The two main items on the agenda Monday night for the Oak Park village board were  a discussion of how Oak Park might support small businesses during the pandemic and how to enforce a state ban on indoor dining as COVID-19 spikes.

Topic one devolved into complaints and recriminations among board members and toward business leaders. Topic two was never actively discussed even as some local eateries violate the governor’s edict.

“Government is slow, and changes are gradual,” said Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, effectively but inadvertently summarizing the meeting itself.

The small business discussion began with rousing public comments from Oak Park’s business community, including a letter penned by 16 Suitcases owner Michelle Vanderlaan and signed by several other small business owners.

“We are deeply concerned for the survival of the business community during the pandemic,” Vanderlaan wrote. 

Vanderlaan’s letter stated the business community is interdependent and each business works as a whole to make Oak Park a vibrant, successful place. Calling for a unified and comprehensive campaign to promote local offerings, the letter listed multiple communities that have taken such action successfully.

The letter also asked that the village of Oak Park expand such shopping initiatives as Downtown Oak Park’s Shopper’s Reward program and Better Lake Street Rewards program.

 The village board also received a letter from the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce stating that the chamber had developed a soon-to-be-launched community-wide shop local digital gift card that could serve as “a natural and easy way” for the village to meet its goals. 

The chamber also asked that the board implement a “passionate, cohesive strategy to support” all of Oak Park’s businesses. 

“The chamber has been publicly asking for this since March of this year,” the chamber’s letter read.

The small business recovery taskforce, which according to the letter was started at the insistence of the chamber, was created in May and hasn’t met since July. 

Trustee Dan Moroney said he understood the frustration felt by businesses struggling to survive the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19 but called the idea that the village hasn’t done anything to support the business community “inaccurate.”

At the request of Moroney, Village Manager Cara Pavlicek recited a list of all the ways in which the village has relaxed policies, discounted and waived permit and license fees and issued forgivable grants to support businesses.

Moroney stated that taxpayers would eventually have to eat the cost of the support already given by the village, a number he declared to be in excess of $500,000, through higher tax levies.

Moroney felt it unrealistic to view the village support as being the difference between the business community’s survival and collapse, as the village could only do so much.

Trustee Deno Andrews brought forward a consumer spending match proposal that one of the village’s partners could manage a program wherein people purchase gift certificates at a discount; the village would then make up the difference up to a capped amount. Andrews suggested $25,000. 

Andrews said the small business taskforce had a meeting scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 12, during which he hopes other detailed suggestions will arise.

Trustee Simone Boutet wanted the board not to focus on what it had failed to do before but on what it can do in the immediate to help businesses.

Abu-Taleb expressed his displeasure with some groups, particularly the chamber of commerce, who felt the village has not been supportive of the business community.

“I’m really disappointed in their approach and their tone and the message they put out,” said Abu-Taleb. “I’m very disappointed in the leadership.”

He also urged the board to remember that they direct policy, not marketing initiatives. 

“We give directions to staff,” said “We can give them ideas, but we cannot interfere on how that gets executed.”

Abu-Taleb said it was the board’s “fiduciary responsibility” to respect and honor the village government process.

Trustee Susan Buchanan thought the board didn’t need to come up with additional ideas as numerous stakeholders have given very specific requests. 

Moroney and Boutet wanted to hear specific aid proposals that would dictate exactly how the program would be funded.

“This is not an orderly process,” said Moroney. 

Boutet also wanted to do what was requested by the business community.

“Our lives would be so much easier if we allowed staff to do their jobs,” Abu-Taleb lamented. 

Pavlicek said the duration of the pandemic was longer than any had anticipated, and that staff had presented the idea of a marketing campaign in a “contentious” board meeting early into the COVID-19 crisis.

“The idea of marketing did not have majority support,” said Pavlicek. “It’s really hard for us when an idea is put forward and it’s rejected, not unanimously but by the majority of the board, and then it’s brought back to us.”

Trustee Jim Taglia wanted to defer on any decision making until staff had an opportunity to give a recommendation.

Abu-Taleb directed stakeholders with suggestions to reach out directly to village staff. 

Pavlicek said staff, while stretched with the annual budget process, could put together a proposal to revamp the village-sponsored shopping rewards programs. 

Boutet said the board needed to consider a “visual and beautiful” marketing campaign, which she said has been consistently asked for by businesses. 

“That claim is absolutely not true,” said Andrews. “The restaurant owners overwhelmingly do not want that.”

Andrews and Boutet argued with each other until Abu-Taleb cut them both off. The meeting subsequently adjourned without ever discussing enforcement of the indoor dining ban.  

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