The Wednesday Journal sent questionnaires to each person running for public office in 2023. The Journal’s questions are in bold and the candidate’s responses are below.
Name: Brian Straw
Previous Political Experience: Field Organizer, Obama for America; campaign volunteer, Represent Oak Park
Previous/Current Community Involvement: Former board member, Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors; member, Transportation Commission Village of Oak Park; pro bono attorney
Occupation: Attorney, Greenberg Traurig
Education: B.A. (cum laude), Hope College; J.D. (cum laude), University of Michigan Law School
1. How would you define the role and responsibilities of a village trustee?
Village Trustees represent our shared values and interests, as they ultimately represent the will of the people at the board table. We need Trustees who will be careful stewards of the community’s resources while investing in equity, sustainability, safety, and economic development. Trustees must be intellectually curious, seek out expertise on issues before the Village Board, and eager to consider the input of the community.
The day-to-day responsibilities of the position are dictated by Oak Park’s Village Manager form of government, which is comparable to how many corporations are organized. The Village Manager acts as the CEO of the Village and the Village Trustees act as the Board of Directors. The Village Trustees, like the Board of Directors, provide strategic direction for the Village (through the board goals process) and oversee the Village’s budgeting process. In addition, the Village Trustees also serve an important legislative function.
While a great deal of emphasis is placed on trustee candidates’ personal visions, goals and initiatives during campaign season – the reality is that an effective board of trustees are stewards of the process, not individual changemakers.
2. In what areas do you believe that the current village board has been successful and in what areas has it been less successful?
The current and previous boards have laid the groundwork towards making great strides on sustainability and equity, but we must elect Trustees who are ready to take that action further. Climate Ready Oak Park (Oak Park’s Climate Action Plan) and the Cross-Community Climate Collaborative (C4) represent a comprehensive, long-range, regional approach to the ongoing climate crisis which, if fully implemented, will make Oak Park a leader in sustainability. Similarly, the Village’s new Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, Dr. Danielle Walker, has the expertise and systematic approach to ensure that the Village will be a leader on equity issues in the years to come—so long as Village Trustees consider her expertise in their decision-making process.
There are at least two issues where Oak Park must act with more urgency: (1) making our streets and sidewalks safer for biking, walking, and public transit and (2) helping small businesses thrive in Oak Park.
The Village Board must prioritize making our streets safe for everyone living, working, and playing in Oak Park–whether biking, walking, driving, or using public transportation. We have seen tremendous ideas proposed by community organizing groups (like Bike Walk Oak Park), but the Village Board has yet to operationalize any of these into a clear vision for transportation safety in Oak Park. The Village Board must act.
Small businesses in Oak Park have had to navigate the pandemic, staffing shortages, and rampant inflation over the past three years. The Village has a history of providing significant incentives to larger businesses and developments, but not offering the same kinds of support to small businesses. Oak Park must work to ease the process of opening a new business in Oak Park and helping existing businesses in Oak Park thrive.
In my conversations with small business owners from across Oak Park, it has become evident that the Village needs to create a small business concierge–someone who assists small business owners navigate the permitting and licensing processes, connects them with grant opportunities relevant to them, and advocates for small businesses within the Village. In addition, the Village and the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation can join forces to determine whether there might be opportunities to partner on providing low-interest loans to small businesses that, when paired with professional services available in the community, could support continued growth and prosperity.
3. As a village trustee, how do you plan to effectively tackle the growing rate of gun violence in Oak Park?
Keeping Oak Parkers safe from gun violence is an absolute priority. Gun violence and public safety are equity issues. Gun violence disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. There is no Oak Park-only solution. We also have to acknowledge that Oak Park is less than five square miles and gun violence is a regional and national issue. As a result, the only way to have a material impact on gun violence in Oak Park is with a regional approach.
The root causes of gun violence and other violent crime or theft are poverty and its associated issues: joblessness, food insecurity, and housing insecurity. Oak Park must participate in regional partnerships—similar to the Cross-Community Climate Collaborative—focused on addressing the root causes of crime, reducing the availability of guns, and establishing gun violence as a public health issue.
In addition, Oak Park must take a creative approach to ensuring that our public safety function is appropriately staffed to meet the challenges ahead. By making sure that calls for service that can best be managed by non-police personnel are referred to alternative response programs, we can reduce the burden on our police while improving outcomes for residents. This will ensure that our law enforcement officers have the staff-time necessary to perform their core law enforcement functions. Village Manager Kevin Jackson is leading a task force developing alternative response models—this is the appropriate path forward for dealing with staffing shortfalls.
Finally, it is vital that we begin treating gun violence as the public health issue that it is. As trustee, I will fully support the Oak Park Public Health Department’s recently adopted strategic plan (also known as “IPLAN”) to address this issue.
Gun violence is an exceedingly complex issue and we have to take a multi-disciplinary approach to solving it in Oak Park. In addition to the response oriented towards gun crime, we need to understand that among children, unsecured firearms are a significant factor in gun deaths. Oak Park should implement a robust program across government partners educating parents on the importance of securing firearms. In addition, Oak Park should offer free gun safety locks through the police department, fire department, and other government partners.
4. Oak Park has received the results of a months-long police department assessment. What areas did you find most compelling and what still needs to be changed?
As the BerryDunn report identified, the Oak Park Police Department’s staffing levels are below both our budgeted staffing levels and the levels recommended in the BerryDunn report.
At the same time, however, there is a nationwide hiring shortage for well-qualified law enforcement officers. The only effective proposals I have seen reported for increasing hiring tend to rely on either significant signing bonuses or hiring less qualified applicants. Either approach could damage the Oak Park Police Department’s reputation in the community.
Instead, we need to take a creative approach to staffing that allows for alternative responses to certain calls for service.
When your garage door is open and your bike is missing, you need an insurance adjuster with a clipboard and a pen, not a sworn officer with a badge and a gun. A call regarding an unhoused person in the park calls for a social worker, not a law enforcement officer. Taking this kind of approach can reduce the burden of calls for service on police, provide better outcomes for members of the community, and has the potential to reduce the tax burden on residents.
It is equally important to note that any discussion of crime and public safety that is limited to policing misses the mark. As discussed above, Oak Park is less than 5 square miles and certain crime in Oak Park is a regional issue. If our goal is to prevent crime—rather than simply to improve our response after the fact—we must work on a regional basis with our neighbors to address the root causes of crime. Oak Park should replicate the regional model we are pioneering with the Cross-Community Climate Collaborative to address root causes of crime on a regional scale.
The primary goal of Oak Park’s response to certain crime should not be to return a stolen car faster, but to prevent the car from ever being stolen in the first place.
5. As we move further away from the height of COVID-19, what role do you believe the Oak Park Public Health Department will serve in the future?
As we move away from having the majority of staff time and resources at the Oak Park Public Health Department devoted to the pandemic, it provides us with an opportunity to focus on a number of other key public health issues. In fact, the Oak Park Public Health Department went through its Community Health Assessment and Improvement Plan in 2022 and identified four priority areas to focus on: (1) Gun Violence; (2) the Natural and Built Environment; (3) Mental Health and Substance Abuse; and (4) Access to Care. People generally understand the role that the Public Health Department can play in addressing mental health and substance abuse and access to care. Many people, however, do not necessarily think of gun violence or the environment as public health issues.
Gun violence is the leading cause of death for children in America. It is a public health crisis and needs to be treated as such. The Public Health Department, in its recent strategic plan document, laid out key goals relating to gun violence prevention. One, which could be considered low-hanging fruit, is working to achieve increased secure firearm storage in Oak Park. We can accomplish this through a combination of public education and providing free, no-questions asked, secure gun safety locks.
In addition, everyone in Oak Park (and in the region) is exposed to some level of environmental hazards that can have a negative impact on public health. These can range from lead-based paint in older housing to the air quality impacts of Interstate 290. The Public Health Department can be a leader in working to reduce environmental hazards, enhancing natural spaces in the community, and increasing access to healthy and sustainable food. In addition, the Public Health Department will be a key partner in developing and implementing a Vision Zero plan (as advocated for by Bike Walk Oak Park) to eliminate significant pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities as a result of car crashes.
This is vital work, and the Oak Park Public Health Department is positioned to be a leader in addressing these public health concerns.
6. There have been discussions about creating a sustainability incubator in Oak Park that would combine clean energy advancements with job creation and professional readiness. It is not clear yet how much it would cost. Do you believe this is the role of the private or municipal sector and why?
Small business is the engine of our economy in Oak Park and the Village should find creative ways to support the wide range of small businesses in our Village and help them to thrive. A sustainability incubator was one proposal on how to do that. The presentation to the Village Board on February 13, 2023, demonstrated that an incubator is not likely to be productive in Oak Park at this time.
There are, however, potential paths forward to achieve some of the aims of the proposed sustainability incubator. Oak Park should continue to focus on building partnerships and regional collaboration–something that we have been leading on through the Cross-Community Climate Collaborative. In addition, we can continue pushing forward with the deployment of existing technologies in our community and partner with Oak Park River Forest High School and Triton Community College to invest in workforce training.
We can also consider partnering with mHub and other established sustainability incubators to provide a location for testing new sustainable technologies. This will allow us to grow as a leader in sustainable infrastructure and attract leaders in growing sustainable technology companies to Oak Park.
Importantly, we cannot lose sight of the clear action steps laid out in Climate Ready Oak Park. One of the most direct paths to attracting clean technology jobs is by demonstrating leadership on combating climate change.
7. What can be done to better serve those who live in rental units?
We need to do more to ensure that renters feel valued and included in our community, especially since renters make up such a large portion of Oak Park. A local renter advocate, Juanta Griffin, shared a salient example of ways renters can be overlooked in Oak Park: Our neighbors across the Village host incredible block parties, but many renters live on blocks where block parties are not permitted, which leaves out a good deal of our community members. Implementing a “sister-blocks” program where residents living on Harlem are invited to participate in block parties on Marion or Maple, or residents living on Ridgeland are invited to block parties on Elmwood or Cuyler, is a step towards building inclusion and belonging for all Oak Parkers.
More directly, we need to acknowledge the inherent power imbalance between renters and landlords. This can show up starkly during times of conflict or dispute, and renters can be quickly outmatched and under-resourced when resolving those conflicts. The Village of Oak Park should have a well-publicized helpline which can connect tenants to the resources they need to effectively advocate for their rights and ensure that tenants are receiving outcomes that are just, equitable, and safe.
8. How will you work with your fellow board members to ensure Oak Park’s affordability and diversity?
Most of us moved to Oak Park–or back to Oak Park, in some cases–for the schools, for the parks, or for the Village’s longtime commitment to maintaining a diverse community. At the same time, high property taxes impact affordability for both owners and renters and ultimately make it more difficult for Oak Park to continue to be the diverse Village it strives to be.
This typically ends in a zero-sum struggle between those who think that Oak Park’s various taxing bodies should expand services to meet the needs of our community and those who think that we should be reducing the tax levy or, at most, keeping it steady to reduce the tax burden on residents.
The issue, unfortunately, is that the largest buildings in Oak Park are not paying their fair share. Instead, buildings like Vantage, which is owned by Goldman Sachs and Magnolia Capital, are able to get their assessments reduced from about $90 million to $54 million by the Board of Review on appeal. The owners of the Vantage are increasing their profits by increasing the property tax bill of every resident in Oak Park. The Board of Review appeal by the Vantage building increased the property tax bill of every $500,000 single family home by more than $50. The same story plays out in large buildings across the Village.
There is something that the Village of Oak Park, at the direction of the Board of Trustees, can do. We can lead an effort, in partnership with the other taxing bodies in Oak Park, to ensure that the largest developments in Oak Park pay their fair share. The taxing bodies should intervene before the Board of Review and challenge the appeals of the largest buildings in Oak Park.
The Cook County Assessor’s office stands ready to assist with these efforts. Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi is focused on working together with taxing bodies to support precisely these kinds of cooperative efforts to intervene before the Board of Review. Oak Park can be a leader in these efforts and begin to provide meaningful tax relief to our residents.
Combining these efforts with the Village’s investments in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion give the Village an opportunity to reclaim its position as a national leader on these issues.
9. Community engagement has historically been difficult, and the village board continues trying to improve its reach. How do you propose that the village board should more effectively engage residents, local businesses and other members of the community?
Simply put, we have to do better at proactively seeking community engagement–especially from impacted and marginalized communities early enough in the process that it can be considered in reaching the final outcome.
There are two key pieces of feedback that I hear most often regarding the Village’s approach to community engagement. First, the Village does not invite community input until the process is far enough along that the outcome is already a foregone conclusion. In the development context, a plan has often gone through multiple rounds with the OPEDC and Village Staff before it comes to the Plan Commission and is open to public comment. This often leaves community members with the feeling that consideration of their input is simply for show, rather than real engagement with community concerns or ideas.
Second, because the Village is not always proactive in seeking community engagement, we often see community engagement that is not representative of our community as a whole. The Village Board must allow appropriate time for staff to proactively invite input from impacted community members—including by tabling agenda items to get additional feedback—to make sure that it is considering community feedback that is representative of the Village. Too often, the feedback before the Village fails to include the input of renters, Black residents, or local small businesses, amongst others.
For example, at the July 12, 2022, meeting of the Transportation Commission, we were considering proposed revisions to the overnight parking permit zones. Several of the public comments before the commission noted that the mailed notice from the Village arrived just before the commission meeting and lacked the clarity necessary for meaningful public comment. As a result, I moved to table the discussion until adequate public notice was provided in order to ensure meaningful public input on the proposal.
The bottom line is that elected Trustees serve the residents of Oak Park. We should constantly be working to ensure that residents of Oak Park have an opportunity to meaningfully engage on the issues–and to ensure that we are hearing from all residents.
10. What do you believe is the most pressing issue facing Oak Park and how do you intend to address it?
It is impossible and disingenuous to look at any single issue in isolation. Instead, we have to acknowledge that each of the issues we face as a community are interrelated and need to be faced with a focus on equity, sustainability, and safety. Moreover, Oak Park needs to be proactive in building the Village we want for the next 50 years instead of simply responding to the problems in front of us today.
For example, we can look at the issue of public safety–which encompasses a wide range of issues including gun violence and other violent crime, transportation safety, and environmental issues.
Gun violence and other violent crime is a significant and complex issue which requires a nuanced and intentional response. We need to deal with staffing issues in the Oak Park Police Department; take a regional approach to addressing root causes of violent crime; and address gun violence as a public health issue–as I discussed at length in response to prior questions.
Similarly, transportation safety is an issue which impacts all of us. In 2018 and 2019, the last two years of pre-pandemic data, Oak Park averaged 100 pedestrians or cyclists hit by cars each year. Based on national trends, it is likely that 2022 was even worse.
This is not a new problem. In fact, the Neighborhood Greenways Plan, which would create a network of streets prioritizing bicyclist and pedestrian traffic off of major streets, was created by the Village in 2015. Eight years later it still has not been implemented. The time to move forward with implementation, and protecting our families, is now.
Looking toward the future, the Transportation Commission, of which I am a member, is sending the Village Board a proposal for moving forward with the creation of a Vision Zero plan–to reduce serious injuries to pedestrians and cyclists as a result of crashes with cars to zero.
Transportation safety demonstrates how these issues are interrelated. It is an economic equity issue because on a cold, snowy day the folks who have to bike or walk in our community are the residents who cannot afford (or choose not to afford) all of the costs of owning a car in Oak Park. It is a sustainability issue because one of the biggest impacts we can have on carbon emissions is by reducing car trips–which improved transportation infrastructure will allow.
Finally, because of the age of Oak Park’s housing stock and proximity to a large urban area, we face significant public health and safety issues related to environmental risks. Neighbors in close proximity to I-290 deal with significantly increased air pollution related to car exhaust. Families in older housing stock, particularly housing stock that has not been well-maintained have risks related to lead-based paint and lead service lines. These are ongoing public health and safety concerns which Oak Park must continue working to address.