CORY J. WESLEY
candidate for 2019 OAK pARK VILLAGE TRUSTEE
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 Village of Oak Park?
I’m running for a number of reasons. Oak Park is a unique community and the escalating taxes are threatening its diversity and forcing people to leave their homes. The people that are disproportionately affected by this burden have been represented the least. I’m running to change that.
Because of my work in IT, I’ve spent over 20 years building solutions to complex problems. In fact, it’s my day job to solve complex problems for others through conventional and innovative solutions - this experience would translate directly to the problems that exist in Oak Park. Also, local government needs a dose of innovation, the ability to move fast, test, measure, and pivot to a successful solution and I bring that to the table.
Further, as a black man from the West Side of Chicago, I’m no stranger to adversity. I’ve overcome it every step of the way in my life. From a successful IT career starting at age 18 to now being the founder of a successful software consulting firm. The fact that I’m here is no accident. It’s a combination of intelligence, hard work, dedication, and skill - all qualities that would make me a great Trustee.
2. What do you believe makes an effective Trustee?
I’ll answer this as a list of qualities rather than a narrative:
The ability to identify and solve problems. The ability to represent all people. Trustworthiness. Transparency. Intelligence. Passion and Compassion. The ability to actively listen. Empathy. Devotion to the job. Pride in the work. The ability to build bridges and unify people. Fair. Just. Equitable.
A good Trustee will have you leave a discussion where you disagree with his/her stance but respect and understand the decision.
3. What is your understanding of the purpose of the Village Board? What do you see as the appropriate relationship between the Village President/Mayor, the Board of Trustees, and Village staff?
The purpose of the Village Board is to govern the village, to make Oak Park better for all of her residents. To ensure that Oak Park is a sustainable and thriving community. And, on occasion, to use the position of de facto leadership to set policy, via example and advocacy for the entire village of Oak Park - even across governing bodies.
Cooperate. The Board, the President/Mayor, and the Staff should all work together to ensure the above according to their mandated responsibilities based on our form of government and, where appropriate, advise where additional advice might not be required but would be helpful to the well-being of Oak Park.
4. When in your experience have you had to balance competing interests? What process did you use? What did you learn?
I’m a bridge-builder. One of my strengths is the ability to see both sides of an argument and mediate a compromise, if possible.
The process I use would be closest to the steps used in hostage negotiation training. The first three of the five steps are: Active Listening, Empathy & Rapport. I use these steps more often than anything else, I find that if you can listen, empathize, and build a rapport with someone, everything else happens naturally.
People at their core just want to be heard and understood. There is power in the ability to do that. You don’t have to agree to empathize with a person, but if you can empathize, you can often find a solution.
Further, there is a lot of emerging research that shows that empathy unlocks equity of discussion in team meetings, and productivity gains. Luckily, this comes naturally for me and I consider it one of my best assets.
5. What does transparency in government mean to you? How would you put it into practice?
Transparency can not simply be an intention, it must be an action that shapes every decision, every disclosure, every debate. It must exist despite the burden. It must persist even as it fights to take flight. Our elected officials, regardless of body, are entrusted with our Democracy, regardless of scale. They must answer to the people, not just once every four, but every day a decision is made, every day a debate is had, for every issue that is brought forth of public concern
Information Availability - I’ve already accomplished a portion of this solution as the Clerk has implemented an email list distribution for the Board agenda. This was done at my public suggestion.
Fireside Chats/Q&A Sessions/Mailbags - Of these I’ll emphasize the mailbag here. Communication with the board has to be a two-way affair. A mailbag of the comments with a Trustee response would create engagement and a dialog with the people.
Remote Engagement - Public comments, are biased towards those who have the time to attend in person. We should change this by allowing the submission of video comments from home. Thus increasing the engagement and equity of those who are typically left out of the process.
I have a transparency platform published on my website that discusses this in much more detail.
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 also address this on the Transparency page on my website.
Access isn’t for the few. A democracy is the will of the people – all of them. Not just the affluent, not just those with an abundance of free time, not just those who bump into you while grabbing a coffee.
I commit to providing access to my time for those who want to discuss any matter, great or small. I currently have an option on my website where anyone can schedule time with me for a discussion on any matter. That would continue if I’m elected.
As a good partner, I commit to sharing insights into any major vote publicly and in a timely manner. I will likely share insights into most, if not all, of the votes I make but I will definitely commit to sharing my thinking and decision-making process on all major votes within 48 hours of the vote. How we define ‘major’ is tricky, but I think we all know it when we see it.
Further, my hope is that with implementing the items in my Transparency plan we increase the equity and engagement of all voices in Oak Park which mitigates this issue as an output of those implementations.
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)?
I have a fairly representative social circle so issues that face others are often brought to my attention just through everyday interactions with my friends.
My wife is a member of the leadership committee on the Irving DivCo which has discussions about equity for all and a number of those discussions are about the concerns of minority groups as you’ve defined above. I’ve attended a number of these discussions and discuss these issues with parents of Irving where we discuss issues relating to diversity and inclusion for all people here in Oak Park but mostly specific to Irving Elementary.
I interact on Facebook and other social media with a number of people of diverse backgrounds, share concerns, and discuss solutions.
I stay aware of national politics and how the impact of policy made there could trickle down to us here.
8. To what extent should the Village Board rely on the expertise of its citizen commissions? Do you feel the balance has been correct? What do you see as the appropriate responsibilities of the Village Clerk?
The Board should increase the mandate of the commissions to make them more nimble and more self-directed. I think there is often a lot of expertise in those commissions and the board should engage it more often. That doesn’t mean that the commissions dictate policy, however their ability to advise is significant and therefore their advice should not be discounted.
I believe the current compromise (1/28) restores the Village Clerk’s powers, and expands the office’s oversight of FOIA, to an appropriate degree. I see no further issue.
9. Oak Park has a history of racial and ethnic as well as economic diversity. How would you engage marginalized communities in the political process? How can we maintain economic diversity in the Village with rising real estate prices and taxes?
I’d focus on remote engagement. A good portion of the minority and lower/middle income community have work, time, and financial challenges that can prevent them from dedicating 4 hours on a Monday night to attend a Village meeting. Creating a system for Remote Engagement would allow those folks to comment and submit it to the Board from home without having to leave their kids/pay for a sitter/or be time bound to the Monday schedule of a board meeting work time or family time might take priority.
Next, I’d engage them by talking about the issues that touch them. Not every issue in the village touches everyone - except equity which we do not talk about enough. If we want to engage more of the community in the governing process then we need to discuss and act upon the issues that are important to them.
Finally, you can have neither economic nor true racial diversity in the Village at the current rate of increase in property taxes. We will create a village of charity and disparity rather than inclusion unless we get the property tax levy, a levy that has eclipsed inflation many times over, under control.
10. How do you define equity? Do you favor implementing a Village-wide equity policy, and if so, what specifics should that policy include? Have recent discussions in the larger community informed or changed your thinking?
Equity is an experience that enables the same outcome for everyone, regardless of race, religion, disability, orientation, or more. Equity isn’t blind. It’s informed. And it remediates its blind spots by hard work.
The village should invest in equity and bias training for all employees, staff, contractors, and vendors or anyone who accepts cash or consideration from the village.
The village should mandate that developers who accept a variance or consideration from the village also take this training for anyone who will interface with the Oak Park community.
The village should make this training free for everyone in the village and encourage everyone to take it.
The village should implement use of this training as the backbone of a Diversity ‘certification’ provided free from the village to businesses in the village. Businesses who pass the certification would receive a sign that signifies certification as well as be listed with other certified businesses on a website, marketing, etc..
The village should do the same for landlords, renewable annually, and require it to the extent possible, rather than make it optional.
The village should create a minority and Women-owned Business Procurement Program similar to Chicago’s, set a target percentage for minority-owned businesses that work with the village, implement a plan to meet that goal, and report on it quarterly.
Lastly, the most important thing that we can do to improve racial equity in Oak Park is to put people of color in positions of leadership.
11. Why have property taxes assessed by the Village (as distinct from other Oak Park taxing bodies) increased so substantially over the past 10-15 years? Can the Village continue without additional tax increases? How?
Uncontrolled spending, lax hiring practices, an over-reliance on residential property taxes, ill-advised capital projects, ignoring business and therefore revenue alternatives to taxes, a lack of fiscal responsibility at the board table, and pursuit of pet projects and initiatives that return little value to most of the village. The narrative of Oak Park as a ‘high tax, high service’ town has also contributed to a lack of financial culpability. Finally, one can’t ignore the underfunded pensions and the state-level mandate which requires we pay catch up payments to make the fund 90% whole by 2040.
The village will have to raise taxes IF the people choose to elect Trustees who don’t see the issue as urgent and move to control spending and increase revenues in the village. The only way to continue is to commit to holding the line on budget increases between 0 - 3% - the typical rate of inflation. This will require a change in the way we do budgeting to something closer to priority-based or zero-based budgeting. It will require measuring the value of the services we offer and making cuts when necessary, like Divvy.
Finally, the Village can not afford to continue WITH additional tax increases. We will tax the middle-class out of the village and with it all diversity and hope of equity. To be clear, a higher property tax load is fundamentally incompatible with diversity and equity in Oak Park. A failure to acknowledge this and avoid its consequences will lead to a fundamental change in the demographic makeup of Oak Park and a shift in the values of Oak Park as well.
12. What impact can a municipality such as Oak Park have on climate change, and how will you prioritize that work among other issues? Do you think Oak Park should implement a Climate Action Plan, and if so, what specific elements should it include?
I think Austin Gardens is a great example of Oak Park working towards sustainability, I’d love to see us explore more innovation similar to this and use some of the lessons learned here and spread them to other parts of the village. I think the bag tax is also a great idea, I’d like to go further and ban plastic shopping bags, offering only paper bags, cardboard boxes (like Costco and Aldi) and canvas sacks. I think our Composting program is also great and helps prevent issues where food is trapped in landfills and prevented from degrading due to an absence of oxygen as a catalyst for the process. I know at Irving School they’ve implemented a Zero-Waste lunch to keep lunch refuse out of the landfills. I’m not sure if this extends to the entire D97, but I’m hopeful it will if it doesn’t currently.
I think one area of improvement is more education and maybe an improvement around the recycling program. There are lot of items that are conventionally thought of as recycling that can’t be recycled by a typical recycling plant, like a pizza box for example. Educating and providing resources on how to sort recycling would go a long way towards making our recycling more effective and lessening our impact on the earth.
13. Oak Park has seen a number of larger developments in recent years that have changed the physical space, particularly downtown. What is your philosophy toward development and the changes that it brings? What is your ideal vision for future development going forward?
My development philosophy is simple.
Do not impact the existing green spaces of Oak Park.
Do not impact the existing architectural landmarks of Oak Park.
Assuming you pass 1 & 2, I’ll give it due consideration, but it doesn’t automatically guarantee approval.
My ideal vision of future development is a strong, vibrant and sustainable Oak Park where people want to live, where development helps pay for services, and our neighborhoods are built out to encourage people to visit, eat, shop, live and work here.
I think, as a community, we should revisit the Envision Oak Park plan and decide if we’re staying true to that guideline and if there is cause to update it. It was published in 2014 and maybe a 5 year update and community input wouldn’t be a bad thing.
14. What does affordable housing mean to you? Do you feel that the Village should should work to support housing affordability? If so, what specific policies would you advocate? Would you support an inclusionary zoning ordinance?
Affordable housing means including homeowners as well as renters. The village has increased the level of affordable housing from 18% to 22%. I think that’s incredible. In the same period of time, property taxes have outstripped inflation by several orders of magnitude putting intense pressure on middle-class homeowners and constructing barriers at the low end of the market for ownership.
This has a huge impact on Oak Park as a whole.
It will decrease the diversity of the village.
Decreasing the diversity will decrease the will to implement equitable changes.
Decreasing the middle-class & diversity separates the village by income and decreases the inclusivity of the village.
This results in a village of charity(affordable housing) and disparity(the gap between the rich and the poor).
This completely changes the fabric of Oak Park and makes it unrecognizable.
Finally, some would think that affordable housing could fix this but renters tend to be transient and less engaged in local government, exercising their voices less, and just leave once they’ve either hit their rent threshold, achieved their objective(kids leave school), or no longer agree with the direction of the community.
As far as an IZO - I think in a community our size it has to be implemented just right in order to be beneficial. I support an IZO that includes housing affordability in its definition and is tax neutral. Housing affordability is the bigger issue facing Oak Park and any solution that doesn’t address this growing crisis is no solution.
15. Describe a specific initiative you would undertake in collaboration with one or more neighboring communities.
Municipal Wifi. Having the ability to offer internet service to our community at a reasonable price with the ability to subsidize low-income users would be a tremendous boon for equitable access to information.
With the advent of 5G, running a municipal ISP will likely be easier and expanding that to our neighbors through partnership or subscribership could generate substantial synergies in the form of lower cost and higher speeds. And in the event of subscribership, could generate revenue for the village as well.
16. Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.
I only have one donor currently.
$1000 - Illinois Realtors Political Action Committee
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[The above answers were supplied on 2/17/19. 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.]
Cory Wesley for Oak Park Trustee (Candidate Facebook page)
Oak Park Development Watch candidate questionnaire (Facebook 3/28/19)
Wednesday Journal endorsement (WJ 3/19/19)
Pragmatic Solutions' endorsements (WJ 3/19/19)
Candidate Profile (WJ 3/15/19)
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About the Oak Park Village Board
SEOPCO candidate forum (Facebook live 3/19/19)
Bike Walk Oak Park Candidate Survey Results (Facebook 3/17/19)
Talking business at Oak Park trustee candidate forum (WJ 3/15/19)
Arbor West Neighbors: Discussion on aging (Facebook Live 2/25/19)
Taxes front and center at Oak Park trustee debate (WJ 1/15/19)
The campaign trail: Trustee candidates weigh in on Oak Park's tax burden (Oak Leaves 1/11/19)
Business retention, assistance on minds of Oak Park village trustee candidates (Oak Leaves 1/10/19)
Suburban Unity Alliance Village Board Candidate Forum Part 1 | Part 2 (Facebook Live 1/9/19)
Election a go-go (WJ 12/18/19)
Now up to eight in race for Oak Park village board (WJ 11/21/18)