*Editor’s note: Candidates submitted their own biographies
Stephen is a proud father, brother and son. He is a proven business leader, a health advocate and a dedicated Oak Parker who has worked to improve the environment, housing assistance, and mental well-being in our community. He is a healthcare consultant that works with businesses and policy makers every day.
Stephen and his family moved to Oak Park from the West Loop in 2015. After living in many of the world’s major cities, he found the perfect balance of urban and suburban in the Oak Park community. As he met his diverse neighbors, he knew what a special place Oak Park is.
He has served as citizen commissioner on the Environment and Energy Commission and, most recently, as Chair of the Community Development Citizen Advisory Committee, awarding grant dollars to non-profits that serve the community. While on the EEC for two terms, Stephen has led a campaign to reduce single-use plastics in Oak Park. Now, he is hoping to take on the role of Trustee to help Oak Park recover from COVID and to once again be a leading integrated community.
Stephen has made a career of finding solutions and compromises as part of leading consulting firms in Chicago and has led companies across the healthcare industry through more than three decades of changes. Stephen is Senior Vice President at the Marwood Group, a strategic consulting firm, where he has honed his skills listening to key needs and distilling those needs into actionable steps for companies. Prior to the pandemic he was hoping to open the Marwood Chicago office in Oak Park, but for now he is building the organization’s operations from his home office.
Mr. Morales holds board positions with several non-profits focused on healthcare and equity. He is currently the Vice-chair of the Thrive Counseling Center, a non-profit community mental health center located in downtown Oak Park. He is also the Governance Chair for the Center for Healthcare Innovation, a non-profit addressing racial and gender disparities across the health system. In both organizations, he has been a leading voice for bringing in new revenues through grants and donations. Both of these organizations have seen significant growth in programs and funding while Stephen has been part of the board.
He continues to give back to his alma maters at MIT and Duke as an alumni interviewer and has enjoyed continually seeing the next generation of amazing applicants to both schools.
Stephen is a husband and father to an amazingly talented family. His wife, Rumi, is a leading voice in blockchain, artificial intelligence, and robotic technologies. She is also a board member of the Girl Scouts of the USA and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Stephen and Rumi are passing their values of service to his daughter, Aphra (8), and son, Tycho (7). They love supporting local businesses. He and his kids can often be found biking to shops around Oak Park and picking up the latest comics at One-Stop Comics.
What are the biggest equity challenges Oak Park faces, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how will you address those challenges? Equity includes race, ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, sexual orientation, income level, religion, as well as physical and cognitive capability.
COVID has certainly exacerbated Oak Park’s many equity challenges, particularly around access to care and access to services. As a member of the board of the Center for Healthcare Innovation, I have been leading conversations about access to COVID vaccines as a driver for greater equity in underrepresented communities here in Chicago and around the country. But even before COVID, Oak Park has made several attempts to ensure equal access for all of its residents to COVID testing, vaccines, housing, services among many other areas where equity plays a significant role. While some of those attempts have been successful, we must admit that we don’t have a perfect record. This election is a chance for us to re-commit and accelerate our efforts and explore new opportunities. I have made equity a cornerstone priority in my campaign and in early February, announced my plan to improve equity and diversity in Oak Park with five key actions:
- Establishing an equity commission and metrics – This commission would have the ability to set quantitative and qualitative measures that let the board and Village staff know how Oak Park is performing on key equity criteria. I would suggest that the commission consider perspectives both inside and outside of Oak Park.
- Addressing blind spots – Oak Park can set the bar for how local governments seek out a broad base of talent. Importantly, vendors for the village should be reflective of our diversity and equity priorities while still maintaining a high bar for quality.
- Increasing access to board meetings and broadening board experience – Village board meetings where ordinances that affect sections of Oak Park – but which are not in the lived experiences of board members – should be held in those parts of the community that may be impacted.
- Supporting a leadership pipeline – The Board should work from Day One to cultivate the next generation of leaders. We need to engage residents of all backgrounds and lived experiences to find paths to serve in local government.
- Maintain a consistent focus on equity impact – At the start of my term, I will pursue an assessment of the equity impact of the Village’s ordinances, resolutions, and the budget.
On the last point, we need to take strong control of the Village budget to make sure that we do not exceed 3% growth because one of our biggest equity challenges are our rising taxes that put Oak Park beyond the reach of many potential homeowners and renters of all colors. If we are fiscally responsible and disciplined with spending, we can come closer to achieving a more affordable – and more equitable – Oak Park.
How do you intend to balance the priorities and needs of the community with the financial realities of COVID-19 equitably without inordinately increasing taxation of residents? What are the priorities and needs, in your eyes?
As much as I would like to be able to address all of our community needs without constraint, realistically we know we must work within our budget. But I feel confident that we can prioritize some key areas to help our community recover quickly post- COVID without exorbitantly straining our resources. Here are some examples:
- Ensure vaccinations for all eligible Villager are delivered by the Summer by helping to set up vaccination centers and distributing information on the safety of vaccines.
- Support businesses to help them accelerate out of the pandemic through task forces, talent promotion, and other ideas I proposed in my Business Enhancement Plan
- Address and improve equity in our community across a number of dimensions by establishing metrics and a framework to help us continually strive toward a more equitable community
- Streamline processes, such as permitting or Board requests, at Village Hall that will make the government more responsiveness to all villagers and reduce unnecessary spending.
- Launch programs that reimagine what policing, taxation, and development should look like in Oak Park for the future. This can include establishing neighborhood micro-visions – letting our neighborhoods decide which businesses and systems work best for them. It can also mean creating rails for better coordinating across other taxing bodies so we don’t unnecessarily burden property tax owners with all of multiple capital improvements at the same time.
I have already started reaching out to other stakeholders in the community and I take heart that they want to see better coordination across taxing bodies. By leveraging the Board’s existing communications channels, improving intergovernmental collaboration, and working with public-private partnerships and our citizens commissions, I believe we can address these priorities in ways that are fiscally responsible, collaborative and effective.
What does community policing in Oak Park mean to you and do you believe the village should spend less, the same or more on policing and police facilities?
To me, community policing means that police are welcome at all times and all ways in the community. I have tremendous respect for all our police officers, Police Chief LaDon Reynolds, and Former Policy Chief Anthony Ambrose. Our officers in the line of duty face crises that many villagers cannot even imagine and pressures that few would want to bear, but continue to perform their duties in an exemplary fashion. Indeed, community policing in Oak Park meets a high bar – but one where I believe we can strive even higher.
We should first develop a strategic plan with the police, the Community Policing Oversight Commission (CPOC), mental health professionals, and a broad set of voices from the community who want to help consider ways we can make our policing even better. Last year, there were over 500 calls where mental health crisis counselors assisted our police. This is a good start and we should seek ways to further improve this model.
Within our strategic plan for the police, we can also reimagine what a new police facility looks like. We should study models across the nation that have improved safety and responsiveness, in addition to piloting innovative programs where mental health professionals can respond to calls in advance of the police.
I believe for the next year we can commit to reimagining policing and keeping the budget where it needs to be for Chief Reynolds and his officers to maintain public safety. I can promise that Oak Park will be on the forefront of policing models in my term. I feel that Oak Parkers want consistent public safety while we build a new community policing model that we can all be proud of.
Business and non-profits have suffered due to COVID-19. How will you help facilitate their recovery?
Helping our businesses and non-profits to recover post-COVID is a critical priority. Yet even before the pandemic, our businesses were struggling, impacting our financial outlook and sense of community. This is why on March 1st, I announced my Business Enhancement Plan for Oak Park. It includes five key actions that I hope will address the needs of businesses coming out of the pandemic and accelerating their growth following the pandemic – while encouraging new businesses to choose Oak Park:
- Create consistent business support and competitiveness task force – We need to create support structures for businesses to enable and encourage them to succeed. I propose a task force comprised of members of our small business community, larger businesses, and chambers of commerce to take a strategic view of how we are welcoming and guiding businesses to succeed in Oak Park.
- Promote the use of local and neighboring talent – We can help connect our businesses with local talent in a way that develops skills and commercial value while minimally impacting our budget. By employing locally, we are developing a strong economic base and pride that will feed our local businesses. And sponsoring local internships are a great way for young leaders to learn skills while helping our businesses to grow in Oak Park, specifically, with the goal of creating near-term business managers and entrepreneurs that meet the diverse local needs of Oak Park and help us build new local jobs.
- Enable easier access to capital and better marketing for small businesses – The Village can create an online resource to direct entrepreneurs and small business owners to available sources of capital. And with pandemic help coming from Federal and State sources, we have the important chance to guide entrepreneurs and business owners about their financing options. Working with our different chambers of commerce, we can highlight the various e-commerce, online payment, fulfillment, and distribution technology tools that a business can utilize to compete effectively against major online retailers.
- Attract and incubate a diverse set of businesses – Let’s get our neighborhoods involved in creating a vision for their neighborhood. Let them provide the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation with a more detailed set of micro-visionary areas within Oak Park And we need to recognize that we have entrepreneurs among us already. With the rise of working-from-home in the pandemic, there are many emerging new companies within Oak Park which that benefit from events and spaces to share and grow their services.
Small Business Support Day in Oak Park – For large, big-box businesses that come to Oak Park, it would be terrific to see their goodwill for the local business community that made Oak Park an attractive place to do business in the first place. I would support a resolution to create a Small Business Support Day where a portion of proceeds from sales from big-box firms goes directly to small businesses in Oak Park or programs that support our local businesses and entrepreneurs. This is a win-win to drive more sales on this special day for both big and small businesses and to solidify support of our local entrepreneurs.
How will you address the affordability of living in Oak Park, while understanding that affordability must extend to renters as well as homeowners?
Making Oak Park affordable means taking courageous steps to hold down our tax levy increases in the near-term while addressing the integration of affordable housing in the long-term. Much of our affordability is driven by our high tax levy and lack of coordination across our taxing bodies which can no longer be accepted.
First on the property tax levy, I am willing to commit to keeping the Village property tax levy increase at or below 3%. This will have significant impact on our Village’s attractiveness in the near term and invite others who cannot currently afford to live in Oak Park to move here. They will further join us if they have confidence that this is well-run community, so our responsible fiscal leadership on taxes is critical.
For the long-term, we need to have much better collaboration between our taxing bodies. The Village is one of the only taxing bodies that does not have a tax cap, which means that Oak Parkers have entrusted the Board to be responsible. Honoring that responsibility, the Board should work with the other taxing bodies to make sure the taxpayer is not facing big bills for capital improvement projects all at once and to better understand the long-term impacts of major spending on our residents.
We should also challenge developers who are building in Oak Park or seek new developers that are willing to think creatively and build integrated housing here in Oak Park. We have an extremely attractive community. We should expect more from our developers when they decide to add to our community and reward them for being innovative to help us achieve our community vision of a more integrated Oak Park. I would like to see the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation openly invite many of these innovative developers from around the country to consider their next development in Oak Park. If we do that, we can begin to get their expertise in becoming a truly twenty-first century integrated community.
What life experiences do you have that give you the capability to serve on the village board and to guide staff through complicated times?
My father arrived in New York from Puerto Rico when he was 9 years old without speaking any English, and shined shoes at Grand Central Station to help out his family. My mother, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side, studied and worked tirelessly to become the first in her family to attend college. Their experiences laid the foundation for mine: a life rooted in a strong work ethic, persevering through adversity, and tremendous optimism for the future.
Like so many Oak Parkers, I’ve had my fair share of challenges. My family didn’t come from any great means. I have been laid off more than once. I know what it feels like to not know where your next steps or next paycheck is going to come from. But I also have so much hope despite the hardships. Last summer, I actually went through heart surgery, but it made me want to live every day as fully as I can.
With this empathy and can-do spirit in mind, I feel strongly that I can serve on the board and guide the Village staff. In times of difficulty, I feel that people need to have a North Star and a vision to hold on to. I personally have emerged from low times when I can clearly articulate what I am trying to achieve and then “walk-the-talk.” Many of my old colleagues say that I “lead from the front” when things get challenging. I like being shoulder to shoulder with my team and I hope to bring that philosophy to the Board. If am lucky enough to be elected I will use the time that I have to demonstrate to staff, to the citizen commissions, and to you the villager that I am only sitting in the board seat for your success.
On a more operational level, I have had decades of experience managing people as a healthcare consultant and pharma executive. When I talk with CEOs and leaders of corporate boards, they often tell me that the secret of good leadership is providing clear vision to competent people. As a Board member, I will work with my colleagues to make sure that we give that clear vision to the staff and help to lead them through not only this complicated time, but any challenges we face in the future.