In the village of Oak Park’s first meeting of the “Reinventing Government Committee” in three years, the village board spent a significant part of its discussion of citizen commissions entertaining Trustee Ravi Parakkat’s untraditional take on the role trustees should play in guiding commission operations. That back-and-forth accounted for nearly one half of the two-hour meeting Sept. 28.
The discussion began with Village President Vicki Scaman explaining that Oak Park’s citizen commissions serve to provide advice and recommendations to the village board, with a village trustee serving as a liaison to each commission.
The trustee liaison is meant to work with the commission chair to ensure that the village board’s goals are adequately incorporated into the commission’s work plan, which the commission creates but the village board approves annually. Scaman sought to make it “very clear” that the trustee liaison was not to sway the commission’s decision making.
“The involvement is not as an additional member of the commission,” Scaman said of the trustee liaison role.
This limitation left Parakkat, who previously sat on a citizen commission, markedly unsatisfied. His frustration was made all the more apparent by his follow up question of whether trustees were allowed to “influence the commission’s agenda.”
In response, Scaman told him that such behavior can intimidate commissioners into not sharing their honest opinions.
“There might be someone on that commission who isn’t sharing their opinion because it might be in opposition to yours,” she said.
This explanation did little to assuage Parakkat’s confusion. After telling Scaman she misunderstood his question, the rookie trustee asked if village trustees can interject in commission meetings to share a certain point of view, provided they are not that commission’s trustee liaison.
“When is it stepping over the other person’s toes versus keeping that line of communication intact with a level of integrity?” he asked. “So that we’re efficient as an entity.”
Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla thought Parakkat posed an “important” question considering that trustees do not choose the commission to which they are assigned as liaison.
With a diplomatic preamble about relationship building and navigating potentially difficult conversations, Scaman told Parakkat that trustees should not be actively participating in any commission meeting.
“They should be letting the members of the commission do the work,” she said.
If a trustee has a passionate point of view about an issue considered by a commission, the appropriate place for sharing that point of view is at the board table or between trustees but in line with the Open Meetings Act, according to Scaman.
Trustee Susan Buchanan then hopped in to add that the board ultimately votes on every item that passes through each commission, which allows each trustee a chance to share individual perspectives.
“Even if you think a commission is going in the wrong direction, you don’t get to direct them because we work as a majority rule,” she said. “You don’t really have that power.”
In response, Parakkat told Buchanan that was not the point he was trying to make. To better elucidate his thoughts, he provided the example of the Building Codes Advisory Commission, stating he was the trustee liaison to that commission and Buchanan, hypothetically, was a trustee very interested in building codes.
Parakkat concluded his hypothetical with a series of questions including, “What is the appropriate communication?” and, “What is the communication to the commission?” as well as, “When does it get to the board?”
“I’m trying to figure out how much importance we are placing on those structures,” Parakkat told the board. “Let’s decide that together now.”
Trustee Chibuike Enyia, who Scaman noted had been waiting a considerable amount of time to speak, asked Parakkat whether he had encountered a situation recently wherein a trustee was not able to share an opinion during a commission meeting.
“Is this just something you’re thinking might be a future bump in the road?” Enyia asked.
Parakkat told Enyia he posed his questions because he could see something like that happening in the future, based on what he was noticing at present “in terms of how the structures are playing out.”
“I would rather preempt that conversation rather than react to it,” Parakkat said.
Parakkat then returned to his building codes commission example, stating there was a “correlation” between it and the Energy and Environmental Commission (EEC), on which Parakkat previously served as commissioner.
“The lines get blurred,” Parakkat said. “Let’s define it efficiently.”
As Buchanan acts as the trustee liaison to the EEC, Scaman told Parakkat it was “reasonable” that Buchanan would be very interested in the building codes commission, which, again, does not exist.
“Likewise, we have commissions that would really like to work together and collaborate on initiatives as well,” said Scaman, who agreed that they could work to define relationships more clearly.
She then returned to the responsibilities of the trustee liaison, stating that trustee liaisons typically attend roughly one to four meetings of their commission per year. She stated that the board could discuss how often trustee liaisons should go to their respective commission meetings but noted that the trustee liaison runs the risk of making the chair “feel potentially overpowered by an elected official in the room” if they go too often.
“Go ahead and let that chair do their job,” the village president said.
At an as yet undetermined date, the village board will return in its capacity as the “Reinventing Government Committee” to discuss citizen commissions further.