Monthly Archives: March 2013

OP schools alert: state subsidies too much, says Chi Trib article

OP district 97 over-subsidized, says front-pager in lede to story [subscription only] about how tax caps lead to special help, leaving district’s first-responders with lotsa work to do.

Oak Park’s pricey homes, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and array of shops and restaurants generate billions in property wealth, funneling a bounty of tax dollars to its elementary school district.

That kind of local affluence usually means fewer dollars from the state to help cover school bills. But Oak Park Elementary School District 97 also receives millions through a little-known state subsidy aimed at fattening its budget.

OP not the only such district:

Oak Park was among those on the receiving end as Illinois quietly doled out some $6 billion since 2000 to boost state aid for select school districts — many in the Chicago region — that couldn’t get more money from property owners because of laws that limit tax collections, the Tribune has learned.

Rolled into the usual state aid sent to districts, the subsidies are all but hidden and have been skyrocketing, starting at $46 million and increasing more than 1,000 percent in the years since lawmakers approved them, state data show. At its peak in 2008, the program cost taxpayers $805 million, with the majority of school districts not getting a penny.

“It is ridiculous,” said State Superintendent Christopher Koch. “We can’t afford it; it doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair to everyone else.”

How much does OP get and what does losing it mean?

Oak Park 97 got the fifth-highest subsidy in the state this year — calculated at $7 million.

“That $7 million is a huge percentage of our budget,” said Robert Spatz, vice president of the school board, which oversees a budget of nearly $70 million. “Seven million is 100 staff members.”

Without the subsidy, Oak Park’s basic state aid would have been $1.8 million instead of nearly $9 million.

Hello, Dem committeeman, influential state Senator Don Harmon. Hello, Springfield.

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League of Women Voters forum March 23 OP Library: John Hedges vs. Anan Abu-Taleb

Re: structural deficits

Abu-Taleb: Village expenses exceeded revenue seven of last 11 years. General and enterprise funds — environmental services, parking, sewer, water — are short $94 million. Answers about this are to be sought from the board. Wait too long before fixing this, you risk acting in panic later on.

Hedges: Not structural. Finances are in “very good condition.” Ill. Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF), a non-state fund, is fully funded. Police and fire funds, 59% — comparable to other such (state-based) funds in Illinois (a state in deep financial trouble). OP has to 2045, the state tells us. (Before funds run out of money, presumably.) Debt situation — also similar to communities our size among inner suburbs. (As goes Cook County, also in deep trouble, so goes OP?)

Re: Two most important issues

Hedges: Economic development, Eisenhower x-way expansion another. As for the latter, the Ill. Dept. of Transportation (IDOT) is hard to work with. They see only building highways, want a Texas u-turn, from Austin to Central (gasp from audience). We are responsible for what happens beyond our borders. (Hence desire to extend public rail transit for sake of blue-collar communities to the west, presumably.)

Abu-Taleb: All is not OK with finances, for starters. The community is not engaged, the tax burden is an economic barrier. Taxers should be responsive. We want a culture that honors our past but is not a slave to it. Pursuing development, we need a business mind on the board.

Re: Being business friendly

Abu-Taleb: That’s my area. I say “I,” knowing I am but one voice. I want to work with others. Oak Park is a difficult place for a developer. Bottlenecks abound. We need better marketing: not “step out of line” and come to OP, but “we’d love you in OP.” Another issue: customer service does not match the taxes we pay. (We don’t get our money’s worth.)

Hedges: I welcome the new Dept. of Community And Economic Development, which will make things easier for the developer. Op’s is a “fairly long and rigorous process.” It’s that way so that “we get what we want.” Abu-Taleb would give developers too much (leeway). He would auction our development properties to the low bidder. (Denied below, not recalled by this listener.)

Re: Parking

Hedges: Downtown Oak Park parking is in good shape. As for restrictions, every requirement has a constituency. We do that — we satisfy constituencies. In this (election-time) discussion, it’s been all economic development. There is more than that to village government.

Abu-Taleb: I asked the director of parking, what keeps you awake at night? She said “nothing.” She sleeps, we worry. Idea of mine: do away with fines as a revenue source. Answering Hedges: As for auctioning property, I never said lowest bidder. I want to sell as many as possible. Answering again: I make no apology for my economic development emphasis.

Re: security

Abu-Taleb: Safety is the #1 issue. Police here do a great job. The Fire Dept. too, for whom he wants GPS technology which would enable them to find each other in smoke-filled building and other tight spots. Offered as experience in prizing safety: In Gaza under martial law we lived under the gun. I was protected by my (unarmed) father from defenders and occupier, coming and going; he stood up to them.

Hedges: Our police have the second-fastest response time for a town our size in Illinois. (Among the best in the country, says the village web site.) Crime rate is half that of 30 years ago. We live next to the West Side — “a little bit differently than in Western Illinois corn fields” — and face challenges that arise from that.

Hedges vs. Abu-Taleb March 19, Chamber of Commerce forum

Village president candidate John Hedges tore into his opponent Anan Abu-Taleb in a March 19 forum sponsored by the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce, labeling him a Johnny-come-lately to village politics.

“You’ve lived here 22 years,” he said, raising his voice. “Where have you been? The rest of us have been working hard. You jump in without a sense of the community” and without realizing that “what’s important is community consensus-building.”

“What are you telling me?” Abu-Taleb responded. “That I’m not committed to Oak Park, after moving here [23 years ago] with my family and my business? Voters are not going to buy that, John,” adding, “Just because you have been on the board” does not justify that.

Abu-Taleb — Anan per his signs — has neither held office nor served on a committee while running two restaurants successively in 17 years in the center of Oak Park and with his wife raising their four children. Hedges is a sitting trustee, elected in 2007. Before that he headed the park district for 20 years.

Hedges was staking his case on knowing “how government works” and being “a good listener” in the process of building consensus among citizens.

Abu-Taleb had reiterated his claim to having “practical business experience” such as is otherwise missing from the board, and knowing how to “get people to buy in.”

He reminded 50 or so listeners at the Cheney Mansion gathering that his highly successful Oak Park Avenue restaurant sits on a block “with nine vacant” storefronts and provides “night life” where this was no life.

Hedges pounded home his “sense of the community,” noting that the board was taking “a new look” — in advance of a five-year schedule for reviewing it — at a 2009 sign ordinance that required store owners to remove signs.

“Do away with that ordinance,” Abu-Taleb said, making a point he had raised earlier in the campaign, that its timing was very bad in its adding costs in time of recession. The board should moreover review its building code requirements — “every three years,” he said — but it has not done so in nine years.

“I live these codes,” he said, telling how in the middle of working to to open his current restaurant seven years ago, beleaguered by inspectors’ demands, he had asked why he was putting himself through “such a process.” If he hadn’t been “committed to Oak Park,” he said, he “would have moved, as many other [businesses] have moved.”

He looks at other towns’ billboards, and with an eye to Oak Park’s billboards, which he has in mind for marketing purposes, he recalls taking photos of signs put up by business competitors. As president, he said, he would be out “taking pictures” of those other billboards. As president he would help fellow trustees to “understand cash flow” and other business problems that arise when trying to attract businesses to Oak Park.

Oddly, Hedges said at this point that he was “confused” at Abu-Taleb’s criticisms, in that Abu-Taleb had just said the village was “business friendly.” He hadn’t, however, and Abu-Taleb promptly denied it. Nor did it make sense for him to say it in view of his position. “I said the village is not business friendly,” he said.

Indeed, the village “is over-regulated,” he said. The board reviews “every little thing,” meeting too often, an average of “6.5 times a month,” demonstrating both the lack of technology that could keep trustees abreast of many matters with fewer meetings and a “lack of confidence” in the village’s managers, Abu-Taleb said.

The board needs “someone like me,” he added, to cast a “new eye” on how business is regarded, “a new set of skills.” He disputed Hedges’ claim of success in attracting new business as shown by real estate broker David King’s “phone ringing off the hook” with calls from businesses interested in moving to Oak Park. “Ringing off the hook is a unit of measurement?” he asked rhetorically.

Asked for “specific plans,” Hedges said, “We will look at some of our zoning . . . firming up partnership agreements” with developers. The board would seek “very good input” on these matters. Madison Street, which has not developed as wished, is nonetheless “fairly highly populated” by businesses. But “we must look at the core reasons” why it is not more so, keeping in mind that as a street of car dealerships at one time, it cannot fairly be compared with Forest Park’s Madison Street with its many bars and restaurants.

Building economic development is a “hard, hard issue to deal with,” he said. But with “some of the ideas” available, we will take “a new look” at possibilities, and it could be “a very exciting experience.”

Abu-Taleb said Hedges spoke of “hard issues” but did not demonstrate a “can-do” attitude. Meanwhile, the village’s “19 or 21” land parcels bought over the years for development “are not working” for us and should be sold. He would auction them off, he had already said, on this occasion speaking of his “first one hundred days” plan and his intent to go into it later.

Hedges dismissed the auctioning idea, mentioning it briefly at the start of a second raised-voice accusation. Abu-Taleb, he said, was willing to do “whatever developers wanted, merely to get them into town,” including “do[ing] away with the plan commission, the community design commission, this whole community!”

“We have to listen,” he concluded. “And not just to the developer. He [Abu-Taleb] wants success for the businessman, not for Oak Park!”

About TIF — tax increment financing — and whether reports were not filed as required:

“I’m not sure about that,” said Hedges, referring apparently to whether the filing was required. “We have met with” the various parties concerned and are “technically” in compliance, he said. In any case, “it’s not a major issue.”

Abu-Taleb disagreed. “They are not in compliance,” he said. TIF — which diverts tax revenue from school districts and other entities to beef up a troubled business area — is “an accounting tool.” The village has mismanaged its TIF’s, he said, even to not filing these reports yearly, as required. The TIF books had been closed to the Oak Park & River Forest high school District 200 board, who sued the village “with our money,” leading the village to defend itself also “with our money.” TIF filing is an issue, he said.

Moreover, the village turned to a general obligation bond to meet needs of “one block,” thus making the whole town responsible. “I don’t like that,” he said, accusing the board of “head-in-sand” behavior.

“I won’t give a lesson in public finance,” Hedges responded. “But we went for the general obligation bond because of its lower interest rate, and we paid these bonds with TIF money.”

At which point he launched his attack on Abu-Taleb for doing nothing for the village while “the rest of us have been working hard” on civic issues, as told above, followed by Abu-Taleb’s self-defense as a committed family and business man in the village.

Abu-Taleb’s “just because you’re on the board” was aimed at Hedges but could have been aimed at a common Oak Park opinion that committee participation and meetings and other non-profit work are true service to the community, while running a business is not.

Asked about outside consultants, Abu-Taleb said they are over-used, that consultants too often “tell us what we know anyway,” as in the recent hiring of a village manager. He wondered why Hedges as a trustee with long experience in hiring had not chosen to sit on the selection committee.

“I was on the committee,” Hedges countered. As to the hiring itself, “it was not an easy decision,” Oak Park being a “very progressive community . . . a complex community,” where “everybody takes the opportunity” to comment. This constant-comment factor is “part of the Oak Park ambience, what makes you want to be here. It’s fulfilling. There’s a whole bunch of people out there” who want to be heard. “It’s very exciting.”

What about empty offices and store spaces?

Hedges: We need more business tenants, but we do not need something “big and tall and shiny” in the downtown area, even if we do “need more density.” Downtown Oak Park in any case has become “a very vibrant place,” he said, adding, “I’m excited. Possibilities are out there. We have a lot to look forward to.”

Abu-Taleb: “Just feeling good is not a measurement,” he said, citing the problem as he saw it: “Too many feel they are smarter than the market.”

Moderator: gun control?

Abu-Taleb: “I grew up in the Gaza strip.” We lived “under the gun.” His father confronted Israeli soldiers, “looked them in the eye.” It was “a fact to me every day. I still have nightmares about it.” He’s “very aware of the need to keep guns from the crazy, the criminals,” he said.

“In the meantime, we in the U.S. must respect the Second Amendment and work together in this. Myself, I can never forget having a gun to my head. But we must respect the law of the country.”

Hedges recalled being in Oak Park when the handgun ordinance was debated and passed, is “disappointed” with court decisions upsetting that ordinance. Oak Park was “one of the very few places in the country to realize guns kill people.” Oak Park “joined Chicago in fighting” the recent decisions. Meanwhile, “we must live with [these decisions] the best way we can.”

It’s “a tough, emotional issue. I grew up in Indiana,” where the issue was not as clear. The early ’80s Oak Park discussion educated him in the matter. He hoped that new “rules and regulations” would solve the current impasse.

Moderator: leaf pickup etc.?

Hedges offered details about it, such as that one (presumably outside) company picks up leaves, another removes snow.

Abu-Taleb called it a “question about common sense.” He recounted his getting a ticket that morning, having parked at 5:30 on Lake Street in front of the health club, from which he returned after the permitted time. He complained, the club is “open pretty much twenty-four-seven. Doesn’t common sense says let [the violation] go? “It’s a gotcha moment” that “antagonizes people.”

He proposed a common sense approach to all issues, as being able to park on your park during the 8-to-10 a.m. prohibited time, set to prevent preventing commuters from all-day parking. The ticket-giver could be equipped with technology by which to check on the spot whether the car belongs to a resident of that block and if so, let that car alone.

Closing comments:

Hedges told of the wide variety of jobs he held, including enterpreneurial, during college, said he “knows the value of public money.” The village has “scrutinized the budget” and “made hard decisions” in making cuts.

He further noted that he is not an incumbent (being a trustee seeking the president’s office), but comes “with new ideas” about how to perform as president. Yes, “there are a lot of meetings,” he conceded, adding that Oak Park is a “hard town to work with.” But it’s “a diverse, vibrant community.”

Abu-Taleb agreed that Oak Park is a “special place,” what with its fair housing history and the like. But it is “threatened by its fiscal problems.” He identified four or five already discussed, among them the village’s ongoing cash balance of $2 million paired with a $1.3 million monthly payroll, repeating that he “would not sleep at night” if a business of his were in such a plight. Oak Park, he said, is “economically unsustainable,” with expenses exceeding revenue. “We have to live within our means.”

“If you are happy now” in view of the village’s problems, he said, addressing voters, “John [Hedges] is your man. He is honorable and will keep the village going in the same direction.” As for his ability to handle political challenges, questioned by his opponent, he said that at his restaurant, he and his staff “deal with hundreds of customers,” welcoming them and making sure they have “no reason to go elsewhere.”

 

Support for Abu-Taleb: fence and garage permits, Moody’s and other ratings

Comments following Wednesday Journal article about 3/13 forum at the library:

From Oakparkbob:

I’m for Abu-Taleb. . . . As a homeowner for 33 years in OP, I understand the frustration of dealing with the village. The permit process is ridiculous. I had a fence replaced & had to pay an $80 permit fee & went to the village to get the permit. I was asked to draw a schematic of the fence which they said no one would come to check. I could have drawn a line around the whole village and they wouldn’t have cared!

From James:

I have another one, also indicative of this group’s (Hedges and Co.) clueless leadership. Wanting to replace an old garage, staff said I needed a permit. After three months of delays, the garage I was DEMOLISHING was cited for peeling paint and I was denied the permit to DEMOLISH it until I painted the entire garage.

Staff stupidity? Sure. But the Board and now current village attorney agreed! That kind of stupidity is an infection and must end. Therefore, no vote for Hedges.

From John Butch Murtagh;

At the Buzz Cafe debate [3/14], Anan Abu-Taleb cited Moody’s Oak Park bond rating published in December 2012. Moody’s has ten ratings for investment grade bonds, from Aaa to Baa3. Oak Park Village has a Aa2 rating.

The village also has a “negative” rating, which the credit-rating agencies (Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch) give while they are deciding whether to lower that company’s (or municipality’s) credit rating.

Moody’s negative is based on narrow liquidity in the village’s General Fund and enterprise funds, negative budget to actual variances, and sizable unfunded pension liabilities.

As reported by the Wednesday Journal, Trustee Hedges reply was “There are problems. We’re gone through this recession. We have high taxes, we’ve got all those things going on,” adding, “There is work to do, no doubt. But we’re turning the corner.”

The election becomes clearer every day. The issue is how residents’ money is handled. The choice is “Status Quo” or “Fiscal Change.”

Substantive issues raised by all three, plus this weighty follow-up on the bond-rating matter.

From Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park:

While the Aa2 rating itself is not of concern, the downward trending is troubling. As recently as May 2006, Oak Park was rated as Aa3 with a positive outlook, but has been downgraded ever since.

As per Moody’s, the current negative outlook “reflects a lack of progress in improving the village’s overall financial profile.”

Also of concern is that the current Aa2 negative outlook not only applies to current General Obligation bonds, but also previously issued GO debt, totaling $82.4M.

From Steve Bankes from Oak Park:

Oak Park is an A student satisfied with Bs. How can you be involved in village government and the VMA for decades and still shake things up a bit? Hedges is a good man but has too much to lose by rocking the boat. Anan is a “free agent” and our greatest hope for straight As.

Sez I:  Hedges a good man, yes. Afraid to rock the boat, no. I do not think it occurs to him. His experience has not prepared him for taking steps called for by the situation.  Oddly, he and his slate claim their experience is a plus, but for what?  Anan simply knows more.

From Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park:

Steve’s is an apt analogy. Moody’s states Oak Park’s strengths as large tax base, proximity to Chicago, and affluent socio-economic profile, which all are inherent to the village itself.

The stated weaknesses are not inherent but pertain to fiscal management. Oak Park thrives due to its inherent base conditions, and despite village officials who continue to underachieve and devalue our potential.

Excellent analysis, sez I.

Anan vs. John at library, 3/13: Liquor control and tax fraud

* The liquor commissioner item:

Anan Abu-Taleb, on that day featured on Wed. Journal front page as alleged ineligible for village board presidency he seeks in the April 9 election, said he would divest his liquor-licensed restaurant if elected.

To whom? asked forum moderator Dan Haley, Wed. Journal publisher, with view to former village attorney’s that-day published opinion that his whole family could not be owners either. “Not your business,” said Anan, repeating this when Haley registered surprise and repeated his question. Anan was not budging.

Haley to Anan’s opponent, John Hedges, a sitting board member: Are you satisfied with that? To which John: If he divests from his family, yes.

Anan: I said I would no longer be the owner if elected. To which John, in shrugging tone, quietly: Then it’s an issue.

* The tax fraud conviction:

Anan admitted to tax fraud 23 years ago to the tune of $4,000, paid $8,700-plus in taxes and penalties to the state, 10 years later sought expungement of his conviction from a state commission, received it two years later.

Governor at time was Blagojevich, now doing federal time for his many pay-to-play offenses. Sun-Times publicized this at time of Blagojevich exposure.

Anan stood to explain himself to the hundred or so on hand at the library, made a highly effective plea for forgiveness, neither groveling nor making light of the issue.

“I asked for a second chance,” he said. The experience, “made me a better father, a better husband, business owner, citizen.” As to the pay-to-play aspect, “I never contributed [to the governor] or was asked to. I made a mistake and corrected this. Now I want to give back to the village, help it repair its financial instability.” He sat back down.

Haley to Hedges: Is that an issue with you? Not an issue, said Hedges.

Bang. Perfect-pitch performance by the accused. A sigh of relief must have come forth from supporters. Dignified acceptance by Hedges, who had not himself raised the issue. Key moment in campaign. Henceforward, issues of government and policy. Abu-Taleb — you read it here — was on his way.

Last night at the library . . .

. . . it was forum #2 featuring the two candidates for village board president, sitting board member John Hedges and Oak Park Avenue restaurateur Anan Abu-Taleb. Let’s take it from the start.

Anan A-T: We have to change perceptions of Oak Park among developers. They see OP as “undecided,” too fussy and hard to deal with. A developer has to move fast. “I speak their language,” am aware of the importance of “cash flow.” OP has its “head in the sand” about this problem, should take a “more aggressive” sales approach.

John Hedges: We develop in Oak Park “for the community, not for the developer.” In Oak Park a project requires “a lot of input” from citizens. “We cannot [simply] give the developer his way.”

A: Yes, we are different in Oak Park, as John H. said, but we have to show OP’s value to the developer. (sell him) Village Hall is “not a friendly place” (from which to do the selling). We need business people on the board (who know the ropes in this matter).

(Dan Haley, Wed. Journal publisher, forum moderator, asks for details.)

A: Some developers go through 20 meetings without a go-ahead, when five should be enough. The board itself has too many meetings — 73 last year alone. “We need a nimble process.”

H: We have processes in place (for approving development). (Haley to A: Which processes would you remove?)

A: Most of them. (The too-many-hoops objection here.)

H: It doesn’t work that way in Oak Park. (applause from packed Veteran’s Room auditorium on 2nd floor of public library) We take a very aggressive approach (to attract business and developers). Berwyn (neighboring community to the south) can do what it does on Roosevelt Road (the dividing street) because they have TIF money (special share of tax revenues for development). (In any case) we do not look at the situation as competing with Berwyn (or Forest Park to the west and south).

(Crucial issue here: In a competitive environment, not to compete?)

H, continuing: Businesses want to come to Oak Park. Commercial real estate broker David King’s phone “is ringing all the time” with callers wanting to move to Oak Park. But Oak Park “is not a nimble community.”

A: In Forest Park and Berwyn, there is “synergy” with businesses, “vitality.” (Flexibility?) In Oak Park, there’s a “one-size-fits-all” standard. (Rigidity?)

. . . more more more . . . to come . . .

The great liquor-license controversy, or how an article fosters buzz

Wed. Journal on candidate-with-restaurant-with-liquor-license (Anan Al-Taleb) facing an ordinance disqualifying him:

[A] recent challenge from his opponent in the race, current Village Trustee John Hedges, about a possible conflict of interest has created some buzz.

That could be, but it is certainly true that this article created much buzz, in the shape of 39 comments, most of them dismissing the problem or offering solutions short of the candidate’s resigning if elected or divesting himself of his restaurant.

One or more comment correctly absolves the opponent, John Hedges, of raising the issue against Abu-Taleb — at the March 1 forum, the only forum so far in a campaign that is to end April 9.

Rather, the issue was raised in a question from the floor and was dealt with summarily if not satisfactorily by Anan A-T, who said (a) he had checked with lawyers who gave him an opinion he could live with and (b) he would recuse himself if needed from granting a license or not, or (c) would divest himself of the offending property — which at the time struck me as a major concession.

Hedges had no comment right away (in roughly the middle of the 90-minute session) but did bring it up at the end, in closing remarks after Anan’s closing remarks, wondering how Anan would resolve the conflict.

Anan vs. Hedges, Irving School, 3-21-13

Right from the start on March 21 at Irving School, the four unopposed VMA village board candidates teed off on the sole non-VMA candidate, Abu-Taleb Abu-Taleb, candidate for board president against the VMA’s John Hedges, as they had a week earlier in a forum at the Buzz Cafe.

Teresa Powell, the village clerk running unopposed for reelection to the only full-time salaried position on which votes are cast, was the first to speak. She plumped for Hedges unequivocally — “I want to work with John Hedges” — and argued vigorously for him in the time allotted for her to introduce herself. So did the other incumbents in turn, each having no need to convince anyone to vote for him or her.

The sole non-incumbent, Peter Barber, immediate past president of the Oak Park elementary school board, District 97, also boosted the Hedges candidacy, but less vigorously. He also said, surprisingly, that the village ought to “offload” some of the property it owns for development purposes — a recommendation previously espoused only by Abu-Taleb.

The forum was sponsored by the Southeast Oak Park Community Organization (SEOPCO), which frequently hosts such gatherings.

In the course of defending against Abu-Taleb’s accusation of mismanagement of its tax increment financing (TIF) money, Hedges said Abu-Taleb had urged raising taxes to build up cash supply. He hadn’t done that and was prompt to deny it. His mismanagement claim was based on the board’s reluctance to close a TIF down when it was not doing its job (returning its money to schools and other taxing bodies) and on the board’s failing to comply with reporting requirements.

TIF — which diverts tax revenue from school districts and other entities to beef up troubled business areas — “has been productive” in Oak Park, said Hedges, pointing to the “vibrant” Oak Park downtown, with its 95% occupancy. He acknowledged that TIF is a “touchy subject,” in view especially of the law suit filed by the Oak Park & River Forest high school District 200 to gain access to the village’s TIF reporting — a suit, Abu-Taleb has noted, that was brought and defended “with our money.”

Hedges further denied the village’s bond rating was cause for concern, saying its borrowing health is in “excellent condition.” He added, in what has been in the forums his frequent generalized assessment of situations, that he sees “a lot of energy” among Oak Park’s merchants. Abu-Taleb’s observations have been considerably more data-based.

Discussing plans by the Illinois Dept. of Transportation (IDOT) to extend and expand the Eisenhower Expressway, Hedges called it “a vital issue.” Abu-Taleb agreed with him.

Hedges noted the conflict of goals, IDOT’s being “roadbuilding,” Oak Park’s “transportation” with a regional view, looking towards RTA public rail extension largely to the benefit of working-class suburbs to the west.

From this IDOT-Eisenhower discussion, Abu-Taleb segued to fiscal issues, earning a reprimand (when he had finished) from the forum moderator for not staying with the subject, to which Abu-Taleb responded, asking how he had done that. To which the moderator declined to respond, holding up his hand as if backing away. It was a just-sayin’ moment that was not repeated. Abu-Taleb also corrected Hodges in saying he had recommended raising taxes — without further comment from Hodges. (It was a surprising assertion by Hedges.)

Abu-Taleb had called IDOT-Eisenhower a “major issue” and said in this matter he would “lean on Collette” Lueck, an incumbent trustee candidate who had been particularly critical of him as not knowing enough to be a government official, “and others” of the board, adding pointedly, “as they would [he hoped] lean on me for what I know” as a longtime business entrepreneur. At this point he denied ever saying he wanted to raise taxes.

He went on to note that the village had come short on its debit sheet seven of the last 11 years, as he had done in previous forums, and that the village had been judged as having “negative outlook” in the bond review noted by Hedges, said he asked himself, how would the village pay out what’s needed? Not by “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” taking from one fund to shore up the general fund, he said. Borrowing (to stay afloat) is out, but village should not “mix cash” supplies. Payroll being $2.5 million a month, to have a “minus $3 million to $2 million” in the bank is a situation that he as a business owner would lose find intolerable.

As to paying its loans, Oak Park has a “wealthy” population and can do so. But “look at these numbers,” he said, referring to the perilous state of the general fund.

In the matter of improving the board’s communication with citizens, Abu-Taleb repeated his plan to hold a monthly “open forum” where he would interact with any and all. Hodges favored “going to the voters” in neighborhood meetings. Abu-Taleb’s plan to present himself to any and all, however, puts him as president on a seat or standing position that could be quite hot and bespeaks his confidence in interacting freely with people. Indeed, he has proven quite adept at free-wheeling give and take in three forums so far.

In this one he continued to press his points while facing a five-person no-confidence vote. He held back not at all, as a less confident candidate might, hoping to soften whatever public opposition might result from opposition by opposing candidates. In this vein, he wondered aloud what the village’s communication department does, apparently having complaints about it.

“There’s a lot we can do better” by way of making our case, said Hedges, who has frequently spoken of the importance of listening to citizens.

The four unopposed candidates — for three trustee seats and the village clerkship — were asked how they would work with Abu-Taleb as president, having earlier vigorously testified to their willingness to work with their political ally, Hedges. They mostly doubled down in their opposition to Abu-Taleb.

Trustee Glen Brewer said he and his fellows would tell Abu-Taleb their background. “We have beloned to associations, have led businesses.” He himself “works in finances.” He would explain to Abu-Taleb that a municipality is required to “identify funds,” for instance, that “we work with the public” and hope he would understand that we have “practical experience.”

Trustee Collette Lueck explained her earlier enthusiasm for working with Hedges: “He’s the most polite” person to deal with, she offered among other reasons. “He’s the best for Oak Park.”

As for Abu-Taleb, we would have to see “not how much we can work with him, but he with us.” Hearing him talk and answering questions, she “heard markers of a lack of experience.” But “you don’t just walk in” and take on a job like this.” She and the other trustees “have had a struggle the last few years” — with the outgoing village president — in a way that undermines “the cornerstone of the democratic process of checks and balances.”

“There has to be a balance” also in program emphasis, she said, referring to the “focus on development.” She conceded that development is “incredibly important” but warned that in Oak Park businesses are very close to where people live. “We can’t just be about one half of the village,” she said.

Peter Barber, speaking of his time as school board president, explained his earlier support for Hedges: he “had experience working with John, none with Abu-Taleb. He was ready to “see how it goes working together.” He noted also that at the school board he had to learn the ropes and expected the same for Abu-Taleb, concluding, “I can work with either but have a preference for John, who I think is better for Oak Park.”

A question of ethics was presented, considered generically. Each candidate was in favor of ethics requirements! Abu-Taleb, surely sensing indirect reference to his being challenged earlier by liquor-control requirements by which he was judged by VMA adherents to be disqualified, spoke of a general disqualification of local business owners and referred to the village in general as “overregulated.”

Hedges noted that the ethics code “tells the public our standards.” He also noted that trustees “have to make a report every year” about their own property holdings and other relevant financial information, which he said is a way to uncover “mistakes, not wrongdoing.”

Abu-Taleb asked if the code as constituted meant that no local business owner could not run for office. “Times change,” he said, referring to the liquor-control ordinance that opponents have said disqualifies him as liquor-licence owner (or spouse of one). “The village is overregulated,” he said. “Trying to protect [from violations], the village has overdone it.” (He has said he will divest his ownership of the restaurant if elected, though not to whom.)

Asked about how to attract business into areas of lesser appeal, Abu-Taleb noted his experience, a negative one, in creating restaurants in a retail desert: At one point he was enough frustrated with village-imposed delays in opening his current restaurant that he instructed his people to find a suitable location in nearby Forest Park.

Abu-Taleb: Oak Park is “difficult to do business in.” His first Oak Park restaurant 17 years ago had its bar visible to pedestrians, he was told; so he had to redesign it, which “took a long time.” After ten years with that restaurant, he started one in its place 10 years ago, at one point thinking he’d move it, what with delays forced by village decisions. It happens that with homeowners too, he said, as in moving a staircase. Can’t get a permit, the homeowners does without one.

It’s been this way in Oak Park for “a long, long time,” he said.

There’s also the issue of “customer service” and another of marketing. On the village web site the sales motto “Step out of line” does not work. Dealing with developers and businesses, “I speak their language,” he said, as opposed to Hedges’ park district experience, indeed park district, government agency language. The implication is that Hedges’ years as a civil servant gives him no advantage here, even puts him at a disadvantage.

Hedges on Madison Street: It has an auto’d history with buildings that were show rooms and can’t be compared with booming Forest Park with its small-width retail spaces and history of restaurants and bars. Still: “We need to find a way” to remedy Oak Park’s problems. (In contrast with Abu-Taleb, who says he knows the way, by the way.)

Hedges referred to Oak Park’s solving housing-related problems in the past and thought “maybe [those solutions] can work for businesses. “I can make calls” on prospective businesses, he said.

A question about vacant or rented condos led to Hedges’ appearing to improvise as he spoke, noting this and that as if outlining solutions.

He praised the non-governmental Oak Park Regional Housing Center, an apartment-hunting service funded by grants and donations that has been credited with diversifying the market in years when mass “resegregation” threatened the village. He urged a “more regional view” of the condo problem.

Picking up on the regionalism idea, Abu-Taleb called “building relationships” the key to various problems. He cited the recent loss of a joint fire-truck purchasing plan with neighboring River Forest. Faced with such an impasse, he would go to his friends among River Forest leadership, give them what they wanted for the sake of continuing beneficial relationship.

Back home, he would review Oak Park’s village departments, merging some and eliminating others. Berwyn, he said has 50% fewer employees per population

Regarding developments left unfinished, part of the vacant-condo issue, Abu-Taleb cited So-Ho, the S. Blvd. and Home project, blaming fuss-budget village hall requirements.

So-Ho at first was to be town homes, he said. Then the village, thinking it was “smarter than the market,” said it had to be a mixed-use development. So-Ho has been “sitting there” while taxes rose.

Regarding general-economy-induced hard times a-coming. the VMA-ers all spoke of coming cuts in services, all dreaded them to various degrees, while Abu-Taleb spoke of being “ahead of the market,” making changes now in how the village is run.

Barber: There would be a “huge” discussion about cuts.

Lueck: We must get “very proactive politically” to fight the imposition of state pension liability on units of local government and school districts.

Hedges: Abu-Taleb hasn’t said what cuts he would make, has contrasted Oak Park to Berwyn in terms of staff sizes. But “we aren’t Berwyn. As for political threats to our fiscal health, income-tax-free municipal bonds may be targeted by the federal government. That would hurt us.

Closing advice from the village clerk candidate, an incumbent, called on as local election official to explain voting details: “Don’t forget to vote, and I hope you vote for [the VMA ticket], Oak Park Together!”

Wuxtry. Retired attorney blows whistle on village candidate, asks him to drop dead.

Zowie! Anan Abu-Taleb’s wife has a liquor license. If Anan A-T wins the election for village board president, he will be ex officio the non-voting liquor commissioner, one of six members of the Liquor Control Review Board, who advise him. A village ordinance, apparently crafted by then-village attorney Ray Heise, outlaws this dual capacity. Heise, now retired, cannot abide this. He wrote a letter to the Wednesday Journal about it, presenting acceptable alternatives:

“The election is less than a month away and that’s a critical issue for the village,” Heise said [in his letter]. The only way he believes it is possible for Abu-Taleb to remain a viable candidate is if he and his wife divest themselves of any interest in [their restaurant] Maya del Sol and its liquor license.

The alternative? “Vacate the position of village president should he be elected,” Heise noted. “It’s pretty simple and pretty understandable. It’s not unreasonable to prohibit. It’s an issue of public trust. I think he needs to address it.” [boldface and italics
added]

Pretty simple indeed.

Or Abu-Taleb could simply vanish off the face of the earth, and his disappearance would serve as a lesson to any local business operator or entrepreneur never to run for village office.

Another unfunded pension story . . .

Our glorious state.