They’re older now, but in their prime, they stepped forward and got involved. Sunday afternoon a representative few gathered at the Carleton Hotel, some 60 strong, for a valedictory sendoff. The Village Manager Association, officially dissolved and disbanded, threw itself a retirement party.
“When you look at the history of Oak Park over the last 66 years,” said former VMA president Bob Kane, “we can proclaim that what we did mattered; we changed the course of our community.”
They have a torch to pass. They just don’t know who to pass it to.
“There is still a need for leaders who will steward good government,” Kane said. “The simple truth is that in today’s world, running an all-volunteer campaign every other year is simply too much. We wore ourselves out.”
Newer Oak Parkers, he said, “want to live in a community like the one we helped create and do not seem to care that all of the goals were not achieved. We needed to be vocal about the next cause and we were not, so we became a legend — a legend that turned Oak Park from a place to be ‘from’ to a place where you want to be.”
What is the torch they want to pass? The torch of good government, which sounds quaint (even boring) in an era when so few Americans believe in government anymore or its potential to be “good.” But the VMA proved it can be. They eliminated corruption and prevented machine politics from taking root here for over half a century. Some have claimed that, because 90 percent of their candidates were elected, they turned into the very political machine they were working to prevent.
Not true. And the people who proved it wasn’t true were the VMA’s very opponents. Political machines are adept at sustaining themselves, usually at the expense of the people they purport to represent. They become corrupt because power corrupts. But the VMA never became corrupt. Their gradual undoing confirms their lack of corruption. They were simply citizens who stepped forward and got involved. Amateurs. Volunteers. They did not accrue and consolidate power. When their time passed, it passed — quietly.
But while they existed, they stood for “accountable and responsive government.” And for the most part, that was what they delivered. If and when they came up short, it was because they were amateurs, not professional politicians.
What did good government accomplish? Their greatest achievement was a comprehensive public-private approach to managed, ongoing, and inclusive diversity. Without that, Oak Park is no different from any other community. With it, we set ourselves apart, served as a role model, proved it was possible when few other communities even attempted it. The Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968. Equity assurance, to calm jittery property owners. Working with the Housing Center to encourage diverse neighborhoods in the eastern portion of the village. Building a new village hall at Madison and Lombard as a statement of confidence in our ability to integrate border to border to border to border. Actively recruiting LGBTQ residents and passing first the Domestic Partnership Ordinance and later the Domestic Partnership Registry, signaling the village’s support, decades in advance of the national acceptance of same-sex marriage.
As Sherlynn Reid pointed out in her remarks, we never became a town divided into pockets that were all-white and all-black. Instead of all anything, we are all everything. We worked to become an integrated whole. Not perfect. Still a long way to go. But further than any comparable community has ever gone. And that’s because the VMA was committed and intentional about managing diversity. It just doesn’t happen on its own. And it doesn’t continue to happen, Reid pointed out, unless we keep working at it.
The VMA also backed “balanced and sensitive economic growth.” In 1959, the VMA issued a resolution opposing high-rise apartment buildings. Now, in the post-VMA era, high-rises have become the engine of economic growth as impatience with the VMA’s slow-and-steady approach became the last straw in the organization’s demise. Yet the current acceleration of economic development — represented by the election of Anan Abu-Taleb, followed by the defeat of the entire VMA slate in the last village election — could never have occurred without a base of economic development to build on. And that was laid over many decades by the VMA. Probably their most important move was allowing liquor licenses after a century of being “dry,” which created an actual restaurant industry in Oak Park that, by the way, includes our current mayor (or village president), who owns one of the village’s more popular liquor-serving establishments.
Lynn Kamenitsa, the last VMA president, noted, “It’s easy to lose sight of what we’ve done.” There is much more. They recruited citizen candidates for over half a century, she said, “who were dedicated to the entire village, not their own self-interest.” And those citizen boards worked to further Oak Park’s “diverse, distinctive and desirable image.” They resisted populism and its “simplistic solutions to complicated problems.” They found quality people, not just “haves” pulling all the strings from their ivory towers, but a sincere, good-faith effort to find candidates who represented all of Oak Park. They used to print a map showing the trustees and where they lived.
In the past, the VMA did a much better job of “selling” good government. A display board on Sunday, assembled by Historical Society Director Frank Lipo, included fliers proclaiming, in 1968 for instance, “Vote Up! You’ve Got Good Government Now — Keep it Up!”
They stopped selling it at some point. Maybe because Americans in general lost faith in the concept of good government. That lack of faith has become a real sickness in this country and a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the VMA proved it was possible. Government we can trust. We have to prove it over and over and over again.
Doug Wyman, a young 90, claiming to still have 10 to 15 good years left in him, recalled that soon after he moved to Oak Park in 1963, there was a knock at the door. It was Dominick Meo, recruiting volunteers for the United Way (then known as the Community Chest). He said something Wyman never forgot. “Every generation has to build its own courthouse.”
“The next generation will build its courthouse,” Wyman predicted, and when they do, “they may even ask for help from you and me.”
If so, he and the other remaining VMA stalwarts have a torch they’d like to pass along.