VMA Announces Dissolution

Friday, 15 June 2018 | Category : Press Releases

The Village Manager Association (VMA), a steady force for good government in Oak Park for more than half a century, announced today that it is disbanding, effective immediately. Throughout its history, the VMA has been guided by its commitment to accountable and responsible government, ongoing and inclusive diversity, and balanced and sensitive economic growth as it encouraged, vetted, educated, and slated candidates for Village office in Oak Park.

“Despite the organization dissolving, residents of Oak Park will continue to benefit every day from the work that the VMA has done to make Oak Park what it is today,” stated VMA President Lynn Kamenitsa. She went on, “From its roots in fighting for a Village Manager form of government, to its legacy in promoting Fair Housing, to its many years of ensuring Oak Parkers had well-qualified candidates on the ballot, the members and supporters of the VMA have helped shape the Village.”

The VMA was formed in 1952 when its members battled to move the Village from a two-party system to our current Village Manager form of government. Ann Armstrong, a past VMA President, recalled, “At the time, the two big political parties dominated politics in and around Oak Park. That opened the door to corruption and patronage in the Village. By its nature, the Village Manager form of government is more representative of the population and less susceptible to cronyism. That’s a lesson we can’t forget.” While many VMA members have continued to work to protect our Village Manager form of government, the broader public does not seem concerned enough to mobilize around this issue. For example, the VMA was alarmed when residents received robocalls in a recent election from Democratic Jessie White, but not a lot of worry was expressed by other Oak Parkers. As much as VMA members may be fans of Jessie White in his role as Illinois Secretary of State, the VMA stance is that it’s not appropriate for him to weigh in on local Village politics.

The 50th Anniversary of nationwide implementation of Fair Housing laws is being celebrated this year, and the VMA played a crucial role in Oak Park’s history by forcefully advocating for enforcement of that law back in 1968. The Oak Park Fair Housing Ordinance, and the philosophy behind it, are part of Village’s culture—not only did it prevent white flight, but it protected Oak Park’s diversity in the future. This didn’t happen easily. In the 1960s, white families were leaving neighborhoods bordering Oak Park, and many feared that a pro-integration law such as the Fair Housing Ordinance would cause housing declines and white flight here too. Amid protests and demonstrations, courageous visionaries fought for and helped pass the legislation. The Village Board that passed the Fair Housing Ordinance was comprised of VMA-endorsed candidates, including Village President John Donacker Sr. and Trustee John Gearen, Sr., a key figure in moving the ordinance forward. The next year, Gearen led the VMA-endorsed slate that defeated two slates of candidates opposed to the ordinance, and that went on to manage the early enforcement of the ordinance.

The list of VMA members and VMA-endorsed Trustees and Clerks reads like a Who’s Who of Village history, including:

  • VMA-slated Board led by John Donaker, Sr. that passed Oak Park’s Fair Housing Ordinance amid open threats of violence in 1968
  • VMA-slated Board led by James McClure, Jr. that led the effort to stabilize the eastern part of Oak Park in the 1970s/li>
  • Isadore Fixman – First Jew elected to the Village Board in 1965/li>
  • Ginny Cassin, Village Clerk from 1973-1993 and first woman to hold that office/li>
  • The 1977 VMA-slated Board that passed Oak Park’s Equity Assurance Program/li>
  • Sara Bode – First woman to serve as Village President in 1981/li>
  • Percy Slaughter — First African American to serve on the Village Board in 1981/li>
  • Joanne Trapani – First open lesbian elected to public office in Illinois in 1997 (Trustee, later President)/li>

In addition to fighting for Oak Park’s current form of government and its legacy in Fair Housing, the VMA has been deeply committed to ensuring a pipeline of strong candidates for Village offices. During every election cycle, VMA members encouraged their fellow Oak Parkers to volunteer for a Selections Committee where they could help vet and slate candidates who were interested in gaining VMA endorsement. Glynne Gervais, a VMA past-president and participant in several Selections Committees, recalled, “We often had upwards of 40 citizens joining in this local good government practice. It was a lot of hard work, but was inspirational too, and I am proud of the candidates we endorsed over the years including Barbara Furlong, Sandra Sokol, and Ray Johnson.” One key element of the Selections process was educating candidates and potential candidates on the operation and responsibilities of our local government. This ensured that VMA-slated candidates could “hit the ground running” if elected. Once elected, however, individuals were fully independent and not bound to any VMA agenda or positions.

In addition to recruiting Selections Committee members the VMA worked hard to find well-informed, involved citizens and encouraged them to consider running for Village Board. In doing this, the VMA helped cultivate an atmosphere of citizen involvement throughout local government.

While the storied history of the VMA will always be part of the fabric of Oak Park, times do change, and recently it became harder to maintain the energy needed to continue the mission of the VMA in its current format.

Despite its history of fighting for progressive values, by virtue of being in existence for 66 years, the VMA was often assumed to be the “status quo” in Village government. “Because of its longevity, I think the organization became an easy target for anyone critical of the Village Board,” said Lynn Kamenitsa. “Misinformation about and animosity toward the VMA became baggage that some candidates were hesitant to carry. In the 2017 election, we saw this clearly when a specious lawsuit hampered the campaign of VMA-endorsed candidates, even though the courts consistently ruled in the candidates’ favor.”

Over its history, campaign and election dynamics have evolved and impacted the organization and the campaigns that it endorsed. “Connecting with voters through door knocking and educating voters on Village issues remain vital components to a successful campaign,” said Brad Bartels, a past VMA President. “That’s how I and many others got involved, and many remained involved in the process. Over the last three election cycles, fewer folks have remained as actively involved. I think a growing reliance on mobilization through social media explains part of this. Social media has also made it easier for self-selection by candidates and building support without a slate organization.”

Indeed, many more organizations have become involved in candidate recruitment. “After the November 2016 national elections, it has become clear that other grassroots organizations are working to attract and vet candidates for Oak Park government office,” said Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, who became involved in the VMA in 2016 and went on to manage a campaign. “That’s a healthy development, and one that we support, While it’s disappointing that we couldn’t maintain the enthusiasm we once had as an organization, the members of the VMA are by nature very engaged citizens and will continue to be actively involved in Village life long after the VMA is dissolved.”

In that way, and many others, the VMA legacy will live on in Oak Park.

For More Information Contact:
Lynn Kamenitsa 708-404-9646
Michelle Major 708-363-0185
Mark Gartland 708-261-9676