Following the dramatic announcement that six of seven members of Oak Park’s Community Relations Commission (CRC) submitted a joint resignation letter Tuesday evening, those departing volunteers and two sympathetic Oak Park trustees spent Wednesday explaining their decisions.
Meanwhile Glenn Brewer, the chair of the CRC, a former village trustee, and the one commission member who did not resign, said he understood why his colleagues made their decision but that he would stay on to continue the commission’s work.
“I believe that there’s a lot of work that the CRC still has left to do,” said Brewer. “And I’m committed to trying to accomplish that.”
In an early Tuesday press release sent to Wednesday Journal, the departing commissioners wrote, “The decision follows repeated disregard and disparaging remarks regarding CRC recommendations that sought in good faith to advance Oak Park’s efforts on equity and diversity.”
CRC is a nine-member volunteer citizen commission with historic roots going back to Oak Park’s early efforts to foster racial integration in the village in the 1970s. Prior to Tuesday’s resignations, which were effective immediately, the commission had two seats unfilled.
A copy of the formal resignation letter was provided to Wednesday Journal. It details the commissioners’ frustration with Oak Park’s elected village board.
“Over the course of the past three years, the CRC’s contributions have been ignored or disparaged with misogynistic undertones,” the letter reads.
In the letter, the six commissioners said they felt staying on the CRC would be unproductive.
“To continue to meet, to strategize, to advise and put forth recommendations in good faith is to be complicit with a village board whose majority has made their position clear by dismissing the work of the CRC and failing to demonstrate reasonable, measurable progress on racial equity,” the commissioners wrote.
The six commissioners that resigned are Cassandra West, Maya Puentes, Karin Grimes, Yoko Terretta, Jacquelyn Rodriquez and Brynne Hovde.
“Our frustration has spanned for a very long time,” said Puentes.
The en masse resignation follows a decision made by the village board July 20 to use the Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) program through the National League of Cities to provide equity training to village staff without giving the CRC an opportunity to make a recommendation or review the six proposals submitted by different equity training organizations, including the National League of Cities.
Commissioner Puentes implored the board in public comment Monday evening to allow the CRC to review the proposals and make a recommendation. She said she was unhappy with the village using the National League of Cities for equity training.
Village Trustees Arti Walker-Peddakotla and Susan Buchanan presented a motion to postpone the vote and include the CRC in making the final decision regarding which provider to choose. The motion failed in a 4-3 vote with Trustee Simone Boutet joining in.
“The fact that there was a motion to give it back to us for our recommendations, and yet they still decided not to, was just a clear indication to us that no matter what, they are unwilling to work with us,” said Puentes.
Boutet, the village board liaison to the CRC, joined Walker-Peddakotla and Buchanan, in voting in favor of sending the proposals to the CRC for feedback. After the motion failed, Walker-Peddakotla and Buchanan voted against using the League of Cities, while Boutet voted in favor of the organization.
“Her being our liaison, it was very disappointing,” said Puentes. “It was like, ‘You’re supposed to be on our side.'”
The CRC has long advocated for equity training in the village government, but according to Puentes, the CRC made it clear to the board that they did not think the National League of Cities is the right fit for Oak Park.
“This is something that we’ve been fighting for,” said Puentes. “And it was like they did exactly what we didn’t want them to do just because we didn’t want them to do it.”
The six resigning commissioners said they remain dedicated to continuing to work toward strengthening community relations within Oak Park but intend to do so in a capacity not affiliated with the CRC.
“I think it’s important that the community knows that we’re not giving up on them and we’re not doing this as a cop out,” said Puentes. “This is about going where we feel our time and energy are most useful and we know it’s not on the CRC.”
In interviews with Wednesday Journal, Walker-Peddakotla and Buchanan expressed little shock that the six commissioners decided to resign.
“I did not know it was coming, but I am not shocked that that is their response,” said Buchanan. “It just makes me sad that we’re going to lose all the expertise from these good people.”
When the motion to send the proposals to the CRC failed, Buchanan said it was unfortunately par for the course.
“It feels like we continually bump up against the status quo, which is blind faith in the decisions of staff,” said Buchanan.
Buchanan said she has a lot of faith in village staff but that the board’s job is to direct staff.
“We were exercising our right to question the decision that was made and to expect the village staff to not only take guidance from us, but for the commission to guide the village board in its decision,” said Buchanan.
The CRC was asked to develop interview questions but played no other role in the process of selecting an equity training provider.
“That’s not enough advising,” said Buchanan. “There are several people on the CRC that have experience with equity training, have even attended the equity training provided by this particular provider and therefore had very specific feedback to offer.”
Walker-Peddakotla said she completely understands commission members frustration in not being listened to by the board and that the feeling is not uncommon in other commissions.
“I’ve heard this frustration from other commissioners on other commissions as well,” Walker-Peddakotla said.
She called it an “egregious error” that the CRC did not play a more active role in choosing an equity training provider.
“As policymakers we don’t certainly have to agree with the commissions,” Walker-Peddakotla said. “But the commissions are there to serve as an advisory group to the policy makers on the board. Not including their voices is saying we just don’t care about their work.”
Walker-Peddakotla doesn’t blame the commissioners for resigning under the circumstances.
“These commissioners that have been giving their free labor, their free time, their free expertise to this village and then are constantly being maligned, shot down by the village board,” Walker-Peddakotla said. “I don’t blame them for quitting. Because why should they have to take it anymore?”
Brewer, the commission’s sole remaining member, said it was disappointing that the village board voted down Walker-Peddakotla’s motion and that he holds no ill will toward the commissioners for deciding to step down.
“I fully understand what they did and respect their decision,” said Brewer.
Brewer also said he greatly appreciates the service the commissioners gave while on the CRC.
Brewer was informed of the decision made by the six commissioners prior to their resigning but said he was not asked by the commissioners to participate in the joint resignation.
Had they asked, Brewer said he would have declined.
This is a developing story and has been updated to reflect new information.