Oak Park’s village board was split across ideological and gender lines during its heated, emotional and, at times, tearful discussion on Jan. 19 of whether to include on the April 6 ballot a non-binding but controversial referendum: “Shall the village of Oak Park defund its police department?”
The referendum was proposed by Trustee Dan Moroney, a candidate for village president, and seconded by Trustee Deno Andrews, up for reelection. The board’s three female trustees were staunchly against the referendum and overtly critical of Moroney’s intentions, while the referendum won the support of the board’s two other male members – Trustee Jim Taglia and Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb. The referendum narrowly made it onto the ballot by a 4-3 vote.
“This is an advisory referendum,” Moroney said. “As a new board comes on, it’s a point of reference.”
Moroney told his fellow board members that the “concept” of the referendum was brought to him by a few residents over the holidays and that he agreed with their sentiments.
“Their point was, and I agree, that despite this direction that we’re headed in, the defunding vernacular, the defunding concept, the defunding advocacy has not stopped.,” Moroney said.
The village board over the last year has pledged to reform policing but the extent to which and how to do so has caused many arguments between trustees.
Moroney cited emails sent to the board by the public calling for the defunding, and in some cases, abolition of the police force. He also mentioned that local activist group Freedom to Thrive Oak Park has started an “Abolitionist Book Club,” and added, without saying her name, that the group has ties to Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla.
The club’s reading material, Moroney told the board, includes an opinion piece published in the New York Times, titled, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.”
“That is what we’re being asked to do,” said Moroney. “That is the language of the most strident advocates in this space.”
Defunding police essentially means reallocating or redirecting funding from the police department to other social services or government agencies. There is no standard percentage by which to defund the police or set timeframe in which to do so. Abolishing is the dissolution of a police force entirely.
Moroney told Wednesday Journal after the meeting he does not believe that the concept of defunding and abolishing were interchangeable terms but stated that “the most vocal advocates’ goal is to abolish the police.”
Trustee Simone Boutet accused Moroney of proposing the referendum because he holds a vendetta against Walker-Peddakotla and leveraging his feelings at the expense of the community.
“When you take an issue like this that invokes fear and is done through, essentially, hatred of one trustee for another – whose whole purpose in running for office is hatred of one trustee,” said Boutet, referencing Moroney’s campaign for village president, “you divide the community at a time when our community is so gravely at risk.”
Fear, hatred and anger are felt on both sides of the political spectrum, Boutet stated.
“That is what the purpose of [referendum] is. It’s to increase anger and fear,” said Boutet.
While Boutet said she doesn’t agree with defunding the police in the sense of eliminating officers, those who will vote against defunding the police will do so out of fear for their safety, according to Boutet, and those who vote for defunding the police are doing it out of fear of the police.
“Fear on both sides is destructive to society,” Boutet said. “How we should be deciding these issues is based on information.”
Boutet also believed the referendum question confusing to voters.
Trustee Susan Buchanan called it “irresponsible” to use a term in a ballot referendum that has many different connotations but no universal meaning.
“This word ‘defund,’ that has Trustee Moroney so triggered, has many meanings,” said Buchanan.
Moroney’s proposal, according to Buchanan, assumes that the village board’s sole duty is to vote according to the people’s will, which is not always what is morally sound.
“If elected officials only voted per the will of the people, we’d still have segregation, Jim Crow and poll taxes,” Buchanan said. “Ending those policies took actions that were in direct opposition to the will of the majority.”
Buchanan also voiced her suspicion of Moroney’s motivations, suggesting his intention behind the referendum was more Machiavellian in nature.
“This looks an awful lot like Trustee Moroney is proposing this referendum because he’s put out by racial justice activists in this town,” said Buchanan.
“That this one concept of defunding the police has gotten under his thin skin to such a degree that he could use our legislative process to score a point against them shows an appalling lack of integrity.”
Those who thought Moroney’s “stunt” showed the leadership skills of a good village president, she continued, “I beg to differ.”
Buchanan proposed changing the wording on the referendum question to read as, “Shall the village of Oak Park use funds previously budgeted for the police department to establish a non-police response to mental health and other non-emergency calls?”
A longtime advocate of police reform, Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla voiced her support for defunding the police, as well as her distaste for Moroney’s referendum.
“Defunding the police is the civil rights issue of our generation,” Walker-Peddakotla said.
Walker-Peddakotla railed against Moroney for claiming that the village board had multiple advancements in its goal to address and reform systemic racism within law enforcement.
“The board has done nothing. What we’ve done is said, ‘Oh, let’s hire a consultant,’ –
A consultant that has yet to be hired,” said Walker-Peddakotla.
Walker-Peddakotla felt that the referendum was yet another hurdle preventing the board from having a genuine conversation about reforming policing practices.
“Trustee Moroney has the audacity to say that the advocacy has not stopped; it has not stopped because the issue is still ongoing,” she said.
“He is putting something on the ballot,” said Walker-Peddakotla, “to fearmonger his way to winning the election as village president.”
Trustee Deno Andrews called the defund the police “slogan” too “vague” and, when used to drive legislation, “dangerous.” The lack of an agreed upon meaning contributes to the community’s inability to hold any productive conversations to discuss defunding, Andrews believes.
“We’re divided in this community because of this slogan,” Andrews said.
The referendum, according to Andrews, gives the public the ability to drive the discussion and vet the candidates running for village board.
“Villagers deserve to know how all the candidates feel about the slogan,” said Andrews, himself a trustee candidate.
Walker-Peddakotla countered that the slogan was created by Black activists designed to call into attention the systemic racism within policing.
“We all know that it is a push poll designed to sway an election,” said Walker-Peddakotla.
Trustee Jim Taglia said he believes that hiring a police reform consultant and posing the referendum aren’t mutually exclusive. While he said he understands that police reform is a “vital, very personal” topic, he saw no harm in the referendum.
“I just don’t think, final analysis, that this is our community’s undoing,” said Taglia, who also said he liked the referendum’s phrasing as is.
Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb criticized Walker-Peddakotla, saying she does not cooperate with her fellow board members and only represents one faction of Oak Park citizens.
“You’ve made it clear that you don’t represent the whole community,” Abu-Taleb said.
Abu-Taleb called out Walker-Peddakotla and Buchanan for voting to defund the police last August; Buchanan said she did not care for the word “defund” and would never vote in a sudden decrease in police.
“I, as mayor, value public safety as the number one priority for our community,” he said, adding that activists would like to see the police defunded by one-third which would eliminate about 40 jobs out of 120 sworn officers in Oak Park.
Abu-Taleb said Oak Park police are “extremely excellent to the community” and that it is not fair to view the village’s police force based on the national mindset of treating each police department the same.
“We have a police department that represents and looks like our community,” said the mayor. “I would like to keep that.”
Abu-Taleb repeated that defunding the police would not happen during his tenure as mayor.
“I feel like this is a referendum against me, as a person and what I stand for and the advocacy work that I do,” said Walker-Peddakotla.
Through tears and invoking Tamir Rice, a young man killed by police in Cleveland, Walker-Peddakotla said she put forth the resolution to defund the police last August with the intention to start a conversation.
“It was a referendum to say these are the things we should be talking about,” said Walker-Peddakotla, who added she created Freedom to Thrive Oak Park and called Moroney’s referendum a “referendum against the Black Lives Matter movement.”
“You all are so scared to just have a conversation when peoples’ lives are at stake,” said Walker-Peddakotla. “And I am unable to hold my emotions on this anymore because it’s ridiculous and you should vote no on it.”
Out of the 31 public comments submitted, 23 urged the village board to vote against
adding the referendum. Many comments were laced with criticism, describing the referendum as “grandstanding,” “not genuine” and “distasteful.” Among the commenters against the referendum was Oak Park Public Library Board President Matt Fruth. Jack Powers, a member of the Citizens Police Oversight Committee, submitted one of eight public comments in favor of the referendum.
“This board should be absolutely ashamed if this goes through,” said Walker-Peddakotla. “This board should be just so [expletive] ashamed.”
While Moroney, Taglia, Andrews and the mayor voted in favor of adding the referendum, Boutet and Buchanan voted “no, and ashamed.” Walker-Peddakotla voted, “[Expletive] no.”