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?
Like so many, I moved here for the schools. But it is the community that has kept and sustained me. I am running to extend to other generations opportunities that I benefited from coming here.
I have prior government experience at regional, county, state, and federal levels that give me valuable insight on how to match a municipality’s needs with a community’s desires. Through my work at the Illinois Dept of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the State Treasurer’s office, I have gained a level of expertise in economic development and tax policy. As a legislative aide and civic engagement specialist, I developed the skill of really listening to people and communities, which I believe should be a focus of more public officials.
Moreover, my commitment to Oak Park has spanned over two decades. Having carried mail here while working my way through college, I have a unique insight into the vastly different conditions that exist across our community. I have also served on the board of the OPRF Food Pantry, Austin Coming Together’s Quality of Life comprehensive community plan, the Village’s CDBG Citizen Advisory Commission, and have over 20 years in the Naval Reserves.
2. What do you believe makes an effective Trustee?
Trustees should understand the community’s needs and desires, and translate those into policy.
In addition, Trustees should be expected to operate in multiple spaces in representing the interests of their community. This includes in regional councils, in Springfield, and nationally. Oak Park trustees have not, on the whole, been as engaged in this advocacy work and I think, given how much we are impacted by state and federal policy, that is misguided. Through my professional work I have developed strong relationships with regional organizations like West Central Municipal Conference and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, as well as with our elected officials in Springfield and Washington, DC. I believe Board members should be more intentional in building these relationships and advocating for the Village’s interests.
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 Board serves as the chief policy-making and legislative branch for municipal governance. Trustees should represent the community’s needs and desires and work effectively with the Village Manager and professional staff to translate those into policy.
The Board should also hold the Village President and Manager accountable for achieving those goals through clear performance objectives. For too long, Trustees have either veered too far into the weeds of micromanagement or not provided enough long-term guidance and goal-setting for staff to follow. Effective trustees balance the Board’s need to be actively engaged with leveraging the expertise of the Village manager and her team.
4. When in your experience have you had to balance competing interests? What process did you use? What did you learn?
Just before my arrival as a Trustee at Triton College, the faculty senate had passed a resolution of no-confidence against the college president and labor-management relations were at a low point. My campaign was focused on both re-engaging the Oak Park-River Forest communities into the life of the community college, but also earning a level of trust from both sides. I knew we could engage in trust-building steps and communicate across the divide to build a stronger college community.
One of those trust-building steps was my creation of an Audit Committee, separate from the Board’s Finance Committee, which was designed to allow any citizen, employee, or manager a direct line to have concerns of mismanagement addressed.
Establishing up-front what goals and objectives different interests want and need, then building systems to measure and hold accountable those interests, reduces friction and optimizes the outcomes for both/all sides.
5. What does transparency in government mean to you? How would you put it into practice?
We need to rebuild trust in government. It starts with recognizing that information being handled in the public trust, ultimately, belongs to the public. Too many people do not have confidence in what their government is doing and governments feed into that when they do not make information readily and easily accessible.
Unfortunately, the Village’s version of transparency ends up hiding a lot of things in plain sight. Posting more 300-page PDFs isn’t necessarily being transparent—it’s being open, but not transparent. It is unacceptable that people often can’t get answers to the simple questions they have. We need to begin providing information in a more user-friendly way.
As a trustee I will advocate for the Village to adopt technology that can support more open government and citizen engagement.
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?
While I have always been open to use social media to help highlight issues that would heretofore remain obscure, it is very important to engage with people where they are—in real life. From attending other governing bodies’ meetings, to sitting down with folks on the El, to washing clothes at the laundromat, there are numerous ways to connect with the wide variety of Oak Park residents and solicit their views.
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)?
In many ways, this is something that I have done throughout my 20-plus years in the Oak Park community. I was a mail carrier here while working my way through college. As a result, I’m probably the only person running who has been to most of the addresses in the Village, which gives me a unique insight into the vastly different conditions that exist across our community.
I have a record of service and engagement in Oak Park that has given me the privilege to work with, worship with, and build relationships with, individuals and groups that reflect the diversity of our community, whether as a member of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, the OPRF Food Pantry Board of Directors, or a volunteer for the Democratic Party of Oak Park.
In my role at the food pantry I have sought to understand, and pushed my fellow board members to understand, the concerns and needs of all residents in our region and not only those who may be viewed as traditional clients. As co-chair of the Economic Development Task Force for Austin Coming Together’s recent Quality of Life plan, I focused on building economic partnerships across our communities.
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?
As a former member of the Village’s Community Development Block Grant Citizens Advisory Council, I got a chance to see how important the work could be—especially if that work and expertise is given serious advisement by the Board.
I believe that their expertise is important, but, in some cases, also represent a missed opportunity to leverage the knowledge and commitment of Village residents. The Envision Oak Park plan was the result of over two years’ work engaging community residents, but has been largely ignored by the Board. If the work that these volunteers and staff gave in researching and understanding the nuances of a particular issue are poorly-respected by a Board that simply tosses evidence aside, this can quickly lead to a situation where fewer citizens will be willing to devote their time and energy for naught.
Village Clerks have responsibilities that include official record-keeping and fee collection. In addition, many Clerks function as an informal Village Ombudsman, assisting with constituent concerns and requests for information. We benefit from having a Village Clerk that is independently elected Village-wide and separately accountable to the whole electorate, with interests that are separate from either the Board or Village President, manager, and staff.
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 believe governments should be transparent and accessible to those being governed, recognizing that many people, particularly those struggling to balance work and family responsibilities, do not often have the flexibility to attend meetings or other traditional methods of engagement. Other communities have made citizen accessibility to programs and 311-type services as simple as a mobile app.
In regard to maintaining economic diversity, I share this concern. I was a mail carrier when my family first moved to Oak Park. I’m not sure we could have afforded to move here today. I see the impact the rising cost of housing is having on friends and neighbors, including long-term residents who are afraid of being priced out. I don’t want to see us lose a key part of what helps us stand apart from other communities, which is our diversity.
As a trustee I would fight for the Board to adopt an affordable housing ordinance to ensure that new development in Oak Park is done in a way that gives the Village leverage in negotiating with developers to preserve the opportunity for families of all income levels to be a part of our community.
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?
Yes, I believe we need to ensure the Village’s policies reflect our community values. We have seen communities like Ferguson, Missouri that placed the onus of funding government on the backs of those in the least position to pay. The Village derives nearly $3m in revenue from fines. How much of that comes from policies that impose unfair burdens on specific residents?
I propose that all Village policies be examined through an equity lens. Many local governments have adopted racial equity impact assessment tools. As a Village Trustee I will advocate for the Board to adopt this type of tool. I think it’s fair to expect the Village and governments in the Village to consider the potential impact of policies on racial and economic diversity before they are approved or implemented.
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?
The increase in property assessments (upon which the taxes are levied) has largely been driven by increases in property values. But reductions in state revenue sharing mechanisms and sales and use tax revenues have left local governments little choice but to raise additions revenues.
By process and by statute, the property tax levy is the last thing the local government determines, after all other sources of revenue are budgeted first. Municipalities (unlike K-12 school districts) have other avenues of tax collection.
As mentioned, sales and use taxes have been relatively flat over the last five years, owing to the lack of clarity on collecting sales taxes on purchases over the internet. After a recent Supreme Court ruling, I would advocate Oak Park and other municipalities work with Springfield to craft a Streamlined Sales Tax, that would be in line with Indiana and more than two dozen states, and would not leave our local brick-and-mortar shops permanently disadvantaged against big, out-of-state internet distributers.
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?
There are simple, tangible steps that our community must take to prepare for what climate change will do. Though the current Village President signed on to the Chicago Climate Agreement, we have not been specifically highlighting in our budget what plans and programs are related to the agreement, from equipment purchasing to infrastructure repair. Those costs, both short- and long-term, need to be understood and weighed by both the community and the Village government.
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?
Currently, Oak Park lacks any systematic economic development plan or housing ordinance to help guide decisions about development. This has allowed development to occur through a series of opaque ad hoc deals where neither the community, the Village, nor the developer, knows what to plan for, nor who is being best served.
Moreover, capital expenditures are disconnected from performance measures that link outcomes to the budget or the Envision Oak Park comprehensive plan.
As a trustee, I will push for Oak Park to adopt a comprehensive economic development plan that reflects our values, invests in the infrastructure needed to make Oak Park attractive to businesses, and promotes transparency and accountability.
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?
Yes, as a trustee I would fight for the Board to adopt an inclusive, affordable housing ordinance to ensure that new development in Oak Park is done in a way that preserves the opportunity for families of all income levels to be a part of our community.
15. Describe a specific initiative you would undertake in collaboration with one or more neighboring communities.
Working with either the West Central Municipal Conference or the Illinois Municipal League (or both), I would push the General Assembly to consider adopting the Streamlined Sales Tax statewide, as has over two dozen other states. That would have an appreciable impact on generating tax revenue for municipalities, as well as starting to give a leg up to our local brick-and-mortar businesses that are disadvantaged against large, out-of-state internet shippers.
16. Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.
Thomas Gary 1300
Kristen Seeger 1000
Jake Noble 250
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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.]
Thomas Gary (candidate Facebook page)
Vote for principled, pragmatic candidates (WJ 3/26/19)
Race is core to our complex issues (WJ 3/26/19)
Oak Park Development Watch candidate questionnaire (Facebook 3/21/19)
Candidate Profile (WJ 3/15/19)
Chicago Federation of Labor endorsement (PDF 3/10/19)
Gary for Oak Park village board (WJ 2/19/19)
Triton College Trustee Thomas Gary resigns his position to serve his country (Oak Leaves 11/1/13)
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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)