Christopher J. Wollmuth
candidate for 2019 PARK DISTRICT OF OAK PARK BOARD
1. What motivates you to seek this office? What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the Board, and why would those contributions be valuable to the Park District?
For the past six years, I’ve been a volunteer for the Green Advisory Committee, a citizen advisory committee to the Park District, including the last three as chairperson. That time has given me a better understanding of how the District works and a working relationship with many of the staff and specifically Executive Director Jan Arnold. Before that, I volunteered running the after-school program at Hatch Elementary School, Hatch After Hours, for three years during a period in which revenues and participation grew more than fifty percent. With preschool and after-school classes being one of the fastest growing programs in the Park District, I think that experience will be very valuable.
Professionally, I’m an architect and landscape designer. As an architect, I bring a lot of experience in institutional work that can assist both the care and maintenance of existing buildings and also the formation of ideas on the possible Community Center (including experience evaluating need and masterplanning for similar needs.) More specifically, I gained experience working with large institutions where gathering input and balancing interests was fundamental to the success of projects (more on that below.) As a landscape designer, I bring a sense of what the natural environment can be and how to balance that with the recreational needs of our community.
Overall, my experience with the GAC has broadened my interest in the Park District and, given the questions and issues facing the District in the next couple of years, I thought my additional personal and professional experience would allow me to be a valuable contributor.
2. What do you think makes an effective Park District Commissioner?
In a position like this, skills like having an open mind, listening carefully, and being balanced in your approach are essential. But I think that given our current climate and the issues facing our community, there are two particular skills that I think will be needed:
First, I think it will important to see issues in a broad context. I think we tend to look at issues both through narrow lenses of our specialized knowledge and also with a focus on how issues will affect specific aspects of our lives. That narrow focus often blocks our view of closely related context that we need to consider when making decisions. I believe we need a more holistic approach, one that takes into account our specialized knowledge and perspective while also seeing the larger context into which that decision fits, to reach the best decisions for our community as a whole.
Second, we need to create a healthier dialogue during decision-making. The decision-making process needs to be not only transparent, but deliberate and open minded, understanding that each step fulfills an important role and each participant fulfills an important role. More on that below.
3. What is your understanding of the purpose of the Park District Board? What do you see as the appropriate relationship between the Park District Board and Park District staff?
In my mind, the purpose of the Park Board is to set the high level priorities for the District and work through the Executive Director to implement those policies. In terms of the appropriate relationship between the Board and Staff, it’s one of striking a good balance. It’s having a good working relationship with staff so the Board can understand their perspective and appreciate their efforts, while at the same time understand that the Board’s role is precisely to set the direction for the staff. So a healthy working relationship is one that balances understanding and respect with guidance and vision.
4. When in your experience have you had to balance competing interests? What process did you use? What did you learn?
As an architect early in my career, I did a lot of work for religious institutions looking to make additions or renovations to their campuses. Working with these groups is fun and challenging because virtually all the member families are invested in the outcome and passionate about what should be done…and that can be upward of 2,000 families. In doing this type of project for almost fifteen years, I learned that the ability to develop consensus requires certain pieces to the process, each of which can be executed in different ways:
Give people a forum to speak, listening carefully and being cautious not to make leaps in the logic of those giving input with your own assumptions;
Ensure that people know they’ve been heard;
Gather necessary information from specialists;
Share the logic of decision making, taking care to recognize why any strong opinions have not been incorporated.
Simpler decisions may only require one round of discussion that includes these elements, but if the issue is a complex one there may need to be additional layers of input and review to help refine the solution to its final form to ensure that it is understood by and has the support of the community.
As I noted above, each participant fulfills an important role in the process, staff and specialists providing the knowledge while the community provides input. It is the Board’s job to listen to all of this and provide the leadership to balance all the priorities in the way they think best meets the needs of the community.
5. What does transparency in government mean to you? How would you put it into practice?
Transparency means making the information gathering and decision-making process apparent to all who invest in that process, which I outlined above.
I think it’s also important to note that in for any institution like the Park District there are limited resources and time to engage the community. The Park District has created very visible and accessible ways for the community to engage the decision-making process – including visiting the website, attending Board Meetings or emailing Board Members or District staff. That engagement takes time and effort on the side of the community, from all of us, for the process to work properly and successfully. And while every effort can and should be made to communicate reasoning once decisions have been made, little can replace the understanding of the nuance and balancing of priorities that actively participating in the process can provide.
6. As more of our local discourse happens in social media, what is your view on how local elected officials should communicate with and respond to constituents? How will you engage with the breadth of the community, and not just the voices that are loudest or easiest to find?
I have to be frank and say that I’m not sure social media is the best way to communicate. The nature of abbreviated posts and impersonal communication makes true dialogue difficult and can even stifle it.
While most of the Park District’s decisions are fairly straight forward, there are some issues that are more difficult. They are difficult precisely because they are nuanced and complicated. And without true dialogue, different perspectives can’t be shared and understood and without that good decisions can’t be made. So while social media might be a means to monitor the general tenor of the community’s view, I don’t think it’s a means to communicate. To do that, I prefer personal interaction. In many cases, that can be done at Board Meetings. But as someone who works from home and does not travel for work, I would be readily available to the community beyond those meetings. I would seek out individuals or groups that have concerns, finding times (whether over coffee or lunch, or even in the evenings) to meet with them to share perspectives and ideas…to engage in precisely that dialogue that solves problems and builds consensus.
7. In what ways have you sought to better know and understand the concerns and needs of residents outside your demographic group (specifically the demographic groups of race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status)?
Working as the coordinator for Hatch After Hours at Hatch School, one of the more diverse schools in the community, was very valuable in coming to get a better picture of the community beyond my demographic. Similarly, with a client base largely from the Oak Park area, I’m constantly meeting people from a variety of backgrounds and inevitably sharing ideas about the goings-on in our community.
But beyond these things, building up a wider understanding of less familiar demographics is something that needs to be a priority for me during this election cycle.
8. Much of the Park District’s programming is fee-based. Is the current balance between fee-based and free services appropriate?
I think it is. The Park District has done a wonderful job expanding the programming offerings while keeping costs down. A big part of that is growing revenue from fees. My experience is that most of these fees are well below market alternatives, so provide a really good option for those that have more limited incomes. And with the scholarship opportunities to further reduce or remove costs to individual families, the District works well to open its doors to as many people as possible, while still providing an abundant and varied set of offerings.
9. How do you define equity? Do you favor implementing a formal equity lens/framework at the Park District, and if so, what specifics should that policy include?
Equity is important in any institution, and particularly for our community. Equity should reach across the PDOP, from ensuring that staff (both full time and seasonal) reflect the diversity of the community to ensuring that program offerings reflect the needs and interests of that same diverse community. I know the District has policies in place, but I need to find out more about specifically what they are and how they are reviewed and evaluated.
10. Informal proposals for a community center in Oak Park, from the Park District and others, have sparked public discussion recently. What resources do you believe the Park District can/should bring to such a project? How do you see a community center leveraging existing local facilities?
This is an excellent question, and one that I need to find out more about. On the one hand, surveys done by the District have shown a Community Center to be of great interest to the community. It could provide unique offerings and has the potential to expand program to some lesser represented groups. At the same time, the community is under great pressure financially with the tax burden. So understanding what impact any new building would have on taxes would be important. But the District also has a track record of leveraging fees at buildings like the GRC and Ridgeland Commons to significantly defray long term costs. So I want to find out more about both of the community interest and also the financing.
11. The Park District is largely staffed by part-time employees. How will you balance the need for fiscal stewardship with the responsibility to pay employees a living wage?
This might be the single largest challenge to the park district budget, and it’s one that strikes at the heart of the current debate about taxes in our community. Providing a Living Wage is a fundamental right, but that money has to come from somewhere. On the one hand that can come from increased fees or taxes, or on the other hand it can come from reduced programming and offerings to the community. In either case, the challenge is difficult and will take a lot of discussion and dialogue to set the proper priorities and strike the right balance.
12. Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.
I have not taken any donations to this point, and do not plan to accept any donations more than $20 if I do find the need to raise any money.
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[The above answers were supplied on 2/13/19. It may be possible to find more current financial information at the Illinois Sunshine website. Illinois Sunshine is also a useful resource for identifying past contributions by individuals to political candidates and committees in Illinois.]
Wollmuth: Great for Oak Park's parks (WJ 3/26/19)
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League of Women Voters Candidate Forum (Facebook Live 3/11/19)
4 vying for 3 park board seats in Oak Park (WJ 3/12/19)
Election a go-go (WJ 12/18/19)