Oak Parkers got their introduction to candidates for local public office Wednesday at a candidate forum focusing primarily on equity and diversity issues sponsored by the Suburban Unity Alliance (SUA).
Roughly 200 residents attended the forums, which were split between village government candidates – president, trustee and clerk – the two school boards and candidates running for Oak Park library board.
The village government candidates focused primarily on taxes, racial diversity and affordable housing. Twelve of the 13 village candidates attended the forum – village clerk candidate Mas Takiguchi was not present.
Anthony Clark, SUA executive director, got a range of responses to the first of two questions posed to candidates concerning whether Oak Park has “racial equity issues.”
“If so, what is one thing the board can do to address them; if not, what would you do to make sure they don’t arise?” Clark asked.
Trustee candidate Simone Boutet said the village racial equity issues are most clearly seen in the achievement gap between white and black students as well as a gap in participation by black residents on Oak Park’s various municipal advisory boards and commissions.
“It’s a battle (over racial integration and diversity) that will never end because the inclination of people is to segregate,” she said.
Trustee candidate Deno Andrews said Oak Park’s legacy on diversity looks great “on paper” adding, “But we have real problems.”
Andrews said he doesn’t see diversity and equity at public events like Oaktoberfest – an annual street festival in downtown Oak Park – and the Concerts in the Park Series put on by the Park District of Oak Park.
“I don’t see the numbers like we see on paper, and this is a major problem,” he said, adding that the village has to promote fair housing practices and affordable housing in the village.
Andrews’ unofficial running mate for trustee, Dan Moroney, said Oak Park has to invest in its own community.
“Not all of our citizens are engaged, so how do we communicate with citizens better?” he said, later adding, “How do you engage the entirety of Oak Park, so all of Oak Parkers feel a member of the community and are able to invest in Oak Park …”
Trustee candidate James Taglia said racial diversity is an issue in Oak Park, partly because so much of the tax base comes from homeowners rather than businesses – an 80 percent to 20 percent split, respectively – making it more expensive to live in the village.
“We need to expand and shift some of the percentages more toward business,” he said, noting that more business in Oak Park would take some of the burden off residents. “We need to increase that percentage from 20 (percent), and if you do that and bring more people in, you will spread that burden out over a greater number of people, and the tax burden will actually decrease and equity will increase.”
Trustee candidate Peter Barber, an incumbent, said he did not believe racial diversity was a problem in Oak Park, although the village does have issues to address. He noted that the results of a sting in 2014 by HOPE Fair Housing Center showed multiple instances of discrimination in the village’s rental housing market. That study by HOPE was funded by the village government.
“The (village) board was able to take some steps to immediately try and address it,” he said. “That’s a community that was responding to – albeit a couple of isolated incidents, hopefully – but they responded in a way that shows we don’t have that kind of a problem in Oak Park.”
Trustee candidate Glenn Brewer, also an incumbent and running mate of Barber’s, served on the Fair Housing Task Force established to address the housing discrimination issue, following the release of the HOPE report.
He noted that during his tenure on the village board, he and the board have increased the staff of the Community Relations department, which deals with race and diversity issues.
“You may not always hear about them, but they have had a number of diversity dinners where they have actually asked people to host folks in their home for dinner that they don’t know,” he said, adding it’s one of the ways to engage people in the community.
Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who is running unopposed for the village president’s seat, said he is particularly sensitive to the issue of diversity because of his experience growing up in the war torn Gaza Strip.
“It is really important for me that when people come to village board meetings they are feeling welcomed …” he said.
He said neighbors and the local government have to come together as a village to maintain the values of diversity. Abu-Taleb noted that the village staff and police department reflect the racial diversity of the community and the passage of a living wage ordinance for village employees has advanced equity and diversity.
Village clerk candidates also attended the forum, but questions where primarily of a nature that would be addressed by trustees and the village president. Trustee candidate Emily Masalski also attended the forum, but she was recently blocked from appearing on the ballot in the April 4 election because she did not collect the requisite 251 signatures needed.