Below are candidate-submitted answers to a biographical survey Wednesday Journal sent out to candidates running for public office this year.
Previous political experience: Current sitting VOP Trustee
Previous community experience:
Current board member BPI, former board member Oak Park Regional Housing Center, former board member Unity Temple UUC.
Community Affairs Specialist, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
B.Ph. Communications, Northwestern University, JD, Chicago-Kent College of Law/Illinois Institute of Technology.
Residential real estate development is a major issue in the village with the recent completion of Vantage Oak Park, new developments under construction (Elevate Oak Park, District House), and several proposed developments (Albion, Oak Park and Madison by Jupiter Realty, and the Harlem and South Boulevard development by Lincoln Properties). Please address your thoughts on all of the aforementioned developments and proposals. Do you support or oppose these proposals and why? What are your concerns for each project as they relate to traffic, shadows, affordability, density, impact to schools and other community resources, impact on the tax base, the changing nature of Oak Park or any other issue you would like to address?
I generally support development that provides growth, supports diversity and adds to the tax base in Oak Park. Most of the development we’ve seen in Oak Park lately attempts to take advantage of our location and attributes such as proximity to Chicago, train lines, expressways and relative ease to each of the major airports. Various studies have shown that Oak Park can support more density especially related to transit oriented development in or near downtown. However, we must continue to look for opportunities for development in other parts of the village like Madison, Harrison, Roosevelt Road and North Avenue.
As a sitting Trustee I voted for Elevate Oak Park and District House because I could see the value to the community each of those developments will bring. Additionally, several of the developments mentioned above have or will contribute to the Village’s affordable housing fund, which I am a proponent of, and they will also add public art to the village landscape.
However, as a sitting Trustee I cannot comment on several of the other developments (Albion, Oak Park and Madison and Harlem and South) because they have matters that may come before the board before the end of my current term. I can say that I will base any decision on various applications they may have before us on facts and what is in the best interests of the entire village of Oak Park.
Crime is at historic lows in Oak Park, but there is a perception that the village is unsafe. What are your thoughts on safety in the village and the perception of safety? What initiatives would you pursue to improve safety in the village and improve the perception of safety?
Safety is a chief concern of many residents in OP. In my role as Trustee I have always supported the need to keep our public safety departments (police/fire) well-staffed and well equipped. Our current and past police chiefs believed in community policing strategies and I do as well. I believe it is important that residents be able to see officers and to get to know them. To that end I would like to see more of our officers live in town. I will propose that part of our affordable housing fund be used as a down payment assistance fund for police/fire personnel who do not live in the community but would like to. I would also like to see more outreach by our police department. I know that they already participate in a number of community events and often provide updates on current issues via social media, but I believe we can do more in terms of public service announcements, Twitter use and emails.
What is Oak Park’s role as it concerns the Chicago neighborhood of Austin, if any?
I grew up in Austin and still have family there. I believe we should have a special relationship with Austin – one that is based on mutual respect and understanding. As a board we have encouraged some outreach with Austin. The Community Relations Department for the first time last year invited organizations in Austin to participate in Day in Our Village. But it should go beyond that—we should realize that many of the businesses in Oak Park are supported by Austin residents and we should make a greater effort to ask our residents to support businesses there. I will work to make sure that we attempt to recruit businesses in Austin to bid on village contracts where possible. I know of faith-based efforts to bridge the divide between Austin and Oak Park. I know that the police department works with the 15th District in Austin on common strategies to reduce incidents of crime. There are a number of other efforts underway and I will work to support them.
Transparency has been repeatedly noted by candidates and residents as an issue with the village. Do you believe Oak Park has a transparency problem, and how would you address it?
I think we have a communication issue more so than a transparency issue. I have always tried to explain to residents that there are issues that the board cannot publicly address before the appropriate time. For example, when considering the sale of property to a developer it is not appropriate (or wise) to publicly discuss the potential value of the property, issues with the property that might affect the value and what price we are willing to accept until we have gathered all of the facts and are prepared to lock in the details. I believe that we do not do a good job explaining when we can and cannot discuss something publicly and why we can or cannot – or at least cannot until such time that we are adequately sure that the interests of the village have been protected and promoted.
Another example, and the one where I hear there is the least transparency, is around the TIF districts. The information about the TIFs is on the village website and is in accordance with state reporting standards. However, in my view we don’t make it easy to understand. We leave the information in the format required for the state and for our auditors. If we learned to communicate the information in a more user-friendly way, by maybe having an Executive Summary, everyone could access the information. And maybe we could better communicate how the TIF has performed relative to investments and expenditures.
I have also heard concern around bids for work around the village and some who assume that they are “no-bid” contracts. Oak Park, like a number of municipalities in Illinois belong to various consortiums so that our combined purchasing power can get us better prices for goods. These arrangements often have set prices that have been negotiated by the consortium. As for individual contracts for goods and services each packet of information about the proposed contract contains information on the bidding process. That information is part of the materials sent with the agenda for the meeting where action will be taken on the contract. We could do a better job of directing people to that information. And finally, there are times when a contract has an extension clause and it is often in the best interests of the village to extend that contract. For time to time, I have asked the village manager to determine if it is time to consider opening bids and sometimes that has happened and we still find out that the current contractor is still the lowest responsible bidder.
Additionally, we use the various Citizen Commissions to increase transparency. Often times we hear complains that a matter has only come before the board once or twice, well that may be because the appropriate commission has had multiple public meetings on the matter and have provided board and staff with a very detailed report and recommendations.
Residents frequently note the high property taxes in Oak Park and have argued that rising taxes are making the village less affordable and, therefore, less diverse. The village’s portion of the property tax burden is roughly 15 percent (the rest is from other governing bodies – schools, library and park district). How would you address the rising property tax burden and how would you work with other taxing bodies to reduce the tax burden in Oak Park?
As a member of the board’s finance committee we work with the manager to insure that expenditures are in line with revenues. When that doesn’t happen taxes increase. We walk a fine line in making sure that we are providing the high level of services residents expect in the most cost efficient manner possible. However, the largest cost for the village is personnel costs. In order to deliver the services and protection people expect you must keep a close watch on where personnel are needed and at what costs. Also, you must factor in pension costs. We cannot get around the state requirements for funding pension and this typically leads to the bulk of any tax increase the village implements. If you review the budgets of all the taxing bodies you would see that the largest expense for each is personnel. The challenge is to find the appropriate balance between size of staff and quality of services delivered.
The I-Gov Committee (the intergovernmental committee with representatives from the six overlay taxing bodies for Oak Park) is working on strategies where we can work to hold the line on taxes. Some of that work includes identifying common expenditures where we can group together as a purchasing consortium to help hold down expenditures. Another area for exploration includes facilities. We are asking are there certain facilities that we can jointly use so as to reduce the number of properties that are not on the tax rolls.