Anan and John: Citizen Involvement

Among differences expressed by village board president candidates Anan Abu-Taleb and John Hedges at the March 1 forum at the Carleton Hotel was to what extent villagers are keyed into village-government matters.

Very little, says Abu-Taleb, who speaks of “disengagement of citizens from the governing process” as a major issue and wants to “bring people to the table.” (He’s a restaurateur, is he not?) He would be “a face for Oak Park,” engaging citizens in various ways, including in a monthly “open forum.”

To this Hedges played the (strong) commission card, in fact 26 of them, consisting of volunteers in many areas of public interest including issues to be voted on by trustees. They are almost all advisory — zoning has its own authority, to name one — and turn up periodically on board agenda, where they have their say as privileged sitters at a figurative board table, whether ignored or followed.

I sat on a commission years ago, on one occasion getting hot under the collar towards a village staffer and expressing myself rather rudely, as I recall. There’s a long history of such involvement, and Oak Parkers pride themselves on it.

“This community is verrrry vibrant,” said Hedges, chuckling. He got particularly enthusiastic about the Root Beet food co-operative, a year-old non-profit operation which wants to open a store. “We’ll find them one,” he said, which sounded alarmingly as if it’s easier to get through the small-business approvals process than Abu-Taleb found it when he opened his restaurant. More later about that.

However, I think what Abu-Taleb had in mind was citizens’ sense of being listened to as regards hot-button issues. If he were to meet citizens in “open forum” as president, for instance, and go toe-to-toe with ax-grinders and protesters, he would open a path to people feeling better about village government. Sometimes (not always) it’s less getting one’s way than how much straight talking people get.

He speaks of getting people to “buy in to” a program or way of doing things. It’s important to him, to judge by one forum’s give and take.

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