It was a good run but the once-powerful Village Manager Association (VMA), which vetted and slated candidates for Oak Park’s village government for more than six decades, announced it has disbanded.
The VMA suffered a major setback in last year’s municipal election, where the group was unable to find a candidate to run for village president against incumbent Anan Abu-Taleb, and all three of its slated candidates – two for trustee and one for village clerk – were defeated.
Historically, VMA-endorsed candidates have mostly been swept into office, since the organization was established in 1952.
In the 2017 election, the VMA already was having difficulty finding residents to participate with the organization. Former Oak Park Village Trustee Adam Salzman, who was endorsed by the VMA, told Wednesday Journal in 2016 that interest in the group from younger voters had waned in recent years.
“My sense from what I hear is it’s sort of somewhat reverted back to committed volunteers that have been involved over the course of several decades,” he said prior to the 2017 election.
VMA President Lynn Kamenitsa said the group had gone dormant since last year’s election. Asked how many members were in the group upon disbanding, Kamenitsa said, “It really wasn’t a numbers issue.”
“It had to do with what those members could do or were willing to do, including members of the board,” she said.
She said those who were involved in the VMA will remain engaged in the community.
“There’s still important work to be done protecting the village manager form of government and choosing quality candidates,” she said.
The organization was first established in the early 1950s in the battle to switch from a mayoral to a village-manager form of government. The goal was largely to make local elections non-partisan and give greater power to a professional village manager, who is selected by the village board of trustees.
“At the time, the two big political parties dominated politics in and around Oak Park. That opened the door to corruption and patronage in the village,” Ann Armstrong, a former VMA president, said in a VMA press release. “By its nature, the village manager form of government is more representative of the population and less susceptible to cronyism. That’s the lesson we can’t forget.”
Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who has never received a VMA endorsement, had been a vocal critic of the group since first taking office. He has called the VMA a “one-party political system,” noting in 2016 that “the outcome of that philosophy has reflected on the village in a negative way, at least economically.”
But Friday, learning of the group’s decision to dissolve, Abu-Taleb said the group has “done great things for the village over the years.”
“I’m thankful for their time and efforts over the years,” he said, but added that “their moment has passed” and that the group failed to stay relevant.
The group acknowledged that the changing nature of campaigning in the age of social media played a role in the group’s demise.
“Connecting with voters through door knocking and educating voters on village issues remain vital components to a successful campaign,” former VMA president Brad Bartels said in the VMA press release. “That’s how I and many others got involved, and many remained involved in the process.
“Over the last three election cycles, fewer folks have remained as actively involved. I think a growing reliance on mobilization through social media explains part of this. Social media has also made it easier for self-selection by candidates and building support without a slate organization.”
It’s unclear whether a new organization will emerge to replace the VMA, but Kamenitsa said in an interview that some might be interested in establishing a successor group.
She said the VMA’s closure would be a loss for voters because of the extensive vetting process and the service the VMA provided in preparing elected officials for office. The organization would bring in specialists to explain the nuances of taxation policy and other issues to help educate candidates, she said.
The process got candidates ready for office once they got there, she said.
The VMA press release touted a long list of influential officials the group endorsed over the years and the successful initiatives those officials achieved, such as the landmark Oak Park Fair Housing Ordinance of 1968.
“The village board that passed the Fair Housing Ordinance was comprised of VMA-endorsed candidates, including Village President John Donaker Sr. and Trustee John Gearen, Sr., a key figure in moving the ordinance forward,” the press release notes. “The next year, Gearen led the VMA-endorsed slate that defeated two slates of candidates opposed to the ordinance, and that went on to manage the early enforcement of the ordinance.”
In the absence of the VMA, it is unclear how, or if, organized entities will come together in advance of the Spring 2019 election for three seats on the village board. The trio of incumbents in those seats – Bob Tucker, Andrea Button and Jim Taglia – have yet to announce if they plan reelection runs. A new group calling itself VOICE of Oak Park was established earlier this year, and its organizers say they plan to endorse candidates. VOICE does not, however, plan to run a slate of its own candidates.
Oak Park resident and VOICE co-founder Joshua Klayman, professor emeritus of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said in a telephone interview that the VMA “has a history it can be proud of in the village.”
He said his group shares many of the same values as the VMA, such as racial and economic equity, integration and environmental sustainability. “I think they lost their way, they lost their purpose,” he said. “That was demonstrated in the last election.”
Klayman said the VMA’s dissolution does not change much for VOICE and its mission.
“The key thing for us also is working for an open and responsive government,” he said. “It’s one of the VMA’s primary values, but they lost track on that.”