Transparent

I wanted to take a moment to talk about my first significant act in politics, helping to pass the library’s annual budget. For the most part, our Oak Park libraries are so well run by their amazing staff, that I’ve had very little to do in the trustee board meetings since May, except listen and learn.

There’s a steep learning curve when you’ve been entrusted with shared responsibility for a cultural landmark and community resource. I read the agendas diligently, and came prepared to the monthly meetings with questions, and over time, I’m coming to understand the ins and outs of how our libraries function. (Very well; we are quite lucky that Oak Parkers are willing to support the library so strongly.)

But I did see something that concerned me in one of the earlier draft budget agendas — that a significant percentage of library staff weren’t being paid a living wage. I’ve generally been a strong proponent of the Fight for $15, have even marched and rallied with workers fighting for a living wage. And here in Oak Park, a relatively wealthy suburb with quite a glorious library system, it seemed a shame that library staff weren’t being paid at a rate that actually was appropriate, given inflation and housing costs in the area.

So I brought it up with the board, and we then had a robust discussion. More than a few board members strongly agreed with me about this being a concern — the question was, what exactly we wanted to do about it.

The library employees are divided by grade, each a certain percentage apart, based on experience, skills, etc. We couldn’t simply raise every employee’s wages commensurately and be done with it — raising grade 1 to $15 / hr, and all the higher grades the same percentage upwards. That would have added about $1.5 million to the budget, which would’ve been quite the significant increase to property taxes.

But of course, not all the employees were making under $15 / hr, only the lower grades — so what if we just raised the salaries for those workers? Make sure that the floor was a living wage; we could then leave the already higher-wage salaries alone?

Well, then you run into other difficulties, like salary compression causing potential resentment. When grade 4 salaries are almost the same as grade 5, but grade 5 employees have put extra time into education, etc., that can cause challenges. And would employees start expecting big raises every year? I didn’t think so, as long as we were clear this was a one-time adjustment, to address a historic inequity, but it was worth thinking about and discussing.

We also talked about benefits — how many of our workers didn’t have health insurance? The library staff pointed out that they weren’t even sure how many people who were working part-time would want more hours, as some of them were retirees and teens who were happy to just work for a few hours each week at the library. I suspected, though, that a smaller percentage of those workers (shelvers, etc.) were retirees and teens than in the past. Some of them were probably adults, possibly supporting families.

It was a long discussion, even a little heated at times. I admit — I’m not used to being confrontational; I’m conflict-averse by nature, so I had to steel myself a little to even bring the issue up, much less pursue it. But fair pay is a cause I really believe in, and that made it easier to raise issues of potential conflict.

I also want to emphasize here that everyone in the discussion, trustees and staff, wanted to support our lower-wage workers fairly — the question was how to best do so in a responsible manner, keeping in mind our duties to taxpayers.

At the end of our discussion, the librarians went back to try to put together another budget, one that increased pay at the lower levels slightly. They also surveyed the staff, to find out if they actually wanted more hours.

We ended up with a compromise that wasn’t as much as I’d hoped for, but was, I think, an improvement. 34 part-time positions are moving from 15 – 20 hours per week, making those staff members eligible for benefits such as sick leave and vacation time, and retirement fund participation. We had already planned to raise the base salary slightly, but we decided to move it up a little further, to $12 / hr, starting July 1. I’m hoping that these changes will make a significant difference in these employees’ lives, and help make the libraries even more a place that Oak Parkers can be proud of.

We’re now in sync with the City of Chicago, rather than lagging behind, and I’m planning to keep pushing for us to do even better in future years. I’d like to see Oak Park as a leader in the fair wage struggle going forward. I’d like to see us at $15 / hr soon, and have wages indexed to inflation going forward. Wages were stagnant for a long time, and didn’t come close to keeping up with inflation. I think we can do better by our people.

And yes, Oak Parkers, that means I’m going to keep pushing to raise your property taxes, just a tiny bit. Is it worth a few dollars a year to you, to know that the staff at our beautiful library are paid a fair, living wage? I hope so. If not — well, you can vote me out in 2021, if I run for office again. If I do run again, and you vote for me, know that I’m going to keep pushing for economic equity across the Village.

There’s a little transparency in government for you.

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Union BBQ

Puttering day. At 4, we’re hosting about 50 people for a faculty union BBQ. After going to the leadership conference this summer, one of the things Kev and I talked about with our union organizer was how to build community within the union members, and build a sense of shared goals, as we fight for a stronger university for ourselves and our students.

The union sends out lots of communications to us, but we’re all flooded with e-mails, and it’s easy to let those slide by. How do you motivate people to join committees, to spend time and energy volunteering to improve community? Well, starting by feeding them is a time-honored tactic. We’ll eat, we’ll drink, we’ll get to know each other better, we’ll find out more about what the union is working on right now, and where they could use help. (I may have gotten drafted into the Communications team. Mary Anne, stop putting your hand up. Why don’t you ever listen?)

 

Food and drink is mostly bought (thanks, Costco), though at some point will duck out for ice and maybe some more lemonade. The Village decided to tear up a good part of our street this week, which is great for getting new sewer lines, but a little intimidating if you don’t know what’s going on — you can still park there, but it looks terrible. Oh well — hopefully, people will figure it out. We may get a little rain just before the party, but if we need to cook and hang out inside, it’s not the end of the world.

Plan for the next eight hours — straighten up in a lackadaisical manner while watching lots of silly tv. There’s not much actual cooking planned, but I do need to marinate some chicken and make some potato salad. But what kind of potato salad? That is the age-old question. So many delicious choices…

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Strategic

The strategic planning session at the library was fascinating, and focused in large part on the Harwood method for community knowledge and engagement, which our library has bought into pretty whole-heartedly; it has transformed their planning and practice over the last few years. I like it. I am tempted to seek out a three-day training in it for myself.

This pic of a set of questions seems like terrific guidance for anyone involved in politics, or other kinds of community stewardship positions. I think I’m doing okay at these three things so far. But there’s always room for improvement…

***

“Authority: could I stand on a table and talk to people about their community, their aspirations and concerns, and would they believe me?

Authenticity: do I reflect the reality of people’s lives and do they believe I have their best interests at heart, even when we disagree?

Accountability: am I living up to the pledges and promises I’ve made?”

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Civic

Very civic-minded day. I dropped off Kavya for a day at Camp Congress, and then headed off to the annual library board strategic planning meeting.

“Camp Congress for Girls Chicago 2017 is a leadership program that introduces girls ages 8 to 15 to politics. Camp begins with a lesson on the structure of our political system. Each girl will choose to run for a seat in the US House of Representatives, the US Senate or for the presidency. She will create her own campaign with a platform, campaign slogan, campaign finance plan, campaign marketing materials and a political ad for television. All campers will register to vote and then vote in an election. Once elected to Congress and sworn in, the newly installed members of Congress will learn how to introduce a bill, debate the merits of the bill, lobby fellow legislators, collaborate with the Executive branch and finally vote on the proposed bill. Camp will culminate with a ceremonial signing of the bill by our Ms. President. Girl Scouts participating in Camp Congress for Girls will receive a Citizen Legacy badge upon completion of the program.”

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Board #2

Library board meeting was awesome — so interesting, thinking through all these issues.

I do have to say, I think I kind of got lobbed a softball in terms of elected office — our library is staffed with fabulous librarians, our executive director is confidently and competently steering things in what I think is absolutely the right direction, and our community is willing to fund us well with their property taxes.

There’s always more than could be done, of course, but in large part, my job as trustee of this library is to make sure things keep going as well as they have been.

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Jacketed and invested

Thanks to Jed for coming along to my library board investiture last week and taking pics! Let us pause to admire my jacket — it is the only jacket I own, and I’d never actually worn it before; I picked it up secondhand a year or so ago, even though I never wear jackets (and it was the teeniest bit small for me), because I couldn’t resist the chain mail details on collar and sleeves. But I was glad to have the added formality for the swearing-in ceremony. Perhaps there will be more jackets in my future? We’ll see.

Oak Parkers, one last reminder that as of June 1, our libraries are now fine-free (if you’re checking out Oak Park books). If you have too many outstanding titles, you won’t be able to check out more, so there’s still incentive to return books.

I think this is a great move that will help create equity and foster access. Fines are a regressive funding model, in that they hit hardest those with the least ability to pay. If your monthly household income is $500, a $5 fine is going to hit your family much harder than if your monthly income is $5000.

There are better, more equitable ways to fund our libraries (though I admit, they may require fighting with your city council to get them through…).

Getting rid of fines will mean that families who had stopped using the library because of inability to pay (and/or shame about the fines) will now be able to use it freely again. I like to think it’s what Ben Franklin would have wanted.

Thanks to our librarians for requesting this change, and gratitude to our community for supporting them in it. Oak Park is a relatively well-off Village, and our libraries are almost entirely supported by property taxes; fines have historically been a small proportion of the library’s budget. We can afford to extend the best possible library access to all.

I’m very happy to see this change as well, which took place just before I was sworn into office. When I attended a January board meeting as a private citizen, I made a public comment about the value of getting rid of meeting space charges.

The OPRF garden club, for example, which has a small overall budget, couldn’t afford to hold meetings in the library’s larger rooms. A friend’s Girl Scout troop couldn’t afford to meet in the library near them, and had to go to a notably further one, which didn’t have a meeting charge.

The library staff and the board reviewed costs, and the meeting room income is a tiny fraction of the library budget — and of course, it does cost the library some administrative time to track and administer those payments.

They decided that at least for non-profit orgs, it made sense and was in keeping with the library’s mission to remove those charges. A great move!

I have to say, it is SUPER-EXCITING to be able to enter the library when it is officially closed.

The little girl who basically lived in the library and who still lives in my heart was doing cartwheels.

This morning’s breakfast was mostly a meet-and-greet that welcomed in newly elected officials (held once every two years, so not a huge expenditure of taxpayer funds, I promise), and graced by awesome spoken word from three of our high school students. Very cool.

I didn’t plan on this, but I did end up getting a little trustee business done. I found myself at a table with two folks from the township board and with David Seleb, our library’s executive director, so I brought up an idea from the campaign — some of the seniors I’d talked to found it difficult getting to the library, and I knew our Township (which does senior services) had a shuttle bus.

I asked about the possibility of ‘library Monday’ or some such, where they shuttled around to the different senior centers, brought them to the library, waited, and then took them back again.

They were open to the idea, but mentioned that it probably wouldn’t be weekly (sure — I have no idea how much demand there’d actually be), and then they quickly spun off a few more ideas — combining it with some senior-focused programming at the library, so there’d be a particular thing they could attend. Also perhaps combining it with a high school group learning computer instruction — they could come in and teach a class to seniors, which would be something helpful to their studies as well, a sort of practicum.

In a few minutes, we developed what I think what might be an interesting addition to everyone’s programming — we’ll see how it develops. But three cheers for creative problem-solving, intergovernmental cooperation, and getting things done over bagels and lox. I do like bagels and lox.

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Caring

“These people are members of a community that care about where they live, so what I hear when I’m being yelled at, is people caring loudly at me.”

— Leslie Knope, Parks and Rec, episode one

(I’m getting ready to be invested as a library board trustee next week by starting a summer re-watch of Parks & Rec.)

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Govern

Our local Democratic Party has been bringing the governor candidates to Oak Park, which I really appreciate. I was out of town for the last pair (Kennedy and Biss) — need to watch the recorded video. And I was coaching Kavi’s game while Ameya Pawar was speaking, sadly — I had really hoped to make it in time for him. He’ll be at L!ve Cafe soon, though, and I’ll be going to that.

I did manage to catch Pritzker, and I have to say, for a billionaire, he didn’t seem half-bad. He was certainly saying all the right progressive things; his policy seems on point. And he presents very well, so I think he has a good chance of being able to win voters (esp. with the help of all that money, of course).

Well, we’ll see. I’m going to go see Pawar, and research the other candidates more, and at some point in the next few months, will likely make my pick for my preferred candidate, with the plan of putting in some significant time supporting their campaign. Hosting a fundraiser or two, organizing Oak Park door-knocking and mailing, etc. and so on. My campaign is over, but there’s plenty of Democratic work to be done between now and 2018. Time to be a good foot soldier for the party.

(Also pictured here, library board member Matt Fruth, setting a good example — he was there with his babe-in-arms, asking tough questions and holding the candidates to account!)

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Sri Lankan New Year — thanks to Elliott Mason for taking these photos! I was a little busy. 🙂 Splendid time, I think a bigger party than we’ve hosted here before (about 80 people overall?), and you will be glad to know that I didn’t run out of food. Whew!

And I did take a few photos. Thanks to Kat for taking my recipe and just making the ribbon sandwiches when I ran out of time — it doesn’t feel like a proper Sri Lankan party to me without them. 🙂 And thanks to everyone who came out, especially my campaign volunteers (as this was also the official end-of-campaign thank-you dinner). Couldn’t have done it without you!!!

Kavya says, “Happy New Year!”

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Moving

One thing I didn’t include in last night’s politics post, that I perhaps should have, is that in considering moving for a chance at higher office, there is a real conflict between:

a) where I could do the most good
b) where I could have a real chance of being elected
c) where I am comfortable raising my children

We moved to Oak Park because it’s a ethnically and economically diverse, queer-friendly neighborhood. (Being a close commute to work was a big bonus, but not the main reason we came here.) I am unwilling to move to an extremely white and conservative area and finish raising my mixed-race children there.

I lived in Salt Lake City for three years — the first year was fine, the second year, the prevalent atmosphere was starting to get to me, and by the third year, I was feeling desperate to get out. And this is despite the fact that I actually genuinely liked my friends and classmates. They were great people — anywhere we moved, I firmly believe, would be full of great, good-hearted people. But pervasive regional attitudes about race / ethnicity / religion / queerness / economics, etc. can really grind you down on a day to day level.

I remember a conversation with a faculty member at Utah about how they had a really hard time holding onto minority faculty — they came, because after grad school, you’re desperately glad to get a job, but after a few years many of them left again. They couldn’t bring themselves to raise kids there, or they just couldn’t take the atmosphere themselves. The University was a bit of a liberal bubble, but not enough of one.

Which leaves me wondering — is it enough to work to make Oak Park a shining city on the hill, an example of what we should all be striving for? Oak Park certainly isn’t yet as equitable as it would like to be. But there is such misery elsewhere…

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