The money set aside in the village of Oak Park’s 2022 capital improvement plan (CIP) to either improve the dismal condition of its existing police station in the basement of village hall or build a new facility entirely remains a bone of contention for Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla. The project’s inclusion in annual budgets has prompted the trustee to vote against the CIP every year since she took office.

This time around proved no different. While the CIP plan was ultimately adopted by the village board Oct. 18, Walker-Peddakotla voted against doing so. Hers was the only dissenting vote.

“The fact of the matter is this village board is doing exactly the opposite of what citizens demanded in 2020 in the civil rights protest,” she said.

Referencing a 2019 space needs assessment that was conducted of the police station, Walker-Peddakotla told the board she felt it was ignoring two years’ worth of previous conversations and was continuing to throw “taxpayer’s dollars at just reassessing the assessment that was already done.”

The CIP includes $322,600 in expected fiscal year 2022 expenditures for the renovation or reconstruction of the police department and attributes a bond anticipation note as the source of that funding. That same funding source, according to the CIP, will also account for the project’s expected expenditures for fiscal years 2023 and 2024 – $16.25 million and $16.12 million, respectively.

The space needs assessment provided possible avenues for improvement of the current facility but a decision was never made by previous village boards.

Walker-Peddakotla had an ally in the agenda item’s sole public commenter, teenage resident Cat Nickles, who urged the village board against spending money on police facilities.

The funds set aside in the CIP are merely a placeholder, said Village President Scaman, who said no plans or schematics for the project would be developed until after the village has engaged the public in community safety conversations. A consultant has been chosen to conduct that discussion.

Walker-Peddakotla’s arguments against putting money toward better police facilities failed to sway the other members of the village board. The other trustees, as well as the village president, considered the condition of the police department unignorable.

Trustee Susan Buchanan, whose line of work is occupational environmental health, called the current police department facility “not acceptable.”

“It hasn’t been for a long time,” said Buchanan. “I support getting –whatever form our public safety is – getting them a better space.”

The police department is located in the basement of village hall. Trustee Chibuike Enyia noted that other members of village staff, not just police department personnel, work out of village hall and the basement serves as the building’s foundation.

As a former building manager, Enyia said he could not let the basement of village hall fall into further disrepair. Recognizing that people care deeply about the issue of policing, Enyia wanted the community to understand that addressing the condition of the police department was necessary for village hall to remain a functioning building.

“This is to repair the foundation of the building,” said Enyia. 

Scaman agreed, stating that the village board has a duty to uphold the building and prioritize the safety of its employees, including those who work at the police station.

The decision to put money toward better police facilities, said Trustee Jim Taglia, should be based neither on political nor personal views. Rather, the decision should be made on a “sober” evaluation of the state of village infrastructure and whether it compromises the village’s ability to provide services to the public.

Adding that he believes the discourse on policing happening nationally is necessary and needed, Taglia felt all people deserve fair work conditions.

Trustee Ravi Parakkat echoed Taglia’s views and encouraged the public to visit the police station and see the windowless, overcrowded environment firsthand. He told the board he was appalled by the station and completely supportive of putting money toward improving it.

“I don’t see a way we cannot do this and look ourselves in the mirror,” he said.

Just as Walker-Peddakotla was unable to sway her fellow board members, her fellow board members were unable to sway her.

“The argument isn’t that everybody in village hall doesn’t deserve a safe place to work,” she said. “The argument is that we are continuing to spend money on the police while not even having done an ounce of work to hold them accountable.”

Citizen Commission appointments

The Oak Park Village Board made progress in rebuilding its citizen commissions, Oct. 18, appointing a total of 14 people to fill vacancies on various commissions.

Initially, the motion to approve the appointments sailed through the village board easily. However, Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla had second thoughts.

About a half an hour into the meeting and well after the board voted to approve the appointments, Walker-Peddakotla asked if the vote could be retaken, so she could change her prior “yes” to a “no.”

The request was prompted by the appointment of Dana Wright to the Citizen Police Oversight Committee (CPOC). Wright’s past work in law enforcement made the citizen unfit to sit on the commission in Walker-Peddakotla’s eyes. The trustee told her fellow board members that she had not noticed that part of Wright’s history in the documents provided to the village board.

“We need citizens on CPOC — citizens who can hold the police accountable,” Walker-Peddakotla said. “We should not be appointing law enforcement-adjacent personnel to CPOC.”

Trustees Susan Buchanan, Chibuike Enyia, Ravi Parakkat and Jim Taglia voted against reconsidering the original commission appointments and Walker-Peddakotla’s motion failed 4-3. The commission appointments stand.

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