Step 1: Village board president proposes to reduce village clerk’s compensation in order to pay for the village board president’s desired compensation increase (Board Minutes, 7/19/2015).

Step 2: As per the village board president’s proposal, village board designates the board president as “mayor” without citizen hearings (Board Minutes, 9/8/2015).

Step 3: Village board more than doubles the board’s, including the “mayor’s,” compensation without citizen hearings (Board Minutes, 10/17/2016).

Step 4: Village board approves a referendum on studying a consolidation of taxing bodies that would transfer power from the voters to the board, including the “mayor,” by transforming currently elected bodies into advisory bodies that would likely be appointed (Board Meeting, 7/30/2018). 

The above describes a gradual restructuring of our village government that is slowly increasing the board’s, and particularly the village board president’s, power while decreasing the power of Oak Park residents and Oak Park entities, including the township, park district and library. The designation of the board president as “mayor,” though seemingly trivial, implies that the position has more power than it was designed to have. That this designation and other steps in the restructuring have occurred, while citizen input has been ignored, dismissed or manipulated, indicates a potential shift in power to even beyond that of “mayor” and to that of autocrat. 

I am struck by how reminiscent these incremental changes are to one of Oak Park’s past brushes with autocratic behavior. In the 1980s a school superintendent, aided by administrators, surreptitiously attempted to restructure Oak Park schools gradually, step by step, into an autocratic environment. In response, many parents, teachers and community groups spoke out, just as many have spoken out against today’s shifts in village government, including against the board’s most recent referendum on studying consolidation. 

In 1983, the Journal published an editorial that praised the aforementioned school officials’ attempted restructuring while ignoring residents’ insight and concern about the autocratic behavior underlying it. This time around, the Journal’s Aug. 1 editorial and opinion piece by Dan Haley, who also ran the paper in 1983, similarly praised the village’s referendum while dismissing and even mocking residents’ current concerns that the referendum is part of a surreptitious attempt to shift the balance of power from the residents to the village. 

It is disappointing to see the Journal repeat history by uncritically dismissing today’s thoughtful insight and concern, particularly given that a 1985 federal court decision confirmed the citizens’ concerns that its 1983 editorial had dismissed: the school superintendent and administration were found, in fact, to have taken autocratic and, in some cases, illegal actions. 

Hopefully, Oak Park residents, with or without the aid of their local paper, will be able to stop the current shift toward autocracy in its earliest steps before it gets to the point of federal court. Doing so starts with voting “No” on the referendum even if it is tempting to vote “Yes” given that the referendum’s phrasing works to manipulate voters by suggesting that consolidation is a matter of potentially reducing taxes rather than the matter of transferring power from the citizens to the board, and particularly the village board president, that it more likely is. 

Bonita Robinson is a longtime resident of Oak Park.

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