Tom Barwin’s strengths we’re not sure when the upsides of all this will kick in.