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!”

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