It’s been about three and a half years since the Oak Park village board approved a measure overhauling the power and function of the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, a public-private organization crafted to attract and retain business in Oak Park.
Among the changes approved by the village board in early 2014, include more than doubling village government funding of OPEDC’s budget to $721,500 annually and establishing a board of directors to oversee the organization.
The board of directors includes the village president (mayor), the village manager, and one trustee appointed by the mayor. The mayor also chooses an alternate trustee to serve on the board of directors if the regular trustee is unavailable.
The board of directors has received some criticism by Oak Parkers, particularly during the recent municipal election, for not allowing the public or press to attend its meetings.
Former Trustee Peter Barber served as the village trustee on the OPEDC board of directors since the group was reorganized in 2014, but with Barber failing to be reelected in April, Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb is now positioned to choose his successor.
Abu-Taleb said in a recent telephone interview that he had not yet chosen who will succeed Barber, but the decision is his alone to make and does not need approval from the OPEDC board or the Oak Park village board.
Trustees recently elected to the Oak Park village board – Deno Andrews, Dan Moroney and Simone Boutet – all ran on platforms of increased transparency in local government, but had differing views on the topic of the OPEDC board and whether they would serve if asked.
“I’d be very interested in the OPEDC to be the trustee representative,” Moroney said in a recent interview, adding the caveat that the group needs to do more to interface with the public.
“I think there’s enhancements that can be made to the OPEDC that would take away a little bit of the mystery of how it functions,” Moroney said. “I’ve encouraged them to put bios of the executive board on the (OPEDC) website, so residents know who the people are.”
The organization’s website currently identifies Martin J. Noll, chief executive officer of Community Bank Oak Park River Forest, as chairman of the OPEDC board. Thomas Gallagher, chief credit officer of Community Bank Oak Park River Forest, is vice chairman of the OPEDC board. Frank Pellegrini, founder of Oak Park-based real estate law firm Pellegrini & Cristiano, is secretary; Mary K. Ludgin, managing director of Chicago-based real estate investment firm Heitman, is secretary; Everett Ward, a partner at Quarles & Brady who serves on the firm’s national Real Estate Group, and Cathy Yen, head of the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce, are listed as directors on the OPEDC board.
Moroney said he also has encouraged OPEDC Executive Director John Lynch to publish the organization’s bylaws and financial statements on its website.
Moroney added that from his conversations with Lynch, he believes that OPEDC is willing to listen to alternative viewpoints from the community on development proposals. “I don’t think they’re a close-minded organization,” Moroney said.
Newly elected Trustee Simone Boutet had different ideas about who sits on the OPEDC board, noting that all trustees should get a chance to have their voices heard. “We should definitely rotate, so everybody has an opportunity to participate,” she said.
Boutet said it is a topic that the Oak Park village board should discuss. “We need to take a fresh look at the process,” she said, acknowledging that developers and businesses looking to locate in the village sometimes require some level of confidentiality.
“How is the best way to have the required confidentiality and the transparency?” she said is a question the board should discuss. “What’s the right balance of that and how do we make sure it’s totally understood and accepted by the public to get public buy in?”
Deno Andrews, who also was recently elected to the Oak Park board, said that although Abu-Taleb has the power to appoint the trustee who serves as a voting member on the OPEDC board, it is his understanding that the decision is made collaboratively amongst the board members at a board protocol session set for early June.
“I’ve said on the campaign trail that I’m uncomfortable having so many trustees as voting members of OPEDC,” he said. “By the time it gets to the village board (any item up for consideration) already has two yes votes.”
Andrews added that “to have some trustees voting twice (once at the OPEDC board and another at the Oak Park village board) and others voting once doesn’t seem like the best practice as far as I’m concerned.”
Andrews said he would serve on the board if asked but added that he does not think trustees or the mayor should serve as voting members.
He added that he does not believe the OPEDC board has done anything wrong or unethical or that the board should meet in a public forum.
“I’m not suggesting that any wrongdoing has happened, but if someone wants to it would be really easy with the current setup,” he said.
Abu-Taleb defended the structure of the OPEDC board in a telephone interview, stating that “it has been the engine behind a lot of the improvements and development that have taken place in and out of the community to support our message that we are open for business, and we are business friendly and investors are welcome.”
He said there is a misunderstanding that the OPEDC makes decisions about future development in Oak Park.
“They don’t make decisions, they make recommendations,” he said. “They do research and build relationships, introducing our community to people who are interested in our community.”
He noted that the Oak Park village board makes the final decisions on projects in the village. Abu-Taleb added that the OPEDC board is a model that has been used successfully in other communities like Naperville.
“We have turned around an organization that was dysfunctional and not producing,” he said. “Now we have an environment where we are attracting and appealing to global investors and national investors.”