It seems a new era of calm and improved communication has begun at Oak Park’s village board table. Trustees interact with each other politely during meetings as Village President Vicki Scaman calmly shepherds the board through its docket of agenda items. In the two months since Oak Park’s new village board members were sworn in, no major public arguments have broken out.
In independent interviews with Wednesday Journal, mid-term trustees Jim Taglia, Susan Buchanan and Arti Walker-Peddakotla reflected on the change in dynamics between board members, as well as between staff, from the previous two years.
“It has been a little bit like night and day,” said Buchanan.
One of the factors that has contributed to the change, Buchanan believes, is the political views of the new faces at the board table –temporarily a virtual table as in-person meetings have yet to resume.
“Overall, it’s a more progressive board,” she said.
The board has made a number of goals related to increased sustainability and equity, revamped community safety and proactive transparency. The goals are not dissimilar from those made by the previous board, according to Buchanan, but the current board is more committed to achieving theirs.
“We made goals two years ago, and I never heard a word about them again,” she said.
Buchanan relayed that it took her two years on the board, then under the leadership of former village president Anan Abu-Taleb, to figure out the staff member in charge of coordinating meeting agendas.
“I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t getting follow-up on items that were clearly priorities for the majority of the board,” said Buchanan. “And that was due to a lack of accountability and a lack of transparency.”
She credits the current board’s mutual desire for improved governmental accountability and transparency as being one of the biggest changes to come from the board’s turnover.
Taglia feels it unfair to categorize the previous board as unwilling to promote accountability regarding goals, especially considering how COVID-19 has impacted the village.
“What members forget, on occasion, is that we’ve gone through a pandemic that has totally changed every facet of what we do at village hall,” he said. “We’ve all been working remotely, and the board didn’t meet for three months.”
He cited keeping village spending at a reasonable level and preserving only a three percent increase to its tax levy yearly as goals the previous board both committed to and saw accomplished.
Taglia doesn’t believe the current board is more united than the previous board.
“From my perspective, again, it’s the same,” he said, adding that he got along with the members of the previous board just as he gets along with current members.
Walker-Peddakotla believes there has been a “marked difference” between the previous board and the current.
“It’s a pretty seismic change,” said Walker-Peddakotla.
She believes the board’s set of goals are more progressive than any previous Oak Park village board has set to her knowledge. While board members are united now, Walker-Pedakkotla thinks it possible that could change.
“We have yet to have really difficult conversations,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see how those conversations go.”
The relationship between the board and staff evolves, taking time to establish consistent pace for operations, said Walker-Peddakotla. With the goals approved, she is interested to see how staff will work to achieve them.
While Taglia said he is in regular communication with current members, just as he was with the previous members, Walker-Peddakotla has said her scope of communication has widened with the new board.
“I would say I didn’t really communicate with previous board members,” she said, citing Buchanan as the exception. “Now I’m communicating on a regular basis with almost all of the board members.”
The previous board was notable for public discord among members, which occasionally led to arguments. Taglia was reluctant to discuss past acrimonious relationships, but Buchanan was candid.
“I was ready for that session to be over,” she said. “Because of the differing personalities.”
Walker-Peddakotla, who often sparred with previous members over racial equity in relation to community safety, felt it important to convey that an absence of arguments is not necessarily better than an abundance.
“Sometimes the absence of dysfunction could mean that people are comfortable, and they’re not really making any changes,” she said. “I think conversation sometimes require healthy debates.”