Jim Babcock began what the Interfaith Green Network (IGN) of OP-RF called “a conversation with trustees” on Feb. 16 at the Oak Park Public Library with an opening statement in which he declared, “We are in the midst of a climate emergency. If we continue with the track we’re on, life will become a hell on earth.”

The purpose of the conversation was, in part, to hold the village board accountable for recent actions concerning sustainability. The notice sent out by Dick Alton from the IGN said, “Twice in the last year, Oak Park trustees have disappointed the community with their environment-related decisions: the electric aggregation contract and implementation of the PlanItGreen Sustainability Plan.

The 25 participants sitting in a circle in the library’s Veterans Room — including church members, members of green organizations, curious residents and Oak Park trustees Colette Lueck and Bob Tucker — all seemed to share Babcock’s sense of urgency regarding sustainability.

Tucker confirmed that the PlanItGreen Plan is still the “guiding document” for the Oak Park Board of Trustees on the issue of sustainability. 

He then outlined the Oak Park board’s vision for the body saying it will be a non-profit with an executive director, advise all taxing bodies, lead regional outreach and an educational effort, and be funded by the participating villages and grants. The intergovernmental organization would be composed of one representative from each village board, one staff member from each village and representatives from the community, preferably leaders of NGOs.

Participants offered other models that could be used, including ones used in Portland, Oregon, and the Collaboration for Early Childhood Development.

Lueck raised the issue again of who will pay for this. She said there is an inherent tension in the board’s decision-making process, i.e. residents want more services and at the same time want lower taxes. 

Two taxing bodies, Oak Park and Forest Park, have signed onto the concept so far.

 Aggregation

Tucker explained why he voted for the so-called “brown” electric aggregation contract last time around, which could be characterized as the tension between a good value and good values.

Oak Parkers pride themselves on the diversity evident in their village, Tucker said, and part of that diversity is economic (8.9% of residents fall below poverty line). The board’s thinking, he said, was that low-income residents should not be required to pay for the higher cost of the so-called green alternative, and the board’s assumption was that residents with higher incomes would go with their values and choose the green, more expensive individual option available to them. The board’s vote was, in other words, an attempt to ease the burden on low-income people regarding who should pay for going green rather than being a step back from the goal of sustainability. 

He won’t vote for the brown alternative this time, he said, because only 10% of Oak Park residents voluntarily chose the green option. The challenge, said Lueck, is finding a way for the village as a whole to choose green options, while at the same time providing uncomplicated ways for low-income residents to be exempt from the financial burden.

Some of the participants argued that calling the more expensive option “green” is a misrepresentation because the Renewable Energy Certificates purchased don’t effectively reduce carbon emissions. Mac Robinet, who attended the meeting, has posted a paper contending that the village of Oak Park should go with the cheaper brown option and spend the money that would have been charged for the green option on creating solar sources of energy in Oak Park (for a copy email: mrobinet@ameritech.net).

One of the participants expressed frustration at the Park District of Oak Park’s decision to use plastic grass on an athletic field, to which Tucker replied that the village cannot enforce its policies on independent bodies like the school board or the park district.

The two trustees mentioned the need for leadership at least three times during the hour and a half discussion. Lueck said a lot of progress was initially made on implementing the PlanItGreen Plan but that efforts may have “plateau-ed.” She suggested that more leadership is needed.

Tucker added that the low participation in sustainability initiatives like the food scrap program are due to the lack of one person in leadership. He agreed that strong leadership will be the key to any attempt at intergovernmental cooperation.

 Grassroots efforts

The range and size of green activism in this community is illustrated by the list of partnering groups attending the café, which included West Cook Wild Ones, Sugar Beet Schoolhouse, River Forest Sustainability Committee, Interfaith Green Network, Oak Park TreeKeepers Historic Oak Park Propagation Project, The Learning Gardens, Mutual Aid Network, Our Village Life, GoGreen OPRF, Citizens Climate Lobby, Oak Park Environment & Energy Commission and Seven Generations Ahead.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...