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There will be three new trustees sitting on the Oak Park village board this spring, as no incumbents are seeking reelection. Seeking the three open seats on the village board will be six candidates:
- Lucia M. Robinson, a regulatory compliance attorney
- Ravi Parakkat, a digital and sustainability consultant and current member of the Oak Park environment and energy commission
- Stephen Morales, senior vice president at Marwood Group, a healthcare advisory group, and member of the village’s environment and energy commission
- Juanta Griffin, multicultural coordinator at the Oak Park Public Library
- Chibuike Enyia, who previously worked for AT&T, Motorola and Chicago Public Schools, and is a volunteer at Young Life and founder of Gameday Videos
- Anthony Clark, special education teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School and the founder of the non-profit Suburban Unity Alliance
What are the biggest challenges facing Oak Park and what can the village board do to address them?
Clark: The issues we face are interconnected and require interconnected solutions. I believe representatives should be solution-oriented with a proactive approach in presenting interconnected solutions. Our work must be steeped in equitable community sustainability. The community of Oak Park must plan, build and modify itself to promote equitable sustainability and we have the capability as well as responsibility to do so. The biggest challenges Oak Park must focus on are environmental and economic [affordability] sustainability, infrastructure, social equity and intergovernmental relations. Sustainability is not simply about survival, as the ability to thrive must be a goal.
Enyia: The biggest challenges we face are COVID recovery, equity and affordability. We must be creative in budgeting, Revenues are down and numerous projects have been put on hold due to the pandemic. Equity is a lens through which the village board should view each of the issues they consider, including affordable housing, renters’ rights and small business development. We need to make sure Oak Park is affordable to renters and homeowners. We can diversify the tax base by both recruiting and supporting small businesses and supporting the development of two-flats, three-flats and accessory dwelling units.
Griffin: I believe the biggest challenges facing Oak Park are affordability and lack of transparency and engagement, which lead to inequity. These challenges impact housing, how we attract and support small businesses, how we think about sustainability and how we make decisions about budgets. The board can make a difference by reviewing ordinances and staff practices through an equitable lens, by engaging and leveraging the community and our commissions, by being more fiscally responsible with the budget and using our influence across village bodies and bordering towns.
Morales: I believe we need to make sure our village is able to reopen safely, including having a robust vaccine rollout that will culminate this fall and mental health programs that will support villagers as they adjust to our changed world. [We need to] help our business community build back better with a more diverse set of businesses moving into Oak Park [and] be aggressive in tackling and solving issues that create disparities in Oak Park, including affordable housing development, policing and budgeting.
Parakkat: Economic recovery from the pandemic, affordability and high taxation, division along racial and ethnic lines and sustainable development. [We need to] ensure the value returned for the high taxes we pay is consistent across everyone who pays those taxes and calm the tension by finally addressing and fixing longstanding disparities. [I hope to] implement new methods of communications, transparency and accountability in this area and ensure that we avail ourselves of available federal funding for the clean energy transition by creating green economy training, jobs and businesses here in Oak Park.
Robinson: Getting residents vaccinated is one of the biggest challenges we face as a community. COVID-19 has affected our seniors, communities of color and the homeless population disproportionately. It is critical that vaccine rollout plans are clearly communicated with collaborative efforts to provide transportation and accessible vaccination sites.
What is most in need of change in the village and how can the board address this?
Robinson: We need to change the polarizing discourse which creates divisive and hostile community engagement. The board can address this by leading conversations at the board table, even those that include disagreement, with respect for varying viewpoints and consideration for all perspectives.
Parakkat: Reduce the division by framing and having productive, solution-oriented conversations, make Oak Park more affordable for all its constituents, especially young adults, elders and marginalized minority groups, and prioritize a thoughtful evidence-based approach to issues over knee jerk emotional reaction. The board can lead by example on all these important topics. I have very specific approaches and policy proposals to move us in the right direction by working collaboratively with my colleagues.
Morales: As I talk to Oak Parkers, they tell me the village board dialogue needs to change. It’s divisive and the world is watching. Our trustees should not be going viral because of comments made at the board. The new board needs to come together and do the hard work of developing compromise. I will put in the time and energy to understand where each of my fellow board members are coming from. Once we do that, we can avoid the drama. We will have productive discussions to come up with the best solution for the village.
Griffin: Developing and maintaining inclusionary housing and listening to the voices of renters is the change our village needs the most. A village cannot exist without residents. We need to make sure that seniors are able to age in place and that middle income families, renters and homeowners are not being pushed out by rising taxes or regressive fines and fees.
Enyia: Our village government has yet to adopt a racial equity policy or any kind of comprehensive equity plan. I have co-sponsored a race and social justice platform that would provide frameworks and develop goals, strategies and plans to mitigate racial disparities in our local government and provide equitable services to all residents. The village board should enact a robust community engagement process and actively solicit community feedback on key policy initiatives using all available platforms. By breaking down barriers, the village can begin to rebuild trust with the community.
Clark: What is in most need of change is addressing Oak Park’s lack of true public safety. True public safety goes far beyond simple police response. Public safety means ensuring communities, particularly those that have been systemically and historically marginalized, have the resources to address the interconnected systemic issues that lead to a sense of unsafety. We cannot address public safety without addressing housing, food insecurity, transportation, healthcare, employment and representation. When a community has real public safety, that community has the ability to empower all community members to actively participate in what public safety should look like, while minimizing the harms that often accompany the current model of policing.
Are there cost-saving opportunities you believe the village should pursue to address the village’s rising tax burden?
Clark: The state of Illinois relies much more heavily on local property taxes to fund our schools. I believe it is the responsibility of a trustee to invest in intergovernmental work and collaboration with stakeholders to identify ways to create property tax relief. This past year, the [village levy increase] was at 3% and 3% is still an increase. We must evaluate how money is allocated, what current programs exist, what programs are effective, what programs need to be modified, what programs need to expire and what new programs need to be implemented, while simultaneously focusing on affordability, as well as identifying possible new sources of revenue for the community through cannabis sales and support of small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Enyia: The village must work to erase the tax burden on residents by diversifying the tax base and increasing revenues from sources other than property taxes. We need to encourage young adults to move to Oak Park at a younger age and empty nesters to stay after their children leave for college. Developing affordable housing is vital to achieving this. If we can continue to develop a thriving retail community, we can keep tax dollars of Oak Park residents in Oak Park and begin to attract more visitors from outside communities.
Griffin: I believe the village should practice fiscal responsibility by reviewing all of its capital and operating expenses and thinking critically and equitably about each impact. We are recovering from revenues lost during COVID-19. It may result in delayed spending on capital projects or getting creative about seeking national and state-level grants that can offset programs and systems that are already in place. Our board needs to be innovative about new developments, attracting more small and mid-sized businesses so they can help us control the rate of tax increases on everyday renters and homeowners.
Morales: In the near-term, we can consolidate our purchasing power across taxing bodies as quickly as possible. In the long-term, we need to drive greater intergovernmental cooperation. I would suggest Oak Park and River Forest High School, Oak Park District 97 and the village lead the process of finding ways to phase major capital improvements across bodies that will provide a starting point for future annual budget discussions on all three boards.
Parakkat: I will make fiscal discipline enabled by a clear, transparent budgeting process a priority at the board table. I intend to keep the growth in tax rate to 3% to the extent feasible. In my business and board experience, a diligent, holistic budgeting exercise provides the board with fact-based choices for cost savings. As we explore every opportunity for cost savings, we have to collaborate more effectively with other taxing bodies, seek additional grant opportunities for the village and explore creative ideas for the community to save money.
Robinson: The Village’s budget is not fully transparent or user friendly. I would demand a budget with greater transparency so that hidden costs in the budget could be reduced with the goal of keeping the levy at 3%. I would continue to focus on non-taxpayer sources of revenue, like state and federal grants and developer contributions to pay for the services Oak Parkers hold dear.
How do you believe future developments within the village should occur? What can the village learn from past development approvals?
Robinson: Some of the new buildings in Oak Park have been out of scale with the character of their neighborhood. Also, the process is not sufficiently transparent to earn the public’s trust. The village board should give clear direction to the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation to focus on areas previously underdeveloped.
Parakkat: Development needs to contribute to an overall vision for the community. Oak Park is a tourist destination because of its historic and architectural significance. Future development needs consistency to ensure Oak Park stays different and attractive to tourists who contribute to the local economy. Commercial development should focus on North Avenue, Madison Street, South Oak Park Avenue and Roosevelt Road, with an eye towards distributing developments to underdeveloped areas. Residential development needs to happen at a moderate pace to ensure the population stability that is required to maintain the tax base and support the local economy.
Morales: We have created a lot of density in central Oak Park and I want to see the impact of that density reflected in our thriving businesses and vibrant downtown. We need to learn from the last four years of growth and ask if we are really getting everything out of development in Oak Park. I recommend we develop micro-visionary areas within the village [that] will give community input and provide the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation with a direct sense for what will be approved by the community.
Griffin: I believe we should listen to and engage our community on the subject of future developments. So many times we hear from residents they were never or ill-informed about a project. Building big is not always the answer because we need to diversify our housing stock so we can also be an affordable place to live. If investors do want to develop here, we have to require more towards inclusionary housing, climate and sustainability imperatives and more benefits to everyday Oak Parkers.
Enyia: Instead of requiring just 10% of a building to have affordable units, we should aim higher at 20% to 25%. If a developer wants to get out of building the required affordable housing, they should be required to pay market value of such housing as a penalty. I am in favor of prioritizing smaller developments over large, luxury developments that price out diversity. This will allow us to better prioritize equity and sustainability.
Clark: Oak Park is a village that needs to bet on small businesses. Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the backbones of our cities. Past developments have failed to support small business, entrepreneurship and inclusionary housing, instead paying incentives for developers ahead of the people of this community. Developments must be viewed through an equitable lens.
What is your opinion on the village’s police department and should changes be made to its structure and policies?
Clark: Current policing models are reactionary that involve a response to crime, not an elimination of crime. We have an opportunity in Oak Park to rethink public safety, shift to holistic community policing models and review funding to determine how policing can be shifted from reactionary to proactive. It’s addressing root cause issues that lead to crime, such as lack of opportunity, that not only creates greater public safety for community members, but for police officers as well.
Enyia: Public safety is one core function of local government. An effective safety strategy should proactively address root cause conditions that lead to public safety issues like crime, violence and social disorder. The incendiary rhetoric around this process must stop and we must start recognizing that everyone in Oak Park wants to ensure the safety of our community, our families and our homes. We must also acknowledge the disproportionate impact of policing on certain communities and use our lens of equity to center those communities in our decision-making. Too often in our nation’s past, white “safety” has come at the expense of Black and brown people. We can’t allow that to be the case in our own community.
Griffin: I believe all public servants should answer to the people they serve, so therefore the village police department works for the people of Oak Park. If the residents believe they are not doing their job effectively, then changes should be explored. The citizens police oversight commission, our police staff and the voices of our community, especially youth, is critically important to help inform any changes that are made.
Morales: Oak Park has been spared from police brutality, but there are parts of Oak Park that feel threatened by the presence of police. Racism in policing has no place in Oak Park. I believe that Oak Park police officers need to be held to the highest standards of ethics imaginable. I believe that our police do not need to be defunded and I believe our police chief is up to the task to help our community evolve our policing model. This evolution needs to occur with all stakeholders in our community who want to reimagine policing so that others will look to Oak Park’s partnership model.
Parakkat: The Oak Park Police Department is an acknowledged leader in community policing. They have played a significant role in keeping our community safe, which is a priority for any stable community. However, there is always room for improvement. The key considerations for this re-imagination are the department and community must both be active participants in a re-imagination of public safety, The roadmap from where we are today to the reimagined future must be clear and specific with broad buy-in from all impacted parties and success must be clearly measurable and independently verifiable.
Robinson: The Village of Oak Park uses a community policing model. I support this model and would look at ways to continuously improve upon it, such as looking at how mental health and crisis response services are provided. I will not vote to reduce the number of police officers or cut the funding to the department in any way that negatively impacts public safety.
What else would you like voters to know?
Robinson: I care deeply about Oak Park and remain committed to its future success. The Village is experiencing several challenges and I am ready to tackle them by partnering with community organizations, residents and board members to help realize Oak Park’s potential.
Parakkat: I am committed to addressing the most important needs of Oak Parkers, which includes re-imagining public safety without underfunding our police, controlling the village’s property tax growth rate, creating transparency with citizen commissions, supporting local small businesses and business districts and progressing toward racial equity by giving all voices equal opportunity.
Morales: I have made a career finding solutions and compromises as part of leading consulting firms in Chicago and have led companies across the healthcare industry through more than three decades of changes. I have honed my skills listening to key needs and distilling those needs into actionable steps for companies.
Griffin: I believe our government should not be about power, it’s about service. Too many barriers keep regular people out of government, but we are stakeholders in this village just as much as anyone else. If your community serves you, then you serve it. That’s the partnership.
Enyia: I have lived here for over 30 years. My parents brought my three older brothers and I to Oak Park for the diversity, inclusion, safety, education, healthy environment and strong sense of community. These are reasons why I started my own family here. We are invested in this village and want to see Oak Park be a place where all our residents can find safety, community and have the ability to thrive and age in place affordably.
Clark: Muhammed Ali once said, “Service to others is the rent we pay for room here on this Earth.” Each and every community member has an ability to serve and when we serve, paying rent as a greater collective, we have an opportunity to transform the Oak Park community into a sustainable village in which we all can age in place and thrive.
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