4 vying for 3 park board seats in Oak Park

Field includes educator, architect, parks foundation president and former D97 board member

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

Four candidates are competing for three seats on the Park District of Oak Park Board of Commissioners – and only one of them is an incumbent. 

The seats up for election are presently held by board President Victor Guarino, Secretary Kathleen Porreca and Commissioner Paul Aeschleman. 

Out of those three, Porreca is the only one running for re-election. The other candidates include architect Christopher R. Wollmuth, Parks Foundation of Oak Park board President Jake Worley-Hood and former Oak Park District 97 Board President James Gates. 

Porreca was first elected in 2015. Before that, she served on the park district's Citizen Committee from 2011-15. In 2010, she was a member of the Park District Comprehensive Plan Committee. She has been an educator for the past 30 years, working her way up from teacher to principal. She is principal at Regina Dominican High School, of Wilmette. 

Porreca said she decided to run for a second term because she wanted to keep making a possible impact on the community. The new candidates were asked why they decided to run as well, there were two common threads. 

One way or another, their volunteer work helped them understand the park district's issues. And their families use the park district programs and facilities, so they have a personal reason for wanting to see the park district do well. 

Wollmuth said that after serving on the park district's Green Advisory Committee for six years and chairing it for three, he wanted to get more involved. Worley-Hood  had a similar motivation, saying that his time as the president of the Parks Foundation made him more informed about the issues the park district was facing – which "pushed [him] to the next level."

Gates was elected to District 97 Board of Education in 2009. He served two terms, and while he originally filed to run in the 2017 election, but he decided to withdraw his candidacy a few weeks later.

Gates said that he wanted to run for the park board because he saw it as a way to give back to Oak Park.

"I view public elected service as an aspect of serving others," he said. "This community has been good to me, it has been good to my family. The honorable service is a way to pay back."

When asked about what their priorities if elected, Porreca said that she believed it was the wrong question, since she believed that "the agenda of the park district is not set by the personal priorities of any individual commissioner." 

The board has a strategic plan that the board members developed together, Porreca said, and her duty was to make sure it's properly implemented.

"My personal priority is to work with our staff and my fellow board members to oversee implementation of that plan, which we voted to approve," she said. "It's my job to work collaboratively with my fellow board members to that end."

Other candidates talked about the importance of not only listening to residents, but taking their input into account. 

Wollmuth and Gates both said that they know that there was no way to make everyone happy, so the goal should be creating something that would benefit the most people.

"You have to look at everything through the prism of what benefits the community at large," Gates said. "You have to look at the greatest good for the greatest number."

Wollmuth added that, while he didn't have "overwhelming" priorities, he felt that there are two important issues the park district will have to tackle. 

One is the potential community recreation center. The other is managing the district's finances, especially in light of the recently approved state minimum wage increase, while being mindful of the "the overall tax burden" on Oak Parkers.

"Park district being one of six bodies that's taxing us, understand that there's balance that needs to be struck," Wollmuth said. "Intergovernmental collaboration is going to be very important in the upcoming years and [so will be] making decisions in the largest context. Our boards, and the park board too, will be very important"

Gates said his other major priority would be to make sure that the park district was as transparent as possible, especially when it comes to its decision-making process.

"We have to be willing to transparently and clearly show why we're considering any policy, any project related to the community interest," Gates said, adding that he wanted to have at least two meetings between proposing a board action and voting on it, to give residents ample time to study the issue and offer feedback, while giving the board time to adjust accordingly.

Worley-Hood said his priority would be to maintain trust between the park district and the community.

"If you talk [about] school districts, people complain about lack of control and all the issues," he said. "I love the fact that, when we talk about park district, they talk about the favorite things in the park district."

Worley-Hood's other priority would be to make the park district's programs more accessible to residents who struggle to afford them. That has become his priority as the head of the Parks Foundation, and he intends to continue it.

"I like and respect the fact that park district balances the revenue and programming fees, and that half of their money is from non-tax revenue," he said. "But I'm troubled by the effect that has on equity."

Worley-Hood said he was conscious about residents' tax burden, and he knew it was a tricky balance to strike – but he thought it was important for the board to seriously look at the issue. Ultimately, he said, he believed in "fiscal responsibility through the lens of equity."

When asked about how their professional experiences would affect how their approach their duties as park commissioners, Porreca said that her background as an educator and a principal gave her a useful perspective when it comes to park district's teen-orientated programming.

"I understand teenagers and how they think, so when we are designing programs and places to attract young people, I can call on my many years of experience working with youth," she said. "I enjoy working with young people, and I respect them. I think they are often overlooked, underserved and disrespected in our culture, so I am an advocate for them."

Wollmuth argued that his professional experience will come in handy when considering issues of parks and facilities management, repair and renovation. And he said his experience gave him another skill that would come in handy in a leadership position – an ability to listen to multiple points of view and find something that works best for most people.

"I did a lot of work [as an architect] for religious institutions," he said. "These are heavily invested communities, but also [have] diverse populations in terms of interests and needs. So, a lot of skills I use to building consensus will apply here - making sure people are heard and understood, and [that] their input [is included] in the process."

Gates said he would draw not just on his experience as a member of the governing board, but on his experience collaborating with other governing bodies. 

"I believe I demonstrated ability to work within the board and in between taxing districts," he said. "I have experience working [with the park district] on collaborative projects."

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