Oak Park resident John Bokum speaks out against OPRF's 2.5 percent levy increase. Terry Dean/Staff

On paper, 2012 in Oak Park was a lot like the previous year. Project plans moved along, were halted, and moved along again with reassurance of officials.

Gun control discussions were hosted by the health board, and the settlement with the NRA was finalized. Buildings were sold, businesses left — and left some spaces vacant — and new businesses came. Although still empty, the facade of a dominant parcel in the Harrison Street Arts District was restored, and leaders began to talk about its future.

Then village employees went on strike. Two faces, one familiar to village government and one new, put their hats in the village president ring after two-term President David Pope decided to bow out. Oak Park got greener and landed a prestigious partnership with a Korean energy group.

And one former Oak Parker, who now calls the Sunshine State his home, started the year with a bang when he resigned as village manager. This led to a nine-month search to find Oak Park’s next chief administrator — a search that will be the talk of the town come 2013 (unless, of course, the Mayans were right).

Barwin resigns, board launches nationwide search

On Feb. 20, Tom Barwin announced his resignation as village manager, but a full explanation never surfaced.

Rumors tied to the performance management evaluation were floated, but no one ever confirmed them. Regardless, Barwin left village hall behind on Feb. 29, then stayed in Oak Park until the summer when he landed a new gig as city manager of Sarasota, Fla.

Back in Oak Park, Interim Village Manager Cara Pavlicek, who has been filling in since Barwin left, remains in the post as the board has yet to announce a new pick.

A search firm was hired in May to recruit the next manager and a national search began. The new manager was expected be chosen by September but a number of scheduling conflicts set the process back. Finally, the candidate list was whittled down to 13, then to six. The finalists were interviewed in early December and it was announced that the choice would be made within weeks. But no decision was made. The village board is off until the start of the new year, and from the looks of it, it will be a busy one.

Arts District still in limbo

In August of 2010 the façade of 201-211 Harrison Street came crashing down, taking with it the hopes of an already struggling district. Those properties, which remain in foreclosure, wrapped in a complicated bankruptcy, are technically still owned by River Forester Chris Kleronomos.

In June a small hope was restored as the exterior renovation was completed, but six months later the properties remain vacant. In the fall, village leaders held a special meeting with business owners in the district and talked about immediate needs. Above all, the group said marketing assistance to promote the events on Harrison Street would benefit most.

Business owners said they hope the “shoestring” district will get the fresh look promised by a 2007 urban design plan, approved by the village, which was never realized. Village staff’s recommendations are expected to come before the village board soon.

Health board begs off on guns

Oak Park emerged financially unscathed from the National Rifle Association lawsuit. But the Oak Park Board of Health wasn’t interested in pursuing specific regulations related to handgun registry or mandatory handgun training, suggestions that were brought up during a May meeting.

Among the items discussed, the board opposed mandatory training requirements for handgun owners, mandatory requirements for handgun storage or use of trigger locks, changing the process of licensing gun dealers and limitations on the location of gun dealers.

Overall, the group determined that there was a lack of evidence indicating that implementing certain policies would have an impact on public safety. The group also said statewide laws are already in place to protect residents. The health board did support a proposal regarding a voluntary education campaign and other initiatives.

The NRA vs. Oak Park and the City of Chicago was finally put to rest this year as the city upheld its part of the deal by agreeing to pay the full share of the $1.3 million in legal fees the NRA was awarded. Oak Park wrote a check for its half, per a court order, but it was quickly reimbursed.

Strike hits village hall

“What do we want? A contract. When do we want it? Now.”

That was the chant during the two-day July strike in which 27 village employees and a crowd of other local union leaders circled village hall related to a longstanding standoff between village management and village employees over contract negotiations involving Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73.

The contracts for the 77 union employees expired in late 2010 and the two groups haven’t come up with a compromise since. The union argues that the village is guilty of unfair practices when it comes to raises, among other complaints.

The village countered that if the union agreed to renew the contract, more than 65 percent of the union membership would have been eligible for a merit-based increase. Village management claims the lack of negotiation has halted this process. That is being contested by union representatives.

Following the two-day strike, the group went back to negotiations but no compromise has been reached. Union leaders said they filed a “no-confidence letter” with the village in December and have warned that employees may be forced to leave.

Whiteco sale, garage repaired

The Whiteco building, formally known as Oak Park Place, was put up for sale in the summer and a buyer was found within months.

The sale, however, was halted when village trustees stepped in with a list of concerns for Whiteco representatives on some of the lease terms. Whiteco asked that the retail requirement be lifted on the storefront adjacent to Trader Joe’s property, but trustees questioned why the village should give that up and get nothing in return.

Whiteco coughed up $100,000, but when all was said and done, the sale went through and the village didn’t budge on its terms.

Whiteco will also put $200,000 in an escrow account for the second phase of repairs on the six-story attached parking garage that was damaged during construction. The company is also reimbursing the village for the $161,000 tab the village picked up for inspection and review of the work.

Korean Smart Grid project

The village continued to set itself apart on the green energy front as it was chosen from among 288 municipalities worldwide to be a test bed for a smart grid initiative in conjunction with the Korea Smart Grid Institute.

The innovative sustainable energy pilot program will install solar-powered demonstration sites on residential and commercial buildings in Oak Park. The project will allow buildings receiving solar technology to be linked to the electric smart grid and could, potentially, become power producers themselves, instead of simply being consumers.

The village will act as a facilitator between the Korea Smart Grid Institute and local building owners to establish the test sites. The village would also be a liaison between residents who are eligible to take part in the project. It has not been determined which sites will be chosen for this project, but the savings are estimated to be around $500 per year per consumer.

Oak Park’s commitment to green initiatives, such as its early lead in electrical aggregation and solar-powered roofs in the village, also installed in 2012, helped Oak Park earn the project

Hedges or Abu-Taleb?

David Pope, who gave up his full-time job to be village president, announced he won’t be seeking an unprecedented third term.

Pope scoffed at rumors that he may be considering a run for governor or another state office, and said he will stay connected to village government in a voluntary capacity.

The only two candidates who have publicly announced they’ll be running for village president in the April 9 municipal election are current Trustee John Hedges and Oak Park businessman Anan Abu-Taleb, who owns Maya Del Sol restaurant on South Oak Park Avenue.

Hedges, 68, is well known in town. He is the former executive director of the Park District of Oak Park, once served as Oak Park interim village manager and even has a building named after him. He said being president was the next logical step for him and he’s ready to fill the role if the voters agree.

Abu-Taleb, 53, would be a new face to village government. He said his expertise as a successful businessman would serve him well. He thinks there’s a disconnect between Oak Park government and the public and he wants to bridge that gap. Abu-Taleb cited his fresh perspective, new vision and ability to build trust as reasons to back his campaign.

Lake and Forest

The promise of a 20-story development at Lake Street and Forest Avenue in downtown Oak Park has been around for quite a while.

What was once proposed as a hotel was revised into an entirely residential plan. Although skeptics on the village board have questioned whether the project is actually moving forward, Michael Glazier, principal developer of the long-delayed Sertus project, assured the board that he has serious financial backers interested.

Sertus was granted an extension in September to turn in building permits, and on Oct. 31 the forms were submitted, just a day shy of the deadline. Glazier said his group has put significant investment in the project and wouldn’t be doing so if he wasn’t confident it will be built.

The village has also set in motion plans to finance the public portion of the garage associated with the project. It was determined the board should finance its portion of the garage through a bank letter of credit which will be followed later by a General Obligation bond. The 2013 fiscal year general fund allows for roughly $8.9 million in bond proceeds for construction.

Ridgeland Common

The Park District of Oak Park made significant progress this year with two big projects — the renovation of Ridgeland Common and plans to build a new gymnastics center on Lake Street.

The renovation at Ridgeland will keep the shell of the building and install new plumbing and electricity, a more efficient layout with two entrances, new offices, lockers and activity rooms, new lighting and fencing for playing fields and a new children’s water feature in the pool. The ice rink will also be expanded.

This year under the leadership of new Executive Director Jan Arnold, who replaced outgoing director Gary Balling, park staff approved Nagle Hartray Architecture’s design for the $23.2 million project, looked into grants and distributed requests for contractor qualifications (RFQs). Bids will be received in January and construction is scheduled to start March 18.

The park district was also able to break ground in October on what will be a new gymnastics center in the first block of Lake Street. Williams Architects presented design ideas in the spring for the former Aldi grocery store, which was demolished during the summer. The Park District of Oak Park Gymnastics & Recreation Center will finally be able to accommodate the program’s wait list, which has existed for years. It is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013.

Adjudication for pot

The Oak Park and River Forest police departments this year changed the consequences for first-time teenage offenders who get caught smoking, drinking or doing drugs.

Oak Park’s village board approved a change in June that allows teenagers to appear with their parents in front of an administrative law judge instead of going to criminal court. Teens would face fines, community service or a youth-based intervention program, but the incident would not remain on their record. River Forest implemented the change to local adjudication for marijuana possession in March.

Both police chiefs have said the change is positive because it keeps criminal records clean for kids who make one mistake. The ordinance changes were prompted by the parent group IMPACT, which has been working with police on the matter since 2010. According to the group, an arrest can jeopardize employment or acceptance to college, and the change provides a better way to address the issue.

Staff Reporter Devin Rose Contributed to this report

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