About 20 people tuned into Oak Park’s virtual village manager candidate forum last Sunday night. The forum marked the first occasion the public heard directly from the final pool of candidates, which is now down to Interim Village Manager Lisa Shelley; Eric Johnson of northwest suburban Carpentersville; and Lionel Lyons of Petersburg, Va.
Katy Rush, a staff member of recruitment firm GovHR and a past village manager of nearby Riverside, moderated the forum, which lasted just over an hour and a half. While members of the public had the opportunity to submit their questions prior to the forum, the questions were vetted by GovHR and only Rush was able to interact directly with the finalists.
While Shelley leaned on her considerable experience working for the village of Oak Park for two decades during her answers, Johnson and Lyons had no such luxury. Neither has worked with the village of Oak Park previously.
The topics addressed ran the gamut from candidates’ experience promoting sustainability in local government to the importance of financial solvency. The finalists were united in preaching the importance of working in partnership with elected officials, the community and other taxing bodies and local organizations.
When asked their top three priorities should they become the next village manager of Oak Park, Shelley looked to the village board and its current goals for inspiration. She named sustainability, an assessment of the police department and continuing reparations conversations. As a fourth priority, she named working in partnership with the village board.
Johnson’s priorities were to focus on keeping the village’s financial state “on track” and building relationships with staff, village board, community and stakeholders.
“With the money and the energy and the relationships, you can accomplish anything that the board wants to put forward, but you gotta build that foundation first,” he told the attendees.
He listed boosting morale and trust in government among his top three priorities as well, recounting how the person that proceeded him in the role of village manager of Carpentersville micromanaged employees, made people afraid to admit mistakes for fear of “random firings” and at times conducted “open warfare” with employee unions.
“It was just not a great place to work,” he said.
Johnson told forum attendees he immediately set out to improve the organization’s culture and raise the spirits of staff.
“When people are happy where they work, you’re going to get more productive work out of them. They’re going to feel more engaged and impassioned to do good things for the community,” said Johnson, who has experience both working in government and as an elected official.
For Lyons, who spent decades in city government in Phoenix before moving to a much smaller community in Virginia, his top priorities were to foster continued financial stability, collaborative leadership, as well as engaged leadership and partnership.
“When I talk about engaged leadership, it’s the ability to work, grow and develop the trust of the staff. … to be able to provide the kind of quality services that the village and the community deserves,” he said.
Rush raised diversity and equity as a topic and asked the finalists to describe challenges they have faced regarding diversity in local government.
In Lyons’ time working as the director of the city of Phoenix’s equal opportunities department for the majority of the 1990s, he said one of the biggest issues he encountered was a “police-city council incident,” which he described only as “ugly,” that ultimately led to him and the then-police chief putting together a panel of 50 community partners. Lyons told attendees the panel went on to make 32 recommendations to the mayor and city council that were put in place. He listed civilian police training and body cameras as among key recommendations.
“We think that process was a step in the right direction,” he said.
He also shared that he was very involved in conversations around fair housing and in coordinating the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, as well as reviewing the city’s policies, practices and procedures to ensure the city was making equity a priority.
Shelley mentioned the National League of Cities learning sessions that village staff, the village board and citizen commissions participated in back in 2020. She also talked about committing to hire an equity coordinator during the last budget cycle.
Johnson talked about the efforts Carpentersville, which he said was about “50 percent Latino,” many first-generation immigrants from Mexico, has made to become a more actively inclusive community, following the repeal of an “English only” ordinance for the community which was enacted 10 years ago.
The piece of legislation was “deeply rooted” in fear of the community changing, according to Johnson, but was repealed shortly before he began working with the community. He said that he and the village board have been supporting and funding more cultural events.
The forum was only one part of the final round of interviews. The three finalists will sit through further interviews conducted by panels over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday. The village board is expected to make that final decision by the end of this month or in early February.