Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Adventures in local democracy, 2017.

An oldie but a goodie.
Oak Park has entered another referendum season (our k-8 district is running two referenda), and so there are many lively conversations in town about the merit, value, and downsides of the referenda.  Meantime, there are multiple candidate races (two separate school boards, library board, and village trustees).

Now is the time when people begin sifting through information in order to vote, especially when their decision could immediately effect taxes or life in the village.  After my work on the high school facilities referendum last fall (we lost), I feel like I've been down this path before, and a lot of this feels familiar.  One part that is particularly flashback-inducing is when folks in the community start to wonder: "Well, they spent money on (fill in technology, facility upgrade, program, classroom accoutrement, etc.), and now they want more money, so maybe they shouldn't have purchased those things!"  Or, "Can't they just...(not purchase said program, cut the funds from another part of the program, one that I'm less attached to, change the salary schedule), or, "I never really liked (program, enrichment, curriculum) etc... Basically, once voters realize that they've got an opportunity to reject something, they dig in and start to examine the rationale for the expenditure, find the things that stick out to their eye as "unnecessary" and begin to dismiss the whole endeavor. This is perfectly natural, but it's rough for the team that assembles the package in the first place. Yes, we want input, but every voter can't go through each scenario and evaluate or make changes. By the time it reaches a voter, it's a yes or no.

Red and Black!
In these cases, prior to citizen perusing the informational materials and considering whether they vote yes or no on the referenda, someone has asked, in all likelihood, all of those questions, every imaginable question, scenario and outcome.  In the case of facilities, all corners have been cut and the agency is looking for the optimal time to move forward with necessary and enhancing construction.  In terms of operations, many meetings have usually been held, educators, community members, lawyers have been consulted to find the most judicious stretch of current funds and in the event  of failure, plans for most reasonable cuts to programs have been measured.

By the time the referenda meets the voter, unless that voter serves on a board, committee, or attended multiple vetting meetings and asked questions all along, the voter is actually voting on a few things.  First, does the voter believe in the mission of local funding for schools, libraries, and parks? I canvassed a woman last fall who stopped me at the porch of her lovely small house. She told me, "In all the years I've lived in Oak Park, I've never voted yes on a referendum."  Okay, this is clear.  There's not much any one can do to argue with this perspective. Her dismissal of such referenda is probably matched on the other side by folks like me and my spouse, who truly believe in taxation for the individuals to pay for the betterment of the whole (yeah, too bad we're American).

A second consideration, noodling in my mind on this snowy day, is this.  We elect school board members, who hire superintendents, who hire and manage the bureaucracy of our school district and it's employees.  Few of us have time to filter through the complexities of a school budget and ask all of the right questions when the time comes to vote on a referenda. This is why it's so important that we look at our leaders with concern and trust.  Chances are, any one voter didn't vote for the whole board, but we can certainly argue that for whatever reason, a sizable portion of our community put those officers in positions to make decisions.
What a beautiful day to flyer!

 I've taken a few days this week to do some volunteer work for a Library Candidate.   Fortified with a readout of everyone who voted in the last election (the last election of this sort--not our November race), I hang flyers on selected porches.  Oak Park voter turnout (especially in key years) is relatively high, and we can count on this coming election to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 6000-9000 votes.  This is out of something like 38,000 registered voters. You can see where this is going, by now. I've seen these numbers in the past, and basically shrugged my shoulders. In fact, when hand-wringing about democracy, I'm more likely to fret about vote suppression than folks not showing up at the polls.

But, as I walked my own precinct,  I hung five to ten flyers per block (there are at lest twenty homes on all these blocks). Walking the neighborhood and hanging so few flyers was downright dispiriting, particularly, you know, because of 2016.  With all of the angst and heaviness of facing down the republican onslaught on democracy, I felt the tears well up--what have we done? How much have we lost?  And so, from the very local, seemingly unimportant races, to the highest in the land, let's get back on board.  I'm no stranger to tuning things out, we've all done this. We're busy, someone else will take care of it, we forgot, we're patching a crisis elsewhere, I don't really like/know the candidates, whatever.  Yet, moving forward,  I'm trying harder, and I see others, too. I'm encouraged to see such  a remarkable outpouring of activism and involvement in this moment.  And so, whatever the turnout of our upcoming referenda, we can hope that community members will do what they can to stay involved, and if you're like me, you'll trust the neighbors we elected and have kept our community the attractive place that it is.
Mary Anne Mohanraj for Library Board.


  1. Thank you for your words and the inspiration to keep going

  2. Thanks Jill for always encouraging me to write!!!!