The March primary is barely in the rearview mirror, and a heated U.S. presidential election looms in November. But already some Oak Parkers are talking about who is going to lead the village at the local level, with the election coming up next April.
Voters will get to decide the next Oak Park village president, three spots for village trustee, and the next village clerk. Comments about the April 9, 2013, election have flared up on the Web, mixed in with contentiousness over brick streets, downtown high-rises and the recent ouster of Village Manager Tom Barwin.
One of those frequent commenters is John Murtagh, a 10-year village resident, political observer and former head of the Oak Park Community Relations Commission.
He said he doesn’t plan on running in the April 2013 election, as some have suggested, but he hopes to get involved raising interest in the races and talking about the issues.
He hopes Oak Park avoids the low turnout and scarcity of candidates that plagued recent municipal elections.
“This has the potential to be a dynamic political year in Oak Park,” he said. “And if that doesn’t occur, I think we’re even in more trouble than we are right now in the village.”
At the top of the board, Village President David Pope could vie for a third term, after first getting elected as a trustee in 2003. Pope, 45, said he was unsure as of Monday whether he’ll chase four more years. He plans to have a conversation with his wife, Beth, over the summer and could decide by the fall.
“I think, as a community, we’re making pretty good progress on a number of fronts,” Pope said. “Obviously people continue to be working hard to help ensure that Oak Park continues to be a wonderful place to live, and there’s been a lot that’s been achieved and there’s more yet to do.”
Also up for re-election on the board are trustees Glenn Brewer, John Hedges and Collette Lueck, and Village Clerk Teresa Powell, all whom were backed by the Village Manager Association political organization. All three trustees said they were unsure whether they plan to run again. Powell, 63, meanwhile said she’ll “likely” pursue another four years as clerk.
There has been talk about other board members possibly stepping up to run for president. Ray Johnson, 48, a trustee since 2003 who was re-elected in 2011, said he has considered running for president.
“It’s crossed my mind, of course. I would be joking to suggest otherwise, but right now I have a very full plate at work,” said Johnson, who is a program manager for HSBC North America.
Johnson said it’s too early to determine whether he’d throw his support behind Pope for another term.
He and other trustees questioned why Oak Park previously applied for $26 million in federal grants to redo the area along Lake Street when that grant carries a $17 million match in local dollars, which wasn’t debated by other elected officials.
“I’ve had some concerns about David’s focus on day-to-day operations versus focusing on policy and trying to make sure the board — and that includes me — stays focused on policy,” Johnson said.
Lueck, 63, said she, too, is still weighing whether to run again, and will know by the fall. But the former longtime head of the Oak Park Plan Commission, who was first appointed to fill a vacancy and then elected in 2009, said she isn’t interested in running for president.
Hedges, 67, a former head of the Park District of Oak Park who was first elected in 2007, said he, like Johnson, has considered running for village president.
“I’ve heard people mention it before,” he said. “I wouldn’t say no right now, but it’s something I would have to think a lot about.”
Outside of current board members, independent Lynn Kessen, who came in fourth in the 2011 election, said she plans to try again. She lives in a condo near downtown Oak Park and has been a vocal critic of the 20-story apartment high-rise planned for the corner of Lake and Forest, which elected officials approved last year.
Kessen, 47, joined a volunteer commission in the village to get her feet wet, and is looking for possible running mates, though interest has been low in the early stages.
“A lot of people have lost faith in democracy. They feel, why bother, we’re not going to make a difference anyway,” she said.
The other political party that last challenged the VMA in 2009, the Village Citizens Alliance, has been holding meetings recently. But President Gary Schwab said they, too, have seen low interest a year out. At the very least, they hope to help spur local conversations about the issues in next year’s election, such as the use of tax increment financing dollars for development, the swaths of unused properties that Oak Park owns, thousands in legal bills tallied by several long running lawsuits, and a perceived lack of openness and transparency at the board table.
“At this point, I don’t know that there’s any real interest,” Schwab said, “but we’d like to try and get people talking about issues, and then maybe some candidates will surface out of that.”
The VMA, meanwhile, is already starting to “beat the bushes,” looking for possible candidates around town, according to President Brad Bartels. They’ll conduct their slating process this fall to pick five candidates to run in April. The process is open, he said, to anyone interested in applying. The traits they’re looking for in candidates are diversity, “sensible” economic development and good governance.
Bartels said, come this fall, the VMA will weigh whether it wants to back any incumbents or add some new faces to the ticket.
“It’s very situational,” Bartels said. “We’re not going to exclude someone simply because they have been the village president for X number of terms.”