On Aug. 20, Cara Pavlicek, Oak Park’s village manager, will interview for a new job in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is one of four finalists for the post as city administrator.

My question is simple. Is Pavlicek looking to advance her career with a move to a larger city, a prestigious university town, maybe one with more resources? Or is she plotting her escape from a town with a dysfunctional village board, a certain to be contentious election eight months out, a budget hollowed out by COVID-19?

Some of both is an acceptable answer. But this isn’t just about Ann Arbor, as handsome a city as it is, as much a step up on the city manager ladder as it might represent.

Oak Park is becoming ungovernable. And that’s far beyond the heavy, very real challenges of this pandemic. More than likely that Ann Arbor has COVID, too.

Oak Park has gone from a town known to confront challenges to one that is hamstrung by those challenges. Top of the list is equity. While other local taxing bodies have been bold and determined in facing up to systemic racism, in building out plans to make real change on equity, the village government has been sleepwalking. 

Looking back longingly to the 1970s and Fair Housing initiatives is not a substitute for waking up and seeing failings and missed opportunities to lead on this most elemental issue of our times. That Oak Park is behind and so tentative on rethinking policing is the key indicator that we have been distracted and are now divided.

Pavlicek bears responsibility on this issue. She didn’t lead. Ultimately, though, she works for the village board and we are saddled with a group that is divided and suspicious of each other.

Village managers are expert at reading village boards. They can count votes. They can gauge winds of change. They feel the brunt of board discord as it always results in conflicted demands on staff resources, it always undermines morale when staff sees the dissension. 

Currently, as the board stumbles around in equity debates, in rethinking policing, this board – and it’s made worse by Zoom meetings – has sent the manager nothing but conflicting signals which translate into potholes, confusion and more discord. 

Maybe Pavlicek wants to move on as a natural career progression. Eight years in as Oak Park’s manager and she has already far exceeded the average life expectancy for a village manager. These are tough jobs in ordinary circumstances but almost impossible jobs when the politics turn treacherous as they have in Oak Park. 

The last thing Pavlicek would want is to endure the dysfunction of the current board, the vicissitudes of a harsh campaign and April election and then wind up as a casualty of whatever conflicted board Oak Park voters assemble. 

One of the three currently announced candidates for village president is sitting trustee Simone Boutet. A former assistant village attorney not promoted to the lead job by Pavlicek, Boutet has always had it in for the manager. She said so. It is why she ran for trustee. 

Interesting that Boutet is the only trustee contacted by the Journal for our news story this week who chose not to comment. Even trustees who have been critical of Pavlicek, including Susan Buchanan and Arti Walker-Peddakotla, gave the manager her due as a professional in a tough job.

So what happens if Pavlicek gets the Ann Arbor nod? She’ll be in good shape. Someone on staff will get tapped as interim village manager. And a badly divided board will launch a search process that will be just as contentious and cringeworthy as many recent efforts.

What happens if Pavlicek doesn’t get the Ann Arbor gig? My, my, my. A lame duck in a pandemic with a split board, hard to resolve issues, and at the center of an unhappy election cycle. All while still looking for another job.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...