PARK DISTRICT OF OAK PARK board (3 open seats)

James Gates | Kathleen Porreca | Christopher R. Wollmuth | Jake Worley-Hood


James Gates


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?

Motivation to seek this office? I:

  • Am committed to public service

  • Desire to continue to give back to the village of Oak Park that has been home to our family since 1975

  • Support the Park District’s Mission: “In partnership with the community, we enrich lives by providing meaningful experiences through programs, parks, and facilities”

  • Believe in the Park District’s Vision: “We strive to exceed the needs of our diverse community with a collaborative and innovative approach”

  • Respect the Park District’s Values: “Partnerships, Responsible Leadership, Integrity, Innovation, and Sustainability” that mirror the values Oak Park expects of its elected officials.


  • Elected to the District 97 Board of Education, 2009-2017

  • Chosen by my peers to serve multiple terms as board VP and President

  • Recognized six times as a Master Board Member by the Illinois Association of School Boards by demonstrating faithfulness to effective governance and continuous learning

  • Named IGOV (Intergovernmental Body of Oak Park) chair for multiple-terms by representatives of all six Oak Park governmental units

  • Served on the COG (Village Council of Governments) and consistently demonstrated the ability to work collaboratively across governmental units

Valuable Perspectives FOR the park district:

  • Understanding of what effective board service is and what it isn’t

  • Recognition of Oak Park values and expectations such as community engagement, financial and environmental sustainability, diversity, and inclusion

  • Proven track record of experience with a broad range of stakeholders and their interests

  • Experience with cultivating relationships across governmental units that promote collaboration and long-term planning

  • Leadership skills that build board unity and maximize board performance in service of the community

2. What do you think makes an effective Park District Commissioner?

  • Honoring the oath to represent all stakeholders without favoring any single community constituency

  • Coming to the board and each commissioner meeting without a personal agenda and realizing that the board of trustees works as a team to serve the identified needs and interests of the community

  • In word and deed demonstrating fidelity to prudent fiscal stewardship rooted in meeting community needs and ensuring sustainability

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?

My understanding of the PDOP’s purpose is to actively engage the community in conversations, electronic and face-to-face, that ensure that the community is offered the diverse recreational programs and services that best meet the interests of our village. In addition, PDOP is committed to sound and transparent fiscal stewardship of citizen tax dollars and a demonstrated commitment to financial and environment sustainability. As far as the appropriate relationship between PDOP board and administration, effective relationships are rooted in mutual respect and trust. That relationship also is predicated upon an understanding of what is staff work and what is board work, with, of course, the requisite oversight and assessment. I believe my past board service record over eight years models an effective and respectful understanding of how to develop and manage board and staff relations. Of course, PDOP board service will have its own distinct nature. Yet, my interactions over eight years with all Oak Park elected board officers convince me that a rich understanding of the principles of effective governance and staff / board relationships translate across all governmental units.

4. When in your experience have you had to balance competing interests? What process did you use? What did you learn?

My experience includes eight years as a member of the D97 Board of Education, multi-year chair of IGOV (the intergovernmental body of Oak Park), and multi-year member of COG, the Council of Governments. My D97 board service required me to balance competing interests of diverse stakeholders: 50,000+ residents, 5,000+ students in 10 school communities, almost 1,000 employees in five bargaining units, and five other elected boards. My IGOV service required me to work with my elected colleagues from PDOP, D200, the Township, Library, and village. Finally, my COG service required me, as D97 board president, to work with the presidents and executive officers of all elected bodies. As far as what I learned: there are and will always be competing interests. Effective board governance requires integrity, honesty, candor, trustworthiness, and collaboration in service of the community’s interests, quality of life, and long-term sustainability.

5. What does transparency in government mean to you? How would you put it into practice?

Transparency is more than a word to the expressed. Transparency is a cultural component of successful governmental units. Transparency demonstrates faithfulness to serving the community interests above all else. Transparency reflects a conscious effort to communicate openly and honestly with the community. Transparency is the foundation of a trust-based relationship between residents and their elected officials.

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?

This is a challenge in the age of electronic communication. While board members highly value every community resident, the most effective boards work as a unit. Of course, there will be times when board members speak one-on-one with residents but must convey the message that no one board member speaks for the board. I have acted on my belief in community engagement in several ways. As a founding member of IGOV, I worked with my colleagues to sponsor 2-3 annual forums bringing together the community and all 6 taxing bodies. As a D97 board member, I co-sponsored the creation of the Committee for Community Engagement, a board committee comprised of and led by citizens. I also worked with my D97 colleagues to institute the use of the village FYI to communicate D97 information to 25,000 Oak Park homes and businesses. Community engagement is a demonstrated and integral component of my view of public service.

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)?

This is a critical issue for all who seek elected office in Oak Park. As a resident since 1975, I have committed myself to understanding the needs and hopes of my fellow Oak Parkers. My 33-years’ experience as an Oak Park educator has brought me into direct contact, communication, and working relationships with thousands across the breadth of Oak Park’s rich heritage of diversity. As an active member of St. Giles Parish and its Parish Council chair, I work with parishioners of all cultures and socio-economic levels across Oak Park. As an elected official, I have worked with and built strong bonds with community leaders and citizens from all walks of life in our mission to continually develop the reputation and reality of Oak Park as a caring and responsive village. Finally, my late brother Jeff experienced severe physical and developmental challenges in his life before his passing. My love for him underpins my commitment to people of all abilities and was the motivator for an Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation endowment grant funded by my wife and me, the Jeffrey Allen Gates Oak Park D97 Scholarship Fund. This issue of understanding others is fundamental to me.

8. Much of the Park District’s programming is fee-based. Is the current balance between fee-based and free services appropriate?

In an ideal world fee-based programming would be minimized. However, in the real world of Illinois and the General Assembly’s reduced support for local government entities like PDOP, fee-based programs are a way to minimize costs across all taxpayers. While there are fee-based programs in the diverse offerings of PDOP, there are many opportunities for residents to enjoy our beautiful parks and other non-fee based PDOP programs and services. Again, I believe that fee-based programs occur because of economic realities and not because of choice.

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?

I, like all fair-minded individuals, believe in equity. As I define equity, it is a mindset of treating all individuals fairly and without impartiality in a just manner. I view being fair as being committed to providing all the opportunity to receive what they need. However, governmental bodies must ensure that any policy, including equity policy be rooted in factual analysis and public engagement as policy comes with a financial implementation cost. My experience in creating and supporting policy on a broad range of topics from finance to safety to equity has informed my belief that transparent and effective organizational policy is rooted in four key questions:

  • What thoughtful analysis indicates that Oak Park needs this policy?

  • Who benefits from this policy?

  • What does this policy cost the taxpayers?

  • How will the effectiveness and value of this policy be assessed, monitored, and shared with the community?

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?

My previous board service included conversations with local realtors, business owners, and the Oak Park’s Economic Development Corporation. While Oak Park is an attractive destination community, it is always in a competition for new residents. In furtherance of its sustainability mission and in response to citizen inquiries, PDOP studied a community center. As the D97 representative on the community center exploratory committee, I know PDOP performed its due diligence via community feedback, focus groups, and intergovernmental discussions. While no decision was or has been made, the concept is still a possibility. However, I believe if any action is taken on a community center, PDOP will make every effort to seek alternative funding mechanisms, e.g. private funding. I believe the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior and that convinces me that PDOP will act in the best interests of our village when it comes to a community center.

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?

Having broad experience in relationships and contract negotiations with multiple employee groups and compensation discussions, I believe it is critical for trustees to engage employees, part and full-time, in interest-based conversations, where all openly share their interests. In these conversations, employees, administration, and trustees discuss what is desired by all parties (including the community) and what is practical in the current financial climate. When building trusting relationships between labor and management is the goal, an environment is created where hard discussions on compensation can be both respectful of employees and the community that funds those salaries. I will also bring to the conversations my experience with employee satisfaction and personal fulfillment that goes beyond dollars and cents. I have come to understand that the employee sense of satisfaction and the management’s demonstrated value of and respect for its staff plays an integral role in fiscal stewardship and employee compensation.

12. Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.

$0. As someone who is troubled by the billions of dollars spent on campaigns from local to national, I am self-funding, a low-budget my campaign. For example, I will not be using yard signs. Instead of purchasing yard signs, as one of the key missions of the Park District is supporting children, I will write a check to Hephzibah House that equals the cost of 100 yard signs. I believe that will be more in line with the mission of the Park District of Oak Park. I will use minimal campaign literature, e.g. 4” x 9” handouts for public events. In lieu of yard signs and mailed out campaign literature, I will attend all public forums and will appear at any private home to speak to my candidacy. I expect my totally self-funded campaign to cost less than $500.00.

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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.]