Election season kicked off this year with a candidate forum, hosted by the Oak Park-based advocacy group Suburban Unity Alliance, for those vying for Oak Park village trustee.
Eleven candidates are running for three open seats on the seven-member board of trustees in the election set for April 2 – only one candidate, James Taglia, is an incumbent.
Candidates laid out their positions on topics such as the rising tax burden, affordable housing, high-rise developments downtown and transparency in local government, among others.
The eleven candidates are: Tim Thomas; Cory Wesley; Susan Buchanan; Bridgett Baron; Thomas Gary; James "Jim" Taglia; Joshua Klayman; Graham Brisben; James Thompson; Christian Harris; and Arti Walker-Peddakotla.
On the question of how candidates would address the rising tax burden and work to keep middle-class families in Oak Park, candidates largely pointed to the tax burden imposed by the District 200 and 97 school systems, which make up about 70 percent of the property tax burden in the village, compared to the village's 17 percent.
Wesley said he often hears from residents that there needs to be more intergovernmental cooperation between the various taxing bodies in order to hold the line on spending. He said the village needs to "make sure we're cooperating with the schools to keep that number down."
Thompson argued for aggressively looking for new revenue in Oak Park to help ease the tax burden. "We need to enhance the quality of life to such an extent that people will say, 'I want to live here even if I do have to pay high taxes,'" he said.
Harris, who currently serves on the Oak Park Library Board, said he believes the various taxing bodies "work in our own silos" and the village board is in a unique position to take a leadership role on spending. "What (the board) can do is create a referenda schedule as well as a capital improvement schedule," he said.
Brisben, a District 97 board member from 2013 to 2017, said the village should establish a citizen financial oversight committee that looks at the village's overall tax burden, also noting that the village needs to "strengthen the commercial portion of the tax base so residents don't feel the pain as sharply as we do."
Klayman said his focus would be holding the village's tax levy growth to 2 percent annually and eventually working that percentage down to zero. The board also must ask the question of who do increases in taxes help. "Does it help the people that it needs to help?" he asked.
Candidates also were asked how they would help retain existing businesses in Oak Park and attract new ones to help spread out the tax base – currently a disproportionate percentage of the tax burden falls on residential property owners in the village because of a shortage of commercial activity.
Buchanan said she would seek more input from local businesses to find out what would help them stay in Oak Park. She also supports the village board providing greater support to the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.
Baron said she would work to keep spending under control in order to help relieve the tax burden on businesses. "The bigger question is how do you get tax relief to people?" she asked. She added that every time new revenues are found in the village the taxing bodies see it as "a new pile of money to spend."
Harris said he would work to support local businesses and wants to see a 10 percent increase in sales tax revenue over the next two to four years.
Candidates were overwhelmingly in support of an inclusionary zoning ordinance (IZO), which would require developers to make a percentage of their units affordable or contribute financially to an affordable housing fund set up by the village.
Walker-Peddakotla said she favors 20 percent of new units be affordable or developers must contribute $100,000 to the fund per unit. "Another thing we have to do is support rent control," she said.
Gary, who supports establishing an IZO, said the current way of "extracting" funds from developers in an ad hoc fashion – the village currently negotiates the terms of affordable housing directly with developers behind closed doors – "isn't working for the developers or the village or taxpayers."
"Everybody is left in the dark wondering what are the rules of the game before we even start," he said.
Thomas said he supports affordable housing and inclusionary zoning, calling it a social justice issue. "If the unit costs $200,000 and (the developer doesn't) want it in this building, then I want that to go into inclusionary zoning … not a small portion of that," he said, adding that the village "can make that happen, but we have to be intentional about it."
Wesley said he supports affordable housing "but more importantly I support housing affordability."
"I support longtime homeowners near retirement age not being taxed out of their homes," he said. He added that "if an inclusionary housing ordinance helps with that, then I'm all for it, but that's where my priorities lie."
Transparency and the village clerk
Candidates were also asked what they would do to improve transparency in the village government and what role the elected village clerk should play in terms of the recent change that removed the clerk as the head officer for public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act in late December.
Thomas said the clerk's responsibility as head FOIA officer should be reinstated, and other responsibilities that have been stripped from the clerk's office in recent years should be restored.
Taglia said he values the work of the village clerk but stopped short of supporting reinstating her position as lead FOIA officer. "We are going to have a full public discussion and that, to me, should have happened sooner," he said, adding, "It's never too late to change things."
Walker-Peddakotla said the change was not communicated properly to the public. The change, which shifted the responsibility from the clerk's office to the village attorney's office, took place a few days before the Christmas holiday break and was not discussed publicly by the board of trustees.
Thompson said he did not see a problem with transparency in village government, noting that there is "so much information on the village website it's like drinking from a firehose when you try to educate yourself." Thompson said he did have an issue with the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization paid by the village to attract and retain business development in Oak Park. The organization has been criticized for years for holding meetings in private and being immune from FOIA requests.
Thompson also supported reinstating the duties of the village clerk that have been taken away over the past decade.
Gary said he believes the village has not done enough to encourage citizen involvement, suggesting that the village begin using apps that make it easier to understand cumbersome documents like the village budget and navigate the village website.
Harris similarly said that it's not enough to put information on the village website. "You need to teach people how to use the information," he said.
Brisben also noted that there is a transparency gap around development in the village. The village should better contextualize information it provides to the public to help educate the citizenry more effectively.
"The village does a good job giving you reams and reams of information, if you have the patience to get through it," he said.
* This article was updated to correct quotes by Jim Thompson that were inaccurately attributed to Tim Thomas.
Answer Book 2019
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