Oak Park’s longtime village manager Cara Pavlicek is hanging up her hat Thursday. Rounding out her final days in her post, Pavlicek reflected on her decade-long tenure as Oak Park’s top administrative official, the COVID-19 response and the village’s future without her.
“I think I could get in my head and act like, ‘Oh, I’m so important. When I leave what’s going to happen?’” she said.
Pavlicek is leaving Oak Park at a tender time – the pandemic is still real; development of the fiscal year’s budget will soon begin in earnest; an almost entirely new set of elected officials sits at the village board table. However, she feels she is leaving the village in good hands, sharing her confidence in the leadership of the village board and Lisa Shelley, Pavlicek’s former deputy who is stepping up as interim village manager until a permanent replacement is found.
Speaking of the village board, she said, “They want great things for this organization. They’ll move through the processes and everyone will be grownups about it,” she said. “We’ll be fine.”
The ostensible ease with which she is passing the reins may shock some of Pavlicek’s critics. In her almost 10 years as village manager, some have labeled her as overly controlling and her leadership style as highly regulatory. Pavlicek has taken the knocks with a grain of salt, believing inherent sexism the reason for much of the criticism sent her way.
“I think the last time I looked a few years ago, 13 percent of the [municipal government] managers are women,” said Pavlicek.
While others have called her leadership approach micromanaging, she considers herself disciplined and efficient. Discipline and efficiency, according to Pavlicek, are integral in running government responsibly.
“You can’t run $150 million organizations, being willy-nilly and just letting people do whatever they want,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I say that or a man says that, but some people react differently to women.”
She believes people have different expectations for women in the workplace that are incongruent with those for men. Still, Pavlicek told Wednesday Journal that being a woman in a position of power that is habitually occupied by men has not prevented her from carrying out her duties.
“I still try to do my job the way it’s required in the municipal code and that does mean that I have to make decisions,” she said. “I’m OK with that.”
Pavlicek has managed to make friends of those who could have once been considered dubious. Oak Park’s previous village president Anan Abu-Taleb, a local restauranteur, and Pavlicek initially butted heads. Abu-Taleb later became one of Pavlicek’s fiercest supporters.
“It wasn’t symbiotic at all,” she said of the start of their relationship. “I think Anan and I both came from a place of caring about the community deeply.”
The early tension between them was the result of the two having different approaches to governing. Once corrected, Abu-Taleb and Pavlicek became an effective team, with the latter matching the former’s intensity and pace. Of the projects completed during Abu-Taleb’s time as village president, or mayor as he preferred, the village of Oak Park had multiple high-rise buildings constructed and Madison Street revitalized. Pavlicek called the alley renovation project Abu-Taleb’s most overlooked accomplishment.
“He got the support of the village board for a multi-year program where an additional $5 million every year was put into local alleys,” she said.
At the time she became village manager, the poor condition of Oak Park’s alleys was the number one cause of complaint for residents, according to Pavlicek.
In a matter of days, Pavlicek will start her new position as village manager of Northbrook. She is replacing Rich Nahrstadt, who spent 13 years in the role. Unlike Oak Park, Northbrook does not have its own public health department, presenting a significant change for Pavlicek, adding that she has no history working with the Cook County Public Health Department.
“All governments have a greater sensitivity to public health than I think we ever used to,” she said.
The village of Oak Park consolidated its public health department as a budgetary measure in 2015. Pavlicek recalled that the village even considered doing away with the department entirely – something that would have made Oak Park’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis drastically different. Oak Park is in the process of beefing up the department by hiring an environmental health services supervisor and a health education manager, a newly created position.
Pavlicek’s departure puts village staff in a position that only comes in a leadership transition. Once the village board appoints a permanent replacement, staff will have a new boss who could potentially have far less knowledge of the village itself than they do.
“I really do compliment the village board for being sensitive to that transition for the employees of the organization,” said Pavlicek. “They moved expeditiously to name an interim and I think that creates some safety net.”
She understands that transition can be uncomfortable, even frightening at times.
“It’s OK,” she told Wednesday Journal. “Change happens.”