How Oak Park Does It

DeKalb City Council is supposed to set policies and city staff are supposed to carry them out. What actually happens a lot is that the Council and staff end up setting policy together. The boundaries get blurred. For example, sometimes people who visit here from other parts are rather startled at staff’s advocacy of one position over another and their apparent influence. That is a problem. And when it comes to competing interests between city employees and the constituency, that is a HUGE problem. In coping with the current budget crisis, for instance, the possible directions are pretty straightforward: you are either going to raise revenues or you are going to make budget cuts. Perhaps you’ll end up with some combination of the two but there has to be a predominant frame of reference informing your problem-solving approach. Would you ever anticipate that city employees would voluntarily and cheerfully make cuts to their own departments? Of course not. They’ve been in revenue-enhancing persuasion mode ever since the crisis hit and, unfortunately for us, that’s who has Council’s ear. If there’s another explanation for why real cuts haven’t been made in spite of the citizen uproar, please share it!

The culprit is the lack of a real partnership mechanism between the Council and its constituency for choosing fiscal policy directions, so we lose. Hate to say it, but Alderman Wogen is right when he says we only come in to complain (just not about our enjoying it). He’s right because complaining is really our only option. Look at last Monday: it didn’t matter what Mr. Hickey said; the gas tax was a done deal. Then staff look oh, so reasonable compared to the “complainers” because they’ve been in on the decision-making from the beginning while we get three minutes to make our case just before the vote is taken. By the time we have our say we’re often feeling frustrated, maybe a bit angry. The procedure sets us up to look bad.

There’s a blogger I know who lives in Oak Park and he really likes the village government, so I decided to find out a little about how things work there. They have a village management setup similar to ours but the way they choose the village trustees is different. Many voters join “associations” that function like parties and these associations do not put up individual candidates but rather whole slates for at-large positions as village trustees. Through a thorough interview process, each association finds the best matches to their issue priorities and positions. (For example, one of the associations is really big on landmark preservation so potential candidates always answer questions about that.) Voters elect one slate or another at each election. The advantages seem to be that the candidates know exactly what their associations expect of them, the slate members back each other up, and the at-large status, they believe, helps minimize influence of special interests.

In short, Oak Parkers are able to make their expectations clearly known up front, perhaps not so surprising since their system arose from their disentanglement from the notoriously corrupt Cicero Township. Certainly they are very hands-on and the involvement doesn’t end with the elections, either; though Oak Park has a population of about 50,000 to our 42,000 they have at least a half-dozen more boards and commissions and, as far as I can tell, about twice the numbers of volunteers involved in municipal government.

Are the Oak Parkers more involved because their process drives policy, or is it the other way around? I don’t know about you but I get tired of being only in a position to react so much of the time, especially about money things like taxes and fees. Revocation of Home Rule status might help, but would only address permission to tax and not the need for opportunities for citizens to take a more proactive role in strategic planning. Something as important as the state of our pocketbooks should have its own ongoing citizen committee–such as a revived Financial Advisory Board (thanks Herb R.).

A related idea I will insert here comes from Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. of Charleston, S.C. Mayor Riley, who boasts an impressive list of accomplishments during his tenure of 30-years-plus, hosts a “Mayor’s Night In” each week at City Hall when anyone can drop in and talk to him. Our own City Council could and perhaps should make themselves available in such a regular, convenient and informal way.

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Links:

Village Managers Association
Village Citizens Alliance