Oak Park's election process deserves review

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John Murtagh

Combined, the Village Manager Association and Village Citizens Alliance have a monopoly on the Village of Oak Park's local elections. In the 2009 election, the VMA received 61 percent of the vote, and the VCA received 34 percent. About 5 percent of the voters either made a write-in vote or registered a vote, but did make candidate selections.

The VMA and VCA are essentially clubs that act as private political caucuses in Oak Park. They select candidates for village elected positions, fund the candidates by contributing generously to their election campaigns and run their candidates on a political slate. That is, their candidates' names appear together in advertising, lawn signs and act as a slate in meet-the-candidate events. The slate process makes it very difficult for candidates to show their unique talents. It also makes it difficult for voters to differentiate the candidates in terms of ability or positions on the issues.

In the 2009 election, the VMA's five candidates individually received between 55 percent and 65 percent of the vote. The VCA candidates received between 31 percent and 37 percent. Whether the candidate was a longtime incumbent or was running for the first time, they received a comparable number of votes. That is the power of the slate for the VMA and VCA. Their power is a defeat for the election process. Only 17 percent of Oak Park voters went to the polls in 2009. Low turnouts indicate low interest, and 2009 was a year of low voter interest despite the village's painful financial problems. Perhaps voters sensed that their vote did not matter.

Both the VMA and VCA treat themselves as nonpublic organizations. Their work is not open to scrutiny. There are no minutes of their meetings, no specifics on how they select individual candidates, no press releases on who applied for interviews by their selection committees, no available list of members, and worst of all, the community has no insight as to why candidates were not selected.

Both organizations provide money to candidates by financing campaigns. Reportedly, in 2009, the VMA spent $30,000 or nearly $8 per voter and the VCA spent $10,000 or nearly $5 per voter on the election. Where does the $40,000 come from? Where did the $70,000 that the VMA reportedly spent in the 2007 election come from?

Independent candidates face a high financial hurdle if they wish to compete for an elected village position. To get financial support, they must supplicate themselves to the rules, traditions and political platforms of the two organizations. The political clubs' processes restrict the ability of Oak Park to avail itself of all of its residents' talents. We need a broader range of ideas and pluck in Oak Park. We need independent candidates for office.

In a review of the Oak Park Board of Trustees minutes from June 2009 to July 2010, there were 141 (excludes procedural votes — minutes, proclamations, appointments, etc.) board votes. And 94 percent of the votes were "unanimous." That is a startling result, particularly since all seven board members were elected on VMA slates. It is not as if the village board has a shortage of conflicting issues to resolve.

John Hubbuch pointed out on his Wednesday Journal blog that the VMA has won 97 percent of the elections since 1952 [Is VMA a good thing? Oct. 4]. Perhaps it is time to for the village to study the VMA's power over the village's election process.

John Murtagh is an Oak Park resident and the former chairman of the Oak Park Community Relations Commission.

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Reader Comments

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john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 7:29 PM

No Thanks I have a handkerchief. Spring is always tough in OP - allergies, etc.


Posted: March 9th, 2011 6:22 PM

John, Do you need a tissue? Early voting starts March 14th.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 6:05 PM

OPV ELECTIONS SCARY -- see article above

Dave Heidorn from Oak Park  

Posted: February 8th, 2011 10:54 AM

The real problem is we don't have representational democracy in OP. These 2 clubs shovel suck ups into at-large Board slots who need not care about any individual vote or group of voters. They are neatly protected from all matters that, in a real town democracy, bring people out to vote -- taxes, development issues, services. Instead, we vote for vague declarations shaded slightly differently between the 2 groups. Our only hope is a revolution here. We can do better than this system.

gail moran from oak park  

Posted: October 22nd, 2010 6:54 PM

Hum, apparently I don't live in Oak Park either. This must be a "virtual" arts and crafts bungalow then; and, I guess I'm the phantom Secretary of the VMA Board? What's that about?

john murtagh from Oak Park  

Posted: October 19th, 2010 11:49 AM

WANDA I apologize for not identifying you as an OP resident. While I did not reply specifically to your original blog entry, I did not dismiss your comments. I do not disagree with your view that our board has smart, and professional people and are possibly the best candidates available. At the same time, I am not convinced that the process used to select board member is sufficiently robust.Coffee at Buzz sound great.My telephone number is 660 0132.

Wanda Wright from Oak Park  

Posted: October 19th, 2010 8:13 AM

Now I've read it all! Mr. Murtagh can't defend his own writing, so he says I don't exist! That's an interesting defense. Somehow because I have knowledge about Oak Park and have an opinion about its elected oficials, my opinion should be dismissed? I'd love to meet you for coffee at the Buzz some day, but apparently I'm invisible to you. By the way, Mr. Murtagh, I only own a cellphone, and it isn't listed in the White Pages. Welcome to 2010.


Posted: October 18th, 2010 2:19 PM

I guess you can't answer those questions, Mr. Murtagh. I'll take that as a concession. By the way, some of us don't list our names in the White Pages. Not that it's any of your business.

john murtagh from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2010 1:04 PM

16 messages were posted on this blog. Most messages were very similar and expressed a single viewpoint, so I checked the White Pages to see if the writers had an OP or RF telephone number and Google the names with Oak Park as a ta. 7 messages were from residents %u2013 Murtagh, Jones, Woods, and Thompson. 9 were from people who appear not to live in Oak Park or River Forest %u2013 Wickes, Bastiniac, Washington, Harris, Wright. Their messages displayed a lot of VMA and OP knowledge. Adios to this blog.

Sidney from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2010 9:37 AM

I don't exactly follow this last post. You are certainly correct that the Budget is not formally adopted yet. But it's likely to be adopted and by the same token, if the new proposed budget means nothing, then neither does the earlier deficit. Anyway, isn't this supposed to be about voter turnout? You aren't answering the question--how does an outdated projected and now closed deficit relate to voter turnout? It's a fair question. Seems to me you are avoiding it.

john murtagh from Oak Park  

Posted: October 17th, 2010 11:25 PM

SIDNEY WICKES. Seems to me the village is using Brads when they need nails. The board eradicated the $1.7m deficit by deferment. As stated in the WJ, QUOTE But trustees will need to figure out in the coming weeks whether they're on board with the cuts and tax increases used to fill the hole UNQUOTE. Until the board hammers down details on how they will cover 1.7M, the budget means nothing. BTW, When will the VMA take a public stance on the need for a D97 for a 2011 millage increase?

Sidney Wickes from Oak Park  

Posted: October 15th, 2010 12:40 PM

Well, on top of the many inaccuracies in your piece, Mr. Murtagh, it appears that you are not up to date on the 2011 budget. The $1.7 million gap has been closed. And I am not sure how that relates to 2009 turnout. Or how the 2009 turnout relates to the VMA, who typically are out there in the community trying to generate interest and not suppress it. The VCA often strikes me as less visible. But you can't accuse the VMA of lack of effort.

Linda Jones from Oak Park  

Posted: October 15th, 2010 8:59 AM

Mr. Murtagh, nobody is questioning why you wrote the letter. They are questioning the poor research and misleading claims and questions in your letter. Can't you admit that the letter is simply incorrect in numerous ways? Can't you admit that you should have done a couple quick Google searches and obtained the information you questioned in the letter? Can't you admit that you should have called the VMA and VCA before before misrepresenting how they operate?

john murtagh - corrected letter from Oak Park  

Posted: October 14th, 2010 11:30 PM

In April 2009,Gary Johnson, wrote a letter to the WJ about the villages 17% turnout. He asked: What set of dynamics has so jaded Oak Parkers to give up their voices? The question is important and unanswered.A blogger suggested election fatigue after the presidential election. The combined turnout for Berwyn, Melrose Park, Riverside, and River Forest was 37%, twice OP's. OP fatigue?As we head into 2011,There are $1,700,000 reasons to asks questions. That is why I wrote the letter.

john murtagh from Oak Park  

Posted: October 14th, 2010 11:23 PM

In April 2009,Gary Johnson, wrote a letter to the WJ about the village%u2019s 17% turnout. He asked: %u201CWhat set of dynamics has so jaded Oak Parkers to give up their voices?%u201D The question is important and unanswered.A blogger suggested election fatigue after the presidential election. The combined turnout for Berwyn, Melrose Park, Riverside, and River Forest was 37%, twice OP's. OP fatigue?As we head into 2011,There are $1,700,000 reasons to asks questions. That is why I wrote the letter.

Lydia Bastianic from Oak Park, IL   

Posted: October 14th, 2010 10:41 AM

Mr. Murtagh, perhaps all the apathy is due to folks like yourself who feel compelled to sling misinformation about people's motives out into the press and blogosphere, without checking your facts, creating a false perceptions that increase people's cynicism. Rather than blaming the folks with the commitment and initiative to get involved, take a look at yourself. And by the way, 2009 was a tough year for local elections, since a lot of voters were suffering from 2008 election fatigue.

Sidney Wickes from Oak Park  

Posted: October 14th, 2010 9:52 AM

Mr. Murtagh, you are not looking in the right place on the IBOE website. Look for Citizens for Responsible Leadership and you will find all the pertinent information on the most recent VMA endorsed candidates from 2009.

Mary Ann Woods from Oak Park  

Posted: October 14th, 2010 9:33 AM

This article says that the VMA and the VCA act as "nonpublic organizations." I remembered seeing a letter to the editor in this newspaper a few weeks ago from the VMA urging everybody in Oak Park to get involved in their candidate endorsement process. It took me about three seconds on Google to locate that letter: http://www.wednesdayjournalonline.com/main.asp?SectionID=3&SubSectionID=17&ArticleID=18390&TM=7718.20 It seems very open and public to me! This article is just sloppy.

Jonathon Harris from Oak Park  

Posted: October 14th, 2010 9:05 AM

Mr. Murtagh owes an apology to the VMA and the VCA. He asks where all the money came from to fund their campaigns? It's all public information! At the best Mr. Murtagh was lazy in not doing any research before launching this opinion piece. Did he even bother to contact anyone from the VMA or the VCA before blasting them with inaccuracies an innuendo?

john murtagh from Oak Park  

Posted: October 13th, 2010 9:07 PM

My letter addressed low voter turnout. A 17% voter turnout raises questions. I think apathy is the cause. My questions - Do our political elections cause apathy? & Does apathy weaken our governmental capabilities?Mr. Wickes, Only VMA reference in the Illinois Elections Board database was for 1/2/2007 to 3/18/2007 under the name Citizens for Progressive Action. It has VMA with 65 donors - low donation of $100 and high of $2,500. 34% of donations were $500 or higher and ave. donation was $503.

Sidney Wickes from Oak Park, IL   

Posted: October 13th, 2010 12:12 PM

Seriously, Mr. Murtagh, have you ever been to the Illinois State Board of Elections website? You might want to try it sometime. It lists every single financial contribution to both the VMA and VCA backed candidates. It's not very sexy-- all contributions are pretty modest, from individual Oak Park residents. But it answers your loaded "Where does the money come from?" question. Do some research before making insinuations about shadowy undue influence. This is just plain old boring democracy.

Gail Moran from Oak Park  

Posted: October 13th, 2010 12:05 PM

As a member of the VMA and an officer of its Board(Secretary), and having served on three selection committees, I can assure Mr. Murtag that the VMA is indeed transparent, takes minutes of its meetings, engages in broad-based recruitment of potential candidates, opens its selection process to the community (it is required that you be a member of the organization and sign onto its guiding principles), and fully discloses donations as required by State law.

James Thompson from Oak Park  

Posted: October 13th, 2010 10:54 AM

One wonders why Mr. Schwab spent a large majority of his life in a community that he finds so many things wrong with. Kicked out of the VMA and thrashed in the past two elections he ran for he continues to rabble rouse and create false histories. The last time people supported his "causes" it amounted to disaster with 2 of the candidates he pressed on people leaving in shame, a $10 million parking lot and Village Board meetings that resembled the Jersey Shore.

Wanda Wright from Oak Park  

Posted: October 13th, 2010 10:41 AM

When I look at the current Village Board I see a group of very smart, very professional people who seem dedicated to serving Oak Park. I don't agree with everything they do, and they don't always agree with each other. Here's a crazy idea: maybe these candidates are winning because they're actually the best candidates. Don't sell Oak Park voters short. They are very smart and look to the qualities and credentials of each candidate.

Stan Washington from Oak Park  

Posted: October 13th, 2010 8:59 AM

I believe that the VMA and the VCA merely endorse candidates. Candidates can form their own "party" (I recall the "It Takes a Village Party" a couple years ago) and run together as a slate. Not too long ago David Pope ran as an independent for Village President and won! All the campaign disclosure of the slates in open to the public, as required by law. You question where the campaign cash comes from --just take a look! Only lazy voters don't bother to look at the individual candidates.

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