What was supposed to be a discussion of a request for proposal for a possible Oak Park sustainability incubator turned into an outright argument during a village board meeting Monday night between Trustee Ravi Parakkat and Village President Vicki Scaman. The discussion, which lasted over an hour, ultimately ended with direction to staff to essentially make no changes to the RFP.
“At every instance, since [the sustainability incubator] got on the board goals, there’s been attempts to try and thwart it, primarily from Vicki,” said Parakkat at the onset of the discussion.
Before the debate began, Scaman commended Parakkat “tremendously for the sustainability incubator,” but the situation soured after the village president said she hoped that the feasibility study would strive to connect the concept with other communities outside of Oak Park.
Parakkat, who proposed the sustainability incubator while running for office a year ago, proceeded to remind the village board that it had agreed to make the incubator one of its goals. However, the board’s support for the incubator and an accompanying feasibility study has always been tepid at best.
Scaman, wishing for this sustainability incubator be a regional pursuit, invited Darnell Johnson, a sustainability architect and Austin native, to share his professional insight into the RFP as written. Johnson is the president of Urban Efficiency Group. The guest found himself in the crosshairs of the fight, with Parakkat, in one instance, directing him to “stick to the point.”
“I am not here to create contention with anyone,” said Johnson, who noted the “acrimonious tone and tenor” of the meeting.
The argument began in earnest not even seven minutes into discussing the agenda item. While recounting an outside discussion he had with Scaman, Parakkat told the board the village president had tried to dissuade him from pursuing the project “largely because of the fact that there are other communities that may want to take the lead on this.”
Scaman immediately jumped in, suggesting she speak for herself or that Parakkat stick to explaining his vision. Parakkat continued, under the guise of providing context, and said he was looking to have this incubator specifically in Oak Park citing “the mandate for me to be on this board that was given by Oak Parkers.”
Parakkat then zeroed in on Scaman for her perceived resistance to the feasibility study and the wider incubator idea. He told the board that he got a call a half an hour before the meeting started alerting him that Scaman was planning some sort of effort to push the project to the side.
“Let’s not have this sort of sideways attack at every juncture,” he told her.
Yet to get heated herself, Scaman responded by saying she thought the RFP had potential and that she did not wish to “contribute to any defensiveness at this time.”
The not-yet-issued RFP calls on qualified firms to submit proposals to conduct a feasibility study in an amount of $10,000, while focusing on the board’s goals. The board goals to “be a leader in racial equity” and “invest in a sustainable future,” Johnson felt went hand-in-hand, but the scope of both needed to be addressed beyond Oak Park.
“The challenges and the issues that are affecting folks of color, specifically, go beyond the boundaries of Oak Park and probably within the boundaries of Oak Park when we start to look at the health-related issues that are associated with sustainability,” Johnson said.
Parakkat immediately shut Johnson down.
“I’m not here to have a debate on those topics,” Parakkat told him.
After his interruption, the trustee would not allow Johnson to finish his explanation. Instead, he essentially told Johnson he was not qualified to participate in the discussion as he was not an elected member of the village board.
“We are talking about a project that a group of people have been elected by the Oak Park residents are sitting together and deciding on,” said Parakkat. “That is the mandate we have. I clearly get the fact that sustainability is a global issue.”
Undeterred, Johnson continued explaining the larger impact collaboration can have on sustainability and equity.
“If you would give me a chance to finish my thought. My point in bringing that up is the issues that you all are trying to address based on the RFP are also being addressed through other efforts as well,” he said.
By partnering with neighboring communities working on similar initiatives, resources could be pooled, and the collective positive impact broadened, said Johnson.
Parakkat told the board he had no problems partnering with neighboring communities “down the road.”
“This feasibility study is only to examine the feasibility of something like this,” said Parakkat. “It is not the project itself.”
Chaos followed when Scaman interjected to remind him that the point of the discussion was to make the RFP itself as well articulated as possible. The raised voices of Scaman and Parakkat were interrupted by Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla.
“I feel like the rest of the board is a third wheel in this conversation,” she said.
Walker-Peddakotla said she believed outside conversations between board members had confused the issue at hand. However, her point was all but drowned out by the resumed argument between Parakkat and Scaman.
“I’m sorry you’re bringing the level of defensiveness that you’re bringing right now,” Scaman told Parakkat.
The argument itself upstaged the 11-page RFP draft, the contents of which the village board was largely fine with releasing. Staff was directed to move forward with the RFP with the option to expand on certain areas should an individual trustee request it.