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.”

 

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