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.

Susan Buchanan

Name: Susan Buchanan

Age: 61

Previous Political Experience: Current village trustee

Previous/Current Community Involvement: Previous commissioner on Board of Health, founding member of Oak Park Climate Action Network, fiddle player in Farmers Market Band, active member of First United Church of Oak Park 

Occupation: Physician and associate professor, University of Illinois at Chicago

Education: B.S. in Physics, Denison University; M.D., Ohio State University; M.P.H., University of Illinois at Chicago

1. How would you define the role and responsibilities of a village trustee?

The role and responsibilities of a village trustee are difficult to understand for many members of the public and some trustees, even after years of board service. The village board oversees the village manager, discusses and determines policy, discusses and determines budget priorities and the amount of the tax levy, passes laws and approves expenditures of > $25,000.  Village trustees should not act in a supervisory manner to village staff; the village manager is their supervisor and is responsible to the board for all of his/her employees. 

Another unique aspect of the trustee’s role is the necessity of cooperation with fellow trustees.  One trustee alone can’t implement a new policy or spending priority without having the agreement of at least three other trustees. Therefore, collaboration outside of the board meetings one-on-one is required to get something passed.

Another task of the trustee is responding to resident queries and concerns. Trustees receive emails from residents about various aspects of village government. Some are requests for a new policy or expenditure, some are complaints about how village functions, and some are requests for meetings. Trustees respond to these according to their own preferences.

2. In what areas do you believe that the current village board has been successful and in what areas has it been less successful?

As a current member of the village board I am proud of how we’ve been able to move through our board goals in a systematic manner, covering wide areas of policy and taking action on issues such as a non-police response for 911 calls pertaining to mental health or homelessness, reviewing parking fees, empowering our commissions, and pursuing a Vision Zero plan for pedestrian and cycling safety. We have also hired a new village manager, approved the budget for a new DEI officer, hired a policing consultant, and directed the village to create a climate action policy. We have also been successful in keeping the income tax levy to increases of only 3% in 2020-2022 and a 0% increase in 2023. 

The board has been less successful in engaging the community around board activities and goals. Residents don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to follow board agendas and meetings, so we need to find other ways to let residents know what the board is up to and what we need input on.

3. As a village trustee, how do you plan to effectively tackle the growing rate of gun violence in Oak Park?

Oak Park residents have legitimate concerns about increasing violence in our neighborhoods, and those who’ve experienced it are traumatized. Violence is increasing in the Chicago area, not just in Oak Park. The increase in gun violence in the village is considered to be “spill-over” from Chicago. Tackling this alarming trend requires an “all hands on deck” approach and will not be accomplished at the board table alone. Chief Shatonya Johnson is working diligently on this issue, and I rely on her and her staff’s expertise. At the same time, we need to address the root causes of crime by supporting interventions such as affordable housing, job training programs, mental health services, and afterschool programs. It is important to recognize that policies such as hiring more officers and the use of surveillance cameras have been shown to have no effect on crime reduction, and therefore I don’t support them.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much the board is able to do in terms of legislating gun control. Law restricting automatic weapons, for example, must be passed at the state and federal levels. Moms Demand Action is currently conducting outreach on gun storage, and I support it. I will work to promote activities in our police dept and health departments that emphasize gun safety.

Feeling safe from violence is a basic human right, and we need our police department, under the leadership of Chief Shatonya Johnson, to protect us from violent crime. Everyone in our village deserves to feel safe, even those who have experienced violence not from criminals but from the policing system. I commit to doing everything I can to make sure our community is safe for all. 

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?

In the spring of 2020, the cries of anti-racist activists against police brutality and over-policing of Black and Brown populations received a national spotlight after the murder of George Floyd. Many people in our country experienced an increased awareness and understanding of the role of systemic racism and white supremacy in all aspects of our lives but especially in our approaches to community safety. The presence of armed officers at calls for mental health crises, minor traffic infractions, and “suspicious activity” has been called into question and re-examined. 

While the Oak Park police department does not have a history of murdering innocent Black men, it is nevertheless a full-fledged member of a system and culture that has wrought and continues to wreak horrible injustices on people of color. So, it is a reasonable and some would say necessary endeavor to make sure our police department is doing everything it can to prevent racist policing practices and habits. That is why in the summer of 2020 I asked for an assessment from an outside entity to evaluate our village’s policing. My goal was to receive recommendations that would move our police department into a new paradigm of community safety. Clearly, the majority of the village board didn’t agree with the degree to which I hoped we could change. But the village did indeed hire a consultant group, BerryDunn Associates, who spent a year on their assessment. While their recommendations fall short of the paradigm shift that I had hoped for (and that would require systemic level change in our entire society in general) the following are some of the recommendations in the 273-page BerryDunn report that I support:  

  1. Improve data collection on traffic stops and other police activities. This is necessary to track interactions or practices that may be biased by race/ethnicity or other reasons. 
  2. Update our unsafe police facility in the basement of village hall.
  3. Better documentation of resident complaints.
  4. Develop a comprehensive alternative call-for-service plan for non-urgent issues and mental health calls.
  5. Pursue a collaborative model that involves the community in police decision-making.
  6. Empower the Community Police Oversight Commission to monitor investigations of police misconduct, staff accountability and transparency.
  7. Establish a DEI committee within the police dept.
  8. Change the police department’s approach to responding to “suspicious activity”
  9. Restrict the use of pretext stops unless there are specific, documented facts to expand the scope of the stop.
  10. Adjust ordinances to remove disproportional impact on marginalized populations.

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 a public health professional I am well aware of the role a well-funded, well-supported health department can play in the health of the overall community. Unfortunately, public health nationwide is undervalued and under-funded, including in our village. Moreover, we are unique in having a public health department as there are only five local health departments in the Chicago region; all other municipalities are covered by their county health departments. Having our own health department can have benefits and a drawbacks since 1) our health dept can tailor its efforts to our community’s needs but 2) ours is one tiny department surrounded by the larger Cook County system, leaving us with very few partnerships of communities our size with whom to collaborate and no access to county public health services. 

Since the village does not have the funds required to cover all 10 Essential Public Health Services, I would like to see our health department tackle the most common health challenges faced by our residents. These would need to be assessed through data collection, surveys of local healthcare providers and hospitals, and consultation with state and county experts. Once the most common threats to Oak Parkers’ health were identified, the health department could then prioritize, to focus efforts on activities that would not incur expenditures much beyond our current health department budget. 

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?

According to the consultant who was hired to conduct a needs assessment for a sustainability incubator, developing a physical space for an incubator would duplicate efforts already underway in the Chicago area. Moreover, there were very few examples found where a municipality funded an incubator. According to the consultant, the establishment of an incubator could be accomplished by partnerships between multiple stakeholders that woul include the village government. I would not favor the village providing the funding for such an effort, but as the consultant concluded, the village could function as a convener and facilitator of the relationships that would need to be fostered for a community-based incubator to be successful. 

7. What can be done to better serve those who live in rental units?

Living in a rental unit can make residents feel isolated from the neighborhood culture of our village. The most important thing the village can do to serve renters better is to use a “renter’s lens” when considering village policies, regulations, and expenditures. For example, whenever changes are proposed to parking restrictions, utility fees, or transportation, the question should be asked, “How is this going to affect renters?” Also, when the village conducts outreach on a new policy or to gather survey data, renters should be specifically targeted for engagement. 

8. How will you work with your fellow board members to ensure Oak Park’s affordability and diversity?

There are several ways to target affordability and diversity. The Oak Park Regional Housing Center plays a vital role in maintaining Oak Park’s racial/ethnic diversity and in preventing the development of racial enclaves. The OPRHC promotes “affirmative moves” by emphasizing to white renters the opportunities in units in the east portion of the village and emphasizing to renters of color units in the interior of the village and it works with landlords to promote inclusivity. I will vote to renew funding to the Housing Center via our CDBG funds and General Fund. 

Regarding affordability, keeping our property taxes in check is key. I will promote the type of development that increases our tax base. I support updating our Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance to increase the geographic boundary of the IZO-applicable areas and increase the amount of in-lieu fees paid so that funds will flow to our Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I will continue to approve the use of CDBG funds for Housing Forward. 

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?

There are several ways we could improve our community engagement.  

  1. Improve the village website to make it easier to contact the village board. The village homepage should include the board meeting agendas right up front, it should make it clear how residents can email the village board, offer instructions on how to make a public comment at board meetings, and when/where/how to attend village board meetings. 
  2. Host a weekly table at the Farmers Market staffed by at least one trustee each week.
  3. Continue to offer remote access to board meetings and commission meetings so residents may attend meetings from home.

10. What do you believe is the most pressing issue facing Oak Park and how do you intend to address it?

The most pressing issue facing Oak Park is the same existential crisis that threatens the entire planet: climate change. No other issue has the potential to change our lives to the same  degree. Even though the Great Lakes area is not experiencing increased hurricanes, tornados, and forest fires, the recurrent deadly heatwaves, ozone action days, increased asthma rates, and flooding are just the tip of the ice burg of how our lives will change if climate change continues unchecked. 

I want to do everything I can in my position as a trustee to make sure Oak Park village government is leading in climate change mitigation and prevention. The list below highlights what I’ve done so far and what I hope to do in my next term:

  • Created ad hoc Sustainability group – I became frustrated with the lack of action within village government to spend the village’s Sustainability Fund on projects that lower Oak Park’s greenhouse gas emissions, so I helped create an ad hoc sustainability group recognized by the village board and staff. This group of local sustainability experts developed recommendations to the village board for the use of the Sustainability Fund. The recommendations passed unanimously in March 2021.
  • Successfully advocated for funding development of Climate Action Plan, energy efficiency and solar grants, and second sustainability coordinator – As a result of the ad hoc group’s recommendations, a greenhouse gas inventory was completed, a consultant was hired to create our Climate Action Plan, and we offer energy efficiency retrofit grants to low income households and solar panel rebates.
  • Stimulated sustainable development – As the village board liaison to the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, I created expectations from developers to include sustainability elements in their buildings, resulting in solar panels, electrification, green roofs, and native plantings. 

Our village government has come a long way in the past two years, but it is extremely important that we continue to move forward toward our goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. To assure that the climate action plan doesn’t sit on a shelf, trustees must lead in both policy and budgeting. We must have specific plans for promoting and funding energy efficiency retrofits for all buildings, change our zoning code to require electrification of all new construction, apply for grant programs to pay for solar and geothermal incentives, and develop innovative methods to offer EV charging for residents of multi-unit buildings, among many other initiatives that we simply must implement if we are going to meet our mitigation goals. I will advocate for regular reporting to the village board so we can hold village staff accountable to our climate action plan.

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