We’ve said it over and again. Local elected officials — park board, village board, school districts — have one employee. And hiring that employee is always the single most critical decision that body will make.
Nothing good can happen if there isn’t a fundamental alignment in vision, goals and style between the elected officials and the village manager, school superintendent, parks chief. This is a relationship that must include trust, an openness to candid exchanges, active and mutual learning.
This week Oak Park’s electeds will almost certainly hire a new superintendent for the District 97 public elementary schools. An announcement of a hire between the two finalists was on a Tuesday evening agenda — after our press time.
And in a fascinating week, Oak Park’s village board has upended a months-long hiring process that was expected to produce a new village manager by last week. Instead, as we report today, a fourth candidate was added, even after a trio of finalists had been announced and publicly and privately vetted. Then Village President Vicki Scaman told the Journal Monday that two of the three initial finalists had been gently jettisoned.
That leaves two finalists. One is most certainly Kevin Jackson, the late-arriving candidate, who was in town Monday to kick the tires and was actively meeting with trustees. He had already been interviewed virtually by the trustees and separately by department heads and local stakeholders. Members of the public did not have the opportunity to meet virtually with Jackson, seemingly a function of a tight timeline.
While some have found this disruption to a set process to be unnerving, possibly unfair, we are enthused that the board tossed over its plan when clearly its finalists didn’t rock their world.
We have been concerned since the firm recruiting candidates for the post announced it had scrounged up fewer that 40 applicants. We get that we are in a disrupted moment for hiring. While Oak Park might have, in the past, attracted better than 100 candidates for what has traditionally been seen as a prime position, this is a different moment.
With no disrespect, the two outside finalists were underwhelming. The third finalist, Interim Village Manager Lisa Shelley, has the advantage of 20-plus years of experience at Oak Park Village Hall. In making a final choice and a job offer, this board will need to decide how compelling that experience as a longtime number two might prove to be in moving the village ahead.
Reopening the process to an interesting candidate was, to us, a sign of strength by a board that clearly understands it will have a single opportunity to choose a manager. The stakes are high. The expectations ought also be high.