It’s not easy to do pomp and protocol in the caverns of Oak Park’s public works garage on South Boulevard. But it happened Monday evening as Oak Park village government leaders gathered face-to-face for the first time in more than a year to conduct the transfer of power from a mayor to a new village president and three of six sitting trustees stepped away from the board, their seats taken by newly elected trustees.
There was a happy and heady feeling in the spruced-up space with an American flag well placed and well lit between the two fairly shiny village dump trucks that served as the backdrop to the ceremonial village board meeting. The wide-open space was socially distanced within an inch of its life. There were pods of folding chairs for the families of the departing and the arriving electeds. The sound system worked. The internet, you likely noted with a curse on Monday, did not, so there was no live streaming of the event.
That’s too bad because more people should have seen this momentous transition.
This will not be a new village board of incremental change. This is a sharply revised board, different in its blessed diversity — two new trustees, Chibuike Enyia and Ravi Parakkat, wore clothing reflecting their roots in Nigeria and India respectively, as clear visuals of what’s new. It was noted this is Oak Park’s first village board with a majority of women. The change in tenor, priorities and goals is large and profound.
As in all handoffs, those closing their terms of service, or shifting to a newly configured board, were generally laudatory of their shared work, willing to paper over the genuine tensions we all observed. Even so, as thanks and praise were traded, there were intended slights in missed mentions. Mostly, though, those leaving the stage recognized that the evening was about those whom the voters soundly placed in power.
In a forceful, maybe overly strong, farewell, Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb gave a full-throated defense of his eight years in office, his laser focus on economic development with a “when we do well, we do good” mantra, which implied that other, smaller issues self-resolve if there is growth aplenty.
He’s not wrong about development, but the other issues aren’t going away and demand focus. From an array of candidates, voters chose a progressive — but not most progressive — village president and board to steer this village.
In his first board remarks, Parakkat remembered his father sending him away to college with the question, “Why are you going?” That question, he said, is now a tradition in his family as new journeys begin. As he joins the village board, he said his answer is “to bring Oak Park together, to be a community that leads others and the nation on topics that matter.”
Enyia thanked his creator and his family as he spoke first. He noted that he joins what is by far the most diverse village board in Oak Park history and then spoke to that history. “The village government led on equity but then stalled out,” he said, promising to help create a governing tool that will bring a race and equity lens to all board decisions.
Lucia Robinson promised “compassion-centered leadership” with a focus on better listening to citizens and among members of the board.
Each of the three new trustees, with Mexican, Nigerian and Indian heritages, talked with emotion about their gratitude to parents and to circumstances that had brought them to Oak Park. “I feel immense gratitude to Oak Park, a community which has given me so much, which welcomed my family out of our inner-city neighborhood,” said Robinson.
This was a palpable pride, a nothing-taken-for-granted ethos, a we-can-do-better message that was an affirmation of what local government can and must do.
Vicki Scaman, shifted seats from village clerk to village president in the course of the meeting. She offered the final thoughts of the evening, not surprisingly bringing warm thanks to those who had served, those who had campaigned this winter and spring, those now her colleagues on this board.
“We need to listen and learn,” she said, “without being defensive.” She lauded Oak Park’s spirit and resilience while acknowledging “our history is not perfect. We need bold conversations so that we do not miss this moment, the call of our time on racial reckoning.” She added focus on climate, on building the small business community, on working collaboratively with neighboring communities as key goals.
“I am very optimistic about our future,” she said. “We will not let you down.”