Public Watchdog.org

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

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.

And When They Get Behind Closed Doors…Then They’ll Let Their Hair Hang Down (Updated)

07.07.14

Beginning at 6:00 p.m. tonight the Board of the Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 will interview 8 applicants to fill the seat recently vacated by former Board member Terry Cameron.

The original field consisted of 12 applicants, although D-64 has not explained why or how that field was reduced to the final 8: Vicki Loise, Kristin Gruss, Jennifer Kuzminski, Kimberly Miller, Patrick Moon, Holly Schneider, Katherine Ranalli, and Robert Johnson.  Their names are, literally, all we know about them, even though the interviews are only 4 hours from kick-off.

Why?

Because despite all sorts of claims to the contrary, D-64 remains the closest thing to a secret society among any of our four local governmental bodies – thanks in large part to its minister of disinformation and propaganda, Bernadette Tramm, and a complicit School Board that seems to equate anything less than a total information blackout with crystal-clear, well-lit transparency.

How did we find out the names of these finalists? Not from the D-64 website but from a story that was published in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate at 11:40 this morning – “District 64 School Board conducting open meeting to select new member” – barely more than six hours in advance of the meeting at which those 8 finalists will be interviewed in what D-64 is billing as a “public” hearing.

Except that the only “public” part of it will be the applicant interviews themselves.

Once those are over, the six remaining Board members will disappear into…wait for it…closed session “to deliberate and possibly select the new board member,” according to the H-A article.  Secret deliberations are the way D-64 has always rolled.

That’s where the horse-trading and deal-making will go on, well beyond the eyes and ears of the taxpayers and the press who should be entitled to see and hear, either in person or on videotape, every last word of those deliberations - because the person getting Cameron’s old seat will be getting a free pass from the kind of public scrutiny an actual candidate for that office, including Cameron, endures during the course of a normal political campaign. The press and those taxpayers also should get to hear all the reasons for and against each candidate, and get to know which reasons came from which of the six board members.

But D-64 is Chinatown, Jake.  It doesn’t operate out in the open.

In fact, D-64 so revels in its culture of secrecy that, as of 2:00 p.m. today, we still couldn’t find any of the applications for those 8 finalists – or the 4 applicants who mysteriously dropped (or were dropped) out of the running – either on the D-64 website or on the H-A website. So much for any members of the public or the press being able to show up at 164 South Prospect at 6:00 p.m. with even the barest minimum of information from those applications or from the applicants’ answers to three questions which reportedly were sent to them on July 1 and were due back to the District by 6:00 p.m. on July 5, right smack in the middle of the 3-day 4th of July holiday weekend.

The questions:

1. What do you perceive to be the most pressing challenge that District 64 faces and what ideas or strengths would you bring to the Board, if appointed?

2. Additionally, what do you feel is a particular strength of the District and why?

3. Should you be selected, how have you or will you prepare for this position?

Frankly, we’re not impressed with the breadth or the depth of these questions, which seem like they were thrown together between a trip to the grocery store and the beginning of a World Cup game.  We also have to wonder how much more insight into the candidates’ knowledge, views and philosophy of public education can be gained in the scheduled 15-minute interviews, given the shallowness of these initial inquiries and the cumulative 500-word limitation on the answers to all three questions.

But in the end we suspect that, like so many of the ostensibly “public” things D-64 does, those interviews will be more for show than for dough.  The really important stuff will take place where those taxpayers who contribute one-third of their property taxes each year to D-64 won’t get to see or hear it.

Behind closed doors.

UPDATE (07.09.14) D-64 reports that its Board has selected Robert Johnson of Park Ridge to fill the Terry Cameron vacancy.

Johnson has an undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame and an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School.  He is a senior vice president at Northern Trust who manages relationships with non-profit organizations, including universities, foundations and endowments.  He is the father of an Emerson 8th grader and two D-64 graduates, and previously served on the elected board of a Chicago parochial school.

More information can be found at: http://www.d64.org/news/District-64-Board-of-Education-to-Appoint-Robert-Johnson-to-Vacant-Seat.cfm

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Celebrating “Life, Liberty, And The Pursuit Of Happiness”

07.04.14

Every person who calls him/herself an “American” knows, or should know, that the Declaration of Independence was drafted principally by Thomas Jefferson, with a little help from his friends: Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

That Declaration lays out a series of grievances against the king of England, while also stating what some historians have called the “American creed”: the natural right to political independence and self-governance based on the consent of the governed – which right, in turn, is founded on the individual human rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Years later, Jefferson wrote that these principles were the common-sense “expression of the American mind” – an expression clearly unique to its time and place, yet ultimately transcendent of both.

Two hundred thirty-eight years later, those principles still serve as the cornerstone of our republican form of government, embodied in a Constitution that has required the sustenance of only 27 amendments, 10 of which form the Bill of Rights enacted within two years of the Constitution’s ratification.

This country’s Founders were not without personal flaws, most of which have already been well-documented and critiqued. For example, although the initial draft Declaration presented to the Continental Congress by the “Committee of Five” (Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston) included a condemnation of Britain for introducing the slave trade to the colonies, that passage was rejected by a combination of northern and southern representatives – the former because of economic interests in the slave trade itself, the latter because of the use of slaves to maintain their agricultural economies.

But despite their flaws, they were exceptional men who fortuitously came together at the same time and in the same place to chart a new course of human existence, growth and development unequalled before or since. And they did it at mortal risk to themselves, their families and their friends.

How many of us, finding ourselves in a sultry Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, would have pledged “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” in support of the Declaration’s principles?

How many of would do so today?

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The Uncertain Effects Of Dropping EAVs

06.30.14

If you read the local papers last week, two headlines might have grabbed your attention: “Property Values Here Take A Hit” (Park Ridge Journal, June 25); and “Park Ridge city taxes could rise more than 16 percent (Park Ridge Herald-Advocate, June 26).

According to those articles, City Finance Director Kent Oliven is reporting that the numbers coming out of the Cook County Clerk’s office show a 17.8% drop in the equalized assessed value (“EAV”) of all Park Ridge property collectively. That’s the biggest drop of any taxing body in Cook County, and it is accompanied by Maine Township’s having the largest drop of any Cook County township.

Solely for comparison purposes, Niles’ EAV dropped 14%, Glenview’s 11.6% and Des Plaines’ 16.8%. And the average drop for the entire group of northern Cook County suburbs subject to the triennial reassessment of values for the years 2010 through 2012 was 12.8%.

One saving grace, according to Oliven, is that some of Park Ridge’s larger new developments – like the new Whole Foods store – do not appear to have been counted as part of the 2013 reassessment.  But, according to Oliven, the EAV of properties within the Uptown TIF have “fallen more than the rest of the city” throughout the past decade, and he expects that to be the case this time around as well.

What does that mean for the typical Park Ridge homeowner?

If we’re lucky, perhaps nothing.

Viewed in the most simple way, the City and our other local governmental bodies still need to collect a certain number of tax dollars to operate. So if the value of the taxable property declines, the tax levy rate needs to increase to produce the same tax revenues. Conversely, when the EAV goes up, a smaller levy rate can generate the same amount of tax dollars.

So if each of our local governmental bodies operated the “wise and frugal” government Thomas Jefferson envisioned and advocated, both the new EAV and the resultant new levy to be passed this December would probably be little more than a footnote – with a higher levy being assessed on a lower EAV. But as we keep on pointing out, none of our local governing bodies appear to be all that “wise” or all that “frugal” – although the City in recent years seems to have been doing a better job than the other local governmental bodies, especially the two school districts that keep spending and spending with no increases in objectively measurable performance vis-à-vis the upper-echelon comparable communities to show for it.

And despite the Park District seemingly doing a good job at aligning its operating expenses with its operating revenues over the past few years, we’re hoping “no” but betting “yes” that the debt service for the new non-referendum Centennial water park and the new referendum-based Youth Campus Park will start turning the District’s black ink into red.

But that likely won’t happen until most, if not all, of the current Park Board members responsible for both projects have left the Board; and until the mastermind of those projects, Director Gayle Mountcastle, has either leveraged her dubious achievement into a move to another District, or retired.

That’s what occurred with the perpetrators of the Uptown TIF who ordered the whole menu of bonded debt and subsidies for the private developers, then disappeared into private life while sticking the taxpayers with the bill – and leaving Mayor Schmidt and the current Council to unravel the mess and take the public shelling for all the bad financial news about the TIF and its adverse effects on the rest of the City’s activities like flood control.

It reminds us of that line from the movie “Under Siege,” where the Tommy Lee Jones character (a former CIA agent) succinctly explains his going rogue on the U.S. with: “I got tired of coming up with last-minute desperate solutions to impossible problems created by other [%$#@ing] people.”

The Uptown TIF may not be an “impossible” problem, but it’s unlikely to be solved in any better way than through one of those hold-your-nose deals that are becoming increasingly familiar to Illinois residents as they struggle to cope with the effects of at least 30 years of virtually non-stop corrupt governance by the likes of Mike Madigan, his Democratic toadies in control of the General Assembly, and the occasional Republican accomplices like former Govs. Thompson, Edgar and Ryan.

With the Uptown TIF, we can only hope that it was merely a stupid idea.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Measure Public-Sector Compensation With Private-Sector Benchmarks

06.25.14

Once, just once, we’d like to see somebody, A-N-Y-B-O-D-Y, in a management position within one of our four main local governmental bodies actually offer something insightful and constructive about how to compensate their – or, more correctly, OUR – public employees.

And we don’t mean by simply increasing the previous year’s pay by the cost of living, or by some arbitrary percentage.

Heck, we’d even offer a trophy for the accomplishment, something at least as tall, shiny and expensive as those silly faux self-esteem “participation” trophies given to kids just for showing up – or sometimes even just for signing up – for a sport or activity.

Unfortunately, City Mgr. Shawn Hamilton won’t be winning any trophy this year, judging by his “Compensation Study” dated June 23, 2014 – the basic premise of which is that the best way to determine fair and reasonable compensation for our public employees is to look at what other communities are paying their public employees.

That kind of thinking is seriously flawed because it assumes three key facts not in evidence: (1) that what other communities are paying their employees actually is fair and reasonable for those communities, rather than inflated amounts; (2) assuming it is, that the job duties and conditions of specific positions in those other communities are directly comparable to specific positions in our community; and (3), assuming they are, that such “comparable” compensation is fair, reasonable and affordable for our community and its taxpayers.

Interestingly enough, Hamilton’s Agenda Cover Memorandum suggests that his own study fails to satisfy all three of those criteria, as he writes:

“Not all the communities [in the study] are of similar size, nor would each community be considered comparable to our City. In addition, employees with similar job titles do not necessarily perform the same duties and may be treated differently for overtime purposes in some instances.”

So what’s the point, Shawn? Did you set up that compensation study as one of your goals for this just-concluded fiscal year, and then figured you had to provide some kind of deliverable no matter how worthless it might actually be?

Setting appropriate public employee compensation has become more difficult in the past decade or two, as the membership and power of public-sector unions has far outstripped that of their private-sector counterparts. The union-directed wages and benefits also have trickled down to the non-union employees, who seem to keep getting raises for nothing more than holding their jobs for another year – as do their counterparts in neighboring communities, presumably because all the bureaucrats managing those staffs sing from the same hymnal.

Which is why the idea of basing what we pay on what other communities pay is just plain foolish.

First of all, does anybody but our own public employees think they are being paid too little and/or receiving too few benefits?  If so, can you identify the City (or D-64, or D-207, or Park District) employees who have voluntarily left their employment here to accept a comparable position in any of those neighboring communities – and by “neighboring” we mean the greater Chicagoland metropolitan area?

We can’t think of many. In fact, we can’t think of ANY.

Second, the pay and benefits our community offers its public employees should be viewed in light of the fact that when any public-sector jobs open up here, there reportedly are far more than enough quality applicants, especially for police and fire jobs.

And why not? Not only is the pay good, but the work isn’t all that difficult or dangerous, relatively speaking. For example, our police don’t have to ride herd on groups of gang-bangers shooting it out every Saturday night in front of the Pickwick, or play real-life Grand Theft Auto; and with no building other than Lutheran General topping 5-stories, firemen don’t have to worry about battling prospective Towering Infernos.

That’s not meant to disrespect either department but, rather, to highlight how fortunate we (and they) are to be living and/or working in such a safe and affluent community – one where the crime rate actually keeps dropping to the point where Location, Inc., a leading location-based data and risk analysis firm, last year ranked Park Ridge the 72nd-safest community in the nation, based on the number of reported property crimes and violent crimes per 1,000 residents in 2011.

In light of these happy facts, we have a suggestion for Mr. Hamilton:

Instead of wasting time studying what neighboring communities pay their employees, try studying what it would cost the City to outsource as many of these services as possible. And once you’ve done that, correlate those costs with the fully-loaded (i.e., including the costs of pensions, sick days, vacation days, uniform allowances, etc.) costs of the City’s in-house people who currently provide those services, to determine what the economic differential is between in-house and out-sourced.

We can’t find anything in the Illinois statutes, or in the City Code, that requires all of these services to be performed by City employees.  So with the Uptown TIF albatross chained around the City’s neck for at least another 11 years, multi-millions of dollars of flood remediation to be done, and the recent report that Park Ridge’s collective property value has dropped 17.8%, all City costs need to be put on the table if our community is to stay afloat financially without extremely painful tax increases.

That’s why the “this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” management style of years gone by no longer cuts it. If City taxpayers can’t get the best price AND the best value from the current system of in-house public employee staffs, then it’s time to look at private-sector alternatives.

Maybe exploring the private-sector option will show that we’re already getting a bargain from our public employees.  Maybe not.  But it’s time for an outside-the-box approach to what has become a chronic problem of ever-increasing personnel costs with no end in sight.

And if our $155,000/year City Mgr. – who just happens to be the third lowest-paid city/village manager on his list of 27 comparable communities – can’t figure that out on his own, then it’s high time the Mayor and City Council told him so.

In no uncertain terms.

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