Election Day is less than a month away, and to help Oak Park voters prepare for April 4, Growing Community Media hosted a candidate forum for village board candidates on March 16 in the council chambers at Oak Park Village Hall, 123 Madison St.
The topics discussed included policing, affordability, high property taxes and more in the tight hour-and-a-half-long event moderated by local radio host Doris Davenport.
Three candidates – incumbent Susan Buchanan, former village trustee Simone Boutet and newcomer Brian Straw – attended the forum in person, while Trustee Cory Wesley, who is seeking a full term on the board, joined in via Zoom due to an illness. Jim Taglia, the third incumbent village trustee candidate, was unable to participate in the forum due to a back injury requiring hospitalization. Taglia, however, submitted a written statement, which GCM Publisher Dan Haley read on his behalf.
About 90 people tuned in virtually while roughly 50 people made up the live audience, but no dramatics unfolded before their eyes as no political sparring between participating candidates broke out. Rather, candidates were in agreement with each other on a handful of topics, including wanting the village to band with other taxing bodies to challenge property tax appeals submitted by high-rise developers.
They also agreed that maintaining a 0% increase to the village’s property tax levy was unsustainable given increasing costs and police and fire pension commitments, with consensus being that the only reason the village was able to do this for fiscal year 2023 was due to an influx in federal funds.
They likewise all were against hiring more police officers but considered building a new police station an absolute necessity. To the latter question, Wesley gave the frankest affirmation, responding, “Oh my God, have you seen that thing? Of course!”
While all that consensus did little to entertain, it is a strong indication that this selection of village board hopefuls will be willing and able to work collaboratively with other board members if elected to the three open trustee seats.
The participating candidates weren’t in perfect alignment with each other in every aspect, however, although they did all remain cordial and respectful.
To combat the changing retail landscape and support local businesses, Straw suggested hiring a concierge at village hall specifically to guide people hoping to start a business through such processes as getting necessary permits. He also suggested partnering with the Oak Park and River Forest Chamber of Commerce to offer small business loans.
Buchanan believes Oak Park’s retail community is in better shape than it might seem, stating the village has just a 3% retail vacancy rate. She also reminded the audience that the village partnered with the chamber to provide services to local businesses during the height of the pandemic.
As for the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, where she serves as village board liaison, she wanted it to continue moving away from big developers by shifting focus onto small business opportunities, while Boutet expressed her desire to see the village do more marketing for small businesses and retailers based on their district.
“We need to create a sense of place in every district,” Boutet said.
Each candidate agreed the village could do more to increase the number of minority-owned businesses in Oak Park, but again diverged on how to do so. Wesley, who served as OPEDC board chair before being appointed to the village board, told the audience he co-wrote the updated OPEDC bylaws and racial equity statement.
Before he had to step down due to village board duties, he and the OPEDC were in the process of trying to create a Black entrepreneur incentive program to encourage new businesses to open in Oak Park. This, he later learned, was illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment. So, OPEDC shifted to targeted outreach and building relationships, which he stands by.
Boutet, leaning on her experience as a lawyer, advocated for working around the restrictions in place under the legal system, by creating a different set of qualifications that do not explicitly mention race. She offered up as an example forming a program for people that have traditionally been denied credit.
Straw didn’t believe it could be as simple as “making up a category that you think is analogous to a racial category,” believing instead that the village board should look for solutions outside of the government that the board can support as individuals. He was not able to elaborate on what this meant due to the time limit per answer.
Those who were unable to attend the forum can view recorded footage online at Growing Community Media’s YouTube Channel.
Early voting starts March 20, with election day on April 4.