Former Triton board member running for Oak Park trustee

Thomas Gary says village must plan better on economic development, infrastructure

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

For those paying attention, Thomas Gary, 49, is no new name in Oak Park.

Now he's one of 11 candidates running for the Oak Park Board of Trustees in the municipal election set for April 2.

Though he's never held public office in the village, Gary, who works in the Illinois Treasurer's Office as a community engagement specialist, has made a name for himself serving six years on the Triton College Board of Trustees and as co-chair of Austin Coming Together, a coalition of groups working to improve the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.

He also served on the DeKalb County Board.

Gary blew onto the Oak Park political scene in late 2018 when he registered as a Democrat to run for village trustee. It's notable because village board elections have historically been nonpartisan.

He said at the time that running as a nonpartisan allows candidates to say they stand for progressive values but then fail to vote on those values.

Gary is a U.S. Navy veteran and continues to serve in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

Throughout the campaign, Gary has pressed the notion that the village needs better planning on a number of issues, including economic development.

That's what happened with the village's recent approval of an affordable housing ordinance. Gary said the ordinance was rushed through and "doesn't speak to what people have expressed their larger concern about."

Gary said that it still is uncertain whether such an ordinance will gain enough funds to encourage building units and developments that are truly affordable.

The village spent a couple of years in the mid-2000s working on the Envision Oak Park plan, but that proposal has largely sat on the shelf, according to Gary.

He suggests establishment of a dashboard that would set goals and track them to show whether those goals are being accomplished. That would keep the village accountable, he said.

The lack of an economic development plan has caused the village to focus on certain areas of town, such as downtown, while ignoring others like North Avenue, he said.

The affordable housing ordinance should also address zoning to allow people to expand their homes to make room to care for an elderly loved one, he said. Cities like Seattle and Minneapolis have focused on zoning in this way, and Oak Park should follow their lead, Gary said.

"I think in the conversation about affordable housing … I think it's really important that we're not just talking about race and class but generations as well," he said.

 Transparency in government is another topic Gary has made part of his campaign, saying the village should better explain the information it makes available to the public. Local government also should also make more raw data available to citizens to give them the chance to deconstruct the information.

"There's quite a bit of talent in our village government, and if you open the data to them and let them have at it, I'm sure they'll see things we've never even thought of," he said.

Gary has distinguished himself in the race by being one of the few candidates to talk about the need for fixing Oak Park's infrastructure.

He said the village should be setting money aside for potential incidents like flooding or intense winters that are being driven by climate change.

"These are things that are so unsexy and don't get attention and headlines until they do get headlines," he said. "We need to be planning that out and thinking that out deliberatively and with intention."

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Ann Carlson  

Posted: March 29th, 2019 7:03 AM

I cannot say enough good things about Thomas Gary. I vote Republican 90% of the time. Mr. Gary and I have had many conversations regarding political differences. While we don't always agree - more often than not - we come to a common understanding. I have known him for over 15 years. He is a fair and practical man. I have been urging him to seek public office for years. Why? Because regardless of our differences, I believe in him and his ability to bring good to all. I only wish I lived in Oak Park so I could vote for him.

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