Public Watchdog.org

Even A Couple Of New Faces Can Make A Big Difference

08.22.14

What difference can one or two votes make on any of our local governmental bodies? Plenty.

Back on April 4 and April 14, 2014, we published posts criticizing the Park Ridge Library Board’s endorsement of the Staff’s recommendation to close the Library for 14 Sundays this summer. The vote on that decision was 6 to 3, with Trustees John Benka, Audra Ebling, Margaret Harrison, Dorothy Hynous, John Schmidt and Jerry White voting “yes,” and Trustees Joe Egan, Charlene Foss-Eggemann and Robert Trizna voting “no.”

But at the very first Library Board meeting after Patrick Lamb and Dean Parisi replaced Benka and Schmidt, that summer Sunday closing was reversed by a 7-1 vote (Hynous dissenting, White absent). And the Library reopened for the remaining summer Sundays on July 27.

Similarly, in our October 3, 2013 post we criticized the Library’s “Food for Fines” (“FFF”) program as a misuse of taxpayer dollars (estimated at $7,000 last year, because Library staff kept no record of exactly how much in fines was being forgiven) that also demeaned the voluntarism, generosity and public spiritedness of Library patrons by effectively suggesting they would contribute food to the Kiwanis food drive only if they received a quid pro quo forgiveness of their Library fines.

We also noted that $7,000 isn’t chump change for a Library that chose to close for 14 Sundays this summer in order to save approximately $20,000.

Last year, when the FFF came up for what may have been a first-ever “consensus” vote, the resolution to cancel the program lost by a 4-4 tie: Foss-Eggemann, Hynous, Trizna and White voting “yes”; Benka, Ebling, Harrison and Schmidt voting “no”; and Egan absent.

But this past Tuesday night the FFF program for this year was cancelled by a 7-0 vote (Parisi and White absent) – although the Board indicated that it was happy to have the Library serve as a collection point for food donations from those altruistic patrons whose generosity doesn’t require any quid pro quo fine forgiveness.

Those two votes produced outcomes directly opposite from what the previous Board had decided, arguably because of just two changes in the composition of the Board: Lamb and Parisi in place of Benka and Schmidt. That change in composition even appears to have changed the minds of Ebling and Harrison, who either found religion or just decided to opportunistically jump on the new bandwagon in both instances.

Whatever the reason, however, it’s the result that counts.

Some of you might not like these changes. We’re pretty sure there are some unhappy Kiwanis members out there, including the ones who showed up and spoke in support of the Library’s continuing the FFF program at the January 21, 2014 Board meeting, as reflected in the relevant excerpts of minutes of that meeting.

That’s not too surprising, given all the special interests out there who want to get their hands on taxpayer money – starting with many of our private “charitable” groups that seem to have figured out that it’s a lot easier to raise money by snookering or guilting our local elected and appointed officials into picking the taxpayers’ pockets on those groups’ behalf. That way, those groups can still claim the fundraising credit for themselves without even having to break a sweat, and without having to account to the taxpayers for how those funds are spent.

These two Library issues are just the very tip of a pretty good-sized iceberg, however, and there’s still a lot more work for the Library Board to do. Irrespective of whether or not the Library’s November tax increase referendum passes, giving all Park Ridge taxpayers the biggest bang for their Library buck will require a lot more innovation and fiscal discipline than the Library has consistently demonstrated over the past decade.

But maybe, just maybe, it now has a Board majority that is up for such a challenge.

And that might be because of just two new faces.

Robert J. Trizna

Editor and Publisher

Member, Park Ridge Library Board

To read or post comments, click on title.

A Revolving Door Of Bone-Fetchers

08.19.14

There’s a common concept in business, athletics and other team/group activities called “addition by subtraction.” Essentially, it means that you can sometimes make a team better by getting rid of players who aren’t getting the job done or don’t mesh well enough with the rest of the players.

It doesn’t necessarily mean the individual is a bad person or a poor worker. Sometimes it’s just a matter of that individual not being capable of helping the team be what all teams are supposed to be: a whole greater than the mere sum of its parts.

That thought crossed our mind when we read about the recent departure of City finance director Kent Oliven, who tendered his resignation July 30.

When Oliven joined the City in November 2012 he inherited a Finance Department that had effectively been a one-man band – or, more accurately, a one-woman band – under former finance director Allison Stutts. Stutts herself had inherited a department filled with people who had neither an accounting nor a finance background; and, in many instances, reportedly had not even received any specialized accounting or finance training. Nevertheless, as we noted in our 12,21.12 post, Stutts overcame most of those obstacles, as well as then-city manager Jim Hock, who often seemed to be sabotaging Stutts’ efforts to balance the City’s budget and get a much-needed (and long-neglected) handle on the City’s Uptown TIF finances.

Even with a sub-par staff, Stutts raised the mayor’s and the Council’s expectations well beyond what they had been under her predecessor, Diane Lembesis, who, in fairness, had the disadvantage of learning the ropes under former city manager Tim Schuenke and never quite recovered. Oliven, on the other hand, had the misfortune of following Stutts and he never quite measured up.

He wasn’t able to personally crank out the work like Stutts did, which meant that he had to delegate more than Stutts did. And whether because he didn’t delegate well, or because he didn’t have sufficient staff to delegate to, the work didn’t get done as it should have.

The only annual audit done entirely on Oliven’s watch was several months late, thereby greatly complicating the budget process. At times he seemed to have trouble explaining things in ways that the Council could understand and act on. And, judging from the July 25 Memorandum by accounting manager Andrea Lamberg, the Finance Dept. as then constituted may have been (and continues to be) so far over its collective skis that Oliven’s seeking to add only 0.75 of a full-time employee/equivalent (“FTE”) seems like trying to bail out the Titanic with a Dixie Cup.

It got so frustrating for many aldermen that, at the July 28 Council COW meeting, Ald. Marty Maloney (7th) - after being informed that there has been a 100% turnover in the Finance Dept. over the last two years - opined that there was “a systemic problem in the department” and concluded with: “I have no faith right now in the department,” an opinion expressly shared by Ald. Nick Milissis (2nd) and to which no dissent was voiced.

That’s not to say that Oliven didn’t make some meaningful contributions during his tenure. His resignation letter listed a number of his accomplishments while identifying other things that still needed to be done. Whether he should have been able to get them done before now will never be known, although it probably would have helped had he taken ownership of his position and his department the moment he walked in the door. 

Taking ownership of their positions and their departments, however, is something that is virtually non-existent among the career bureaucrats in every local governmental body, perhaps because with ownership comes accountability. And we’ve yet to see any local bureaucrat who willingly embraces accountability (as our recent posts about the Hinkley incident demonstrated) – with the exception of the aforementioned Ms. Stutts, who seemed to accept both ownership and accountability with equanimity, even when it meant occasionally butting heads with the mayor, the Council, and her city manager boss.

Maybe that’s why she appeared to have no trepidations about leaving the public sector behind and starting her own private-sector financial consulting firm.

In contrast, most career bureaucrats are bone-fetchers who specialize in the go-along-to-get-along style of management. They generally just plug along in their non-descript management of the daily routine until some elected official throws out a “bone” – a particular policy, procedure, initiative or project – which the bureaucrats then chase and retrieve, more or less capably depending on whether it’s something they like or don’t.  And if they don’t like it, they tend to bury it and hope the elected officials don’t notice.

Such bone-fetchers have no desire to truly excel, which is why most government is so mediocre at best. They tend to be lifers who just want to keep those solid paychecks coming in until they can start collecting those wonderful constitutionally-guaranteed defined benefit pensions after 30 or so years on the job, 5 and sometimes even 10 years earlier than the traditional private-sector age 65 retirement kicks in. And if they’ve played their cards right and moved up the bureaucratic ladder, they can recoup their entire employee-paid contributions with just one or two years’ worth of benefits.  Meanwhile, the average private-sector stiff needs a $2 million-plus 401(k)…wisely invested, because it’s not guaranteed by the taxpayers.

Given the need for less bone fetchers rather than more, we were more than a little disappointed to hear that City Mgr. Shawn Hamilton is advertising for Oliven’s replacement by seeking someone with at least 10 years of government experience for a job that will pay between $101,588 and $142,181, “depending on qualifications and experience.”

Like the ability to fetch.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Few Answers Raise Even More Questions About Hinkley Beating

08.12.14

It took three weeks for the Park Ridge Police Department to finally report to the mayor and the City Council on the July 12 Hinkley Park incident in which a middle-aged Park Ridge man was beaten by three teenagers while a crowd cheered them on.

Unfortunately, Police Chief Frank Kaminski’s monolog at last Monday (08.04.14) night’s Council meeting was more noteworthy for what it didn’t say than what it did. And much of what it did say seemed like just another dose of the buck-passing that we previously criticized in our posts of 07.25.14 and 07.31.14.

You can judge for yourself by watching the meeting video, from 30:50 to 1:06:15, but to us Chief K’s “chronology” of the events leading up to the beating sounded like a mid-summer’s night snow job.

He started by confirming that two patrol cars (of the five on patrol throughout the City that night) responded to a “fireworks complaint” at Hinkley at exactly 7:58 p.m. There the officers found between 30 and 40 teens just “hanging out.” Thirty-five minutes later, at exactly 8:33 p.m., three patrol cars and a supervising sergeant responded to a “crowds gathering” complaint and found around 75 teens “hanging out.” Chief K claimed that in each instance the police officers “checked the area” before leaving the park to handle “other calls.”

That raises some interesting questions. 

  • If the exact time of the officers’ arrival was so important, why wasn’t the time of their departures also important? Could it be that those departure times might show that the responding officers who “checked the area” for fireworks, alcohol, drugs, etc. really weren’t all that thorough in performing that task?

 

  • Why didn’t the chief identify the time(s) and location(s) of those “other calls” the ROs supposedly had to run off to instead of staying at Hinkley and providing the kind of “police presence” central to the “community policing” the department claims to be practicing – especially on the second call, when the number of teens had inexplicably grown from 30-40 to around 75 in just 35 minutes?

 

  • Why didn’t the chief talk about the reported police dispersal of more than 50 teens from the Library grounds between 9:00 and 9:30 p.m. – the ones who supposedly migrated en masse the two blocks to Hinkley and further swelled those ranks?

 

  • Why didn’t the chief provide the Council with an actual “report” containing that kind of information, instead of passing around a sheet of ideas that he said came out of his “Chief’s Roundtable” meeting on July 29?

Not surprisingly, none of the ideas coming out of the roundtable point to any real improvement in the way the police handle wayward youths. Maybe that’s because, as Chief K has constantly reminded us since the beating video went viral, this wasn’t a policing problem but a “community problem.” Hence, the “solutions” focused on socio-political placebos like a “City wide campaign-Making Good Choices” (a successor to the less-than-impressive “Caught Being Good” campaign?), “Fund Youth Drop-In Center” (that the taxpayers wouldn’t support with direct donations after the City stopped giving it handouts), “Message from Community Leaders” to parents, “Parent sponsored events for weekends,” and “Youth outreach workers in the Parks and Community to engage young people.”

Our favorite, however, was: “Reinstate [Police Chief’s] Task Force to focus on this.” Anyone who followed the activities of the last Police Chief’s Task Force already knows what any new task force’s solution to the Hinkley problem would be: construction of another ugly building and adding a sally port to the current cop shop.

But we digress.

Sadly, most of the elected officials around The Horseshoe either weren’t interested or weren’t up to the challenge of eliciting any of the information Chief K failed to provide.

City Mgr. Shawn Hamilton – to whom Chief K allegedly reports – sat Sphinx-like during the chief’s monolog, which is the way Hamilton acts virtually every time a police or fire matter is on the agenda. One would think both the police and fire departments were autonomous, self-managing entities over which Hamilton has no authority, and doesn’t want any.

Public Safety chair Ald. Nick Milissis, an attorney, seemed intent on rubber-stamping everything Chief K said, going so far as to invoke the police department’s prior problems with “aggressive” policing – which sounded like an obtuse reference to the incident a few years ago when a youth already in custody in the back of a squad car was allegedly punched in the face one or more times by an officer, resulting in a federal lawsuit that was settled for $185,000.

Sorry, alderman, but we believe you’re better than a rubber-stamp and shill for such apples-to-watermelon comparisons.  Or you should be.

Even Mayor Dave Schmidt, also an attorney, seemed to duck into the nearest safe harbor with his: “I’ve always felt that elected officials should be very cautious about second guessing their public safety personnel about how they do their jobs and the decisions they make.” Sorry, Mr. Mayor, but simply asking tough questions is NOT “second guessing.”

Schmidt redeemed himself somewhat, however, with his final observation that the rapid growth in the size of the crowd was “such an unusual situation that it would have made sense to leave [at least one police officer] behind” to keep an eye on the situation for the couple of hours Hinkley was scheduled to remain open.

But by the time Schmidt made that observation Chief K had already off-loaded any accountability for his department’s pre-incident performance.

With flourishes of political rhetoric worthy of Marc Antony in Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Chief K praised the Park Ridge Park District with faint damns. While claiming not to be placing blame, he complained about Hinkley’s police-ability because of the different operating hours of its various activity areas. He bemoaned Park District rules for not having been updated since 1997. He cited the Park District’s non-deployment of its private security “monitors”(or “rent-a-cops,” as Ald. Joe Sweeney referred to them) to Hinkley that evening. And he even took a backhanded swipe at park Board president Mel Thillens, noting that his police officers’ hands were tied because only the board president could legally authorize a park closing.

He also deftly created, and immediately demolished, the straw-man suggestion that the assembled teens could have been charged with “mob action.” That was an especially nifty maneuver, given how it effectively diverted attention from what is generally considered the most police-friendly “tool” for dealing with crowds of any type: a “disorderly conduct” charge, the provisions most relevant to this situation appearing in Section 14-5-2 (E), (F) and (I) of the City’s Municipal Code.

And once he had foisted enough non-blame on the Park District and the lack of “tools” in his law-enforcement “toolbox,” he conflated both the weather and Taste of Park Ridge into a back-up excuse: the need to “evacuate” the Taste around 9:30 that night due to an incoming storm – as if a Katrina were on its way and he was not about to let himself become the butt of any “Chiefski, you’re doing a heck of a job” jokes.

All things considered, it was a political tour de force by a master politician who – aided by the talismanic power of his badge – totally overmatched the faux-politicians around The Horseshoe who are charged with holding him and his department accountable to the taxpayers for the public safety and order of Park Ridge. 

For a guy who claims to be short on tools, Chief K showed himself to be quite a craftsman. 

And pretty darn crafty.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Schmidt Right In Calling Out Mulder

08.07.14

This week the media reported that Park Ridge Mayor Dave Schmidt called for the resignation of former Arlington Heights mayor Arlene Mulder as chairman of the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission (the “ONCC”). 

It’s about time somebody did! 

The reviews of Mulder’s performance as AH mayor from May 1993 to 2013 run the gamut from excellent to terrible.  More than a few of her critics make comparisons to former Chicago mayor Richard M. “Shortshanks” Daley at the “terrible” end.  They cite her expensive TIF projects and how, like Daley, she created an attractive “Potemkin” village with monuments like the village hall her detractors call the “Taj Mahal” and the taxpayer-subsidized Metropolis Performing Arts Center, all of which have cost, and will continue to cost, AH taxpayers bundles in bonded debt repayment and subsidies to developers.

But, frankly, we could care less about what Mulder did while managing AH. The folks who voted to make and keep her as mayor all those years deserved whatever they got, and the tax bills they will continue to get as her legacy.

Schmidt’s beef about Mulder properly goes to what he views as her conflict of interest regarding O’Hare expansion and the resulting increase in airplane noise over ONCC members like Park Ridge while AH’s airplane noise is being reduced. He is quoted in a Chicago Sun-Times article (“Park Ridge mayor wants head of noise commission to resign,” 08.05.14) as saying Mulder “has turned the ONCC into a lap dog for the Chicago Department of Aviation.”

Actually, Schmidt is wrong on the “lap dog” point.

Shortshanks created the ONCC in 1996 for the express purpose of its being his lap dog, and to siphon away membership in what at that time was a thorn in his side: the Suburban O’Hare Commission (“SOC”), of which Park Ridge was a charter member. With Mulder’s help as ONCC chairman beginning in 1997, that strategy worked so well that by May 2003, SOC’s 13-community membership had dwindled to 3: Park Ridge, Bensenville and Elk Grove Village. And by that point the O’Hare expansion had become such a fait accompli that even the bobblehead-dominated Park Ridge City Council voted to exit the SOC, prompting then-mayor Ron Wietecha’s resignation and subsequent emigration to Barrington.

AH never was a SOC member, preferring instead to cut its own deals with Chicago – first under Mulder’s predecessor, William Maki (who resigned in 1992 to become a Cook County Circuit Judge, and is now Presiding Judge at the Rolling Meadows courthouse), and then under Mulder. Not surprisingly, everything Mulder has done since becoming Daley’s puppet at the ONCC has benefited AH first and foremost, with benefits flowing to other ONCC members only if there was no risk to AH.

Apparently rewarded for her ONCC service with an appointment to the METRA Board in 2003, Mulder reportedly finagled a new train station for AH and also got the Union Pacific RR to give up some of its right-of-way land for downtown AH redevelopment. Meanwhile, however, she and the other political hacks on that Board rubber-stamped the continuing deterioration of METRA’s equipment and service under long-time CEO Phil Pagano, even as fares continued to rise.

You might remember the corrupt Pagano, who chose to avoid certain firing and likely indictment for embezzlement and sweetheart deals by taking one last METRA ride back in 2010. Mulder was such an unquestioning Pagano sycophant that even after his death and discrediting, she still referred to him as an expert railroader who built “one of the best transportation organizations in the nation.”

METRA? Seriously?

Although Mulder claimed credit for the hiring of Pagano’s squeaky-clean replacement, Alex Clifford, she appears to have done nothing to stop Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s uber-stooge, Board chairman Brad O’Halloran, and Shortshanks/Rahm lackey Larry Huggins from issuing their quit-or-be-fired ultimatum to Clifford in June 2013 when he balked at playing their corrupt Chicago-style political games.

Actually, Mulder did do something in connection with Clifford’s ouster: she voted to give him an obscene $750,000 “severance” package even though, by resigning, he was not contractually entitled to any severance payment. And she endorsed the confidentiality provision of that deal so that neither side could talk about it publicly, claiming that it was “the most prudent thing to do” in order to avoid potential legal action by Clifford – legal action that likely would have pulled back the curtains and exposed the kind of institutionalized corruption and incompetent Board oversight that Clifford wouldn’t tolerate.

That’s what Illinois government has come to – the payment of big-time hush money considered “prudent” management.

If there’s any reason to doubt Mulder was grossly unqualified to hold such a position of public trust, one need only read her comments to Sun-Times reporter Rosalind Rossi in a July 2013 article (“Metra didn’t have to pay outgoing CEO any severance, experts say,” 07.24.13), in which Mulder admitted that she voted for Clifford’s severance package without even knowing that his contract didn’t entitle him to severance if he resigned. But, true to form, she couldn’t or wouldn’t say whether knowing that fact would have changed her vote.

From everything we already knew or have been able to Google about her, Mulder seems to be the exact kind of career politician – 34+ years holding some public office or other, not counting the years she double-dipped at METRA and/or the ONCC – who has helped turn this state into the almost-bankrupt cesspool of public incompetence and corruption it has become, whether because she is too stupid, too clueless, too pliable, too accommodating, and/or just plain dishonest.

But even more sadly than that is how, here in Illinois, that kind of performance over that many years gets you re-elected and re-appointed; and it gets you retirement testimonials in the Congressional Record by fellow career politicians like Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Mark Kirk, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky.

As the passive-aggressive chair of the ONCC, Mulder appears to have done nothing concrete to help Park Ridge obtain relief from the airplane noise and pollution that have plagued so many of our residents, especially with the opening of the new O’Hare runways that substantially reduce air traffic over AH.  Instead she has feathered her AH nest and provided comfort to Chicago while only pretending to look out for her fellow ONCC members.

Schmidt was exactly right to call her out.

To read or post comments, click on title.

The Harsh Truth: Nobody Does Everybody’s Job

07.31.14

The sign on President Harry S Truman’s desk read: “The Buck Stops Here.” 

That sentiment was directed at what was a common practice among government bureaucrats back then, and remains a common practice today: buck-passing. Shirking accountability by finding someone else to blame for what was done wrongly, or not done at all.

In the 60 years since Truman left the White House the ranks of the bureaucrat class have swelled substantially, and the bureaucrats themselves have become far more sophisticated at buck-passing. They regularly attend “professional” conferences where they are taught to sing from the same hymnal, so to speak, when it comes to dealing with elected officials and the taxpayers who pay their salaries.

We can’t say for sure, but we suspect they learn one or more variations of the “Everybody, Nobody” story:

There once were four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. 

When an important job arose, Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. 

Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. 

Somebody got angry about that because it should have been Everybody’s job. 

Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. 

It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

That story came to mind when reading Police Chief Frank Kaminski’s reaction to the July 12 Hinkley Park incident as being “a community problem” rather than a policing problem, which we wrote about in our July 25 post. Since then, Deputy Chief Lou Jogman added a couple of additional twists to the it’s-not-our-job theme, as reported in yesterday’s Park Ridge Journal (“Police: Not Much Officers Could Do To Prevent Beating,” July 30):

“We can’t go in and kick kids outs,” said Jogman, referring to the roughly 200 kids who gathered in Hinkley Park on July 12 for no particular or apparent reason.

Jogman went on to give a variety of other reasons why his department couldn’t do much to prevent that incident, including: the additional demand on the City’s limited police force by the Taste of Park Ridge; the Taste’s closing early that night due to an approaching storm; and the Park District’s arguable failure to anticipate Hinkley’s serving as a gathering spot for youths that night. He also noted that the police are not able to babysit parks.

On that last point we agree with him.

But it’s not “babysitting” to pay some extra attention to 200 teens milling around a park for no apparent reason as night is falling. Especially if, as we have heard, Park District employees made two calls to the police about misbehavior by the assembled multitude in the hours leading up to the incident – to which the police responded but left the status quo intact.

And it’s not “babysitting” to provide what’s called “police presence,” such as by spending some time walking around and asking a lot of who, what, when, where and why questions. That’s a big part of the “community policing” currently in vogue, as is assessing the circumstances and  anticipating potential problems.

Besides the reactions of Chief K and Deputy Chief J, two members of the community have endorsed the “community problem” explanation, or excuse, in letters to the editor of the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate.

Social worker Laura Smail believes that “[p]arents and other adults, including business owners, should be learning and demonstrating effective ways to engage, interact and encourage teens to make good choices and meet expectations for civil behavior.” Tricia Williams, for her part, sees what occurred at Hinkley as “not a teen or police problem but actually a community problem and we need to work on it together without blaming any one group.”

When what happened at Hinkley Park occurs in a community such as ours, there’s reason to wonder whether parenting might have contributed to the thugery, punkishness, callowness and cowardice on display in the video of the incident. But there’s an equally good reason to wonder about the efficacy of all those social services provided to our youth, both in the schools and outside them, including the anti-bullying forums, seminars and workshops; and programs such as “Caught Being Good.”

What should not be lost in translation or in prevarication, however, is the lesson of the Everybody, Nobody story. Nor should we forget that various people have special tasks that are not, and should not be viewed as, fungible or randomly assignable to others in the community.

The parents of those 200 youths at Hinkley that night, including the three combatants, have not taken oaths to serve and protect the people of this community. The parents are not being paid to do that. And the parents do not expect, nor do they deserve, the particular respect reserved for those who have taken that oath, are paid to do that job, and do it well.

Which is why the public safety buck needs to stop with the police.

Just like the public education buck needs to stop with the teachers and administrators, the sewer and water buck needs to stop with the Public Works Dept., the Library buck needs to stop with the Library Board, etc. It’s not up to parents, non-parents, taxpayers, homeowners, renters, or ordinary folks just passing through, to take up these bucks and make them their own.

So when Tricia Williams makes a recruiting pitch for the Park Ridge Parent Patrol where parents join the police on patrol from 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. on weekend nights – on the theory that it “allows teens to see parents and police working together to keep our community safe” – we have one simple question:

Where was the Parent Patrol around 9:45 p.m. on Saturday night, July 12?

To read or post comments, click on title.

20-Story Apartment Building Raises Questions Worth Answering

07.29.14

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How many people are “too many”?

We’ve asked that question in a variety of different ways over the last several years in posts about residential development, mixed-use development, retail, façade improvements, and all the other land-use issues that have come up during that time.

Or put another way: How many people are “enough”?  And why?

That question has surfaced once again in connection with the 20-story apartment building Gart Partners LLC wants to build on part of what is now the site of the Farmers’ Market, on Prairie between Main and Garden. Last Tuesday night Gart brought its “concept plan” to the Planning & Zoning Commission (“P&Z”) to make its pitch for the zoning changes needed to make its project a reality.

Can you say 195 units on a site that would qualify for only 34 units if it was given the highest (R-5) residential rating provided in the Zoning Code? How about a 210-foot height where the maximum R-5 height is 45 feet? And because the structure would be in Target Area 4 of the Uptown TIF, it might also require amendments or exceptions to the existing TIF plan, which contemplates no residential structures higher than 5 stories.

Gart’s selling points for this structure are its agreement to pay $117,000 annually as an “apartment tax”; as much as $700,000 a year worth of additional property taxes; and the prospect of another $180,000/year in revenues if the City were to apply the “apartment tax” to its existing 300 apartment units.

Gart described it as “a whole new way of living for that side of the tracks.” And indeed it would be. Actually, it would be a whole new way of living for the entire City of Park Ridge.

The six P&Z commissioners present at the meeting seemed to view it with a mix of “you gotta be kidding me” and “just go away.” Which is what we expected.

But the way Gart dangled that carrot of $817,000 in annual additional taxes it claims just its own project would generate, we suspect these kinds of pitches will continue so long as (a) developers perceive Park Ridge as offering valuable development opportunities, and (b) the City struggles to keep annual property tax increases to under 5% while continuing to stagger under the weight of the Uptown TIF’s black-hole deficits and an estimated cost of $300 million (plus?) to implement a plan of city-wide flood control.

So it’s probably a good time to start a community-wide discussion of, in the first instance, just how many people we believe is optimal for this community, either in its “as is” condition or with a different configuration. Would we as a community like to add another 1,000, 3,000, 5,000, or more residents? And, if so, would we like them to be property owners or renters – assuming that distinction matters to a significant number of people.

Fifteen years ago the Uptown Advisory Task Force (the “UATF”) was created and began hatching its plan for the Uptown TIF, ostensibly to add a substantial retail, dining and entertainment component that would bring “vibrancy” (the unofficial buzzword for that development) to Uptown. At that time, a survey of approximately 2,500 people revealed an aversion to tall buildings and multi-family residential.

But by the time folks like former city manager Tim Schuenke, former mayor Ron Wietecha, a handful of true believers on the UATF and City Council, and hired-gun consultants like Trkla, Pettigrew, Allen & Payne, Inc. got done manipulating and massaging the Uptown redevelopment process to conform to their collective wills, we were left with the tallest and densest multi-family residential project in the City that, with one notable exception – Houlihan’s – rolls up its sidewalks by around 8:00 p.m. every night.

And not a lick of Uptown “entertainment” was added to supplement the movies the Pickwick has provided for decades.

In addition to publicly discussing what we want Park Ridge to be when it grows up, it might also be time to revisit the Zoning Code and how it does or doesn’t provide developers with reasonable, predictable guidelines as to what likely can and can’t be built in our City. Eliminating uncertainty in the zoning and permitting processes would go a long way toward eliminating any remnants of the “unfriendly to business” reputation Park Ridge allegedly acquired back in the Wietecha/Schuenke era.

That way, less time might be wasted by the various arms of City government - and by developers – on projects whose specs are so off the charts that our P&Z folks assume they are typographical errors, or outright jokes.

And, in the process, we may learn a little more about what the people most invested in this community, its residents, see in its future.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Hinkley Mob Action Raises Policing Questions

07.25.14

About a week ago we began hearing about the attack on a 48-year old Park Ridge resident at Hinkley Park on the evening of July 12.

After several viewings of the video of that incident it appears reasonably likely that, if not for the intervention of an unidentified young man, the victim might have suffered far more serious injuries than the bumps, bruises and concussion he reportedly incurred. That’s because the altercation was escalating and seemed on the verge of becoming a scene out of that 1963 movie version of William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies” – complete with cinema verite feel compliments of herky-jerky cellphone camerawork.

As the attackers began kicking and stomping their collapsed victim, we half expected to hear the movie’s chants of “Kill the pig!” Instead we heard (around the 40 second mark) something so totally incongruous to the situation that, in a way, it may have been even more troubling than the movie’s chant, and far more offensive:

“U-S-A! U-S-A!”

That rallying cry, born during the miraculous gold medal run of this country’s 1980 Olympic hockey team and revived again just last month as American soccer fans cheered their team’s efforts during the World Cup, was seemingly being used by the mob of knuckleheaded Park Ridge “yutes” (yes, an homage) to encourage the attackers and/or mock their victim.

Almost two weeks later details of the incident remain sketchy, with more information available from the community at large than emanating from police headquarters.

But as best as we can tell from the available information, a sizable group of yutes had already gathered at Hinkley an hour or two before the incident. They reportedly had been shooting off fireworks and had kicked over one of those decorated Rainbow Hospice doors on the premises, which prompted two separate calls to the Park Ridge police.

The police arrived on the scene in response to each call, chatted up some of the yutes, and then departed – leaving the group intact.

Sometime around 9:30 p.m., Park Ridge police reportedly rousted another crowd of yutes from the Park Ridge Library grounds as that night’s Taste of Park Ridge events were winding down.  That crowd simply migrated a few blocks down the street to Hinkley, where they joined up with the yutes still there.

The rest, as they say, is history…captured on amateur video: a middle-aged guy with a concussion, scrapes and bruises; two local yutes in Cook County jail accused of aggravated battery and mob action; and one minor facing the same charges in juvenile court.

Before we go any further in this post, we want to make a couple of things perfectly clear.

First, we are supporters of the police, stemming in no small part from the editor of this blog’s uncle having been the chief of police of Joliet and a 3-term Will County Sheriff. And even though we have disagreed with the need for a new police station and on what is reasonable compensation for police personnel, our respect for them and the job they do has never wavered.

Second, we believe Chief Kaminski has generally done a fine job in leading the department.

Nevertheless, questions about how the Hinkley situation was handled and about the Chief’s Teflon-like comments reported in a July 22, 2014 Park Ridge Herald-Advocate story (“Park Ridge leaders call for dialogue after park beating”) deserve answers.

The Chief is quoted in that article as claiming that the Hinkley incident is “a community problem” related to parents not taking responsibility for what their kids do while out of their houses.

Sorry, Chief, but that dog don’t hunt.

When a couple hundred Park Ridge and/or neighboring community yutes congregate at night in a public park, shooting off fireworks and damaging property, that’s a POLICE PROBLEM.

When several of them attack a middle-aged guy looking for his kid while others urge them on with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, that’s a POLICE PROBLEM.

And when the police disperse a group of yutes from one public site and then simply allow the group to migrate to another nearby public site where an attack takes place, that’s a POLICE PROBLEM.

Public safety and security is Job One, the main reason we have a police department.  That job wasn’t done at Hinkley Park the night of July 12.  Backhandedly laying the blame on parents, or deflecting responsibility for a solution to “the community,” is nothing less than a cop-out, pun intended.

Despite our community’s extremely low crime rate, Job One, done right, is tough enough. The taxpayers don’t need police officers moonlighting as social workers or psychologists, especially when those social service duties can be handled by folks who don’t carry guns and handcuffs but who already are part of the existing social services network.   And we already have an abundance of the latter to opine on how this incident was the product of undeveloped teen brains, or faulty impulse control, or herd mentality, or problematic parent-child dynamics, or impaired inter-generational empathy, or even the late Mike Royko’s favorite social ill: “Aggravated mopery with intent to gawk.”

Taxpayers and visitors alike need to be able to move about Park Ridge feeling, and being, reasonably safe and secure, whether it be from overly-aggressive panhandlers, purse snatchers, stick-up men, or even large groups of yutes acting stupid.

For quite some time now, Chief K has been putting “Complimentary Letters and Awards” into the public record by including them in the published City Council meeting materials. That kind of aggrandizement is all well and good so long as equal attention and publicity are given to the less-than-complimentary things involving the department.

Unfortunately, to our knowledge the police department has produced nothing that goes beyond the bare-bones description of the attack itself to address the department’s handling of the pre-incident complaints about the misbehaving yutes at Hinkley, what prompted the alleged rousting of those other yutes from the Library grounds, and how they were allowed to build to critical mass at Hinkley.

The people of this community deserve complete transparency and full accountability concerning this incident, including the lead-up to it.

And whether that explanation is good, bad, or ugly, it’s already overdue.

To read or post comments, click on title.

D-64 Board Charges Taxpayers To Pay Parents…And Themselves?

07.21.14

The main reason we have boards of elected officials overseeing all those paid-to-play bureaucrats who operate our various local governmental bodies on a day-to-day basis is to ensure that the taxpayers who pay the bills are getting fair value for their money.

One of the reasons we have been highly critical of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 is because it keeps on hammering the taxpayers with ever-escalating teacher and administrator pay, and ever-escalating per-pupil costs, without any commensurate increase in student performance as measured by those standardized tests our teachers and administrators love to hate.

Worse yet, D-64 is the principal “feeder” school system for Maine South, which has seen its academic ranking drop from the top-5 around 1990 to the mid-20s – suggesting that D-64’s under-performance may be contributing to Maine South’s decline, despite the latter’s own escalating teacher, administrator and per-pupil costs.

Against that backdrop comes last week’s flip-flop decision by the D-64 Board to have the taxpayers pick up the tab for $500,000 of Chromebooks for its middle school (grades 6-8) students. That half-million is in addition to the cost of Chromebooks and other tech hardware for grades K-5 added to the taxpayers’ tab in April in connection with Board approval of the District’s “1:1 Technology Initiative.”

According to the District’s announcement on its website, this Chromebook-fueled initiative is “a further investment in student learning.” But don’t expect the Board to identify any measurable return on investment (“ROI”) from this latest $500,000 tech buy. D-64 has a long history of disdain for objective performance measurements, so this Board wasn’t about to require measurable ROIs for which its members, the administrators, and/or the teachers might be held accountable.

Shifting this $500,000 expense from middle school parents to the taxpayers at large ostensibly was based on the July 14, 2014 Updated Recommendation of D-64’s new Director of Innovation & Instructional Technology, Mary Jane Warden. Like almost everything that comes out of D-64 these days, however, it reads like it was quarried, cut, polished and set by the District’s minister of disinformation, Bernadette Tramm: phrases like “an exciting 21st Century Learning Plan” and a “21st century learning ecosystem” with “appropriate controls [on Chromebook use] in order to establish classroom and cultural expectations” are classic Tramm-a-ganda.

“Learning ecosystem”? “Cultural expectations”? C’mon!

Back on April 28th the Board approved the 1:1 Learning Initiative by a one-vote majority: Heyde, Zimmerman, Lee and Cameron v. Borrelli, Paterno and Collins. For reasons that appear to have been arbitrary and purely political rather than policy-based, however, that resolution included “cost-sharing” that hit the taxpayers for the cost of the Grades K-5 devices but had middle school parents paying for their kids’ Chromebooks.  And with typical D-64 secrecy the relevant portion of those meeting minutes discloses nothing – NADA – about either the total cost of the new devices or the costs to the taxpayers and parents, respectively.

The “political” nature of that arbitrary April baby-splitting exercise, however, was confirmed with last Monday’s do-over vote, which demonstrates how D-64 blithely increases spending just because it has the money to do so.

In this case, a mid-year budget review by the District’s $200,000/year wonder girl, business manager Rebecca Allard, revealed that the year-end deficit she had projected had somehow morphed into a surplus of $1.7 million. Given the spend-and-spend-some-more mindset at D-64, the effect of that kind of revelation was tantamount to a drunk stumbling out of a tavern with an empty wallet, only to discover a crumpled hundred in his coat pocket.

So with that newly-found $1.7 million burning a hole in their pockets, the Board members promptly shifted the responsibilty for that $500,000 of middle school Chromebooks from the parents to the taxpayers by a 5-1 vote (Zimmerman absent).

Dan Collins cast the only “no” vote and was the only Board member who expressed any concern about the taxpayers funding what effectively are $322-per-Chromebook gifts to middle school parents. Notably, Collins also was the only Board member to identify himself as the parent of kids in D-64. So his “no” votes back in April and last week not only could be viewed as pro-taxpayer but also were against his own economic self-interest, to the tune of $644 worth of Chromebooks for his two kids.

Collins’ disclosure and his “no” votes got us thinking about the other Board members who have children in D-64 schools, specifically whether 5 of them may have had conflicts of interest when they voted last Monday to shift Chromebook costs from parents to the taxpayers – and maybe also back in April when 4 of them voted to place the costs of the Grades K-5 computing devices on the taxpayers instead of the parents.

Shouldn’t those Board members with children in the District’s schools have abstained from voting in favor of something that would directly benefit them economically?  Or, at the very least, shouldn’t Board members announce before voting that they have children in the District’s schools and will directly benefit financially by how they cast their votes?  Isn’t that what the taxpayers deserve from their elected officials?

Didn’t these Board members comprehend the possibility of such conflicts of economic interest, or is it that they just didn’t care?

It can’t be that they considered $322 per Chromebook such a nominal amount as to be irrelevant, especially with Borrelli quoted in a Park Ridge Herald-Advocate article as having “felt the addition of the fee of the computer on top of student fees was going to be a burden for some folks.” (“District 64 to pay for student Chromebooks,” July 18) Unfortunately, he produced no data or other evidence to prove that what he “felt” was actually true and not just misplaced empathy for the greedy impersonating the needy.

If there are parents who truly can’t afford to buy Chromebooks for their middle school kids, why not let them petition the District for financial assistance and demonstrate the legitimacy of their hardship claims with sworn financial statements and signed income tax returns? Or let the Elementary Learning Foundation (“ELF”) help out?

But, as best as we can tell, means-testing wasn’t even discussed - perhaps because these Board members are afraid of the vocal minority who demand free Chromebooks because the $13,000+ per kid worth of education they’re already getting for the $2-3-4-5,000 they pay in property taxes to D-64 just isn’t a good enough ROI for them.  And maybe because these Board members are simply dismissive of the battered and beleaguered taxpayers for whom THEY are supposed to be looking out.

Or have these Board members simply become so financially jaded that they view $500,000 as just another slice off a cut loaf that won’t be missed?

To read or post comments, click on title.

Referendum Demands The Whole Truth About The Library

07.17.14

Years ago, the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Making up one’s own “facts” – by editing or manipulating accurate information, or by fabricating information out of whole cloth – has been an especially pernicious problem in government, where it often seems like the bureaucrats and politicians are brazenly trying to mislead the very people they’re supposed to be representing and working for.

In the world of government and politics, truth is usually a scarce commodity.

The recognized benchmark in this country for getting at the truth is the oath by which a person swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. To many people these seem to be redundant pledges, but all of them are essential to the task of truth-seeking because they each play a separate but important role.

“The truth” is an accurate factual account of what the witness experienced. “The whole truth” means not leaving out any relevant material facts above and beyond the core “truth.” And “nothing but the truth” means not including any untruths in addition to the whole truth.

A fairly recent article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Park Ridge library chief: Fees for DVDs, activities aren’t answer for budget cuts,” June 27) illustrates how the public can be misled when public officials don’t provide the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – especially when the reporter is unfamiliar with the substance of what he is reporting and doesn’t adequately investigate.

The article basically parrots information released by the Park Ridge Library in the form of two reports intended to demonstrate that charging certain types of user fees would not generate enough net revenue to make it a worthwhile undertaking. The two reports in question – the June 12, 2014 “Library Revenue for DVDs and Video Games” report, and the June 13, 2014 “Fees for Programs” report – contain enough deficiencies that we have identified the more flagrant ones with annotations that should be self-explanatory.

The first report violates the “nothing but the truth” test in several respects. Item C, for example, raises a question of discrimination based on the means/needs of users, even though the Library staff has never attempted to ascertain the means/needs of its patrons. Similarly, Item D suggests a “trickle-down effect” of the Library on Uptown businesses, even though the Library staff has never attempted to quantify the amount of revenue, if any, Library users generate for Uptown merchants ancillary to their Library usage.

The second report, on the other hand, contains several violations of the “whole truth” requirement. Items 1 through 4 fail to mention that the Library’s revenue calculations based on a universe of 182 programs ignores the fact that the Library actually offers over 900 programs, for which it isn’t even considering trying to generate revenue from more than 700 of them. In other words, the report’s attendance and revenue projections are rigged to reflect a mere 20% of the potential program revenue that might be generated if all programs were included.

And, as with the other report, this one asks (at Item 6) whether attendance will decline if any fee at all is charged – without addressing the question of how the Library can justify committing its limited resources to presenting programs so bereft of value that attendees won’t even pay a $1 admission fee.

Another “whole truth” missing from both reports is that the Library Director and a majority of the previous Library Board voiced such strong philosophical objections to charging user fees that they preferred to see the Library dark and shuttered for 14 Sundays this summer rather than charge modest user fees for such things as program attendance and log-ins on the Library’s computers.  And we pointed out in our 04.14.14 and 05.29.14 posts how those summer Sunday closings proposed by the Library’s senior staff were a political, rather than a facility/budget management, decision.

The 62,414 computer log-ins during FY2013-14 would have raised over $60,000 at just $1 per log-in. Even if one-half of those users were to choose to waste their time and gas money driving to the Des Plaines or Niles libraries to avoid paying that $1 fee here in Park Ridge (where the Kinko’s on Northwest Highway charges $18 per hour for computer usage), the remaining 31,207 uses would still have generated enough revenue to have covered the cost of this summer’s Sunday operations and half of next summer’s Sundays.

The same result might have been achieved by charging as little as a $1 admission fee for ALL Library programs, for which attendance hit a five-year record of 30,213 during FY2013-14.

Unfortunately, all that fee revenue information was missing from the Library’s two reports and, therefore, from the H-A story.  And that kept the H-A story from telling its readers the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about user fees and how they could have been used to make the Library more accessible to the community this summer, and better overall.

As the Library gears up for its first referendum in 12 years – this November, to raise property taxes to maintain the current level of Library materials and services, and to restore some materials and services that were cut in recent years for budgetary reasons – taxpayers should demand the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth when considering the information that will be disseminated relative to that referendum.

Because, as Thomas Jefferson understood: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

To read or post comments, click on title.

Park Board Approves Unseen Contract “The Mountcastle Way”

07.10.14

Would you sign a multi-million dollar contract to employ a number of people for several years without reading it closely and carefully?

Neither would we.

But that appears to be what four of our elected Park Ridge Park District commissioners – Board president Mel Thillens and commissioners Joan Bende, Richard Brandt and Mary Wynn Ryan – did at a “special meeting” on June 26th that mysteriously started at 5:30 p.m. rather than the Park District’s customary 7:30 kick-off for Board meetings.

That odd kick-off time, alone, should have raised a question about what was going on. Another attention grabber should have been the Agenda, which consisted primarily of 4 innocuous-sounding amendments to the District’s personnel and administrative policies that didn’t seem to implicate any sense of urgency worthy of a “special” meeting.  Until Item 7, which should have been the red flag.

“Closed Session.”

Those two words on a local government meeting agenda should be viewed by every taxpayer as interchangeable with “WARNING!” and “DANGER!”

If you’re looking for something kinky in any local government meeting, you’ll rarely go wrong by investigating closed sessions. That’s where scheming bureaucrats and feckless elected officials run and hide anytime they’re trying to conceal things from the taxpayers – even though the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) doesn’t require closed sessions for anything, or require that anything said or done in closed session be treated as secret or confidential. And because bureaucrats and politicians hate it when anybody points that out about IOMA, we take every opportunity to do so.

Defenders of closed session usually argue that any “official action” (i.e., a vote) resulting from closed-session maneuvering still must be taken in an “open” meeting after the closed session, which is true as far as it goes. But often that public vote is on some vague-sounding motion or resolution that reveals little, if anything, to the average listener about the substance of what actually is taking place – or what took place in the closed session.

In this case, the Park Board’s “Closed Session” agenda item carried no reference to the IOMA section under which it was being conducted, so Item 8 served as the only hint: “Reconvene…to take action, if any, on the matter of approval of a collective bargaining agreement between the Park Ridge Park District and Service Employees International Union Local #73.”

What collective bargaining agreement, you might ask?

Who knows? No collective bargaining agreement/contract was part of the Board packet published on the District’s website on June 26, and none is there even now as this post is being published.  And if that’s not bad enough, watch the Special Meeting video and you will discover that the Board hadn’t seen it, either!

If that sounds to you a lot like Nancy Pelosi telling Congress it needed to vote on the ACA before its members could read the whole act – which has become known in some circles as “The Pelosi Way” – you’re not alone.

At the 10:49 mark of the meeting video Thillens moved to go into closed session to discuss the collective bargaining agreement. Biagi immediately voiced an objection to the closed session, however, which started a 7-minute discussion during which Thillens, several staff members and the District’s counsel tap-danced around what they could/should and couldn’t/shouldn’t say in open session; and whether they could run into closed session any time something problematic popped up.

It was during that discussion that Commissioner Mary Wynn Ryan asked the $64,000 question:

“What is more important, transparency or getting the best deal for the taxpayers?”

While it’s a great question, it causes us to wonder whether Ryan thinks those two things are mutually exclusive?  Or was she just buying into the “sizzle” being sold by the bureaucrats who negotiated the new contract, H.R. Director Diane DiGangi and Building & Grounds Supt. Terry Wolf (in whose department most of the SEIU-represented employees work), who self-servingly (?) proclaimed it “a great contract” and seemed to suggest that it might somehow be jeopardized without immediate Board approval?

Ryan’s question was initially answered at the 18:10 mark of the video, when the Board voted 4 (Commissioners Thillens, Biagi, Ryan and Brandt) to 1 (Commissioner Bende, with Commissioners O’Brien and Phillips absent) against going into closed session.

That led to about 35 minutes of open-session discussions during which we learned, among other things, that the SEIU wanted to dump three positions from its bargaining unit, thereby perhaps costing those employees their jobs.  Dumping bargaining unit members is almost unheard-of because most unions normally push the limits of the law to add members to their bargaining units. But further along in that discussion it came out that those employees being dumped favored the decertification of SEIU as the bargaining unit’s representative.

So much for how the SEIU deals with dissent in its ranks.

But that must have been just a bit too much transparency for the Board, including Ryan, because at the 52:10 mark Biagi inexplicably made a motion to go into…you guessed it!…closed session. And despite no explanation of why closed session was desired, the Board voted 5-0 to run and hide.

When the Board members emerged approximately 25 minutes later they promptly voted 4 (Thillens, Bende, Brandt and Ryan) to 1 (Biagi) to approve the contract they apparently still hadn’t read, before adjourning.

What went on during that 25-minute closed session is a mystery. We assume it involved the contract that the Board at that point still hadn’t seen. But unless the Board votes to make the recording and/or the minutes of the closed session public, we likely will never know what was said and done in that closed session.

We sincerely hope the contract the Park Board approved in such a NON-“transparent” fashion truly turns out to be the “great contract” DiGangi and Wolf insisted it is. But voting to approve a multi-year collective bargaining agreement without seeing the final contract, and without giving the taxpayers an opportunity to read and comment on it before it is voted on, is a totally horse-bleep way to do The People’s business.

And since such an insult to transparent government occurred under the watchful eye, if not at the behest of, the Park District’s executive director, we’ve got a name for it:

“The Mountcastle Way.”

To read or post comments, click on title.