Kevin Jackson, Oak Park’s village manager, has brought notable changes to the village board’s traditional goal setting process this summer. He added an outside facilitator for the four sessions and moved the meetings out of village hall and into a more casual and neutral setting. So far, with three of the four sessions completed, the response to the different process has been positive. 

“It’s kind of like a goal setting retreat, a board retreat,” said Jackson. “It’s supposed to be a safe space to encourage open discussion.”

This is a shake-up to what has been a somewhat staid and sometimes contentious effort in the past. Goal setting is one of the most time-consuming processes the village board undertakes after each election. In past years, and with a more ideologically divided board, trustees with opposing values have clashed over what should and should not be included on the list that will shape the board’s work for the next two years. That was no more apparent than after the spring 2019 municipal election, when the board dragged the process out for months, starting discussions in July but not adopting its goals until Jan. 13 of the next year.

Kevin Jackson, Oak Park Village Manager | Provided

Since then, goal setting has been smoother and quicker with the changing of seated members, but that does not mean the process was not in need of a shakeup. Based on his past experience, Jackson implemented his idea to hire an independent facilitator to guide sessions, all taking place outside village board chambers. The first two sessions were held back-to-back on July 10 and 11, with a third on July 17. The fourth and final session has been scheduled for the first week of August.

Discussions have indeed been open, evoking the type of high-level, respectful brainstorming sessions of college capstone classes choosing topics for their final project. Facilitator Hilary Shine, of Strategic Government Resources, has easily stepped into the role of the university professor, gently guiding her students as they turn their values – equity, affordability, environmental sustainability, public health and safety, economic vitality – into actionable goals, without pushing them in any one direction. Shine also interviewed each board member individually ahead of the sessions.  

So far, the new approach has put everyone, staff included, on equal footing, making for an altogether positive experience, according to Village President Vicki Scaman.

“It does help give us some clarity in a neutral way, where it’s not just through the lens of the village manager or through the lens of just me, as village president,” she told Wednesday Journal.

In village boards past, goal setting was led by the village manager and carried out on village property, usually in the board chambers of village hall, but sometimes in a meeting room inside the public works building on South Blvd. The latter offered a less stately, more administrative setting than board chambers, yet both still lend a very municipal atmosphere. The board will have at least two goal development sessions, depending on the board’s efficiency. Reviews and discussions of drafted goals are often tacked onto regular board meetings. 

Vicki Scaman

While Scaman said she was “proud” of the goals she and her fellow board members set two years ago and the progress made on them, she does not wish to see the village return to the process by which the board set those goals. The retreat style, she thinks, will become the village’s standard method.

 “I do think this will continue,” she said.

This year, the goal setting sessions are being held at the Nineteenth Century Club on Forest Avenue. Holding the meetings outside the confines of village-owned public buildings resets thinking. By being in a different physical space, the village board is put into a different headspace. The meetings are still open to the public in accordance with the Open Meetings Act and follow the same procedures as any other board meeting, but the overall feeling is less formal in perspective, if not in actuality. Having a facilitated session on the meeting agenda allows the board to converse freely without violating any rules. 

“The first meeting was inspiring because we don’t get to all talk together like that,” said Scaman.

Changing approaches does have an economic impact, as the previously used method essentially cost the village nothing. The Nineteenth Century Club commands a $300 rental fee per night and the facilitator’s services come with an estimated price tag of $10,925, plus an additional $1,243 in travel-related expenses, roughly, that include airfare, a car rental and hotel room for Shine. These expenditures fall under the village manager’s spending authority, meaning he did not need to seek the board’s approval beforehand, and will come out of his budget.

The retreat style is not a novel approach, although it is not the typical approach to goal setting the Village of Oak Park has previously employed. The method, complete with contracted facilitator, is a common practice nationwide, according to Jackson, who would even argue that it’s a best practice. Other communities may use the term “strategic planning” over goal setting, but the two are essentially the same and the approach has existed for as long as Jackson’s worked in local government – and, as he said, likely longer. 

This is the first time Jackson has gone through goal setting in Oak Park. He became village manager of Oak Park in March 2022, long after the then-village board adopted its 2021-2023 goals. It was his idea to implement the new-to-Oak Park process, having undergone it several times while working as neighborhood services director with the City of Champaign in central Illinois. 

As Jackson hoped, the retreat is yielding the additional, equally helpful result of creating a collective vision, rather than just a list of independent goals. The third goal setting session was spent refining that vision and having that cohesion will help, Jackson believes, in keeping the board unified when it comes time to move forward on their goals, understanding how each one fits with the others, contributing to a wider picture. 

That is as much for the benefit of the village board as it is for village staff, who are tasked with carrying out the board’s vision. Village staff department heads are attending all sessions, but not participating in discussions directly. Scaman credits staff for coordinating the sessions, despite being a “leaner” team than she thinks the public understands.

“Staff has been working very, very hard and it really needs to be commended,” she said.

Join the discussion on social media!