There’s no surprise to news that Cara Pavlicek, Oak Park’s village manager for the past nine years, is leaving her post and taking the top spot in suburban Northbrook. She will depart village hall in mid-August.
With those years of service as interim and permanent manager, coupled with three previous years in the thankless post of parking czar for the village, Pavlicek has already beat the average term of service for managers by a wide margin. That she was looking a year ago and came up second for a prestigious post as city manager in Ann Arbor was also an obvious sign she was ready — to get out of Oak Park or for a new challenge. Maybe both.
Oak Park is a hard town to manage. The issues are complex, from integration to equity, from obsolete infrastructure to property tax saturation. Our politics have gone from intensely opinionated to near toxic. And now there is a newly formed village board that will inevitably, and not incorrectly, see Pavlicek as the mainstay of policies it seeks to move past.
As she readies her departure — which will be fully professional — we focus on the many successes she has crafted over her tenure. Promoted to the post in the wake of the financial collapse of 2009, Pavlicek had the burden and the opportunity to wring costs out of village government. Between folding in departments and privatizing some services, Pavlicek consolidated leadership and streamlined reporting which focused in the manager’s office. Some took offense and branded her as power hungry. We saw a woman in charge and taking some heat for the leadership she exhibited.
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The manager’s post was open after a frustrated village board fired her predecessor for his unwillingness to remake village hall with new technology and more logical processes. Pavlicek took a building and permitting department that continually frustrated citizens and contractors, entrepreneurs and landlords, and remade it in short order. She restructured departments and consolidated services even when it ruffled critics. She finally set Oak Park on a path of continuous investment in infrastructure.
And then came COVID. Hard to imagine village government being more responsive and resilient to this overwhelming disaster than it was under Pavlicek’s leadership.
There are exceptions, HR comes to mind, but it is notable to us how several of Pavlicek’s key department heads have been with her through it all. Our relations with Pavlicek have always been cordial and professional. She was responsive to our questions, respectful when, at times, she chose not to answer them.
Hard to overstate the challenges just ahead for this new board. It is good they will choose their own manager. This board’s focus on policing, equity, climate, transparency, will need new thinking from its single employee. But the learning curve for a board with only one member having served longer than two years, with a manager learning both the ways of the board and the intense issues of running this organization, well, it is going to be measured in half years and full years of transition.
It will be useful that the village president, Vicki Scaman, served within village hall as clerk for the past four years.
Even as we start looking forward, we look back with thanks to Cara Pavlicek.