Public Watchdog.org

Maybe Not “Fake News”…But Nowhere Close To The Whole Truth

01.05.18

In our most recent post we wrote about our wish for more H.I.T.A. from our units of local government in 2018. We also observed how televised and videotaped meetings have compensated for “sketchy” reporting by our local newspapers.

Not surprisingly, an anonymous commenter to that post accused us of being unfair to our local press on our way to playing the “fake news” card.

So what a fortuitous coincidence it is that an article in this week’s Park Ridge Journal just happens to provide a timely illustration of how the local press subtly – or not so subtly – attempts to influence opinions rather than just report the facts.

The article in question, “Library Board Gears Up For New Director Candidates” (Jan. 3), is by Anne Lunde, who has covered local government in Park Ridge for as long as we can remember.

Throughout her career Ms. Lunde has displayed a decided bias favoring governmental bodies – the bigger, more expansive and more expensive, the better – first at the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate and currently at the Journal. This being Illinois, and Ms. Lunde being an unapologetic Chicagophile, that means her views are about as anti-H.I.T.A. as possible.

To which, of course, she is entitled as a citizen.

As an experienced journalist, however, she has learned how to promote her bias in nuanced ways intended to be undetected by the casual reader, which she gets to do from a media platform not generally available to the ordinary citizen. It’s not what the current POTUS criticizes as “fake news,” but it’s also a far cry from what legendary WaPo reporter Carl Bernstein described as good reporting: “[T]he best attainable version of the truth.”

In order to understand and fully appreciate Ms. Lunde’s advocacy in what should be objective fact reportage, one needs to deconstruct and analyze her article, virtually paragraph by paragraph.

The first two paragraphs subtly attribute the Library Board’s “losing their top finalists” for the director position to its “[e]fforts to be very transparent.”

What’s her favored remedy to prevent losing future finalists? A third paragraph that extols “interviews in closed session” followed by “deliberat[ing] in closed session” before “return[ing] to deliberate in a separate closed session and determin[ing] a salary offer in closed session” – the process adopted by a majority of Library trustees at their December 19th meeting.

That might be a record for use of “closed session” in one paragraph, at least when the author is not condemning them. And Ms. Lunde isn’t about to condemn a closed session: In her view of government, which she has shared with this blog’s editor on several occasions over the past decade, closed sessions and behind-the-scenes schmoozing are how government gets things done.

Which is why her final paragraph attempts to excuse those secretive closed sessions by pointing out that the Library Board – after interviewing the candidates outside the public’s view, after deliberating about the candidates’ qualifications and suitability outside the public’s view, and after debating and deciding the salary and benefits to be offered the candidate outside the public’s view – still has to conduct the actual vote on hiring the chosen candidate in open session.

Big whoop. That’s the absolute barest minimum transparency required by the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”). But IOMA’s bare minimum is apparently what a utopian government looks like to Ms. Lunde.

In our opinion, however, Ms. Lunde’s most devious journalistic device resides in her shortest paragraph, of only five words, about those closed sessions: “There was not universal agreement.”

What’s so “devious” about that? Because it is the truth but not the whole truth.

The lack of the whole truth advances Ms. Lunde’s political agenda at the expense of honest journalism – about which conservative public intellectual Thomas Sowell warned thusly:

“If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference, and choose their news sources accordingly.”

How does she advance her political agenda at the expense of her journalism?

Simple: By not identifying the dissenters – Library trustees Joe Egan, Char Foss-Eggemann and Mike Reardon, whom we identified in our 12.26.17 post – and thereby marginalizing them and their dissent.

She knows that Egan, Foss-Eggemann and Reardon are the Library Board’s strongest H.I.T.A. proponents. She also knows that they are well respected by many members of this community. Because of that, she knows that identifying them by name would likely cause folks who know and respect them to question the legitimacy of those closed sessions, as well as the judgment of the members of the Board majority – Karen Burkum, Steve Dobrilovic, Josh Keim, Garreth Kennedy, Pat Lamb and Judy Rayborn – who prefer to hide from their constituents in such sessions.

So she reports the bare fact of the dissent but leaves the dissenters numberless and nameless. That also helps their fellow trustees escape scrutiny for their anti-H.I.T.A. beliefs, policies and conduct – like the bogus, chicken-bleep “survey” of their closed-session hiring process instead of an actual vote on adopting it. That way, the majority gains the political cover of not having a public record of their actual votes for more closed sessions.

You can watch that discussion on the meeting video, starting at the 29:45 mark and ending at the 53:45 mark.

So while we hope for more H.I.T.A. from our local governments in 2018, the same is sorely needed from our local press. Which reminds us of a quote from Pres. John F. Kennedy that Ms. Lunde and the Library Board should consider:

“The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings.”

If Lunde and the Library Board majority actually care about “a free and open society” – or, at least, care about it more than they do about pandering to the anti-H.I.T.A. propensities of mercenary headhunter John Keister and about hiding from their constituents – they sure have an odd way of showing it.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Our Wish For 2018: More H.I.T.A.

01.02.18

It was back in 2009 that then-alderman Dave Schmidt, with less than two years’ of City Council experience under his belt, decided to challenge first-term mayor Howard Frimark’s bid for re-election. Schmidt’s political platform became embodied in the acronym: “H.I.T.A.”: Honesty, Integrity, Transparency and Accountability.

Honesty, as in telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Schmidt, a trial attorney, was familiar with that concept because it’s part of the oath witnesses take when testifying in a court of law. Too many politicians don’t seem to discover it until they hear it repeated by the witnesses testifying against them or their colleagues in federal corruption trials.

Integrity, as in firm adherence to a code of conduct or ethical values. Schmidt’s code of government was simple: The best government that Park Ridge taxpayers are willing to pay for.

Transparency, as in an openness characterized by the sharing of important information with the citizenry so that it can hold its governing officials accountable. Even before he came up with H.I.T.A., Schmidt walked his transparency talk by blowing the whistle on questionable Frimarkian closed-session discussions about the City’s acquisition of 720 Garden.

Accountability, as in the assumption of responsibility for the policies, decisions and actions; and the obligation to be answerable to the citizenry for them. Schmidt proved how that works on several occasions by admitting, and publicly apologizing for, mistakes he made; and promising not to make them again. And he didn’t.

H.I.T.A.’s an easy philosophy to understand and implement – assuming that you actually believe in the concepts and want to abide by them. But if you’re a “politician,” it’s your worst enemy. Which is why so few embrace it, and why others fear it so much that they mock it in the hope of undermining its legitimacy in the minds of the citizenry.

There was a bit of mockery (“Who would ever want to watch that?”) almost two decades ago when this editor, who served on the Park Ridge Park District board from 1997 to 2005, led that body in becoming the first unit of local government to videotape meetings so that taxpayers no longer had to rely solely on slanted and/or sketchy newspaper articles, or sketchy meeting minutes.

Schmidt followed that lead when he became mayor in 2009, using some of his mayoral salary to buy the camera that was mounted on the back wall of the Council chambers; and using some of his mayoral goodwill to enlist a couple of supporters to run the camera and upload the videos onto the Internet before the City’s website could accommodate them.

Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 followed suit in August 2011 after Marshall Warren, Char Foss-Eggemann, Susan Sweeney and friends showed up at a meeting with their own video camera, embarrassing a reluctant school board into doing what it had previously resisted. And, as we recall, the Maine Township High School District 207 board finally jumped on that bandwagon a couple/few years later.

This editor also spearheaded bringing video to the Library Board meetings in 2015. And Ms. Sweeney – with the assistance of fellow newly-elected trustees Dave Carrabotta and Claire McKenzie – was instrumental in getting that backwater of local government, Maine Township, to videotape its board meetings after they were elected to that board last April.

Why is H.I.T.A. so important when it comes to government?

Because, unlike in most organizations where the people at the bottom are accountable to the people at the top, in government it’s supposed to be the reverse: The people at the top are supposed to be accountable – at least in theory – to the people at the bottom.

What’s problematic about that situation, however, is that it’s the people at the top – the elected and appointed officials, and the public employee bureaucrats – who have most of the resources (money provided, ironically, by the people at the bottom; and manpower provided by public employees both on and off the taxpayers’ clock) needed to manipulate the information flowing to the people at the bottom, thereby manipulating their beliefs and opinions.

That’s why H.I.T.A. and its accoutrements – like published-in-advance meeting packets, videotaped meetings and keeping closed sessions to the barest legal minimum – are essential if we are to avoid what has been recently been described as a “post-truth society”: Where special interests at both ends of the political spectrum wallow in their own (usually woefully incomplete) facts and create their own ideological “echo chambers” such as can be observed on both Fox News and MSNBC, and even from time to time in our own local newspapers.

Which is why we concur with Glenn Greenwald: “Secrecy is the linchpin of abuse of power,…its enabling force. Transparency is the only real antidote.”

Along with Honesty, Integrity and Accountability, of course.

To read or post comments, click on title.

SROs May Be More Problem Than Solution

12.29.17

There was a time when the term “SRO” commonly meant “Single Room Occupancy.” As in cheap hotels, a/k/a “flophouses.” Or “Standing Room Only” at concerts and sporting events.

Nowadays, however, in suburbs like Park Ridge the term SRO means “School Resource Officer.” Or, as we noted in our August 31, 2017 post, modern-day “Officer Krupke”s from “West Side Story” – a post we encourage you to read so that we don’t have to recount the problems with the whole SRO goat rodeo we previously identified.

From the perspective of taxpayers who see a District rife with neglected buildings and a recent history of suspect educational achievement, spending the money it will take to stick a revolving core of Officer Krupkes in each of the District’s two middle schools for 8-10 hours a week makes about as much sense as the millions it is spending on not-really-secure vestibules.

None whatsoever.

But we were alerted by one of our stringers to a post on Kathy (Panattoni) Meade’s Park Ridge Concerned Homeowners Group Facebook page – by Ginger Pennington – raising questions about the very concept of an SRO program in the light of the suicide earlier this year of a 16-year old Naperville North honor-roll student hours after being confronted by two school deans and a Naperville Police Dept. SRO about his cellphone audiotape of himself and a female classmate having a consensual sexual encounter.

Also on his cellphone: Photos of other partially nude girls and videos, according to Associated Press accounts.

The SRO reportedly told the teen that his cellphone contained what may be illegal “child pornography” that could result in his criminal prosecution and, if convicted, the requirement of registering as a sex offender. As we understand it, that’s a pretty accurate statement of the current law. The SRO reportedly also told the teen that the matter could be kept out of court if the teen cooperated.

After a reported 20-minute interview, the teen was told to wait in the student-services office until his mother arrived. But before she arrived her son left the school, walked up a nearby parking deck ramp to the fifth level, and jumped to his death – less than 3 hours after he had been called to the dean’s office.

Tragic? Absolutely. A needlessly permanent solution to a temporary problem, as youth suicides are so often described.

The result of legally-actionable misconduct by the school administrators and/or the SRO?

Yes, say the parents of the teen in their $5 million suit against the District in DuPage County Circuit Court – in which they allege that administrators ignored Illinois law requiring them to attempt to notify a student’s parents before conducting interviews such as the one in question.

The Naperville school district reportedly disagrees, but we’re betting a settlement is achieved before the district’s actual legal duties and possible breaches thereof ever go to a jury.

How does that play into the D-64 SRO narrative and Ms. Pennington’s concerns?

We’re not exactly sure.

But it’s got to be more than a coincidence that a December 22, 2017 Park Ridge Herald-Advocate story (“Second law firm to evaluate rules for officers to be stationed at District 64 middle schools”) reports that D-64 has paid the Lisle law firm of Ekl, Williams and Provenzale $2,500 to suggest revisions to the proposed SRO intergovernmental agreement between D-64 and the Village of Niles (for the SRO at Emerson Middle School), and between D-64 and the City of Park Ridge (for the SRO at Lincoln Middle School).

That’s the same law firm, led by prominent former DuPage County prosecutor Terry Ekl – who, back in 2008, was paid $75,000 to author the “Ekl Report” about problems in the Park Ridge Police Dept. under former chief Jeff Caudill – that is representing the parents of the Naperville student in their lawsuit.

There actually may be something worthwhile in the D-64 Board’s obtaining legal advice on such a significant issue from both specialized school district attorneys (such as the Board’s regular legal counsel) and from attorneys looking to blow holes in the school district attorneys’ arguments.

But the real problem here, as we noted in our August 31, 2017 post, is the whole notion of bringing SROs – police officers sworn to enforce child pornography laws, drug and alcohol laws, and smoking/vaping laws – into schools with the expectation that they will act like school administrators rather than law enforcement officers.

What research we’ve been able to do suggests that the benefits of SROs in school districts such as ours are anecdotal, at best. Yet Supt. Laurie “I’m the Boss!” Heinz reportedly has presented the idea as a clear and unqualified win/win for the District and the Police Department. That’s problematic.

It becomes even more problematic where, as we understand it, the real reason the SROs are being brought in is because the teachers and/or administrators at those schools aren’t willing or capable of maintaining order and discipline when left to their own devices.

Instead of “Officer Krupke,” maybe D-64 should be looking for no-nonsense coaches, teachers and administrators like the legendary Paterson (NJ) principal Joe (“Lean on Me”) Clark, Kristyn (“No-Nonsense Nurturing”) Klei Borrero, Richmond (CA) coach Ken (“Coach Carter”) Carter and St. Petersburg (FL) principal Nikita Reed.

Or anybody – other than sworn law enforcement officers – who won’t be terrified and intimidated by incorrigible 13-year old suburban punks.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Better Results Require Better Choices – Part II

12.26.17

Our previous post left off with our intrepid Library Board having lost one of its two finalist director candidates to the Palatine library – to which she was lured for the seemingly bargain price of $122,000 almost immediately after being designated a finalist here, notwithstanding a salary range for our Library’s directorship reportedly running from $101,558 to $142,181.

This post picks up the tale from that point.

Having been stood up by Ms. Dilger, the Board staged a public meet-and-greet session for sole finalist Aaron Skog on Monday evening, November 27, 2017, in the friendly confines of the Library’s lower-level meeting room. A number of residents attended, as is shown in the meeting minutes.

Skog put on his best dog-and-pony show, fielding questions from the audience with a surfeit of aplomb and a dearth of substance.

But a funny thing happed on the way to Skog’s offer.

After Board president Pat Lamb predictably moved to go into closed session to discuss Skog’s hiring, and Trustee Judy Rayborn predictably seconded it, Board treasurer Mike Reardon said that he would be voting against the closed session and suggested deferring any decision on Skog’s hiring for several days to give Board members a chance to think through the situation.

And then, in what can only be described as a pre-Christmas miracle, six of the eight assembled trustees – Karen Burkum, Steve Dobrilovic, Joe Egan, Garreth Kennedy, Josh Kiem and Mike Reardon (Char Foss-Eggemann MIA) – actually voted against the closed session.

Say whaaaaaaaaat?

We don’t recall Burkum, Dobrilovic or Kiem ever voting against a closed session, so the headline on that one has to read: “Trustees bite dog!”

Even such a mild slight, however, appears to have been was more than Skog could bear: Less than 24 hours later he withdrew his name – sending the Board and its hired-gun consultant, John Keister, back to square one.

At the Board’s December 19th meeting (and reportedly at Keister’s urging), the Board “surveyed” itself – an action of no legal validity, but something that Keister wanted – about what hiring activities should be conducted in secretive closed sessions rather than in sessions open to the public: (1) All initial interviews, “Closed,” 6 to 3; (2) the Board’s initial deliberations about those candidates for purposes of cutting down the field, “Closed,” 5 to 4; (3) the Board’s deliberations about the finalists following a public forum (like was held on November 27 for Skog), “Open,” 5 to 4; and all discussions of salary and “negotiating strategy,” “Closed,” 6 to 3.

Only Trustees Egan, Foss-Eggemann and Reardon voted against the secretive closed sessions on all four issues. Conversely, Trustees Burkum, Dobrilovic, Kiem and Rayborn voted for all four closed sessions. Trustee Kennedy voted against closed sessions as to (2) and (3). And Trustee Lamb voted against closed sessions as to (3).

Although that “survey” is legally meaningless, Kiem touted the results as “an act of good faith” on which Keister can, and will, tell the candidates they can rely – even though none of these four results are necessarily in the best interest of the taxpayers. And expect to hear that “good faith” argument loudly raised by Kiem and others when the actual closed-session votes come up for each of those steps of the hiring process.

Yes, the Board will have to emerge from those closed-session discussions to actually vote in open session. But that’s the absolute barest minimum of transparency that they can legally get away with under the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”), so hold your applause.

Frankly, without that IOMA requirement, we’d bet a tidy sum that at least 5 members of the closed-session majority (the possible exception being Kennedy) would gladly hold the actual votes themselves in closed session – before sending wafts of white smoke out of the Library’s chimney to signal the clueless taxpayers that we have a new Library director.

“Habemus directorem!”

Shortly before the Board’s December 19 meeting, this blog’s editor sent an e-mail to all the Board members urging them to reject closed sessions for these vital actions. Having read the meeting minutes of the Board’s December 11, 2017 personnel committee meeting, however, this editor knew the outcome was already foreordained – Honesty, Integrity, Transparency and Accountability (“H.I.T.A.”) be damned, just like they are almost everywhere else in Illinois government. Which, not surprisingly, explains in no small part why Illinois is the banana republic of the United States.

With only three Trustees committed to H.I.T.A. and another three apparently thinking it’s “Bulls-H.I.T.A” – according to Park Ridge Park Board member and situational-socialist Cindy Grau – there’s no reason to expect H.I.T.A.-inspired majorities from this Library Board, notwithstanding that one aberrational “Trustees bite dog!” vote on November 27.

Just like there’s no reason to expect H.I.T.A.-inspired majorities on many/most Illinois governmental bodies, starting with the toadies who roam the halls of our state capital constantly hoping for the slightest glimmer of recognition by their anti-H.I.T.A. lord and master, The Speaker, Darth Madigan.

So our Library Board is back at square one, still under the thumb of consultant Keister – who may have a keister-full of undisclosed conflicts of interest every bit as problematic as the one he had with Park Ridge and Palatine over candidate Dilger. Whether he discloses them or not remains to be seen.

Depending, of course, on whether the Library Board chooses to hide from the taxpayers in yet another sightless, soundless closed session.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Better Results Require Better Choices

12.15.17

On June 12, 2017, then-Library Director Janet Van De Carr advised the Park Ridge Library Board that she would retire after 37 years with the Library, the last 17 as executive director.

That sent the Library Board on a search for Van De Carr’s replacement. Meanwhile, despite the trepidation of several Board members, the Board entrusted the Library’s management to two senior staffers to serve as acting directors on an interim basis.

And guess what? For the past six months the Library has continued to run smoothly.

Just like the Children’s Dept. continued to run smoothly after supervisor Kelly Durov noisily resigned in September 2015 to take a higher-paying position with another library – and then lambasted the Library Board for having the gall to demand transparency and accountability from then-director Van De Carr and the Library staff. That caused certain patrons and Library staffers to wail and gnash their teeth over what woes would befall that department and the children.

Those woes turned out to be…none. Bupkes. Zero. Zip. Nada.

But government bureaucracies being what they are, and thinking outside the box being anathema to bureaucrats, the Library Board embarked on a conventional search for a new full-time director. It hired an executive search firm that bills itself as specializing in library personnel: John Keister & Associates (“We Help Libraries Hire Exceptional Leaders”), a family business that seems to have cornered the Chicagoland market for this particular employment niche.

So the Library (a/k/a, the taxpayers) paid $16,000 to Keister to find and screen “qualified” candidates. It signed his Keister-friendly “Executive Search Proposal” – in lieu of a fair and balanced bi-lateral contract – that we can’t believe the Library’s attorneys (if they even were consulted) would have approved.

We understand that Keister attempted to un-nerve the Board with warnings of how the Park Ridge Library had acquired a toxic reputation among the librarian fraternity/sorority throughout the area, presumably because of the way its Board had begun: (a) challenging the director and staff on actual performance metrics and holding them accountable for their performance; (b) televising/videotaping meetings; (c) publishing its Board packets online so the taxpayers could see them in advance of meetings; (d) actually charging non-residents for premium Library usage like computers and program attendance (How terrible!); and (d) charging tutors and other for-profit businesses for using the Library as their taxpayer-funded office space (Heresy!).

Ironically, a few years ago Park Ridge’s then-mayor, Dave Schmidt, and the then-City Council reportedly acquired a “toxic” reputation after they sacked city manager Jim Hock in 2012 for with a no-confidence vote and a laundry list of performance fails. He was followed by Shawn Hamilton, who jumped ship one step ahead of another performance review that likely would have weighed, measured, and found him wanting.

But guess what?

The City turned to finance supt. Joe Gilmore. And, so far, Gilmore has proven himself a superior city manager to both of his two most immediate predecessors – and light years ahead of Tim Schuenke, the prince of darkness whose incompetence was exceeded only by his deceptiveness, both of which flaws were not only tolerated but even rewarded for more than a decade by mayors Ron Wietecha, Mike Marous and Howard Frimark, along with their complicit councils.

That was before Schmidt introduced H.I.T.A. to City government, a concept that even made some inroads at the Library over the past few years.

But transparency and accountability aren’t what a headhunter like Keister is about. His thing is generating fees while maintaining and gaining influence – the influence that comes from placing modestly-talented bureaucrats in secure, over-paid public jobs with Cadillac pensions, thereby creating a pool of once-and-future job seekers who not only become Keister’s captive “inventory” but are also beholden to him for their future job moves.

He reportedly insisted on controlling the hiring process if our toxic Library was to have any chance of landing a qualified director. And the Library Board bent to his will: It screened the four finalists in the secretive closed session Keister demanded before choosing the two finalists: Jeannie Dilger, the executive director of the LaGrange public library, and Aaron Skog, the executive director of a library consortium known as SWAN.

Board president Pat Lamb acknowledged Keister’s secretive preferences in a Park Ridge Herald-Advocate article on the subject (“After candidates withdraw, Park Ridge Library Board starts over on leadership search,” December 6), saying that Keister was “very concerned that candidates are not comfortable with some of the things that we do in open session versus what other libraries may do in open session.” That’s because most bureaucrats despise transparency and accountability.

Despite the Board’s accommodations to most of what Keister wanted, one of his two finalists – Jeannie Dilger, the executive director of the LaGrange library – dropped out almost immediately to accept a $122,000 offer from the Palatine library? (which serves 90,000 patrons).

Guess who was running the Palatine library’s director search?

Yep.

And guess who reportedly didn’t disclose to our Library Board that he was serving at least two masters?

Yep.

But that’s barely the half of this farce. We’ll share the other half in our next post.

To read or post comments, click on title.

How Much Is Enough – Part 2?

12.06.17

After borrowing over $20 million between 2013 and 2016 to build the Centennial water park and the new Prospect Park, one might think that the Park Ridge Park District might want to cool its jets about taking on more debt and more capital projects.

But, instead, it held a “Public Input Meeting” on November 30, 2017. The “public input” being sought? Coming up with a wish-list for borrowing and spending multi-millions of dollars at Oakton Park.

Why?

Because the Park District recently learned that the Oakton Ice Rink’s R-22 refrigerant will be eliminated by 2020, meaning that the Park District will have to tear up the rink and replace all the mechanicals to accommodate a new type of refrigerant.

But simply replacing the ice surface and mechanicals apparently isn’t enough for the Park District, even though the ice surface was replaced back in the mid-1990s because (as we recall) of cracks in the surface – and, ironically, the phasing-in of the R-22 refrigerant to replace a more environmentally-unfriendly refrigerant – without adding millions of dollars to the project for accessories.

According to an article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Pools, more ice among citizen suggestions for Park Ridge’s Oakton Park,” 12.04.17), although money for the actual replacement has been budgeted, there reportedly is no funding for any additional expansion of the ice rink or other wish-list projects at Oakton. But (per the H-A article) that didn’t stop the District from going out and hiring “Wight and Company architects and two other professional firms” to seek input from residents about what should be done at Oakton.

We’re big on “input from residents” but we’re not big on such input without any price tags affixed – especially since the Park District went to referendum on three Oakton projects in 2005-2006 – all of which were soundly rejected by the voters.

Although there is no video of the Public Input Meeting posted on the District’s website, a string of comments posted to the H-A article on the H-A Facebook page indicates the strongest support for either: (a) a major renovation of the Oakton ice rink and the addition of at least one more ice surface; or (b) a new pool, indoor or outdoor.

Back in 1994-95, the District spent over $100,000 on studies and actual plans for a Centennial water park. The then-board intended to use those plans to steamroll the taxpayers, but a group of 40 or so Centennial Park NIMBYs organized and made enough of a ruckus that the 1994-95 park board backed off and submitted the project to an advisory referendum. That project got soundly rejected by the voters, and its proponents took their cue and dropped it – until it was taken up again as one of the two referendum questions by the Park District in April 2005: The Centennial water park lost by 70% to 30%, while a referendum for building an indoor recreation center at Oakton failed 73% to 27%.

In March 2006 another Centennial water park referendum failed 69% to 31%.

And in November 2006, a $10 million plan to put a new aquatic center/water park at Oakton failed 57% to 43%.

Mindful of those failures, in December 2012 that park board chose to blow right past “permission” and head directly to “forgiveness” when it committed, based on very limited resident input, to borrow $7 million to build the current second/third-rate water park – sans the “lazy river” which was the single most wanted feature of the original design, based on 682 survey respondents – without a referendum. We wrote about it less than kindly in our posts of 12.05.12, 12.13.12, 12.19.12 and 12.29.12.

That decision by that board was both dishonest and gutless. Which, to paraphrase the fictional Dean Vernon Wormer, “is no way to go through [public] life.”

Frankly, we don’t care what the Park District wants to build at Oakton so long as it puts whatever the project(s) might be – along with a credible price tag – to referendum, preferably binding but advisory being better than nothing.

Before that is done, however, a lot more information and discussion is needed to determine what kind of project(s) deserve a referendum question, or two, or three on the November 2018 ballot. That’s assuming the Park Board doesn’t rush to judgment and try to ram something onto the March 2018 primary ballot by the filing deadline of January 2, 2018.

We trust that won’t be the case with this Park Board, the new majority of which act and sound as if they actually understand and respect the interests and concerns of the taxpayers as much, or more, than those of the users of the District’s resources. Such a rush to judgment would be a major dis-service to all the District’s stakeholders except for the highly-motivated special interests who, like their water park counterparts in December 2012, can be counted on to turn out and dominate any discussion over the next few weeks while the majority of folks who will end up footing the bills are busy getting ready for the holidays.

The deadline for putting a Board-originated referendum resolution on the November 2018 ballot is August 20, 2018. That should provide plenty of time for an intelligent, well-informed debate by both the Park Board members and the general public about what project(s) deserve consideration for a referendum question.

Because how much is enough at Oakton, or elsewhere in the Park District, is a question that needs to ultimately be answered by the countable votes of a fully-informed electorate, not by rank speculation and anecdote from a few handfuls of the specially-interested.

To read or post comments, click on title.

 

How Much Is Enough?

12.01.17

On the night of November 14, a developer’s representatives showed up at City Holl to pitch the Park Ridge Planning & Zoning Commission (“P&Z”) on letting it develop the Mr. K’s site – 1440 Higgins, currently zoned for business/commercial use – with 19 3-bedroom townhouses and an office building that the developer hoped would be enough “commercial” to sell the Commission on the project.

Given that the developer previously had sought 31 townhouses and no commercial building for the site, it was clear that the townhouses were the dog and the office building was the tail. Which is why the developer broke out the salesmanship.

So did Park Ridge-Niles School District 64, which dispatched finance guru Luann Kolstad, along with an attorney and a consultant from Teska Associates, to try to persuade the P&Z folks that this new multi-family residential development will likely add 6 to 9 kids (a conservative estimate, per Supt. Laurie Heinz’s letter) to D-64 schools instead of the 2.88 kids the developer was projecting.

One would think that Park Ridge’s oft-lamented lack of business/commercial combined with the longstanding commercial zoning of the site, in the exercise of common sense and simple math, would have made P&Z’s decision to say “no” to more multi-family development a straightforward one.

But it wasn’t.

A couple of P&Z commissioners seemed lost in the funhouse and totally overmatched by the interplay of housing density and student costs, even after a fellow commissioner correctly pointed out that 2 of the 3 bedrooms in each townhouse were so small they appeared designed solely for children. A few more commissioners seemed desperate for some kind of compromise that would avoid their having to make a decision that somebody might not like.

But as James Russell Lowell so trenchantly observed: “Compromise makes a good umbrella, but a poor roof; it is temporary expedient, often wise in party politics, almost sure to be unwise in statesmanship.”

And when we’re talking about a development that can be expected to last a minimum of 30-50 years, a “temporary expedient” – like 19 3-bedroom townhouses and some half-baked office building afterthought – is the last thing we need.

Which brings us to the key question: How much is enough? In this case, how much residential development is enough?

Multi-family residential is the lowest hanging fruit on the development tree for an older, inner-ring upper-middle class community like Park Ridge. Want to turn a quick, low-risk profit? See how many condos or townhouses you can cram onto your target property.

But at what point do more residences, and more residents, begin to adversely affect the community’s quality of life and its sustainability – whether by too many kids in our public schools, too much traffic, too many demands on our infrastructure, etc.?

The answer to that question depends on who you are and where your interests lie.

If you’re the owner of Mr. K’s looking to cash out at the highest price, you probably don’t give a rat’s derriere about what some developer constructs on that property – so long as the check clears. And in the grand scheme of things, that’s okay.

If you’re a developer looking to turn the quickest profit with the least risk, 31 townhouses – or 19 townhouses and some half-baked office building – might be your best pump-and-dump deal. And that’s okay, too.

And if you’re a local RE broker, 19 new townhouses increases your “inventory” at no significant additional incremental cost to you. And that’s okay.

Because self-interest – both enlightened and doltish – has always been with us and always will be. It’s how we deal with that self-interest that matters.

Perhaps the most important reason we have City government and a Zoning Code is to prevent selfish property owners, selfish developers and selfish RE brokers from putting their short-term profiteering ahead of the taxpayers’ long-term expense and the community’s long-term sustainability as a unique place to live.

Which means remembering that property owners are like one-trick hookers, that developers are like sharks cruising for their next meal, and that certain RE brokers are like the remoras that swim below the sharks’ mouths feeding on the scraps left over from the sharks’ larger meals.

While the owner and the developer may both be one-and-done on a project such as Mr. K’s, it’s those RE agents who will be getting the longer-term benefits from adding condos and townhouses to their residential inventory that can be expected to turn over far more frequently than commercial property or even single-family homes. That means more sales and more commissions for those agents – the gift that keeps on giving.

Once again, that’s okay.

But when you hear some of those RE agents (like, say…William Cline) pontificate in comments to Facebook posts about how “[a]ny development residential or commercial is a net positive for our community” (without and facts or explanation) and how “[o]ur codes need to shift with the needs of today’s society” (also without explanation), first do the math for each unit of these multi-family residences:

At a $16,000 cost per D-64 student, less 40% (D-64’s share) of total RE tax bill = there will be some amount of funding deficit for any residential unit with one kid in D-64 whose total RE tax bill is $40,000 or less. And every additional kid from that same unit in D-64 schools represents $16,000 of additional deficit.

For Cline and his fellow champions of higher-density residential who work on a commission basis, even a 3% commission on the sale of a $350,000 condo or townhouse means almost $12,000 of extra income – which more than covers any incremental RE tax increase they might incur from the extra students.

That doesn’t mean those brokers and developers haven’t earned their money. They have.

But it means we should all remember that it’s their pocketbooks talking the next time you hear one of them claim: “Any development residential or commercial is a net positive for our community” and that “[o]ur codes need to shift with the needs of today’s society and the public officials need to stop catering to the nimbys that have no clue how economic development works.”

And then ask to see their math.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Increasing Park District Fees: Are You F-Ing Kidding Us!?!?! – Part 2

11.14.17

Today we discuss the economics of Kathy (Panattoni) Meade’s “Are you F-ing Kidding Me” demands for low-cost – if not “free” – amenities (not “necessities”) from the Park Ridge Park District, such as  organized recreational and sports activities, assorted types of entertainment, and a variety of “classes,” “camps” and activities that effectively serve as low-cost babysitting for many parents.

But, first, we need to make sure everybody understands the basic premise underlying these Park District amenities: The Park District (like all other units of local government) has no money of its own.

There’s no “Lost Dutchman” gold mine under the Centennial Park sled hill, nor any vast Vatican-like real estate holdings in Downtown Chicago and Manhattan. The Park District gets its money from the taxpayers, either through RE taxes or user fees. And because the District’s share of our total annual RE tax bills is roughly 6%, if your total RE tax bill is $10,000 per year you’re paying a modest $600 to the District whether you use the facilities and programs or not.

We also need to make sure everybody understands the genesis of the Park District’s money problems, which occurred around 1992 when it dug itself a large financial hole by borrowing approximately $8 million – more than the District’s annual budget at the time – to build the Community Center (now the “Centennial Recreation Center”) without a referendum that would have permitted the District to specially tax the residents to cover the capital cost of that facility.

Why did those 1990-92 park board members – Garry Abezetian, Joyce Clark, Bob Hamilton, Dave Hilquist, Mike Rozovics, Roy Sues and Mary Hester Tone – authorize such a facility without a referendum?

For the same reason that the City Council in the early 2000s didn’t go to referendum for its borrowing of tens of millions of dollars to subsidize the Uptown Redevelopment project. And for the same reason the Park Board didn’t go to referendum in 2012 for its borrowing of over $7 million for the new Centennial water park:

They were afraid they would lose a referendum vote! And then they would have had to assume the political consequences if they chose to disregard that vote and do the project anyway.

So in 1992 the Park Board basically maxed out the District’s non-referendum bonding power to build whatever it could get for $8 million. And all it could get was a haphazardly designed and hastily built facility with (a) an indoor pool too short and too narrow for sanctioned swim meets, (b) two basketball courts instead of the needed four, (c) an equivalently-undersized running track, (d) an exercise room that the exercise classes outgrew within the first year, (e) a lobby providing no way to control or manage access and traffic, and (f) so many other flaws and deficiencies that in 2004 the regional manager of a national fitness chain – after thoroughly inspecting the facility – pronounced it unworthy of purchase by, or even a management contract for, that chain.

Worse yet, the Community Center debt service severely handicapped the District’s ability to maintain, repair and renovate its parks and other facilities, especially after Cook County voters (in 1995) approved RE tax caps that limited annual tax increases by the Park District to the lower of 5% or the increase in the CPI.

The District’s finances were so shaky that it began issuing short-term, non-referendum bonds to pay the Community Center’s long-term debt service. Think of it as using your VISA card to pay your mortgage – only without getting any miles or points.

Consequently, Hinkley Pool was allowed to fall into such disrepair that it was pronounced “unsafe” and closed for an entire summer until it could be rebuilt. Oakton and Centennial pools suffered similar neglect from a lack of funding.

At least 4 times between from 1995 and 2006 – in November 1995, in April 2005, in March 2006 and in November 2006 – the voters rejected referendums for new outdoor pools. That’s why the 2012 Park Board decided to build the new Centennial water park by doing exactly what the 1992 park board did with the Community Center: Max out the District’s non-referendum borrowing power without giving the taxpayers a vote.

In order to cope with the Community Center debt fiasco and the tax caps, however, the District was effectively forced to institute and/or increase user fees so that the facilities, classes, sports and recreational programs that could generate revenue would begin covering some of their own costs.

And, ‘lo and behold, it actually worked!

As we understand it, the Park District now generates almost 51% of its $20 million annual revenue through user fees. And a good chunk of the credit goes to Executive Director Gayle Mountcastle (whom we have excoriated at times for sins of both commission and omission) and those Park Board members who have supported and encouraged that user-fee strategy, including the current Board majority.

What’s wrong with paying for the amenities you use?

Plenty, if you’re a big-time user of the District’s pay-to-play facilities, classes and programs. Paying for what you and your family use is a stake through the heart of our local “freeloaders” who are constantly “looking to leverage maximum benefits for themselves, their families and their friends by shifting the costs of those benefits onto the backs of their fellow taxpayers.”

In the freeloader universe, the Park District is like a Club Med-style, all-inclusive resort where your property taxes entitle you to anything you want at no extra charge, or at a nominal upcharge. And if that means your usage is subsidized by your fellow taxpayers, so much the better! Hence the beefing about fee increases by uber-users like Kathy Meade, who believe they shouldn’t have to go to Niles, Des Plaines, Chicago, or other communities to get “affordable” facilities, classes and programs.

Why not?

We’ve always advocated for “value” in local governmental services, meaning that the quality and/or quantity of the facilities, services, programs or activities should meet or exceed their costs to the taxpayers and consumers. That being said, consumers should be able to get their value wherever they can find it.

So if Niles, Des Plaines, Chicago or other nearby communities can offer better facilities, classes and programs – or comparable ones at cheaper prices – than our Park District can, why not take advantage of those? If our residents think they can get a better deal on their amenities from other communities, they are actually doing our non-freeloading taxpayers a favor by consuming those other communities’ resources rather than our own.

Better yet, they can start patronizing PRIVATE facilities like FFC Park Ridge that actually pay RE taxes rather than consume them.

In an optimal situation the taxpayers could cover the cost of the District’s capital expenditures for the parks, playing fields and facilities, as well as routine maintenance and repairs. To the extent the costs of operating those parks, fields and facilities – e.g., the costs of combatting the wear and tear from organized and programmed usage – can be allocated to those organized and programmed users, they should be. And the entire, fully-loaded cost of programs, classes and activities should be charged to the users.

That way, Ms. Meade and her ilk can choose to send their kids to Taft High School’s “week long soccer camp for $60 for 5 days and 3-1/2 hours a day AND offer lunch and a t-shirt” (which might help explain why the Chicago Public Schools are bankrupt) while still paying her taxes to our Park District.

We call that a win-win for the taxpayers. And we encourage Ms. Mountcastle and the current Board majority to keep up the good work in that regard.

But, just for a reality check, maybe the Park Board could put a referendum question on the ballot that lets the taxpayers vote on whether they want to pay higher RE taxes so that the District’s facilities, classes, programs and activities can be all-inclusive without any user fees whatsoever.

Then those Park Board members could sit back and wait for a different kind of “Are you F-ing kidding us!?!?!” complaint – followed by the inevitable landslide of “No!” votes.

And another predictable whine from Ms. Meade.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Veterans Day 2017

11.11.17

Five years ago we printed a letter-to-the-editor penned by Park Ridge resident Joseph “Jay” Hirst back in 2007.  Mr. Hirst has updated it slightly and we thought it worthy of a revival this Veterans Day, especially because the events Mr. Hirst describes began 50 years ago today.

***

As Veterans Day approaches each year, it typically causes me to pause and consider my service in the Army, particularly my time in Vietnam. However, unlike previous Veterans Days, the approach of this date has caused me to spend significantly more time in contemplation than I normally have done in the past.

Moreover, I know why. For me, this Veterans Day represents a significant anniversary.

On November 11, 1967, elements of my unit (including me), Company N (November) of the 75th Rangers, was sent into the highlands to be attached to and to support the 173rd Airborne Brigade in securing a hill not quite 3,000 feet high (875 meters). What is so hard for me to believe sometimes is that what was three years out of high school back then for me is now 50 years ago.

For those next 12 days in 1967, Hill 875 became a battleground unlike any other in Vietnam as the 66th Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army – with its Chinese advisors – stood their ground and fought a battle of trenches and fortified bunkers more like World War I or II than Vietnam. The network of tunnels used by the NVA throughout the area made any semblance of a “front” frustratingly fluid.

With the 2/503d Battalion of the 173rd leading the way, we initiated the final push for the top of the hill on November 19th. Over the next 5 days the 173rd lost 279 of America’s finest souls killed in action while suffering over 900 wounded and a reported 33 MIA’s.

On the morning of Thanksgiving Day 1967, “The Hill” was finally taken in a cold steady monsoonal downpour made worse by the devastated terrain, the despair over the losses experienced, and just plain pure exhaustion. Thanksgiving dinner that last day was one of the most miserable meals I ever ate. And every Thanksgiving since – I remember that day with a chilling reminder I may not have had that meal or any since.

I was alive, in large part because of the heroism of Carlos Lozada. Carlos, despite being out-manned and out-flanked, was able to maintain a rate of machine gun fire that disrupted an attack of superior forces set to overrun our sector, enabling the rest of us to withdraw with five of our severely wounded. The attack had broken off when “Moose” and I went back up the slope the last time, where Carlos was found mortally wounded.

Despite the Medic’s best efforts, Carlos died before he could be medi-vac’ed. PFC Carlos Lozada was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day, a richly deserved honor. I wish I could say that I knew Carlos well and for a longer period, but in truth I knew him barely more than a week. He came across as an ordinary Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx who ultimately made an extraordinary and selfless sacrifice. And because of the extraordinary acts of this ordinary man, today – 50 years later – I still am able to say how proud I am to have even briefly served with him.

50 years is a long time and the Vietnam of then is now a long way away; yet – there are times, when I close my eyes in reflection, those events play out in my mind like they happened but a moment ago.

I think I am like most other veterans, with their own tales to tell and their own memories to share or keep to themselves as they choose. Like most other veterans, I must admit that some of those memories are painful, some droll, some happy and others melancholy. That is why I personally think the Canadian’s calling their 11th of November “A Day of Remembrance” is so appropriate.

On the 11th of this month, Veterans Day, if you are related to a veteran, know a veteran, or even see a veteran, please take a moment from your busy life and thank them for their service to our country.

Some of these veterans are still kids, freshly home from the Afghanistan, while others of us served a long time ago. And a quickly diminishing few brave souls from WWII and Korea; even longer ago. They all richly deserve credit for what they did, are doing, and will continue to do so Americans like you and I – our children and grandchildren – can have the opportunity to do what we do and be what we are.

However, if you do not happen to know or see a “Vet”, I offer an alternative – pause for a moment to reflect on PFC Carlos Lozada’s ultimate sacrifice for his unit and the “troopers” of a very proud Brigade.

To all my fellow “Vets” – Thank you for your service and your personal investment in what makes this country so unique in this world.

Jay Hirst

Increasing Park District Fees: Are You F-Ing Kidding Us!?!?! – Part 1

11.07.17

A recent Park Ridge Herald-Advocate article (“Park District budget calls for increases in cost for pool passes and camps – but no tax hike,” Oct. 25) seemed innocuous enough, reporting on recently-announced budget proposals for consideration by Park Ridge Park District Board members Cindy Grau, Harmony Harrington, Jim Janak, Rob Leach, Jim O’Brien, Jim O’Donnell and Mel Thillens.

But that article and the proposed user-fee increases caused such a firestorm of discussion on the Park Ridge Concerned Homeowners Group FB page that the page’s resident dominatrix, Kathy Meade (f/k/a “Kathy Panattoni Meade”), shut down all comments on the entire site “until further notice” because of a “spiral of cruelty.”

Ironically (or maybe not), Meade’s command decision appears to have been made less than 36 hours after she herself kicked off that “spiral of cruelty” with a class warfare mini-rant about the fee increases proposed or endorsed by those “many…park board members” who live in “million dollar home[s]” – which she began with the staid and demure:

“ARE YOU F-ING KIDDING ME!?!?!”

For those of you who, like this editor and several others, have been blocked by Meade from reading her posts and her comments because of offenses real and imagined, you can read that entire string by clicking HERE, thanks to one of our unblocked Watchdog “stringers.”

If you do, you can read on the very first page her beefs about visiting the District’s outdoor pools at “$40 for a family of 5…[to] sit in direct sun on the hot concrete”; and about “$80+ for a basketball skills class” with “15 kids…[o]ne instructor…[n]o materials.”

She pines for when “Day Camp used to be $300” (Page 32) and snarls about “the $200 basketball class and $300 drum lessons” (Page 26), and lifeguards “watching hundreds of kids for $8.25 an hour” (Page 8) – whom she wants to be paid $15 an hour (Page 28) without any clue of how to cover that 45% cost increase, other than to stick the taxpayers with it because the pools are too expensive for her already.

She did a lot of the same stuff a couple of years ago when the H-A ran an article about the Park District raising its user fees. We wrote about her entitlement mentality and her opposition to increased Park District fees in our October 21, 2015 post – which we encourage you to read so that we don’t have to repeat all those same arguments here, including our 31-word description of the kind of person for whom we use the shorthand term: “Freeloader.”

After Meade shut down comments on her post because of what she claimed was “bullying” (i.e., the assertion of points of view contrary to hers that she can’t refute other than by accusations of sexism, ageism, elitism, avariciousness, shaming, bullying, etc.) the discussion shifted to the Park Ridge Illinois Citizens Online FB page, where it raged on – apparently without Meade’s participation – until the whole string mysteriously vanished without a trace.

That’s Facebook for you. As cutting as a ginsu but as lasting as the blink of an eye.

We’re not sure who pulled the plug on that particular string of Citizens Online history but, fortunately, another one of our Watchdog “stringers” downloaded it before it was deleted; and you can read it by clicking HERE.

George Orwell warned about this kind of thing in “1984”:

“As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of the Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead. This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs-to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date….All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place.”

Not “fake news” but “fake history.” Even worse.

If not for the foresight and effort of our “stringer,” those 20-pages of Citizens Online post and comments about Meade’s “time-out” style of censorship would be lost to the ages and, for all intents and purposes, would never have existed at all.

For the record, NO PublicWatchdog post ever has been deleted. And the only comments that were not published (about a dozen over the past 10 years of this blog’s regular publication) were: (a) anonymous ones, (b) containing “personal” attacks about individuals, (c) that could not be verified as true, (d) were borderline (or more) libelous, and (e) were unrelated to the “public” lives and/or activities of their subjects.

But while this Facebook folly runs the gamut from troubling to entertaining to just plain silly, it’s merely the back story for the real issue: “How much of the cost for using Park District amenities should be borne by the users instead of the taxpayers?”

We’ll discuss who is “F-ING KIDDING”  whom on that issue in our next post.

To read or post comments, click on title.