Candidate forum has cafe buzzing
Updated: April 22, 2013 10:35AM
OAK PARK — The two candidates for Oak Park Village President, Anan Abu-Taleb and John Hedges, mostly agreed to disagree at the village board candidate forum March 14 at the Buzz Café.
But not everyone signed off on that approach. Incumbent trustee Colette Lueck pointedly voiced her displeasure at several comments made by Abu-Taleb in which he questioned the current board’s experience and capabilities.
A major disagreement between Abu-Taleb, who hold an MBA from the University of Chicago, and the entire Hedges slate centered on the type of experience needed to oversee the village’s operations and priorities.
“I think the experience I bring to the board is totally different than the experience on the board today,” Abu-Taleb said, touting his long experience in business.
“The experience on the board today, a lot of it is really theoretical, and almost like an academic experiment at times. I would bring (my) practical experience and a new way of thinking that challenges assumptions on how to make policies and to ask questions.”
Abu-Taleb did acknowledge there’s a “learning curve” in governing. “I have been working very hard, interviewing a lot of government officials and business leaders, so I understand already a lot of the things that need to be done.”
Lueck fired back.
“What I’ve heard you say are things that just aren’t accurate,” Lueck told Abu-Taleb. “I don’t just bring theoretical experience, I bring real experience.”
She accused Abu-Taleb of not understanding the intricacies and nuances of government and alluded to his learning curve if elected.
“You’re going to have to rely on us to teach you,” she said, adding, “That’s not in our court, that’s in your court.”
Glenn Brewer noted “there is a steep learning curve” with being on a village board.
“It is not like any other endeavor you can engage in,” he added.
“I’m glad to be part of a group of people who are experienced and will be very capable of moving the village board.”
For his part, Hedges stressed his long experience in government, including 20 years as executive director of the Oak Park Park District, six years as a village trustee and one year as interim village manager.
The Lueck/Abu-Taleb exchange wasn’t the only edge to the two-hour event. Host and moderator Laura Maychruck held up seven cards with questions from the audience and said, “There’s a lot of outrage on these cards.”
That included outrage about a lack of economic development effort by the village, as well as perceived difficulties businesses experience in dealing with the village.
The basic question many people wanted an answer to, she said, was “as a current board member, why hasn’t that problem been solved.”
Besides Hedges, Village Clerk Teresa Powell, who’s running unopposed, and trustee candidates Lueck, Glenn Brewer and Peter Barber all said that while there were still problems to be addressed, the board has kept its property tax levy largely flat and cut spending significantly in the face of a major recession that decimated government revenue streams and froze economic development.
“We just came out of a deep recession,” Brewer noted. “When that happens, credit markets get frozen and developers can’t get financing they need.”
Lueck said things could be better, but that the village board had done a good job in difficult circumstances.
“I don’t know what the outrage is about,” she said. “The characterization is not fair. Marion Street has been a huge success. It is unequivocally a success, and that’s something this board did.”
Noting that sales tax revenue have risen, she said, “It couldn’t have happened if development hadn’t happened.”
Hedges pointed to a re-opening reception he and other board members had come from at the Volvo dealership at Garfield Street and Harlem Avenue.
“We worked with (Volvo) since they were at 260 Madison Street,” he said. “Now they’ve expanded twice.”
Powell noted the burgeoning success of the Divine Consign resale shop that’s expanded into two locations.
“As far as the recession, we’ve done as well as anybody,” Hedges said.
Hedges brushed off one direct comment by Abu-Taleb.
Asked why he was running on a slate and not as an independent, Hedges said flatly, “I never considered running as an independent.”
When Abu-Taleb interjected, “It’s a lot of fun running as an independent,” Hedges replied, “It’s a lot of fun running on a slate.”
Hedges argued that having a slate elected to the board helps avoid board gridlock by assuring that people come to the board ready to work together.
Hedges also touched on a criticism he’s made of Abu-Taleb regarding his approach to leadership.
“You can’t just do it yourself. That’s not how this government works,” he said. “Anan could have brought three people along with him, and a clerk (candidate). He didn’t do that.”
Abu-Taleb said he offers strong leadership willing to ask tough questions, and he scoffed at the need for a slate.
“I’m a leader that brings people together. I’m a leader who respects people’s point of view,” he said. “This is not about the board, it’s about the borders.”