Bridgett Baron

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1) What experience makes you the best candidate to serve as trustee?

My life experience overall, as well as different aspects of my experience as an Oak Parker makes me the best candidate to serve as trustee. Through those experiences, I have developed a fact-based, balanced, independent approach to decision-making that would best serve all Oak Parkers.

I have a strong work ethic that goes back about 40 years, when I was a professional child actor and full-time student. After earning my degree from Northwestern University, for over 20 years I have worked as an accountant in the movie and television industry. The level of financial oversight and relationship management that I employ with hundreds of people would, if I am elected, be of great value as I manage my role as Trustee.

I have been an Oak Park resident since 1994.  In that time, I have developed a love for this community's people, history, and vibrant civic engagement. Over the past six years in particular, I have closely followed the Village Board, attending or viewing dozens of Board meetings, reading agendas and board packets, and studying the "sausage making" of Village government.

I am extremely familiar with the numerous issues that the Board has been facing, the processes that have been under way to bring them to this point, and the nuance and complexity of competing considerations that are vital to take into account when seeking to serve effectively in this challenging role. Because I have gone through the learning curve that anyone would need to experience as a trustee, I will be prepared to function effectively from Day One.

In addition, Oak Park needs leaders who are willing to ask tough questions in order to understand the full, often-complicated picture. Our community deserves leaders who exercise flexibility and courage in decision-making—not single-issue candidates or those confined by an agenda of rigid ideologies. I would be such an independent, well-rounded leader.

If elected, I would earnestly seek to help Oak Park chart a creative, fiscally responsible course for the future that honors and builds on our past.

 

2) What do you consider the top three issues of concern in Oak Park and how would you address them as a trustee?

There are so many important issues, and reasonable minds can differ on priority. Of the top dozen issues, three of note are:

  1. Reining in the rate of levy growth.
  2. Taking a balanced approach to future development.
  3. Continuing to support strong public safety while growing our community-relations initiatives.

Reining in the rate of levy growth:

 I believe Oak Park is truly at a crossroads, and the community needs bold leadership that honors our inclusive and innovative heritage while continuing to explore creative ways to attract residents and businesses well into the future.

The Village's piece of the levy is roughly 15%. A third of that (about 5% of the total Oak Park levy) is pension obligations. While some would think 15% of the pie is too small to have any impact on taxes, it's important to note that the Village's annual budget is almost eight times the Village's portion of the levy, since the Village has other sources of revenue. This means that there is far greater room for fiscal stewardship than any other taxing body, including the schools.

And unlike all the other taxing bodies, because Oak Park is "home rule," the Village can increase the levy beyond CPI (Consumer Price Index) without going to referendum. As a result, rather than reining in spending in areas where the Village does have control, or creating new revenues, the Village has simply increased its levy beyond the rate of inflation.

In addition, as our tax base grows with new development and other sources of revenue, the Village has opted to spend that new pot of money. This is a pattern followed by most of the other taxing bodies, rather than allowing the new growth to relieve the tax burden across Oak Park.

It is unrealistic to say the Village can continue "without additional tax increases." However, even with the pension obligations, we most certainly can slow the rate of increase by making thoughtful decisions based on facts and not feelings. The evaluation of that decision-making's level of success should be focused on outcomes, not good intentions—in terms of both spending as well as generating revenue.

Taking a Balanced Approach to Further Development

Large developments over the past few years, concentrated in the Downtown Oak Park area, have permanently altered our community's physical space, as well as issues emanating from those developments.

It remains to be seen—and will always be, to some degree, a matter of opinion—whether those changes are for the better or for the worse. I believe that change and evolution are imperative for a community to survive and thrive over time. And I support development that fills prioritized needs and is a positive addition to our community's fabric.

That being stated, when it comes to the downtown developments that are still under way, it will be years before we have a clearer sense of their impact on not only that part of the village, but also the financial, infrastructure, social, school enrollment, and myriad other effects.

I would caution against blanket "moratoriums" or other generalizations that reflect a rigid mindset. Doing so fails to acknowledge the reality that the Board must make its deliberations based on the individual merits of a proposed development, within the context of our entire community's priorities.

In addition, the business community needs to be part of the discussion regarding development, as it directly impacts them, both positively (such as new customers) and not so positively (congestion, parking, and disruption to business during construction).

 

Continuing to support strong public safety while growing our community relations initiatives.

We must be vigilant in adequately funding our police department to maximize safety in Oak Park.

The Oak Park Police Department does an outstanding job of serving and protecting our community. This assessment is based on my close observation of village affairs over the past six years. In addition, during my 25 years in Oak Park, I have had overwhelmingly positive interactions with officers as they have responded to various incidents affecting my family, neighbors, and others.

Often, incidents like car-jackings can create the perception that crime is on the rise. Although each incident is serious, with significant impact on those most directly affected, it's also important to note that not all types of crime are increasing.

Also, one of the most effective ways to combat crime is to stop it before it happens—and police cannot do that alone. In addition to supporting our police budget, I would ensure that priority is given by our village's communications department to raise awareness and expand education about what citizens can do to be the "eyes and ears" for neighbors and police.

One principle that our police leadership has continually emphasized, and which I would encourage everyone to follow: if you have a sense that something doesn't seem quite right about an individual, or a situation, call 911. Let our highly trained and professional police officers do their job, as quickly as possible. While not perfect, our department is a model of how other municipalities' police officers should conduct themselves in the complex and volatile situations they are entrusted to handle.

Being each other's "keepers" is a great way to deter crime, as is entrusting police to sort out situations that are beyond our expertise.

 

3) What is your position on affordable housing in the village? Is more or less needed? Why? How would you address this as a trustee?

The term "affordable housing" is a definable term, and not left to interpretation. Affordable housing is housing that is affordable (paying no more than 30% of income) to those earning 60% of the AMI (Area Median Income—half earn more than that number, half earn less) for renters, and at 80% of AMI for owners. A benchmark set by the 2003 Affordable Housing and Appeals Act is for a community to have 10% of its housing stock be "affordable housing." Oak Park is at 22.6%, up from 18.4% five years ago.

 

Currently, Oak Park is exemplary in its affordable housing. I would support polices to maintain these levels.

 

4) How would you work to ensure greater equity and diversity in the village?

Equity is giving people what they need in order to succeed. All residents should have equal access to governmental services and resources and be given equal opportunity to thrive in our community.

A village-wide equity policy is currently under discussion, so this is a very timely question. An important starting place is to look at what other communities have done in terms of equity policies, and to see how elements of those policies may or may not be appropriate for Oak Park.

Related, though clearly not the same thing, is Oak Park's Diversity Statement, which I wholeheartedly support. It is a hallmark of our community. And with each newly elected Board, at their installation, this Statement is read, as they reaffirm and recommit to its precepts. 

As a trustee, I would help raise awareness of opportunities for people of all backgrounds to contribute to the various community commissions and in any other way.

My entire life, I have been open to input from everyone, regardless of race or any other characteristic unrelated to the content of someone's character. This is how I was raised, having grown up in a racially diverse family and being parts of groups/communities that have been rich in diversity and inclusivity, including race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic status.

A current example is my church in the Austin neighborhood, where we have an almost precisely even split among whites and people of color, and a wide range of socio-economic and other types of backgrounds. What binds us together: what we have in common, and this is also true for Oak Parkers who may differ on many points. Those points of disagreement, and even dissent, too often obscure the productive strides we can make by recognizing our shared values. It's important to be aware of the difference between diversity (which can still fall into mutually exclusive cliques) and inclusivity, which embraces and values all members of a larger group.

Inclusivity is a core value of mine: all voices in our community are relevant and I want all residents to feel and know that they are an integral part of Oak Park.

 

5) What should the village do to help ease the tax burden in Oak Park?

It's vital that the Board's decisions are grounded in facts, and that success is measured by outcomes, not merely good intentions. Decisions benefit from being made thoughtfully, not emotionally.

Let's also banish the phrase "drop in a bucket" from our discourse about decisions that have seemingly "minor" financial implications. As an accountant on television and motion picture productions, I am responsible for effectively stewarding the studio's money as if it were my own. Too often, we have all seen—at all levels of government—a lax mentality of "other people's money" that drives sloppy and even reckless spending without any sense of accountability.

It's not "other people's money"—it's all of ours, and we need public servants who truly serve the public, instead of their own pet projects, special interests, etc. Last year, the Village Board, by a 4-3 decision, halted the ill-advised Divvy bike-sharing program. From its inception, I advocated strongly against the Divvy program, because there was not nearly enough demonstrated need or even interest from the community. More of my comments about this particular issue, are in the comment section here: https://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/10-17-2017/DIVVY-a-costly-program/

As a result, we threw away hundreds of thousands of dollars, and hours upon hours of people's time, including the Transportation Commission, for a "solution" to a problem, or "opportunity," that was not based on anything of substance.

 

6) What would you do to ensure greater cooperation between the Oak Park's various taxing entities?

Since the inception of iGov (the intergovernmental committee of Oak Park taxing bodies), the various entities have worked at intentionally having open communication with each other. This has led to greater cooperation and coordination of efforts. However, there is still a sense of taxing bodies protecting their turf, which can lead to duplication of efforts as well as change/improvements not happening as quickly or as smoothly as they could.

If elected, I would like to create a culture where we work together to create an even better community, without caring who gets the credit. A lot can get done when you don't care who gets the credit.

 

7) What are your thoughts on transparency in the village? Is more or less needed or is the village currently striking a good balance on transparency?

Transparency in government, in a nutshell, is being candid about what factors are driving decision-making and conducting the business of the community in the open. This often means having "messy" conversations where space is provided for respectful disagreement. 

It is inevitable that elected officials, in one-on-one conversations, will need to have an ongoing dialogue about various issues. However, that should never veer into three or more trustees holding conversations related to public business.

If elected Trustee, I would commit to holding true to this principle, which also happens to be a law, as spelled out in the Illinois Open Meetings Act. That Act prohibits behind-the-scenes discussions by three or more members of a seven-member body, unless it relates to categories permitted in Executive (or closed) Session, such as real estate, litigation, and certain personnel matters.

On the question of whether the village is striking a good balance or not, I do believe there is one area where it could, and should, do a better job of growing transparency: in its work with the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation. The organization receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Village, while having the Village Manager, the Village President, and one Trustee sit on its Board.

The OPEDC is charged with playing a key role in attracting and retaining businesses and development in our community. However, because of its hybrid status (partially supported by public funds, but also supported by private funds), it has not been subject to the Open Meetings Act and the public disclosures of meeting minutes and other details that would go with that requirement.

While it is not appropriate for it to be treated like a regular public body—based on the nature of its work, some level of negotiations and other discussions should be kept close to the vest—village leadership ought to seek ways to increase the level of transparency of OPEDC matters without compromising its ability to compete with other communities for businesses.

On another note, I am happy that all FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests have been returned to the Village Clerk's office. The Village Clerk is an elected official, who, like a Trustee, serves the people of Oak Park. And having FOIAs go through the Village Clerk's office is not only efficient and effective, but also key for having a government that respects and facilitates transparency.

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