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After eight years, the village of Oak Park will have a new village president as two-term incumbent Anan Abu-Taleb will not be seeking a third term in the April 6 election. On the ballot, voters will decide between Vicki Scaman, the village clerk, and Cate Readling, a community activist, as the next leader of the village board.
Readling grew up in Richmond, Virginia, graduated from Boston University and worked for her family’s business, focusing on sourcing sustainable products and using equitable hiring practices. Readling arrived in Oak Park more than a decade ago, and has experience working for the park district and organizations such as Oak Park Call to Action, Freedom to Thrive, Campaign to Hire Teachers of Color and others. She also served as an organizer for the Clean Energy Jobs Act, the Coalition to End Money Bond and, most recently, the state’s progressive income tax referendum.
Scaman, who was first elected village clerk in 2017, began her professional life as a teacher in the south suburbs. She eventually moved into restaurant management and later became a nonprofit executive. Prior to running for village clerk, Scaman served as chair of the village’s liquor control review board. She has also led the Oak Park Township Positive Youth Development Coalition, while simultaneously serving as the co-chair of the education and data committee for the West Garfield Park Community Stakeholders Coalition, where she taught restorative justice practices.
Why are you running for village president?
Scaman: I am running to use the skills, knowledge and experience I have navigating our governmental systems to help people so we can commit to real progress. As a parent, teacher, nonprofit leader and coalition builder, I have experience bringing people together to build trust and advance shared goals. As village president, I will move policy forward for racial equity, while supporting a climate action plan to reduce greenhouse emissions and working together for economic recovery from COVID-19.
Readling: I am running to help build a stronger, more inclusive, equitable and welcoming Oak Park. I am committed to consistent and transparent engagement with the community. I will always listen, consider all points of view and accept all feedback. Kindness comes first, and empathy is the key to growth. I promise to help make decisions out in the open and, more than anything, I promise to always think of the community and its members first.
What are the biggest challenges facing Oak Park and what can the village board do to address them?
Readling: The most pressing issue Oak Park faces is affordability in the broadest sense. High property taxes and rental costs burden homeowners, commercial property owners, small business owners and residential renters alike. This constitutes the biggest threat to the racial, economical, sexual identity and age diversity for which Oak Park has prided itself for half a century. Although the village controls only 15% of local property tax revenue, it has the widest reach of any of our taxing bodies and it is the only one with real impact on community-wide revenue. We should use our resources to support affordable housing in multiple ways and nurture small businesses, which not only bring in sales tax, but also provide local jobs. We can streamline the administration of village services through increased collaboration with other major stakeholders in the community. We can better utilize the vast expertise of our own diversely talented citizenry, starting with our many citizen commissions.
Scaman: We are not working together to solve problems and connect with each other as neighbors for a shared vision for our village, a vision where we demonstrate what it looks like to listen and really hear each other without defensiveness or division. We have a collective responsibility to value racial equity and justice for all. Sustainability extends past making sure our environmental footprint is as small as it can be. Living here must be affordable at all stages of life. We can accomplish this through improved efficiency among taxing bodies. Additionally, we must continue to cultivate a thriving business community and work with our non-governmental partners to ensure support for our small businesses.
What is most in need of change in the village and how can the board address this?
Scaman: Village decisions need to be open, transparent and responsive to community needs based on shared goals. The village board is not currently working from shared goals. Oak Park is a very civically engaged community. Current leadership initially viewed this fact as contributing to an inefficient government because it required too many layers of bureaucracy to get anything done. The desire to speed that process up has resulted in an erosion of our decision-making process leading to what is perceived as a lack of transparency and contributing to mistrust of government. That and a level of defensiveness in addressing challenges has left this administration ill-prepared for responding to a call for racial equity. I know how to repair the relationships and processes needed to build trust and work together to accomplish our goals. The actions of the village board permeate our entire community and affect other governmental body productivity. I have the insight, knowledge and leadership experience to bring a village board together for shared goals so that we can make progress as a community.
Readling: Currently, our revenue generation and allocation of resources disadvantage middle- and low-income residents, small property owners and local entrepreneurs already burdened directly or indirectly by high property taxes. As the greatest threat to Oak Park’s diversity, this should top our list of priorities for action by the village board. We must prioritize outcomes for Black residents and small businesses. I will work to limit property tax increases and restructure user fees to make them more equitable, while at the state level I will continue to work on implementing progressive taxation so we can fully fund public health, education and social services here in Oak Park. The village should end economic development incentives that encourage big buildings and recruit large tenants.
Are there cost-saving opportunities you believe the village should pursue to address the village’s rising tax burden?
Readling: Under my leadership, the board will work closely with village administration to justify all expenditures and prioritize cost-effective solutions. Streamlining, consolidation, reduction of the use of high-paid consultants are among the many tools we should regularly use to make the most of public funds. I will encourage various stakeholders and entities across our community, from the other taxing bodies to businesses and not-for-profits, to find ways to pool resources and share services. For example, the township’s services for senior and youth residents should coordinate with village programs for low-income housing affordability. The board can utilize the talents of our citizen commissions to find creative ways to manage costs, especially through such inter-agency collaborations.
Scaman: There is opportunity to find efficiencies with better use of technology and need for greater collaboration among taxing bodies, clearer contracts with partner agencies and reaching across our borders for greater impact on climate change, racial equity and economic recovery from COVID-19. I believe we will have the opportunity to pursue state and federal grants to accomplish these goals and the ability to demonstrate partnerships increases our eligibility and potential outcomes. If we desire to keep the services we have, we need to build trust so that we can budget responsibly and identify ways to share resources and reduce redundancies. In 2021, the village board significantly depleted the reserves to balance the village budget. This is not sustainable. In managing budgets in business, nonprofits and as village clerk, I’ve learned how to find efficiencies. My commitment to restarting the village board’s finance committee and supporting program-based budgeting will help identify where cost savings are possible.
How do you believe future development within the village should occur? What can the village learn from past development approvals?
Scaman: Development opportunities should only be pursued with a defined need and accurate cost analysis to completely understand the potential impact on our village. The process must include stakeholders most affected to bring community buy-in along from the beginning. Architectural standards need to be held firm and contribute to the resources and beauty of any area of our village. The plan commission, zoning board and historic preservation commission processes need to be respected to inform the village board when making decisions that prioritize the benefit of the community above any agenda or private opinion. These processes have not been respected in recent years, which has contributed to the erosion of trust in our government that exists today.
Readling: Zoning and development regulations should serve the goals of Oak Park first, then developers—not the other way around. Oak Parkers appreciate and welcome development that occurs with a legitimate review process, input from neighbors, committees and experts, and respect for zoning and, where relevant, our historic preservation ordinance. But since the current administration started, we’ve completely shifted to giving preference to quick, easy development review, less resident oversight and millions in village revenues dumped into the pockets of developers. Over the past four years, we’ve seen the board vote against the plan commission’s recommendations on major building projects, leaving many residents with the impression that deals have already been done out of public view. This will not be my practice. I believe density is important near our transit stations and along major corridors, but not at the expense of our neighbors. I will work with the board to adopt priority development goals within one year of taking office. Then I would require each of our development commissions to identify objectives for their work that align with those goals and then report their progress quarterly.
What is your opinion on the village’s police department and should changes be made to its structure and policies?
Readling: We know what makes people safe. It’s good jobs, good healthcare, good education, affordable housing and accessible community services. The problem is we’re funding policing and incarceration to the detriment of those things. As president, I will help create a truly independent and diverse citizen police oversight commission vested with real oversight authority, including subpoena powers. Since policing is such a significant portion of the budget and police are currently expected to address issues far beyond their prescribed job, I believe we must remain open to all possibilities for reorganizing our municipal budget, including the police budget. The village board can lead a reform of policing practices, starting with coordinated use of services with the township and collaborating actively with our school districts. We can reduce our dependence on policing, which should be the last resort in responding to citizens’ incident calls.
Scaman: I believe we have an obligation to listen to members of our community who do not feel safe and recognize the need and benefit of responding to a national review of policing. Reacting to national civic unrest defensively only contributes to the mistrust that exists across our nation. No community is immune to our nation’s failures. Had we demonstrated a willingness to listen without defensiveness, we could have been a leader on this topic. I will lead open and transparent conversations so that our community can go on this journey together and work to build trust and ensure that more of our community feels safe and cared for. The call to be a civil servant is to make decisions consistently that are grounded firmly in putting the community’s needs above your own. The greater good must be the motivation. I will listen for understanding and use my knowledge of our government and need for improved data collection to advance policy reform that is responsive and fair. Together, we can realize a vision for Oak Park that lives up to our values.
Recent village board meetings have been somewhat contentious. What can you do to improve collaboration between trustees and differing sides of the village?
Scaman: The current board is not operating with shared goals, nor a clear understanding of how to direct policy under a village manager form of government. I will ensure we each understand and respect the unique roles of the village president, trustees and staff. I do believe each person on the current board cares for Oak Park. Some on the board are lacking the ability to build consensus, some wish they didn’t need to waste time building consensus, and still, more remain too defensive to listen to a differing view for any level of learning. I am able to listen for what is being said and not be distracted by how it is said. I’ll facilitate discussions to provide clear direction to the village manager and eliminate unproductive dialogue which distracts from progress.
Readling: Many Oak Parkers have been appalled by the toxicity and dysfunctionality that have characterized board meetings in recent years. The board president is responsible not only for running the meetings, but also for setting their tone. The board can only function when its members are committed to constructive, collaborative and respectful communication. We must abandon weaponized democracy, which has been used to silence. We need a more welcoming and effective invitation for anyone and everyone with agency or interest to take part in our village’s decision-making process. I want to involve public participation, which must be a priority of the entire board.
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