With new technology in place, a restructured bureaucracy and major developments on the horizon, Oak Park’s village government – and its skyline – is starting to look a lot different than it did a couple of years ago. 

And while Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb and the village trustees usually take the limelight when it comes to policy changes, the village’s most powerful unelected official, Village Manager Cara Pavlicek, works behind the scenes – like a conductor, she says – enacting those changes and making sure everybody’s “singing from the same sheet of music.”

During her short tenure as village manager – she took the job in March 2012, a position made permanent in January 2013 – she’s served as the architect of an overhaul of governmental departments while overseeing the installation of new technology that is changing the way village government operates. With Pavlicek at the helm, village hall also has ushered in several multimillion-dollar real estate developments all while balancing the budget.

Pavlicek has both critics and defenders. Many of her colleagues laud her as a “great leader” and “the smartest person in the room.” Critics describe her as autocratic and a poor communicator. But love her or hate her, Pavlicek’s influence can be seen at almost every level of a rapidly changing government.

Pavlicek has a longer view of Oak Park’s village government having served for several years as the director of parking services before being tapped as interim village manager.

Government reorganization

Village Trustee Adam Salzman said Pavlicek has succeeded, particularly in the reorganization of the Department of Building and Property Standards, where her predecessor failed. 

“It was the place where people’s building and permit applications went to die,” Salzman said of the reviled department. “We tasked the previous manager with fixing it, and he was unable to do so.”

An effort embarked on by the village board in 2013, Pavlicek oversaw the consolidation of the village’s business services, building, housing and planning departments under the umbrella of the Development Customer Services Department. She hired Tammie Grossman, who formerly served as housing programs manager for the village, as its director.

Salzman noted that the reorganization took place while the village board reenvisioned the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, a quasi-governmental entity charged with bringing business to the village. “Either one alone would have been hard and she did both simultaneously and she deserves a lot of credit for that,” Salzman said. 

Pavlicek tells Wednesday Journal the reorganization is aimed at creating a streamlined structure to “improve the way we empower people to make decisions …”

Tough decisions

Village Trustee Bob Tucker described Pavlicek as “smart” and “tough” and praised her for making difficult decisions over the last two years at the board’s direction – decisions that have shaken up the government structure. 

He acknowledged that poor staff morale is “an issue” at village hall, referencing the unofficial release of a survey in September showing widespread worker dissatisfaction. Tucker said finding efficiencies isn’t easy, and some staff have been resistant to change.

“(As the boss) you’re not always going to be the most popular person in the room, and she’s taken her lumps,” Tucker said. 

In September, shortly after the survey was leaked to the press, two former village employees – Liz Melara and Marijo Lopez – chastised Pavlicek at a village board meeting, noting the departure of several senior level employees, including an assistant development manager, who lasted five months, an assistant village attorney, a building and property standards director, an assistant village manager and a human resources director who lasted a year.

Pavlicek argued then that the turnover of 106 employees during her tenure was lower than the national average. 

Asked if the results of the more recent employee survey keep her up at night, Pavlicek responded, “A lot of things keep me up at night.” She says the leadership at village government needs to keep working on communicating to employees to help them understand the reasons for the restructuring.

Attending to the needs of such a diverse workforce – the village employs 375 people from police to fire to public works – “can be a very large animal to get your hands around,” she said. “And communicating to those employees is constantly going to be a challenge for us to make sure we are telling everybody the information they need to know and understand.”

Upgrading village technology

While known as the engineer of the restructuring of village government, Pavlicek also has overseen a sweeping change to the technology infrastructure at village hall that she says means cost savings for taxpayers.

The upgrade to the 911 emergency dispatch system earlier this year, for instance, continued and improved the dispatch alliance with River Forest, Elmwood Park and Park Ridge. Bringing the four communities together has cut costs and helped fund other technology initiatives, she said.

She noted that the village also joined the GIS (Geographic Information System) Consortium in 2011 – a group of municipalities pooling resources to create base maps to provide a myriad of information to residents. 

The data is being integrated into the village’s new technology infrastructure that allows residents to schedule inspections and pull building permits online, among other things. That technology should be available in early 2016, she said. 

Now you have to come in to village hall and file a Freedom of Information Act request to get the information. Pavlicek knows because she went through the laborious process when buying her own Oak Park home.

“Isn’t that convenient?” she joked.

Easier access to permits and other GIS data is just the beginning to the technology upgrades at village. New financial software being implemented in 2017 will make it easier for residents to pay for village services, Pavlicek said.

“There’s no reason why we can’t look like Pete’s (Fresh Market), where there’s a little computer terminal at the counter, and if you have to pay, you can swipe a credit or debit card at different locations.”

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

Lifetime of discipline

While the long hours and successful implementation of far-reaching initiatives have won Pavlicek the support of the village board, the discipline comes second nature to the 49-year-old mother of three.

Tucker says Pavlicek has had “tremendous impact this year and since she’s taken the position,” but added, “I think Cara prefers not to be in the headlines.”

That wasn’t always the case for Pavlicek, a self-described perfectionist who was a competitive figure skater during her teen years and competed five times in the national figure skating championships. Pavlicek – then known as Cara Gill – and her skating partner and brother Craig, qualified twice to be on the U.S. Figure Skating Team. 

They were just shy of making it to the U.S. Olympic Team in the 1980s, but as Pavlicek said in a recent interview, “We were in the ballpark, but clearly, you know, skating’s like any sport – there’s close and there’s never-gonna-get-there close.”

Asked if her years of training informed the work ethic she’s exhibited as village manager, Pavlicek was humble. 

She said of hard work, “I think it’s just part of being a grownup.”

“It’s definitely not a job that has boundaries, as far as you don’t come in at 8:30 and leave at 5,” she said. “So I think it’s a job that I think you have to truly love it if you’re going to want to do it. Because you do have to realize there are gray areas between your personal life and your professional obligations. That’s something you do your best to balance. Some days it’s easier than it is other days.”

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