The Wednesday Journal sent questionnaires to each person running for public office in 2023. The candidates’ replies are as shown as they were received by the Journal. For more on a candidate, click their name or photo.

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

Simone M Boutet

A trustee’s job is to set policy for the Village, hire, fire and direct the Village Manager, adopt the annual budget to oversee how taxes are spent, and control the use of land though zoning.  As the title indicates, we are entrusted to be stewards of public funds and to create a safe, vibrant, beautiful and affordable community.

Susan Buchanan

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.

Brian Straw

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.

James Taglia

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. 

Cory J. Wesley

Technically, to create policy for the village of Oak Park and provide direction to our only employee, the Village Manager, who executes the will of the Board.

But also, to provide leadership to the Village as a whole, to provide a voice for those who feel less empowered to express it, and to leave behind a village that is better than the one we inherited.

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

Simone M Boutet

The current board has moved the village forward on social issues such as racial equity, housing and climate action, but has been less successful in controlling the growth of the 2023 budget.  

Susan Buchanan

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.

Brian Straw

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.

James Taglia

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.

Cory J. Wesley

The current village board works together very well and has been successful at collaborating, at compromising, and at making good decisions that directly lead to good policy, and doing all of that while maintaining a frenetic pace at the Board table.  This Board has also excelled at community engagement, prioritizing sustainability, and delivering social impact to our community through the use of targeted ARPA fund grants.

Individual successes since I joined in October of 2022 include passing a 0% levy through our 2023 budget process. Approving a community-wide DEI assessment. Receiving the Berry Dunn report and creating a task force that’s helping shape the future of Policing & community safety in Oak Park.

If elected, I plan to drive a larger focus on technology and innovation in government. Our village manager’s review, for example, will be conducted using paper forms – in 2023. Our police department operating system didn’t have an option to record Hispanic folks in their data for years until recently. Our OpenData initiative was delayed due to COVID and will need to be restarted before it can be discussed at the Board table and so much more. Technology remains the untapped resource of government efficiency and an area where I hope to push Oak Park into a leadership position.

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

Simone M Boutet

Gun violence is a national, regional and a local problem.  There is no magic answer.  Scholars identify a “crime triangle.”  This consists of: 1) a d esire of a criminal to commit a crime; 2) a target of the criminal’s desire; and 3) the opportunity for the crime to be committed.  The Village should remove the opportunity as much as possible.  Individuals should be educated on how to stay safe.  A more visible police presence would help deter crime.  Studies show that criminals are more deterred by the risk of being caught than by the potential consequences. I will prioritize filling vacancies in the police department with top quality candidates who embrace our community policing model.  

Susan Buchanan

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. 

Brian Straw

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.

James Taglia

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. 

Cory J. Wesley

We need to remember that we’re a part of Chicagoland. Crime is up regionally, in part owing to the aftermath of the pandemic. As all our residents know, Oak Park is not immune to area crime, and so public safety is the highest priority for everyone on the village board.

At the same time, Oak Park remains one of the safest communities in Chicagoland because we’ve always taken public safety seriously and because of the leadership of our police department.

President Biden recognized that when he nominated our previous chief, LaDon Reynolds, to serve as the US Marshal for Northeastern Illinois. And our Village Manager recognized that when he promoted Chief Johnson to be the first Black woman police chief in OPPD history after an extensive nationwide search.  Chief Johnson has 20 years of experience in our community, is well known and involved in Oak Park, and brings a desire for community safety, trust, accountability to the job.

Another factor that makes OPPD so effective is the trust it has built in our community, and that trust is something the village board must zealously protect and build upon. As a Trustee I recognize that a community can not exist without safety, I also recognize the ways that community safety depends on fairness, equity, and justice for all.  No one in Oak Park should ever have to worry about bias, injustice, or unequal treatment, but to get there takes hard work, transparency, and accountability and my focus as Trustee is to deliver a police department that can keep us safe without creating injustice.

As a Trustee today, I’m working to make Oak Park the first municipality in Illinois to enact the ACLU’s model CCOPS ordinance, which creates a transparent process with public hearings to safeguard the community trust if Oak Park needs to investigate new policing technology in the future. We must learn from the public outcry around Flock and implement these processes to ensure that the community’s voice is heard in any future matters of surveillance technology.

Finally, I’m proud of the work we’ve done on the board to convene task forces on public safety based on the BerryDunn assessment. These groups are made up of Oak Parkers with diverse backgrounds and experience, and are working diligently to recommend things like alternate calls for service (getting professionals other than the police to respond to mental health calls).

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? 

Simone M Boutet

Crime and policing need to be addressed with a comprehensive strategy.  Hiring and police presence is only one part of the equation.  I will prioritize the following:

  • Collecting and reporting impartial policing data to build trust and accountability.
  • Providing a civilian response to non-emergency calls for service to reduce the use of sworn personnel.  This is both cost effective and it matches the need for service.
  • Enhancing the role of the Citizen’s Police Oversight Committee be more effective accountability partners to the Village board.
  • Training 911 personnel in how to engage with callers who report a “suspicious person” to ensure they are reporting suspicious activity and not just a person.
  • Finding a location for and building a new police station.  

Susan Buchanan

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.

Brian Straw

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.

James Taglia

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. 

Cory J. Wesley

  • Of the kids (age 18 or less) stopped by police from January 2015 to June 2020, 97% of them were Black. That’s a red flag indicator of bias and this needs to be addressed immediately. 
  • The OPPD suffers from several technology issues that would help us solve cases better, deploy resources more efficiently, and provide more transparency to the public. This work needs to get started as soon as possible. 
  • The recommendation of the creation of an alternate Call for Service plan (non-emergency calls) was called out as a priority and the taskforce that we’ve convened is working on this issue already. 
  • We have Village Ordinances that have the potential for disparate impact for marginalized populations. Those ordinances have yet to come back to the Board. We should prioritize their return and modify them to remove that impact. 

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? 

Simone M Boutet

I support the continued existence of the health department.  I would like them to address maternal and early childhood health, chronic conditions like obesity, heart disease, asthma, and addiction, infectious diseases, food inspections, and to work with other community organizations to reduce health disparities between races. 

Susan Buchanan

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. 

Brian Straw

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.

James Taglia

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.

Cory J. Wesley

First, I think OPDPH under Dr. Chapple-McGruder did a commendable job of protecting the village during the pandemic, under the most difficult circumstances one can imagine for that job. 

I’m also mindful of the fact that OPDPH is just one of many resources our residents draw on. For example, Oak Park ran vaccination clinics throughout the pandemic, which were extremely valuable to parents, seniors, and other members of our community, but still a lot of our residents were vaccinated at area drug stores.

While I’m open to discussing OPDPH’s role, my priority is to ensure that we’re marshaling all of the resources we have available, public and private, village and county to provide the best possible health outcomes for everyone who lives in our village while avoiding the creation of duplicative service offerings and staff.

That said, one area that I really think the OPPHD can have a huge impact is in the administration of our eventual non-emergency Call For Service implementation. That organization should exist outside of the police department and will likely have a huge part in answering mental health calls for service, it may make sense to have this new organization report up through the OPPHD as it aligns with the mission of public health and service.

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? 

Simone M Boutet

On February 13th, the board determined that the Village’s role in fostering clean technology job creation was to act as convenor and connector of regional partners in clean technology with those working on job training such as the high school and Triton College.  I support this role. 

I would not support the use of taxpayer funds to create a new facility or to take on a role of workforce training with Village staff. 

Susan Buchanan

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. 

Brian Straw

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.

James Taglia

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. 

Cory J. Wesley

The great thing about this question is that it was answered at the 2/13 Village Board Meeting. The consensus at that meeting was that the Village would collaborate with other organizations as we’re doing with entities such as C4, and use our increased reach to push workforce development options with local partners in the emerging (emerged?) field of sustainability and its adjacent industries. The report that we commissioned with a 3rd party validates this path and recommends no physical space or substantial monetary spend to support this initiative. 

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

Simone M Boutet

  • Create more off-street parking where possible.
  • Continue managing the budget to keep Oak Park affordable for all. 
  • Continue to use affordable housing funds to support the housing needs of low and moderate income renters. 

Susan Buchanan

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. 

Brian Straw

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.

James Taglia

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. 

Cory J. Wesley

Oak Park has rental units that run the gamut on economics from affordable to ‘luxury’. Some of the things that we should do for some economic levels aren’t necessarily priorities for others. But for everyone, we should maintain our focus on making Oak Park a more affordable village, increase our parking and transit options, and increase services to help mediate tenant/landlord disputes.

We should recognize that a lot of our rental units exist on the borders of Oak Park and create programs and outreach to create a better experience that’s more similar to the community that exists in our single family home neighborhoods. To increase our racial and economic diversity, we should increase the availability of affordable units, both naturally occurring and intentionally created.

And for those who have chosen to live in downtown Oak Park, we should continue to invest in creating a vibrant Oak Park that has a pronounced and welcoming sense of place, an atmosphere that encourages community, and a village that is diverse in the experiences that it offers so that everyone, no matter the living arrangements that they chose, can feel welcome and enjoy their time here.

A diverse Oak Park means having the ability for different people to live alongside each other, experience the village differently, but still find it enjoyable and welcoming. That doesn’t change based on housing type and we should try harder to create this atmosphere across our village.

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

Simone M Boutet

Because of the racial wealth gap, Oak Park’s racial diversity depends on affordability. In my previous term, I advocated for and passed the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance.  The funds collected under this ordinance have paid for the creation of low income housing, and funded programs that address the housing needs of the most vulnerable.  I will continue to focus on housing affordability in my next term.  I also advocated to change zoning laws so that homeowners can create accessory dwelling units on their property.  This provides additional housing options.  

In my previous term, I voted to keep levy increases to a maximum of 3% per year.  I will continue to do that to manage the tax burden in Oak Park.  I will also look for grants to fund our social goals like the climate plan, and examine every expenditure to ensure it efficiently uses taxpayer funds to accomplish our goals.

Susan Buchanan

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. 

Brian Straw

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.

James Taglia

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. 

Cory J. Wesley

I’ve been an advocate of an affordable and diverse Oak Park since I entered village politics in 2018. But diversity, while important, is just a statistic that measures how many. What’s more important is the experiences that we create for our neighbors and the focus we put on building welcoming and inclusive environments for everyone in our village, regardless of race, gender, orientation and more. If we do the work of creating inclusive spaces and if we truly work hard at making everyone in our community feel welcome, then diversity will follow, and the village as a whole will benefit.

But none of that is possible without an affordable Oak Park.

An affordable Oak Park allows our Seniors to age in their community, maintaining the friendships and relationships that they’ve created over their lives and not feeling forced out of the place they love so that they can actually afford to retire. 

An affordable Oak Park respects our middle-class legacy, and ensures that the future of our village matches its esteemed past.

An affordable Oak Park respects the income disparities between races, provides a diverse set of entry points into our community, and works hard to create an environment where no one feels like they’re living on the edge year to year. We have a lot of work to do on affordability, but here are some of the specifics that I’ve done on affordability and diversity/inclusion since joining the Board.

As part of our 2022 Budget process, I voted for the 0% levy increase for our 2023 Budget. In an era of 7% inflation, where other Boards were taking 5% levy increases, I viewed this relief as respectful of the economic conditions of our community and giving the community the choice back on how to spend their money.

I voted for the community-wide DEI assessment, I’ve spoken up about the bias in our policing data that shows we disproportionately stop Black kids vs kids of other races, I pushed hard for our police force to adopt policy that prevents police questioning of students on school grounds without a parent present or a parent’s consent. I’ve been a strong voice for matters of equity and affordability in this village and if elected to another term, plan to continue that pattern of advocacy. 

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? 

Simone M Boutet

First, I would adopt an agenda template that requires staff to detail whether those impacted by a proposal have had input on it. Second, I would use technology to reach out to every Oak Park resident to open the door to engage. 

Susan Buchanan

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.

Brian Straw

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.

James Taglia

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. 

Cory J. Wesley

To increase engagement we must acknowledge that representation matters. 

One of the things I’m passionate about is getting more diverse voices engaged in the community from things as simple as answering surveys to more intensive involvement like running for public office.  In this election cycle, there are only 3 Black folks running for office. THREE. How can you get community engagement when the chances for community representation are so few?

We must also focus on creating intentional outreach, spaces that prioritize empathy and eliminate judgment, and empowering dissenting voices so that everyone feels welcome to share their perspective without fear of being attacked.

I’d also lean heavily on Dr. Walker, our chief DEI officer, to help us facilitate spaces where folks feel safe to share, to help us create board meetings that are welcoming and inclusive, and I’d use my own connections in the community to support and encourage folks to speak out on issues where they have concerns.

Finally, through data, what we’ve seen is that the folks who feel they have a stake in the community show up more, speak out more, and are all-around more engaged than others. So we need to focus on creating that sense of ownership and involvement in our community with everyone from renters to homeowners, from white folks to Black folks, and across the entire economic spectrum. Without that stake in the community, increasing engagement is near impossible. 

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

Simone M Boutet

With four murders in eight months and reports of shootings becoming common, community safety is our top priority.  Living a life free from crime is a human right.  It is the duty of the Village to create a safe community for all who live here.  This requires a multi-faceted approach – both short term and long term crime deterrence and prevention strategies.  We have an excellent police department, but there is still a lot to do.  

I would like to build a regional intergovernmental and community-based safety collaborative.  The goal would be to address the root causes of crime, determine which agencies are provide services and where the challenges lie, with the goal of assisting young people to make positive life choices and avoid a life of crime. 

Susan Buchanan

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.

Brian Straw

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.

James Taglia

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. 

Cory J. Wesley

Oak park is a complex system where all issues interact in various ways. Because of that, it’s near impossible for me to name the most pressing issue. Here’s my take on this question:

Why are Oak Park issues difficult to tackle?

Oak Park is a landlocked village with six different governments, bordering five different municipalities, with easy access to the highway, a diverse community of residents, and so much more. That means we have racial equity issues, community safety issues, affordability issues, sustainability issues, parking issues, mental health response issues, homelessness issues, intergovernmental cooperation issues, and they all intersect in various ways. Often, when addressing an issue at the Board table, I’ll realize that it’s much more nuanced than it seemed on the agenda and the complexities of that issue need to be discussed and worked through to address it properly. I’ve noticed this from issues as benign as a right of way issue to as complex as community safety.

Now that we know these issues are complex, how do I handle them?

I bring a solutions-driven methodology to the board. I do my homework by reading the materials provided by staff and doing outside research as necessary. I seek out opinions, especially those that disagree with me in an effort to alleviate blind spots and arrive at the best possible decision.

I listen intently to my colleagues, bring the lens of my life experience to my decision making, and ensure that I’m willing to compromise and collaborate to create the best possible decisions for the village of Oak Park.

Finally, I show my work, both before and after, so that the community understands how I think, how I arrived at my decisions, and has the ability to offer me insight.

I use that framework to solve every issue facing the village of Oak Park from small to large and will continue to do so if elected to continue serving on April 4th.

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