The Oak Park Board of Trustees decided in a 5-2 vote to use the National League of Cities program for equity training during a July 20 village board meeting, without seeking a recommendation from the Community Relations Commission (CRC). Leon Andrews and Rita Ossolinski of the National League of Cities attended the virtual meeting to answer questions and provide more information to board members.

Although multiple public comments called on the board to choose the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), of which the village became a member in January, GARE did not submit a proposal for consideration due to its fast-growing rate of membership. 

Community Relations Commissioner Maya Puentes wrote in public comment that not consulting with the CRC and getting the commission’s feedback was a “clear indication” of the board’s unwillingness to work with the commission in an “honest and collaborative manner.”

Puentes wrote that she attended an all-day training through National League of Cities last year and “was not impressed, especially with how they handled the racial equality and governing portion of the session.”

Going with the National League of Cities, Puentes wrote, would be a mistake not only because of her experience with them but because the organization went through GARE for its own training.

“Why not go straight to the much more knowledgeable source?” Puentes asked.

She also wrote that she believed the request for proposal should have been shared with the CRC when it first came out because the commission acts as an advisory to the board and “equity is what we’re working so hard for.”

Puentes asked the board to postpone the vote, add GARE to the request for proposal (RFP) and allow the CRC to give feedback.

Out of the six equity training organizations that applied, staff recommended the National League of Cities program, called Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL), to the board because of the program’s experience working with local and municipal governments and its customizable training model.

Trustee Dan Moroney supported using the REAL program, saying it was important to utilize a program with municipal government experience.

While the National League of Cities itself is not a training organization, the REAL program provides equity training for municipalities and local elected officials. REAL was created in 2014 following the unrest attending the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Oak Park Human Resources Director Kira Tchang told the board that going with the REAL program would not supersede the village’s existing relationship with GARE but would give the village a greater pool of resources. REAL also provides 20 additional hours of support and virtual training sessions to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

In addition to Tchang, the internal review team that assessed the submitted proposals included Cedric Melton and Cassandra Hurt from the village’s Community Relations Department. The CRC was not provided with the six applications but did provide guiding questions for the interview process.

“I think we have clearly missed the mark on involving some of the most important voices in this decision and that is the CRC,” said Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla.

Trustee Simone Boutet told the board that a program that trains village staff in its entirety was not what she envisioned for staff equity training. Boutet wanted a program that focused on training policymakers on how to create equitable legislation “rather than worrying about the guys on the street fixing the water main.”

“I really don’t feel like that’s the focus of this thing,” said Boutet.

To her, the REAL program sounded more like diversity training rather than equity training.

“We lead with race in the work we do,” replied Leon Andrews, REAL director.

Creating the foundation, Andrews said, was the first step in governing equitably; policymaking was the second step.

He also informed the board that prior to submitting their proposal to the village of Oak Park, the National League of Cities informed GARE of their intention to do so. According to Andrews, all equity training organizations work together to support the wider mission of more equitable practices in the United States and do not compete against each other.

Walker-Peddakotla maintained that the board should include the CRC in making the decision.

“This is something the CRC has been fighting for since 2017,” said Walker-Peddakotla. “To leave their voice out of it is just not OK right now.”

Walker-Peddakotla and Trustee Susan Buchanan brought forward a motion to postpone the vote to allow the Community Relations Commission (CRC) time to give their feedback; the motion failed in a 4-3 vote.

The non-competitiveness among organizations impressed Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who gave the National League of Cities and its REAL program his affirmative vote.

“I respect that they all work together,” said Abu-Taleb. “I would support going with you folks tonight.”

Abu-Taleb and trustees Jim Taglia, Deno Andrews, Boutet and Moroney all voted in favor of choosing the National League of Cities. Buchanan and Walker-Peddakotla cast the two dissenting votes.

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