How Oak Park Does It

DeKalb City Council is supposed to set policies and city staff are supposed to carry them out. What actually happens a lot is that the Council and staff end up setting policy together. The boundaries get blurred. For example, sometimes people who visit here from other parts are rather startled at staff’s advocacy of one position over another and their apparent influence. That is a problem. And when it comes to competing interests between city employees and the constituency, that is a HUGE problem. In coping with the current budget crisis, for instance, the possible directions are pretty straightforward: you are either going to raise revenues or you are going to make budget cuts. Perhaps you’ll end up with some combination of the two but there has to be a predominant frame of reference informing your problem-solving approach. Would you ever anticipate that city employees would voluntarily and cheerfully make cuts to their own departments? Of course not. They’ve been in revenue-enhancing persuasion mode ever since the crisis hit and, unfortunately for us, that’s who has Council’s ear. If there’s another explanation for why real cuts haven’t been made in spite of the citizen uproar, please share it!

The culprit is the lack of a real partnership mechanism between the Council and its constituency for choosing fiscal policy directions, so we lose. Hate to say it, but Alderman Wogen is right when he says we only come in to complain (just not about our enjoying it). He’s right because complaining is really our only option. Look at last Monday: it didn’t matter what Mr. Hickey said; the gas tax was a done deal. Then staff look oh, so reasonable compared to the “complainers” because they’ve been in on the decision-making from the beginning while we get three minutes to make our case just before the vote is taken. By the time we have our say we’re often feeling frustrated, maybe a bit angry. The procedure sets us up to look bad.

There’s a blogger I know who lives in Oak Park and he really likes the village government, so I decided to find out a little about how things work there. They have a village management setup similar to ours but the way they choose the village trustees is different. Many voters join “associations” that function like parties and these associations do not put up individual candidates but rather whole slates for at-large positions as village trustees. Through a thorough interview process, each association finds the best matches to their issue priorities and positions. (For example, one of the associations is really big on landmark preservation so potential candidates always answer questions about that.) Voters elect one slate or another at each election. The advantages seem to be that the candidates know exactly what their associations expect of them, the slate members back each other up, and the at-large status, they believe, helps minimize influence of special interests.

In short, Oak Parkers are able to make their expectations clearly known up front, perhaps not so surprising since their system arose from their disentanglement from the notoriously corrupt Cicero Township. Certainly they are very hands-on and the involvement doesn’t end with the elections, either; though Oak Park has a population of about 50,000 to our 42,000 they have at least a half-dozen more boards and commissions and, as far as I can tell, about twice the numbers of volunteers involved in municipal government.

Are the Oak Parkers more involved because their process drives policy, or is it the other way around? I don’t know about you but I get tired of being only in a position to react so much of the time, especially about money things like taxes and fees. Revocation of Home Rule status might help, but would only address permission to tax and not the need for opportunities for citizens to take a more proactive role in strategic planning. Something as important as the state of our pocketbooks should have its own ongoing citizen committee–such as a revived Financial Advisory Board (thanks Herb R.).

A related idea I will insert here comes from Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. of Charleston, S.C. Mayor Riley, who boasts an impressive list of accomplishments during his tenure of 30-years-plus, hosts a “Mayor’s Night In” each week at City Hall when anyone can drop in and talk to him. Our own City Council could and perhaps should make themselves available in such a regular, convenient and informal way.



Village Managers Association
Village Citizens Alliance

16 thoughts on “How Oak Park Does It”

  1. Thanks for the wonderful post Yinn. In academic literature Oak Park is used as the exceptional case that those of us who teach about cities often use. The interest in oak park started first because it was a very progressive city and then because it got caught up in the racial politics of the sixties (could be wrong on decade, darn it, I’m getting old).

    In Wheaton, council and mayor had coffee with…every Saturday morning. Might be more than is needed but something in that direction would help. But in addition, we need widely publicized, better yet televised, talk out sessions, perhaps with council or mayor moderating, and certainly with council present, but with citizens talking.

    I haven’t been to plan commission meetings lately. But when i was on it and after i left, the public hearings before the commission did follow the model you suggest and seemed informative to all.

    Problem is with most city matters it is hard to work up citizens. With planning stuff, neighbors are immediately engaged when new business strips e coming in next store, or large developments, plus almost everyone has a feeling one way or another about growth or non growth. But most city matters are far more mundane and technical — ways of looping water, repair or dig up sewers, contracting out or doing in house a technical service, staffing levels of police and fire and then working them out and doing so consistent with state laws on the matter. Cost implications come in determining how to stripe streets, what materials to use, and what federal law (with anti-lead provisions) allows. I mean you need a certain type of personality to get engaged in such a dispute, yet it has cost, personnel and service implications.

    I too wish that we had neighborhood organizations. Years ago I tried to organize one in my territory and failed.

    This morning I was trying to convince an alderman to have these informal forums (not my alderman, another that I called on a different matter). He supported the idea and said he will try to convince others of its merit.

    On another blog people mentioned my writings. My major book is on organizing citizens in communities, admittedly focusing more on the poor, but the principles are the same.

    Thanks again for the constructive re-framing of this conversation and if in your participant role (beyond the blogger role) you want to more formally propose the idea, I’ll sign on and support it, as I’ve already advocated it in private conversations with council and with the mayor.

    Herb R

  2. Sorry for more. I am getting absent minded. Dayton, Ohio (has, had, I haven’t looked in years) a neighborhood based process for setting up the city budget. Staff was mandated to work with neighborhood groups in each (quadrant?, sextant, octant?) of the city, decisions the neighborhood groups made about services (that had taxing implications) were mostly binding. City provided training to neighborhood groups on what budgeting was all about.

    I don’t know if the Dayton model would work in Dekalb, because several of the areas of the town have more transient population, but Dayton does show how to involve citizens in budgeting. Staff mandated to participate, citizens receiving training and citizen decisions (or at least most of them) actually being implemented.


  3. If elected officials made smart decisions up front, there would be fewer complainers.

    Although a $15 expense is tiny compared to the rest of the budget, that $15 at Hooters is just a symptom. If the person responsible is held accountable and is asked to pay it back, that will act as a deterrent to others who think they can get away with charging personal expenses back to the taxpayers.

    Put that expense at Hooters in the newspaper. That will wake up the taxpayers.

    A Financial Advisory Board sounds like a good idea to me.

    Ward 3 in Sycamore has regular meetings. They are in the newspaper.

  4. One certainly should ask what each expense was about, but single lines can deceive without asking what they mean.

    At the university on a typical $1500 trip we usually got back about $400 (but professionally had to go to the conferences so put aside personal money)

    On one trip report besides the hotel and airplane and food, I put down $10 for a tour. The internal auditor called me and asked (even though the plane fare was more than i was going to get reimbursed.) The question was quite legitimate because if I had been taking a tour of disney world it should not have appeared on my form. It wasn’t of course. The convention was about repairing older, poor neighborhoods, with lots of panels. The ten bucks was to pay my share of a bus fee for a trip in the city to visit renewal projects done in the poorest and most crime ridden neighborhoods and learn how these projects came about. My brevity confused the auditor. And, as one might expect I learned more from that ten buck tour than I did from the rest of the conference.

    Again, we should all push for the financial advisory board. Years ago my wife was on it and it did save us money and forced staff to really justify expenses. (often they did.) Example, we now need all the water towers, but when originally built had surplus capacity. Turns out having extra capacity in water towers reduces home insurance costs, or at least did years ago, goodness knows what insurance companies do nowadays


  5. Hi Herb–No matter how good the food is rumored to be at Hooters, not one penny of taxpayer dollars should to go there. For a place that wants to improve DeKalb’s image, choosing to go to Hooters at taxpayers’ expense is not the way to go.

    I really do not care what the line means, it was Hooters. What kind of a ‘professional’ image does that project for the city? What meaning is involved with the choice of Hooters? The person needs to pay that back and next time, the person needs to pick a more family-oriented restaurant, some place that will not make DeKalb the butt of jokes.

  6. OK, this is good…a very good start.

    –Financial Advisory Board
    –Regular, informal chats with City Council members
    –Citizen budget training
    –No more Hooters, ever, except what can be duplicated privately at home

    One more opinion, please. What about at-large Council members vs. an alderman tied to/elected by each ward?

  7. If the rumor is true that some developer tried to front an alderman candidate in Ward 3 a while back (who was not Wogen), then opening it up to at-large Council members makes me think that may not be a good idea. I think that makes it too easy for the whole Council to be bought, not just a couple of them.

    What is a problem is what happens when the wards get drawn by the population and some wards only have a couple of dozen people voting while others have a couple thousand. I believe that is because too many students do not vote in the local election. The alderman there only has to represent about a hundred or so voters while other aldermen have to represent thousands.

  8. For years people have suggested changing the alderman system to have some at large. At the council retreat, that was public and open but not observed by any press (and I was out of town on a research trip), the matter was raised. I suspect though with the home rule discussion the idea of redistricting will be put aside for a while. Oh, I totally agree with the need for the redistricting. Doing so requires a citizens’ committee to carry the water.

    kay, etc. I probably should not have responded to the Hooter’s example but picked another. I’m no fan of such restaurants. All I was saying is that single lines on (abbreviated) bill lists need to be explained not automatically assumed to be in wrong. When i was on the plan commission I also went to a convention that had ‘tours’ of ‘smart growth’ projects. I could have easily put in a funding request for a ‘tour’. I didn’t since I paid all the expenses myself and no public money was or should be involved. Still, the budget point is made.

    Good start of a list Yinn. Why not add to it ideas from other blogs (a) general comments from citizens at the beginning of the meeting not at the end (b) (and as now offered by council but needing to be reinforced) formal public meetings on each section of the budget so that public meeting rules (that allow far more citizen participation and give and take) pertain to each section of the budget.



  9. I have written a letter-to-the-editor, cc’d to the Council, on all the ideas presented so far. I have also begun soliciting backers of a more formal request of the Council to implement these measures (sans Hooters reference at the moment, as I’m going for a more global approach) if that is needed. Let me know if I’ve failed to contact you on this and I’ll add you.

    You know, it is quite inconvenient to be able to e-mail every member of the City Council but one’s own alderman! Donna! I love you but get a clue!

  10. Thanks Yinn for the effort. After the letter appears I’ll endorse it, on line and through individual notes to the council.

    A suggestion that I often use when cc’ing council. I also send a copy to Mark B and ask him to put it in Donna’s mail box. In fact, my sense is that two other council members are not frequent readers of their on-line e-mail.

    A shame, but I think it has to do mostly with technophobia.

    Consider me a backer of the more formal request to council. If you wish several of us could appear at the next council meeting and present the proposal as part of the citizen’s commentary. Perhaps a group could stand up and you could read the proposal or some such thing.

    herb rubin

  11. Yinn, great comments and suggestions. As for the alderman at large. I think it is a great way to go. DeKalb in the late 60’s had an alderman at large. My father was the alderman at large 1968 and 1969. This position ran for 2 years while the alderman for the wards was for 4. I cannot remember how many wards there were at that time. I do believe that the at large was only one. I think the at large alderman would have to vote with regards to the entire community. I personally think it would be more difficult to have one group back this one candidate because now you have differents areas within the city voting for this alderman. You can eliminate one ward and mix the student wards into the regular populas to even things out a little more. Sycamore runs with 2 per ward with half coming up for reelection every 4 years. Keep up the good work!

  12. Hi Ivan, I’ve heard others say they thought DeKalb had the at-large before but they couldn’t remember details. Thanks for the first-hand confirmation and the redistricting idea–sounds like a winner to me.

  13. Herb wrote: “I suspect though with the home rule discussion the idea of redistricting will be put aside for a while. Oh, I totally agree with the need for the redistricting. Doing so requires a citizens’ committee to carry the water.”

    I’ve heard rumors that the redistricting committee has been reassigned to a new task, too. Does anyone know who the members of that committee are?

  14. Nope, no idea
    I thought the idea was discussed at the Council Retreat (press weren’t there, and yours truly was in D.C. doing research). Stories I had heard were that people were talking about setting up such a committee and that was what might have stopped. Still I’m dealing on a rumor level here.

    Repeat: would really see advantages in having all council members elected by a thousand plus voters rather a few by a few dozen or a hundred.

    Repeat: Rumor was concern with home rule vote has put aside focus on redistricting.

    You know my preference. Keep home rule. Really impose the budgetary reforms that Yinn has collected (plus some others that will come up). And, then think about the redistricting.

    (An aside: I had forgotten this. Almost 30 years ago I was on a university team working with/for??? the city to mesh citizen preferences with taxes and to recommend budgetary improvements. I simply don’t remember anything that happened one way or the other, but at that time I was very junior mostly doing technical stuff, like survey design, so won’t have been involved in final conversations if there were any.

    My hope is that through citizen input and council response we can handle some of the more obvious changing of service-expenditure problems. Then by setting up, actually re-establishing, a financial advisory board work on the more fundamental changes that are better argued out around a (very public) round table.



  15. I will be having a meeting this thursday, April 3 at City Hall in the large conference room (second floor). It will start at 6:00 p.m. It will be informal with anyone and everyone invited. We will discuss whatever citizens feel is important. It will only be myself. No city staff. Please let everyone know. Hopefully, we have too many and have to move to council chambers.

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