Vanessa Stokes, Vanessa Stokes and Maggie Nash-Anderson

If you live in Austin, chances are you don’t know that Austin Town Hall Cultural Center, at 5610 W. Lake St., has a Park Advisory Council, let alone who is on it.

That is one of the things that one of the council’s two newly minted co-presidents, artist and activist Vanessa Stokes, is looking to change.

In her candidate speech during the Dec. 5 meeting, which was held at the building’s basement, she laid out an ambitious vision for renovating the Town Hall and collaborating with other institutions and community organizations in Austin and the greater West Side. 

Meanwhile, fellow co-president Maggie Nash-Anderson emphasized building on what was already there and carrying on the council’s legacy. 

One thing both definitely agreed on was that the council should fix something that became starkly apparent during the election — gaping holes in the council’s bylaws. They didn’t account for the possibility of having an election end in a tie, and the membership requirements were so loose that candidates could theoretically pack the council with supporters who would vote in their favor. The PAC agreed to put together a committee to review existing bylaws and recommend changes. 

The advisory council is charged with advocating for residents who use the park, promoting the park and its activities to the community, organizing special events and raising funds for improvements. 

This summer, Stokes and Kelli Stewart, who was elected vice-president of the PAC, formed the Austin Arts and Culture Advisory Committee to bring together local artists and work to expand the cultural programming at Austin Town Hall. 

The Dec. 5 election wound up being a study of contrasts. Stokes has only been on a council for a few months and moved to Austin seven years ago. Nash-Anderson, a life-long Austin resident, has been a council member since the 1970s.

“As the president of the Town Hall [PAC], my vision is to expand its reach in the community,” Stokes said. “And I see it by continuing to build the community around artists, and creating a capital plan for the park to renovate the space into a state-of-the-art facility.”

Nash-Anderson emphasized her Austin roots and her decades of community involvement. She said that her main goal is to continue the legacy of her husband, a former PAC president, and the legacy of PAC members before her. 

“There’s a lot of love and I don’t mind sharing, continuing on,” Nash-Anderson said. “I want to continue the legacy. Since we’ve been here for years, why not keep it flowing?”

Maria Stone, the Chicago Park District’s community relations manager, explained that, in order to vote, PAC members had to be Chicago residents and they couldn’t be park district employees. She added, however, that general membership requirements are broad.

“There’s nothing in this bylaw that says what constitutes a PAC member in good standing,” she said. “So you should be more specific.”

PAC member Veronica Correll said the loose membership requirements were ripe for abuse by candidates who want to sway the vote in their favor. 

“Perhaps you can amend you laws to say, if somebody is coming and there’s an election, you have a deadline to sign up,” she said. 

The eligible voting members wound up casting three votes for Stokes and three votes for Nash-Anderson. Stone explained that, unlike other PACs, Town Hall PAC bylaws don’t say anything about how to break ties, so the council had to decide whether to have both winners be co-presidents or to try to vote again.

“I understand that it hasn’t been done before, but I think we need to do it,” said Julie Samuels, a council member for the past seven years, referencing the co-president option that won the day. 


Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...