Part two of a two-part assessment
A year in advance is a good time to launch a serious discussion about the village elections in the spring of 2013. We should all be thinking about the state of Oak Park government and its future direction.
Living in an oligarchy?
The Village Manager Association (VMA) has selected and supported every village president since 1952. It has supported 97 percent of all candidates who have won a seat on the board. Some believe that’s good. Others believe the political party’s power has inhibited debate, new ideas and fresh viewpoints. To many, it is not worth fighting an oligarchy that pre-dates Eisenhower’s presidency, so they do not vote.
The VMA operates under three principles:
Accountable and responsive government
Since the dawning of the 21st century, the village has undergone multiple crises that have raised doubts, in many minds, about the decision-making capabilities of the board. The village had no budget reserves for half of the decade, imposed continuous higher taxes and lower services, failed to address faltering infrastructure issues, high debt, ill-advised lawsuits, and poor return on development investments. Add to the list PeopleSoft, Whiteco, the Colt building, the Sertus Project, etc., and we see a systemic pattern of a government that is not on an accountable or responsive track.
Balanced and sensitive economic growth
For several decades, Oak Park has used TIFs to fund economic growth. It is broadly estimated that $300 million have been spent via TIFs and there is very little evidence of success, much less a return on investment. Board after board has supported this economic theory despite little evidence that they were succeeding. Irregularities in the distribution of TIF funds led to a lawsuit by the District 200 school district. The village settled the case and had to distribute $48.8 million to 10 taxing bodies (in and outside Oak Park) that had disputed the TIF payments from 2003 to 2009. The village also agreed to making proper TIF payments to the taxing bodies on an annual basis from 2010 to 2018 rather than holding them in the TIF economic development account.
In December 2011, the village approved an outcome statement that included “an acknowledgment that the Downtown TIF’s performance and current finances have been impacted by unmet assumptions and economic circumstances not contemplated in the intergovernmental agreement from 2003.”
Ongoing and inclusive diversity
“The VMA is committed to open and inclusive diversity which we believe creates an environment for embracing change and makes Oak Park a unique community.” From the Village’s Diversity Statement: “Oak Park recognizes that a free, open, and inclusive community is achieved through full and broad participation of all its citizens.”
Diversity is always harder in practice than it is in concept. Since 1988, more than 70 percent of those elected to the village board were white males. The VMA has dominated the candidate recruitment and selection for those years. Did the VMA consider diversity in its election processes? The village certainly has a wide enough range of candidates to ensure that robust selection can lead to greater representation from women and people of color.
The VMA has many supporters who tout the organization’s importance to the community, yet each of its principles is inconsistent with the actual events of the last two decades. Perhaps there is another version of the events of the last 20 years that needs to be heard.