Are we being governed by an oligarchy?

Opinion: Columns

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John Murtagh

One View

Part two of a two-part assessment

A year in advance is a good time to launch a serious discussion about the village elections in the spring of 2013. We should all be thinking about the state of Oak Park government and its future direction.

Living in an oligarchy?

The Village Manager Association (VMA) has selected and supported every village president since 1952. It has supported 97 percent of all candidates who have won a seat on the board. Some believe that's good. Others believe the political party's power has inhibited debate, new ideas and fresh viewpoints. To many, it is not worth fighting an oligarchy that pre-dates Eisenhower's presidency, so they do not vote.

VMA principles

The VMA operates under three principles:

Accountable and responsive government

Since the dawning of the 21st century, the village has undergone multiple crises that have raised doubts, in many minds, about the decision-making capabilities of the board. The village had no budget reserves for half of the decade, imposed continuous higher taxes and lower services, failed to address faltering infrastructure issues, high debt, ill-advised lawsuits, and poor return on development investments. Add to the list PeopleSoft, Whiteco, the Colt building, the Sertus Project, etc., and we see a systemic pattern of a government that is not on an accountable or responsive track.

Balanced and sensitive economic growth

For several decades, Oak Park has used TIFs to fund economic growth. It is broadly estimated that $300 million have been spent via TIFs and there is very little evidence of success, much less a return on investment. Board after board has supported this economic theory despite little evidence that they were succeeding. Irregularities in the distribution of TIF funds led to a lawsuit by the District 200 school district. The village settled the case and had to distribute $48.8 million to 10 taxing bodies (in and outside Oak Park) that had disputed the TIF payments from 2003 to 2009. The village also agreed to making proper TIF payments to the taxing bodies on an annual basis from 2010 to 2018 rather than holding them in the TIF economic development account.

In December 2011, the village approved an outcome statement that included "an acknowledgment that the Downtown TIF's performance and current finances have been impacted by unmet assumptions and economic circumstances not contemplated in the intergovernmental agreement from 2003."

Ongoing and inclusive diversity

"The VMA is committed to open and inclusive diversity which we believe creates an environment for embracing change and makes Oak Park a unique community." From the Village's Diversity Statement: "Oak Park recognizes that a free, open, and inclusive community is achieved through full and broad participation of all its citizens."

Diversity is always harder in practice than it is in concept. Since 1988, more than 70 percent of those elected to the village board were white males. The VMA has dominated the candidate recruitment and selection for those years. Did the VMA consider diversity in its election processes? The village certainly has a wide enough range of candidates to ensure that robust selection can lead to greater representation from women and people of color.

The VMA has many supporters who tout the organization's importance to the community, yet each of its principles is inconsistent with the actual events of the last two decades. Perhaps there is another version of the events of the last 20 years that needs to be heard.


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Reader Comments

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Comment Policy

Tough Choice  

Posted: May 9th, 2012 9:57 AM

@hey butch - Why do we need to choose the better of two evils? I would like to elect people who make good decisions based on input from the citizens. We don't need a no growth/do nothing board any more than a bad decision/tax wasting/pretend real estate developer board.

Hey Butch....Wrong Again from Oak Park  

Posted: May 9th, 2012 9:36 AM

@ Butch -- (Wrong Again) -- President Trapani had one non-VMA member on the board during the years 2003-2005 and that was Mr. Bob Milstein. In 2005, when David Pope resigned as Trustee to become President, he had 5 non-VMA board members (Milstein, Marsey, Brock, Baker, and Brady). The 5 non-VMA members made the decision to purchase the Colt and Westgate properties for $7.5M -- property which sits vacant today after they ran the Taxman Corp. out of town. Wanna' go back to those good ol' days? NOT

Patricia O'Shea  

Posted: May 6th, 2012 10:49 PM

Also, not lobbying against Oak Park. That would be stupid. If I was against Oak Park I'd leave. I'm for it. However, I just want to see responsible governance. You see everything simplistically - as black and white. The world isn't that cut and dry. You can call for change without being against. If anything, that's for! Apathy is more against than calling for change!

Patricia O'Shea  

Posted: May 6th, 2012 10:45 PM

You'd be wrong there Silly. Has doing things in secrecy ever been my M.O.? I didn't hide it when I did my last website and I'm not hide now. (Not meant at a dig of the author of rebrickulous...everyone has their own reasons for their choices)  

Posted: May 6th, 2012 12:43 PM

I want to vote for the candidate(s) who endorsed or are endorsed by the same people who are lobbying AGAINST Oak Park. The website is and on twitter!/Rebrickulous. My suspicion is that O'Shea and her father Murtagh are behind this.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: May 5th, 2012 11:22 PM

Four VMA incumbents are up for election in 2013 -- Pres. Pope, and Trustees Lueck, Brewer, and Hedges. If all choose to run for reelection, the VMA slate would be "all incumbents." Complicating the VMA slate is the rumor that Johnson is considering a run for President whether or not Pope choices to run. As Johnson is unlikely to run as an independent, it would leave Pope to run as an independent which he has done before. Anyway it shakes out, 2013 is an excellent opportunity for a fresh candidates with vision and solutions. Candidates can form slates or run independently. I hesitate about using slates versus the VMA. With their excellent funding and experienced campaign organizers, they are adept at attacking the opposing slate while ignoring the individual skills, knowledge and vision of the slate members. Candidate running independent campaigns could have a substantive advantage in 2013. Whether slate or independent, candidates need to develop strong public policies issues that have clarity. Winning is about running for something; not running against the past. Finally, the VMA will announce their endorsements in September and begin campaigning immediately. Beware of getting behind the power curve.

Solution to Oligarchy?  

Posted: May 5th, 2012 11:04 AM

What is the solution? A second party or more active involvement in VMA? A second party needs a strong slate and a "vision" for the future.

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