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: James Taglia
Previous Political Experience: Township trustee (6 years)
Previous/Current Community Involvement: Treasurer, Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest (15 years)
Occupation: Senior Operations Manager, Pro-Chem-Co., Inc.
Education: B.S. in Accounting, Boston College; C.P.A., University of Illinois; M.B.A., Loyola University
1. How would you define the role and responsibilities of a village trustee?
First and foremost, a Village Trustee is a fiduciary, elected to make decisions on behalf of the people of Oak Park. Making decisions is challenging because each Oak Parker has a different experience, needs, wants, and political beliefs. It is crucial that we trustees listen intently to as many voices and perspectives as possible, even seeking out voices that are missing from the conversation so that our decisions are inclusive and efficacious.
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 Village Board has been successful in implementing much-needed racial equity assessment tools in the decision-making process for policymakers. We have also hired a DEI Director as a senior-level staff member so that their input and advice have a measurable impact on racial equity in policy-making of Oak Park. I also believe current and previous boards have done a great job at fiscal management and limiting the tax levy for several years.
The village has been less successful in coordinating the efforts in environmental sustainability. However, since adopting the Climate Ready Oak Park Plan, we are now on solid footing to enact meaningful policy and legislation to reduce the village’s greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2030, and 100% by 2050. In my opinion, we have also been less successful in shoring up enough funding to underwrite such an aggressive plan. While these issues have taken too long, we are addressing them and are on the right track now.
3. As a village trustee, how do you plan to effectively tackle the growing rate of gun violence in Oak Park?
I think it is important to have a safe village for everyone. It is also important to note that violent crime is a nationwide problem, not seen at this level since the early 1990s. Trustees are not the police, nor are we experts in solving the societal issues that are causing increases in crime throughout the country. What we can do as a village is to stay focused on things we can control, like closing overnight businesses that have been frequent venues for violent crime. We have also utilized a minimum number of cameras that have led to quality arrests including one related to a gun charge, according to our Police Chief. We are also focusing police presence in areas adjacent to problem businesses that are regularly drawing gun violence. But I want to be honest, the police alone cannot fix these issues. In order to substantially reduce violence, we need to work on the larger structural issues that are leading to economic disparity and lack of opportunity.
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?
It was generally understood that our police station was a high priority and needed to be addressed as it does not contribute to efficient or effective operations. Also, our records management system and our computer-aided dispatch systems have functional challenges. I was somewhat surprised by the lack of consistency and clarity in establishing formal plans/processes for training, recruitment as well as coaching, and mentoring; those issues will need to be addressed too. I support the recommendations for eliminating ordinances that create a disparate impact on marginalized populations as well as pretext stops, which can lead to biased-based contacts.
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?
The Oak Park Public Health Department has done an incredible job serving our community during the pandemic. While the department was in the spotlight during the pandemic, it has always played an important role in the general health of our community. I see the department continuing its work in: conducting restaurant inspections, animal welfare and wildlife management, inspecting child & long-term care facilities, maternal and child care, and case management for new low-income mothers, rodent control, and services for homebound residents including vaccinations and flu shots. However I do not at all want to go back to the reduced capacity that existed prior to the pandemic. I support a balance that will maintain an appropriate level of staffing should the pandemic (or any health emergency) occur.
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?
The idea for a sustainability incubator was interesting. I thought it was something worth investigating, which we did. After a long debate at the board, including a deep analysis of the pros and cons, the board ended up moving away from the idea. Personally, I thought the incubator was going to require too much long-term funding, without a demonstrable value to taxpayers. In terms of whether this should be the role of municipal government, I would say that such questions need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Local funding can certainly be a benefit to achieving certain goals. In the case of the incubator, I think its success would require public funding at various levels, as well as private sponsorship.
7. What can be done to better serve those who live in rental units?
Serving renters is something I am very serious about and proud of. Residents who live in rental units oftentimes find themselves at the mercy of their landlords, their neighbors, and mitigating issues can be very challenging. Just recently I was called upon by residents of a building whose management company was not taking care of serious issues like mold, and bedbugs. I brought this to the attention of the health department, and the building department, resulting in extensive inspections by the village. Once violations are officially documented, the village can hold companies and individuals responsible to make sure our residents are living in clean, safe, and healthy rental units. In terms of improving what can be done, I would advocate for making it easier for renters to report violations to the village. I also believe that residents who rent have been traditionally under-represented in local politics. I would like to see efforts made to bridge this gap. Parking has also been one of the most challenging issues for renters throughout the village. The village’s parking pilot program has identified that we need more overnight parking availability. I am generally supportive of staff’s recommendations to add more overnight parking permits to select zones, as long as village services are not negatively impacted.
8. How will you work with your fellow board members to ensure Oak Park’s affordability and diversity?
Maintaining Oak Park’s affordability is a challenge, but necessary to maintain our diversity. Having a stable property tax levy plan has been a strong policy I have been trumpeting for several years. In 2017 when I took office, I set out to be tough on taxes. I was told by so many people that in order to stabilize taxes, services had to be cut. What I learned in the process was that it’s very difficult to reign in spending– but it’s possible. Shifting from levies in the 6-9% range down to 3% (and in 2023 it’s 0%) was not easy. It required both the cooperation of my colleagues as well as the buy-in from Village staff to get it done. The fact that trustees have the authority to tax residents and dramatically impact their personal finances is a responsibility I don’t take lightly. During this year’s budget discussions, I felt we should have reviewed expenditures more thoroughly because we ended up spending several million dollars more than last year. As fiduciaries of resident funds, trustees need to treat public funds with as much care and caution as they do their own. My goal as trustee is to increase affordability in our village so that those that want to live here can afford to stay here. I’ve made progress over the past 4 years despite the pandemic and how it impacted our collective finances. I always keep affordability at the forefront of decision-making at all levels, and I hope I have an opportunity to continue making progress over the next 4 years.
Affordable housing has also been one of the most important issues in Oak Park for as long as I can remember. Oak Park’s socio-economic diversity relies on the village taking an active role in maintaining access to affordable housing in the village. One of my biggest achievements was enacting our Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance. The ordinance covers a significant footprint in the village and makes new developments either provide a percentage of the building’s units at an affordable price or provide a significant monetary contribution to the Village’s Housing Trust, which in turn funds affordable housing initiatives. Since its inception just a few years ago, the IZO has raised well in excess of $3M.
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?
Community engagement fluctuates from year to year and issue to issue. The village continually tries to improve its reach, sometimes with very little success. The truth is that community engagement is challenging because people are busy with work and other obligations. Recently the village has used a dedicated online engagement platform to engage on issues such as climate action and ARPA funding with good success. We are also beginning work on a new/reimagined website this year. I am interested in seeing the village provide greater and easier access to village services and events using technology, in order to meet people where they’re at. The days of volunteers sitting through long meetings at Village Hall may be tapering down. Engagement today looks a lot different than traditional engagement, and we should embrace technology that can bring all voices to the decision-making processes of our elected officials and village staff.
10. What do you believe is the most pressing issue facing Oak Park and how do you intend to address it?
I believe the most pressing issue facing the village currently has to do with public safety. In the past year, our village has faced gun violence on a level not seen in my lifetime. There have been more than a dozen shootings at locations all throughout the village at all times of the day and night. Residents demand and deserve to be safe in their homes and neighborhoods.– and if they can’t feel safe, they will leave. Public safety cannot be ignored. The role of trustees in this is clear: we need to listen to our community’s concerns and express those concerns to our public safety professionals. Equally as important, we need to be interacting with Chief Johnson to validate that our police department has the tools necessary to protect residents and non-residents who live, work and travel throughout Oak Park. But I’d like to reiterate what I said in point #3- the police alone cannot fix these issues. In order to substantially reduce violence, government needs to work on the larger structural issues that are leading to economic disparity and lack of opportunity.