Public Watchdog.org

Is City Staff Waging War On Transparency?

02.26.15

As recently as our 02.02.15 post we applauded the Park Ridge City Council’s continuing efforts to become fully transparent in its activities on behalf of the City’s taxpayers.

Unfortunately, while Mayor Dave Schmidt and most aldermen are striving for transparency, the same cannot be said for many of the City’s senior bureaucrats. And the most recent evidence of that is their handling of the Request for Proposal process to determine who will serve as the City’s feasibility consultant on the much-discussed storm water utility.

We’ve noted on several previous occasions the cozy relationship that City Hall has established with Christopher Burke Engineering. Burke seems to have become the go-to consultants for anything flood related. So one would think that the bureaucrats – from the City Manager on down – would make sure that the whole RFP process was crystal clear.

But the folks employed at City Hall don’t seem to get the concept of transparency, if the 02.16.15 Agenda Cover Memorandum from new City Procurement Officer Jim McGuire is any indication.

McGuire’s memorandum suggests a half-baked process for awarding the feasibility consultant contract, just as his similar 01.23.15 Agenda Cover Memorandum reflected a similarly half-baked process for awarding a new City Attorney contract.

Fortunately, Ald. Dan Knight (5th) voiced his concerns about McGuire’s folly at the February 16, 2015 Council meeting, which you can see and hear starting at the 37:04 mark of the Council meeting videoKnight pointed out how McGuire’s memo, although implying that more than one bureaucrat was involved in the review and scoring of the four proposals and the firms presenting them, was not accompanied by those individual scoring sheets, thereby preventing aldermen (and the taxpayers) from reviewing and comparing that scoring. Knight correctly noted that he and the rest of the Council shouldn’t have to blindly trust the unsubstantiated opinions and conclusions of any City staff member, especially when it comes to casting a vote to spend significant sums of money with, or repose significant responsibility in, a particular vendor.

And McGuire wasn’t even there to shed any light on his incomplete work product, or explain why he left out that important underlying data.

So it was left to Public Works Director Wayne Zingsheim to come to McGuire’s defense when Knight complained that McGuire didn’t even include pricing sheets from the four consultants, although Zingsheim did so in a somewhat odd way.

“I can’t understand this [scoring summary] either, alderman, I’ve got news for you,” said Zingsheim, who then also admitted that he “never even saw the cost sheets, ever.”  Why that lack of documentation and data didn’t trouble him enough to assert his own concerns about those shortcomings, however, was not revealed.  And City Manager Shawn Hamilton, on whose desk this “buck” should have stopped before it ever got to the Council, sat mute.

We will pause to let you appreciate the absurdity of a public works consultant bidding process so slipshod that the City’s procurement officer fails to provide the Director of Public Works with the necessary information, causing the latter to candidly admit that he can’t understand the documentation the procurement officer did provide.

And for a bit of comic relief you can go to the 46:30 mark of the same meeting video and listen to Ald. Joe Sweeney (1st Ward) demonstrating, once again, that he still doesn’t grasp the role and duties of the alderman’s job – by arguing that, basically, he doesn’t have to understand what he’s voting for or even the integrity of the process by which the proposal comes before the Council for a vote, so long as Staff understands and supports it.

Fortunately, that kind of trust-but-don’t-verify decision-making is in its final two months – assuming that neither Andrea Cline nor John Moran, the two candidates vying to succeed Sweeney, will attempt to revive it when one of them takes Sweeney’s seat in May.

No matter how thick or thin McGuire’s baloney is sliced, however, Burke appears to be the hands-down winner based solely on price, which is one-half the cost of (and $62,000 lower than) the next lowest bidder. And Burke’s explanation of why its price was so low is a plausible one: its familiarity with the City’s flooding problems through its work to date requires a shorter and less-expensive ramp-up.

All that probably explains why, after a lengthy debate about this procurement process’s shortcomings, Burke’s bid was accepted by a vote of 6 to 1 (Ald. Mazzuca dissenting).

But that doesn’t excuse McGuire’s – and his superiors’ – dropping the ball, big time, by the cursory presentation of the bidding “scorecard” without including the actual scoring sheets.  The omission of such information is especially problematic because of the inclusion of such squishy criteria as “General Firm Qualifications” and “Key Qualifications” – whatever those might be, given that they aren’t defined and the criteria for scoring them is not identified – provides far too many opportunities for skewing the scoring, whether through arbitrariness, non-uniformity, or outright favoritism.

Presumably in response to Knight’s complaints, someone at City Hall posted those scoring details that were missing at the time of the meeting on the City’s website, including McGuire’s signed “Scorecards” and City Engineer Sarah Mitchell’s unsigned ones.  But a review of those scoring details raises more questions about the process than it answers – such as the fact that Mitchell’s ratings consist of unexplained numerical scoring that suggests total arbitrariness, while McGuire’s ratings don’t appear to be numerical at all!

Or as Zingsheim explained: “We did it one way, he [McGuire] did it another. ”

That’s no way to evaluate storm water management consultant candidates.  Or new City Attorney candates.  Heck, it’s no way to do anything that will cost tens or hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

Unless the bureaucratic perpetrators are incompetent. Or unless they’re trying to hide the ball from the City Council.

And the taxpayers.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Candidates Forum Tonight!

02.19.15

For those of you who actually give a rat’s derriere about who runs our local governmental bodies for the next four years – and how they do it – tonight is what passes for the unofficial kick-off of the 2015 election season in these parts.

It’s the Republican Women of Park Ridge’s 2015 Candidate Forum, and it will be held at the South Park Field House, Talcott at Cumberland, beginning at 7:00 p.m.

It is expected to feature appearances by Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams, Beyonce, Sam Smith…wait a minute, no…that’s the list of the performers from the recent Grammy Awards broadcast. Sorry.

Instead, you’ll get to see and hear the candidates for:

  • Park Ridge alderman in Wards 1, 3, 5 and 7, of which only Wards 1 and 3 have contested races (Andrea Cline v. John Moran, and Rick Van Roeyen v. Bob Wilkening);
  • Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 Board, where four candidates are running for three 4-year terms (Tony Borrelli v. Greg Bublitz v. Mark Eggemann v. Tom Sotos), and one candidate, Bob Johnson, is running unopposed for a 2-year term;
  • Maine Twp. High School District 207 Board, with six candidates running for three 4-year terms (Paula Besler v. Theresa Collins v. Jill Dolan v. Chimanial Patel v. Pablo Morales v. Sean Sullivan);
  • the Park Ridge Park District Board, for which there are four candidates running for three 4-year terms (Cynthia Grau v. Jim O’Brien v. Mary Wynn Ryan v. Mel Thillens); and
  • the Oakton Community College Board, where five candidates are running for two 6-year terms (Thresa Bashiri-Remetio v. Christopher Evdoxiadis v. Constantine Ress v. Benjamin Salzberg v. William Stafford).

Although we don’t particularly care for the “forum” format in which each candidate speaks for around four minutes and fields no questions from his/her opponents or the audience, we understand the difficulties of implementing a “debate” format with so many candidates. Nevertheless, this event is worthy of your attention because it will be the first – and perhaps only – time where voters can expect to see and hear all the candidates for these offices in one place.

And that’s important.

While the now-ubiquitous websites and flyers can give you a lot of useful information about the candidates, seeing and hearing them in person is one of the best ways – if not the best way – to judge their sincerity, genuineness and credibility. That’s why the truth-seeking function of our judicial system is based on a judge and jury getting the opportunity to take the measure of witnesses in person.

And with our state and its subsidiary local governmental units in such cumulatively dire economic straits, electing the most qualified, sincere, genuine and credible candidates means more today than ever before.  So it’s pretty darned sad that we have two uncontested aldermanic races, and effectively only one contested race for the D-64 Board and the Park Board.  And then folks wonder why Illinois is in the mess it is!

The most important races are for the boards of the two school districts, which consume almost 70% of our property taxes.

Over the past several years their rankings vis-à-vis the public schools of other comparably-affluent communities (and of the Chicago magnet schools) have dropped considerably from the days when Maine South was a fixture among the Top Five public high schools in Illinois – and similar regard was given D-64 schools as being the principal feeder system for Maine South.

Meanwhile, both districts’ teachers and administrators appear to be among the highest paid, thanks to elected school board members who don’t seem to understand that they are supposed to be representing the taxpayers’ interests every bit as much as the students’ interests. Or the concept of paying for performance. Or of not being sock puppets for the teachers’ unions. Or of doing things of consequence out in the open instead of hiding in closed sessions, as we wrote about in our 08.29.14 post.

The D-64 Board members elected in April also will be charged with negotiating the next D-64 teachers contract in 2016. That may be the single biggest responsibility they will have during their four years in office.

The good news is that neither of the perpetrators of the last negotiated-in-secret sweetheart teachers contract – current Board member John Heyde and former board member Pat Fioretto – will be part of that process. The bad news is that Heyde’s “Mini Me,” Scott Zimmerman, will be the most senior Board member and likely to lead the negotiating team; and the rest of the current Board have shown themselves to be more sock puppet than steel-spined when it comes to fiscal matters.

The candidates in the two contested races for the City Council, on the other hand, seem to be focused on the issue of flooding. The decisive question there may end up being who is less of a one-trick pony and more of a big-picture visionary.

And we wonder whether the Park Board incumbents will even attempt to alibi/justify/spin the quality of their stewardship under which the District has taken on around $19 million of new long-term debt, $7 million of which (for the Centennial water park) never even went to referendum, and the remainder of which – for the new Prospect Park – went to referendum only because the $7 million water park debt used up most of the District’s limited non-referendum borrowing power.

So bundle up and come on out to the South Park Field House tonight to see and hear the candidates who want your vote, and control over your tax dollars, for the next several years.  Give yourself the best possible chance to make the best possible decision on election day.

Or you can always take the easy way out and move to Chicago – where “participatory government” means selling your soul, and your finances, to Mayor Tiny Dancer.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Is The D-64 Residency Check Process Being Built To Fail?

02.11.15

In two posts back in November and December we had some choice words for some of our elected representatives on the Park Ridge-Niles District 64 School Board who were looking down their noses at the idea of checking into whether all kids attending D-64 schools – and getting $14,000/year per kid educations for free, courtesy of Park Ridge taxpayers – actually resided in the District.

So we felt pleased and somewhat vindicated to read yesterday’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate article reporting that this past Monday (Feb. 9) night the D-64 Board voted to conduct residency checks for all students enrolled for the 2015-16 school year (“District 64 Board approves annual residency checks,” Feb. 10).

And we have to give Supt. Laurie Heinz props for coming up with three options for the residency checks: Option A, with checks every three years; Option B, with families checked every year via in-person presentation of residency documentation; and Option C, being the same as Option B but with residency documents simply being sent in.

While we prefer Option B, any of the three would be better than the Swiss-cheese residency check system that’s currently in place and that actually might be allowing people who owned a home in Park Ridge five or even ten years ago to continue to send their kids to D-64 schools even if they sold that home and moved to Niles, Des Plaines, or Edison Park.

But nothing ever seems to be an unqualified “win,” much less a “win-win,” for either the students or the taxpayers at D-64.

So when Board member John Heyde and his coat-holding acolyte, Scott Zimmerman, once again objected to any residency checks as being “too burdensome” for residents, Heinz immediately scrambled for a “compromise” to mollify them. And consistent with the view that compromise produces a camel when what you really need is a thoroughbred, Heinz’s compromise was Option A (an every-three year check) but applied to only half of District families!

Seriously.

Fortunately, Board president Tony Borrelli and members Dan Collins, Bob Johnson, Dathan Paterno and Vicki Lee resisted getting sucked down that rabbit hole into Heyde’s and Zimm’s own special non-accountability wonderland; and that absurd compromise was defeated 5-2.

But it sounds as if the residency check for this coming school year will be a “trial” – with the expectation that if the first year’s check doesn’t disclose a significant enough number of scofflaws, the Board would cancel the residency checks for future years. What that “significant enough” number might be, however, apparently was not discussed by a Board and administration that historically treats concrete, measurable performance goals like plague-ridden rats.

Considering that each scofflaw student represents $14,000 of cost, however, just three or four scofflaws could cover the cost of one relatively “junior” D-64 teacher – assuming the Board and Administration don’t come up with ways to seriously dilute those savings by heavily padding the costs of conducting the checks.

The two most notable Board member comments on that issue, based on the H-A article, were from Collins and Paterno.

Collins, who has two children in District schools and who was the only Board member to vote against “free” (i.e., taxpayer-paid) Chromebooks, apparently went beyond his own personal opinion and made the effort to talk to District parents about the annual residency checks. And he reported – not surprisingly to us – that everyone he talked to thought annual checks were “a great idea.”

We’re betting he would have received an even more ringing endorsement from those District taxpayers without kids in D-64 schools who just pay the bills.

Paterno, on the other hand, reportedly dismissed the checks thusly: “We should at least do it once, and if we don’t catch anybody, we’d know it was a waste of time.” Kind of like the DEA raiding a suspected drug house once, finding no drugs, and never checking it again.

With that kind of attitude (reportedly joined in by Vicki Lee) combined with Heyde’s and Zimm’s outright opposition to residency checks, it sounds like a majority of the D-64 Board might be engineering the “trial” for failure and sabotaging it right from the get-go.

And, not surprisingly, according to the H-A article the Board didn’t even specify whether the District will use Option B or Option C.  That left filling that decision-making void to D-64 Public Information Coordinator (a/k/a, Propaganda Minister) Bernadette Tramm, who reportedly confirmed to Pioneer Press that the Board is leaving those kinds of details up to “the district administration.”

Big mistake, or bad idea?

Unless a few Board members grow spines pretty quickly and force the bureaucrats to put in place a transparent, clearly-understandable residency check process with specifically measurable goals, the one-year “trial” might very well be both.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Refinancing The Cost Of The “Gift” That Keeps On Taking

02.09.15

Every Park Ridge adult resident who hasn’t been in a coma for the past decade knows about the Uptown TIF. And every such resident who has paid attention to City government knows what an economic disaster the Uptown TIF has been so far.

The $20 million-plus in surplus revenues projected by its supporters have been replaced by about the same amount of projected deficits, burning off tax dollars that could be better used on things like infrastructure.

Instead of “the gift that keeps on giving,” consider the Uptown TIF the gift that keeps on taking – in this case, money out of the pockets of Park Ridge taxpayers – compliments of the three former mayors and many of the twenty-five former aldermen who were so offended about being held accountable for that boondoggle by Mayor Dave Schmidt that they publicly endorsed Schmidt’s opponent in the April 2013 election. But to no avail.

While those former mayors and aldermen continue to lie low, however, Schmidt and the current Council have been struggling to make the best out of a bad situation.

And as reported in last week’s Chicago Tribune (“Park Ridge votes to refinance downtown TIF debt,” February 3), the Council voted unanimously last Monday night to refinance between $16.4 million and $17 million of outstanding TIF bond debt with the expectation of saving as much as $1.9 million in bond interest. The final vote on that refinancing proposal is expected at next Monday (Feb. 16) night’s meeting.

Schmidt and the Council have been looking at such refinancing for a while now, and had asked City staff and its bond advisor, William Blair & Co., for ways to do it that would maximize the City’s savings.

Back in November and December, City Mgr. Shawn Hamilton endorsed the bond advisor’s recommendation to either call the Series 2006B bond and issue a new one, or to pay off the existing bond with a conventional bank loan. But at the December 8, 2014 meeting, Schmidt and Alds. Knight and Mazzuca wanted more information and better comparisons between the total costs and savings of a new bond versus bank loan. So the decision was deferred.

That deferral drew flak from several quarters, including from 1st Ward aldermanic candidate John Moran, who wanted the bank loan and its $630,000 savings locked in right then and there.

According to the Tribune article, however, the delay actually worked to the City’s advantage because it could refinance that Series 2006B bond and a newly-callable 2005 bond together, saving administrative costs. And what looks like just plain luck has kept the interest rates basically the same.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, as reported by the Tribune, the Uptown TIF will consume approximately $2 million of the more than $3.9 million recent tax increase. The TIF costs are also expected to increase by an average of $400,000 a year in six of the next eight fiscal years because the TIF district can’t service the TIF debt from its own tax base, as TIFs are supposed to do.

And what this Uptown TIF was going to do, according to then-mayor Ron Wietecha and a compliant city council back in 2003 when this red-headed step child was born. Of course, that was before Wietecha resigned the mayor’s chair two years into his third full term and fled to Barrington; and before successor Mike Marous agreed to take the reins solely for the remainder of Wietecha’s term and engineered the sweetheart deals on the City’s dime for Uptown developer PRC Partners; and before his successor, Howard Frimark, spent his four years in office trying to cut deals for his buddies.

Given how those three mayors and a few handfuls of their former aldermanic TIF aiders and abettors couldn’t get the voters to show Schmidt the door in 2013, we’d like to think they might show up at City Hall for one of these Council meetings at which the Uptown TIF refinancing is being discussed, and offer some innovative solutions to the problem they stuck Schmidt and this Council with – if only as a sporting gesture.

But apparently none of them wants to admit maternity or paternity of that red-headed step child.

And none of them is offering to pay child support, either.

To read or post comments, click on title.

The Government, And Politics, Of Snow (Updated)

02.04.15

How much in additional property taxes would you be willing to pay the City of Park Ridge so that, after a blizzard like last Sunday’s, all the streets and City parking lots would be curb-to-curb clear of snow and ice within 24 hours?

That’s a question few people – even those who chose to register off-topic beefs about the City’s snow removal as comments to our unrelated 01.29.15 post – seem interested in taking on. Even the beefers offered nothing in that regard, other than for one of them saying he/she doesn’t think we pay high enough taxes here in Park Ridge.

Needless to say, that comment was made anonymously.

But when it comes to most of the things about which Park Ridge residents (and the occasional non-resident parasites) complain, money almost always could make a difference. And often a big difference.

Take snow removal.

According to Public Works Director Wayne Zingsheim (as reported in a 02.03.15 Park Ridge Herald-Advocate article, “Park Ridge mayor questions delay in plowing Uptown lot after blizzard”), City crews worked steadily from Sunday afternoon through Tuesday morning. But apparently that wasn’t enough to clear even our primary thoroughfares from curb to curb by the time residents had to head to work Monday morning. Or to salt those thoroughfares, plow out the commuter lots on Summit and Fairview, or plow out the Library lot on Prospect.

That ticked off some residents who awakened early Monday morning to shovel their driveways in order to get to the train, only to find no place to park. And those residents who would have taken their kids to the Library in response to the school closings, only to find the Library closed because its lot wasn’t plowed.

Questions should be raised about what was done and not done, when, and why. A number of residents and the H-A article reported that neighboring communities did a much better job than we did in clearing and salting their streets. If that is true, the City’s Public Works Director owes residents some answers.

He also owes them an explanation of why two plows reportedly were already out of service when the blizzard hit – despite a couple of days of advance warning that a heavy snow was on its way – and why three more plows reportedly went down with mechanical problems during the snow removal effort. Frankly, five downed vehicles sound like too many for a properly maintained fleet the size of Park Ridge’s.

Questions also remain about why Park Ridge streets weren’t salted during the first 24 hours of the blizzard, while streets in neighboring communities were salted and noticeably clearer than ours. And we’ve heard a few folks question whether the Super Bowl and/or the running feud between the City and Operating Engineers Local 150 – which represents the City’s Public Works employees and stationed large inflatable rats at City Hall on November 24, 2014, to protest Mayor Dave Schmidt’s and a 5-alderman Council majority’s refusal to roll over for the union in a contract dispute – may have affected not only the availability of City staff but also of the private plowing contractors the City sometimes uses in emergency situations.

One thing the City could do to improve the public’s understanding of this situation is to post on its website a color-coded map showing which thoroughfares and lots have the highest plowing priority and which have lower priorities. At least that way, residents could know where their streets rank and can chart their course around town with the knowledge of what streets are most likely to be passable. Something like that should cost taxpayers next to nothing

But the additional manpower and vehicles it might take to provide 24-hour turnaround times for blizzards such as Sundays will cost a whole lot more than “next to nothing.”

So it’s up to the City – with the Public Works Department taking the lead – to proactively figure out what it would take to do a top-shelf job of snow removal and salting, and what it would cost our taxpayers. Then it’s up to the City Council to proactively discuss that issue and figure out whether the benefits justify those costs.

As part of that process the Public Works Director should be asked to fully account for his department’s performance in this last blizzard.

He should be asked to confirm whether his department had enough salt (and, if not, when did he last ask for more); whether it had enough trucks (and, if not, why not and when did he last ask for more); whether it had enough drivers (and, if not, why not and when did he last ask for more); whether it had enough mechanics (and, if not, why not and when did he last ask for more); and whether it had enough money in its budget to do the jobs it needs to do at the level it needs to do them (and, if not, why not and when did he last ask for more).

He should also be asked to explain things like : (a) which streets are our No. 1 priority streets; (b) when each of them was fully cleared – not just one lane, but at least two lanes if not curb to curb; (c) why the commuter lots weren’t cleared by 6:00 a.m. Monday when commuters started arriving; (d) why the Library lot wasn’t cleared when it could have been expected that there would be a demand for parking due to the schools being closed; and (e) exactly what happened to those 3rd party plows, and how many did the City try to call in?

These questions and discussions should occur right now, while memories of the event are still fresh in everybody’s minds – and while the City is just beginning its budget process and might be able to adjust the budget to address any real or perceived need to provide for additional snow removal expenses.  Because whether the answers to all those questions are good, bad, or ugly, snow removal is an issue that should be able to be resolved based on what it would cost to do the job the way it should be done.

And whether the taxpayers believe the benefits justify that cost.

Update (02.05.15) As luck would have it, we just discovered a relatively recent Illinois Appellate Court decision, Patullo-Banks v. City of Park Ridge, 2014 IL App (1st) 1132856 (Sept. 4, 2014), holding that the City can be liable when a pedestrian is struck by a car while walking in the street (Touhy, near 3rd Street) because careless plowing of that street (Touhy) piled an “unnatural accumulation” of ice and snow on the sidewalk, making it impassable; and the City then failed to clear the sidewalk within a reasonable time after it knew or should have known that the sidewalk had become impassable.

So besides clearing the streets, City snow plowers need to be mindful of creating “unnatural accumulations” of snow and ice on City sidewalks that might render such sidewalks impassable.

And the following is a comment from Mayor Schmidt:

I have heard a lot of criticism over the past few days. Some of it is fair, some of it is not, but certainly everyone is entitled to their opinion. Bottom line is that I agree the City could have done better, but I do not agree that it was a major failure, and I know for a fact that it was not the result of City Council action resulting in inadequate funding or supplies.

In response to [the comment from] 4:40 pm, City Hall, meaning the Public Works Director, DID call in private plowers. The fact is they were in extremely high demand, and many simply chose not to answer the call. We also had one PW worker retire the previous Friday, one is on medical leave and one worker did not answer the bell and has been suspended. The claim that the streets were not salted 72 hours later is not true. We learned Tuesday morning, about 30 hours after the storm ended, that PW had started salting the streets on Monday night and have been salting ever since. The problem with salt is that it is ineffective below a certain temperature, so the Monday night salting had little effect until the temperature began rising Tuesday. Another fact that people must understand is that salting while it is still snowing heavily is a waste of time and resources, because the plows will simply push any salt laid down to the side of the road. I did question the PW Director why he did not begin salting earlier on Monday when the sun was out and temperatures were higher. He has admitted that, in retrospect, he should have ordered salting to have begun sooner. He says he has learned from this particular experience and will adjust procedures accordingly.

I cannot address why Library management decided to close on Monday, but I do think that was as multi-departmental mistake. PW should have made the Library lot a priority, primarily for the sake of the Uptown businesses, and the Library should have stayed open on Monday. I am not happy with how that unfolded.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Kudos To Council For Its “Unique” Antipathy Toward Closed Sessions (Updated)

02.02.15

We’ve always believed that the single best way to improve local government is to increase its transparency.

When the taxpayers can see and hear everything that a public body is doing, the chances for skullduggery, stupidity and outright mopery are substantially reduced. That’s because connivers and knuckleheads alike are reluctant to do their worst in full view of the folks who they purport to represent – or, in the case of the bureaucrats, the folks who pay their salaries.

Over the years we’ve often written about transparency. Unfortunately, most often it has been about the lack of it, especially when it comes to things like appointments of public officials (e.g., replacement elected officials, board and commission members, and executives) and those contract negotiations which the unions insist be conducted in closed sessions so that the taxpayers can’t see and hear the unions’ often outrageous demands and the arrogance with which they often are conveyed.

The folks who sit on the boards of School Districts 64 and 207 still seem to lack any clue about what “transparency” means. Either that, or they’re learning about it from the former Soviet Union Politburo playbook. They empower their respective propaganda ministers to “manage” information, and they run into closed sessions every chance they get – as evidenced most notably by their selection processes for appointed board positions that we wrote about in our 07.07.14 and 08.29.14 posts, respectively; and by D-64’s process for choosing a new superintendent, that we wrote about in our 12.27.13 post.

Recently the Park Ridge Park District, over the protestations of its executive director, has started to get some transparency traction. Last year it even held its evaluation of the aforementioned executive director in open session, which we applauded in our 03.20.14 post.

But ever since the election of Mayor Dave Schmidt in April 2009, the City has taken the lead in the transparency race, notwithstanding the regular push-back from the bureaucrats and the occasional alderman looking to shield their antics from public view. Schmidt paid for the first video camera that recorded Council meetings, and two of his campaign supporters ran the camera and uploaded the videos until WOW through in a new camera and live meeting broadcasts as part of its entry package into the Park Ridge market.

But the current Council, following Schmidt’s lead, has raised transparency – especially as demonstrated by the reluctance to run and hide in closed sessions – to new heights.

If you don’t believe us, listen to City Attorney Everette “Buzz” Hill’s acknowledgement of this Council’s “unique” level of transparency in his colloquy with Ald. Marty Maloney about open versus closed sessions for interviews of finalist firms for the new city attorney contract, which occurred during that portion of last Monday (01.26.14) night’s Committee of the Whole (“COW”) meeting beginning around the 2:16:30 mark of the meeting video:

“You guys are a unique outfit. You have an antipathy toward closed sessions, and I’m not so sure it’s not a real healthy antipathy.”

The double-negative notwithstanding, that’s high praise coming from somebody who has seen more than his share of closed sessions: Hill said that he has observed around 50 city attorney interview processes, but never one held in open session. Hence his calling the open-session interviewing this Council has expressed interest in doing  “establishing a precedent.”

And what an outstanding precedent it is!

So despite Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow signaling six more weeks of winter, the people of Park Ridge can bask in the warmth of knowing that their City Council appears to be “unique” in its antipathy for the kind of secrecy and political cowardice practiced by so many other communities’ governing bodies – and by our local school boards.

Just because Illinois law lets them get away with it.

UPDATE (02.03.15).  Just when we dish out the kudos to the Park Ridge City Council for their “unique” level of transparency, a majority of them decide to act like the Star Chambers running D-64 and D-207.

At last night’s Council meeting, four aldermen (Alds. Sweeney, Smith, Shubert and Mazzuca) outvoted three (Alds. Milissis, Knight and Maloney) to run and hide in closed session to discuss the City’s “negotiating strategy” with the Illinois Council of Police and Sheriffs (“ICOPS”) union, the Teamsters union (representing the rank and file police) and the Int’l Association of Firefighters (“Local 2697”).

Besides playing right into the hands of those unions who want to conceal their demands and negotiating demeanor from the taxpayers while wrapping themselves in mantles of selfless public service, Alds. Sweeney, Smith, Shubert and Mazzuca also are missing the boat on why transparency in dealing with public employees is so important: the taxpayers deserve to see and hear how the Council goes about figuring out what’s a fair deal for both the employees AND for the taxpayers, and why.  And it’s that “fair deal” that the City should offer.

Apparently those four majority alderman would prefer, instead, to do that figuring out in secret, then send out their negotiators with a series of low-ball offers in the hope of getting the unions to bite.  As if that might actually happen.

The history of public employee negotiations for the City and all our other local governmental bodies, however, demonstrates that such a “negotiating strategy” rarely, if ever, works.  That’s because the unions are far more motivated to fight for their members’ own personal pocketbooks than our public officials are motivated to fight for OPM. So Sweeney, Smith, Shubert and Mazzuca are blowing smoke up their own kilts if they think they’re going to come up with a “negotiating strategy” that will snooker the unions into a better deal for the taxpayers.

Our guess, therefore, is that those four majority aldermen don’t want the taxpayers to see and hear how quickly and tightly they – and whoever comprises the City’s negotiating team – grab their ankles in response to the unions’ demands.  And while that might not be a pretty sight, that’s EXACTLY why transparency is so important.

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A Two-Fer Thursday

01.29.15

Today we’re borrowing a page from Ira Glass’ “This American Life” with two shorter-than-our-usual posts, which we will introduce in TAL fashion: 

Act One. Cindy’s Victory.

Cindy Grau reportedly has won her battle to be on the ballot in April’s Park Ridge Park District Board election. She will face off against incumbents Jim O’Brien, Mary Wynn Ryan and Mel Thillens. According to Ms. Grau, the hearing officer denied all the objections raised by Charlene Foss-Eggemann.

Our takes on this matter can be found in our 01.07.15 and 01.13.15 posts.

Not so fortunate, however, was Park Ridge-Niles Elementary School District candidate Kristin Gruss, who reportedly was removed from the April ballot when a hearing officer determined that she did not have the required 50 legitimate signatures on the petitions she filed.

We congratulate Ms. Grau on her victory and hope this serves as an object lesson to prospective candidates on the value of knowing, understanding and following the Illinois election laws; and on the risks inherent in not going so. Running for the boards of governmental bodies that control the expenditure of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars isn’t like running for student council. And, like it or not, the politics of such elections “ain’t beanbag” – even in sleepy ol’ Park Ridge.

Act Two. Liquor Liberalization.

A report in this week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Park Ridge looks to extend liquor sale hours at restaurants, stores,” Jan. 27) suggests that Park Ridge is bringing some long-overdue sanity to its arcane and antiquated liquor laws.

If the City Council approves the liquor law rewrite achieved through the yeoman’s efforts of 4th Ward Ald. Roger Shubert, the liquor code’s current 27 license classifications will be reduced to 8. At the same time, restaurants will be able to serve alcohol from 11:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m.; and the sale of packaged alcohol will be permitted from 7:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m.

We applaud anything that makes the liquor code less like something Carrie Nation would have drafted had she lived to see both the Volstead Act and the passage of the 21st Amendment. While alcohol abuse is a significant problem of many dimensions, no legitimate public purpose is well-served by the current regulations. And, frankly, we think it would make even more sense to permit alcohol sales by restaurants and retail stores during whatever their regular business hours, without imposing other arbitrary hours solely for liquor sales.

In that regard we take issue with the argument of Maine Community Youth Assistance Foundation director Teri Collins, who reportedly expressed concern that longer sales hours might give teens more opportunities to purchase alcohol and stated: “We don’t want increased access to alcohol by minors.”

Neither do we, Ms. Collins. But last time we looked, it was illegal for restaurants and retail establishments to sell alcohol to minors. So competent enforcement of the laws already on the books should be taking care of that already.

But if it isn’t, we learned 80+ years ago that prohibition – even if it’s only a partial prohibition through reducing the hours of alcohol sale – isn’t a workable solution to that problem. Better enforcement, and even heavier penalties, is.

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D-64 Has Rodeo, Needs Goats

01.25.15

How many of you know about or remember Park Ridge-Niles School District 64’s current “five-year plan” – “A Journey of Excellence” – to accelerate the use of technology from 2010 to 2015? If you don’t, there’s no need to get your undies in a bunch, because it is expiring this year.

We’ve written about “A Journey of Excellence” and what appears to be its lack of meaningful academic achievement in the past, including in our 05.15.09, 09.16.09, 06.06.11, 09.08.14 and 09.18.14 posts.  We’ve noted how D-64 keeps getting away with spending hundreds of millions of our tax dollars doing what legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden always discouraged with the warning “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.”

But if you have a perverse fascination for trying to figure out how D-64 keeps getting away with it, you might actually enjoy D-64’s website history of the expiring “Journey” – starting with the “4-page PDF list including Action Plans” (with its page 2 commitment that “Student performance on the…(ISATs) will always compare favorably with other high-achieving districts”) and the colorful “Strategic Plan Implementation Schedule 2012-13″.

Not surprisingly, we couldn’t find any reports, presentations, news releases, or any other form of communication on that “Strategic Plan” webpage – the latest of which is dated April 22, 2013 – that actually shows, or even talks about, how D-64’s ISATs “compare favorably with other high-achieving districts.” In fact, we Googled for a solid 20 minutes and could not come up with one instance of D-64’s Board or administration providing any objective and/or numerical comparisons of D-64 ISATs that demonstrate favorable comparisons with other “high-achieving districts.”

That’s because D-64 has learned that dangling the carrot of increased achievement is a great marketing tool for convincing wishful parents and gullible taxpayers that there really are silver bullets for achieving academic excellence; and that D-64 has come up with them through its latest five-year plan. And once that convincing has occurred, making sure those parents and taxpayers don’t realize they’ve been snookered is the key to D-64’s ability to dangle another carrot in front of them five years later.

Which is what it’s doing with the announcement that it is forming a 30-35 member “Strategic Planning Steering Committee” to help the District create a new five-year plan that will “identify the most important challenges District 64 will need to address in the next five years, and how the District might go about planning for those challenges,” according to Supt. Laurie Heinz.

For those of you who have been through these goat rodeos before, you won’t be surprised to read such cliches as “community-driven strategic planning process” that will involve “a wide range of community stakeholders” and allow “all stakeholders…to contribute their ideas and vision” by…wait for it…”completing a survey or participating in a focus group.”

What would one of these rodeos be without stakeholders, surveys and focus groups?

And just for good measure, the committee “will be guided by a highly experienced, outside facilitator” who will be paid a sizable chunk of our tax dollars to make sure all the goats get herded in exactly the direction the D-64 administration and the Park Ridge Education Association (“PREA,” a/k/a the teachers union) want them to go.

It won’t be as impressive as John Wayne surveying a herd of steers and saying “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt,” but it’s likely to be as close as you’re going to get with goats and government.

At the risk (albeit a minute one) of taking away all the fun, expense and faux suspense of this strategic planning goat rodeo, however, we offer the following “challenges” D-64 will need to address within the next five years:

1.  Improving the quality of D-64 education so that student performance and other measurable values actually provide a formidable incentive to our higher-achieving and more demanding current residents to stay here rather than to emigrate to Glenview, Northbrook, Northfield, Wilmette, etc. for their better-scoring school districts; and a formidable incentive for such achieving/demanding non-residents to relocate to Park Ridge instead of to Glenview, Northbrook, et al.

2.  Negotiating a taxpayer-focused collective bargaining agreement with the PREA in 2016 that ends automatic annual raises to teachers for no improved student performance. During the five years of “A Journey of Excellence,” base teacher salaries have increased a total of 11% (not counting “step” and “lane” increases, or any “spikes” for soon-to-retire teachers in order to juice-up pensions) while student achievement based on ISATs appears to have been flat or declined in comparison to “high-achieving districts.”

3.  Convincing folks whose kids have finished using D-64 (and D-207) education that such education will continue to improve and provide an increasing cost-benefit value that will ensure continued appreciation of their home value, thereby discouraging the economic death spiral of current/imminent net-payers selling their homes to current/imminent net-users – the former of whom pay roughly $4,000 of RE taxes to D-64 while the latter of whom pay that same $4,000 but take out $14,000 per kid of “free” education.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for D-64’s Board, administration, or any “highly experienced outside facilitator” to focus on these kinds of “challenges.” They’ll be too busy trying to herd the goats into the pen they’ve already chosen for the next five years.

Just as soon as they declare the most recent five-year plan a shining success simply because it put an iPad or Chromebook in every kid’s hands.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Council COW Refuses To Be Stampeded, Saves Taxpayers $1.167 Million

01.19.15

The Park Ridge City Council made a wise decision last Monday night at its Committee of the Whole (“COW”) meeting when it reached a 5-1 consensus not to proceed with $1.167 million worth of engineering work in furtherance of a $48 million flood relief project for the west-of-the-Country Club area.

The $48 million project, if built, would include 19,000 feet of new storm sewers and a whopping 32 acre-feet of water storage, most of which would likely require a massive vault under part of the Park Ridge Country Club. But despite the size and cost of the project, it would only provide protection from 10-year floods and not from the 100-year floods that have plagued Park Ridge in recent years.

From a cost-effective public works perspective it was a pretty easy decision.

Heck, even the folks from Christopher Burke Engineering – who could have pocketed that $1.167 million fee with no concerns for whether or not the $48 million project would ever be constructed – acknowledged it would cost way too much for way too little real protection.

But political considerations tend to exert a lot of influence on these kinds of decisions, especially when special-interest groups make their presence felt.  And that was the realm in which 5 of the 6 aldermen in attendance stood tallest last Monday night.

Led by Public Works chairman Ald. Marty Maloney (7th Ward), Alds. Nick Milissis (2nd), Roger Shubert (4th), Dan Knight (5th) and Marc Mazzuca (6th) voted not to waste the $1.167 million on plans that would likely sit on a shelf gathering dust. Only lame-duck Ald. Jim Smith (3rd) voted to move forward with the project, claiming doing otherwise was just kicking the can down the road.

Not unexpectedly, however, that decision was greeted with derision from folks in the affected area who don’t seem to understand, or just don’t want to accept, how any elected official might object to spending multimillions of tax dollars to protect one relatively small section of Park Ridge (680 homes out of over 13,000 residences, or less than 6%) against 10-year floods when 100-year flooding is becoming the norm. And when 100-year flood protection in other areas is available for significantly less money.

If you visit the Park Ridge Concerned Homeowners Group (“PRCHG”) Facebook page you can read read how last Monday night’s meeting was “a disgrace” and a “charade” in which the Burke representative “appeared to be in cahoots with members of the City Council.”

While there’s a possibility that some of the City’s Public Works personnel may have gotten a tad too cozy with the Burke folks, that’s always the danger when any City department works closely with one consultant for awhile. But it’s hard to argue for Burke’s being in cahoots with the entire City Council when that “cahoots” involves Burke walking away from a million-dollar piece of business.

The PRCHG folks also seem to be talking through their collective hats when suggesting that the City should be exercising its right of eminent domain to force the Park Ridge Country Club to accommodate whatever flood relief the City wants to construct on PRCC property. ED would require the City to purchase the necessary land from the PRCC – at fair market value – for construction of the water detention vault. The additional millions of dollars that would entail should make ED a non-starter.

And their complaints about the City permitting the construction of McMansions beg the question of where were all those complaints over the past 10 years or more when some (many?) of the current complainers were happily watching their own property values go up as a result of a McMansion or two being built on their blocks? And where were they over the past 15 years when previous City administrations were budgeting several hundred thousand dollars each year for the construction of relief (storm) sewers but then deferring those projects when they decided to divert that money elsewhere?

One complaint raised in the PRCHG discussion by commentators Christopher Kueppers and Thomas Sotos, however, is a good one – one that we raised in our 10.02.14 post about the controversial O’Flaherty project on Talcott: the wisdom of a “fee-in-lieu” of providing sufficient water detention.

We can see no evidence that such a fee is sufficient to effectively ameliorate the adverse effects of new developments to which it is applied. Additionally, according to an August 23, 2013 Memorandum from City Engineer Sarah Mitchell, that fee is used “for future sewer improvement projects” – so not only might it not be implemented as soon as the applicable fee-in-lieu property comes on line but, also, that fee might not even be restricted to that particular fee-in-lieu property or block.

That doesn’t sound like the best plan for dealing with a flood-prone community. But those are different issues for another day.

At least for the time being this Council has made sure that $1.167 million of taxpayer money won’t be wasted on a project that won’t do the job needed to be done.

To read or post comments, click on title. 

Park Commissioner Argues For “Nanny” Treatment For Candidates

01.13.15

Given all the mopes and scoundrels in Springfield – both Democrats and Republicans – who have combined to virtually bankrupt our state government over the past 30 years, it should come as no surprise that the Election Code they devised is far from a model of clarity and convenience.

But many other laws don’t meet that standard, either, which is why there is a continuing need for lawyers and courts. That’s also why the State Board of Elections publishes a pretty comprehensive candidate’s guide each election year.

The 94-page “Candidate’s Guide 2015″ seems to contain all the information a competent candidate would need, even though it boldly warns in the Preface:

Legal information contained in this guide, however, is not binding and should not be construed as sufficient argument in response to an objection to any candidate’s nominating papers. The State Board of Elections recommends that all prospective candidates consult with competent legal counsel when preparing their nomination papers. [Emphasis added.]

And if that’s not warning enough, the very first point under the General Filing Requirements section of the Guide reiterates:

Candidates are strongly advised to obtain legal counsel regarding their qualifications for office, the proper method for completing the petition forms for a specific office, the minimum and maximum number of signatures required, the qualifications of the signers and circulators, etc. [Emphasis added.]

So why (according to a January 10, 2015 article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate, “Park District should be more helpful to candidates: commissioner”) does Park District Commissioner Joan Bende think “[t]he average citizen should not have to go to election lawyers and pay money to figure out how to do this”?

We’ve always assumed the “average citizen” can read the petition requirements and understand them well enough to file his/her petitions, often without consulting “competent legal counsel.” Thousands of candidates in Crook County alone have successfully done so in recent elections, so it really can’t be that darn tough or expensive. But, then again, those “average citizens” also must accept the consequences that flow from their decision to do it themselves if someone decides to object to their petitions, as occurred with the Park Board candidacy of Cynthia Grau.

Accepting consequences and accountability was not in Bende’s tool box at last Thursday (01.08.15) night’s Park Board meeting, however, as you can see for yourself by going to the Park District’s meeting video, starting at the 1:23:40 mark.

Bende spent several minutes bemoaning the “crisis” presented by an objection to the petitions of her friend Grau, who was in the audience. Bende also ripped on the Park District and its long-time attorney, Thomas Hoffman, for not making it the District’s obligation to hold the candidates’ hands and warn them when their petitions don’t satisfy election law requirements.

Hoffman stated that he always has advised District employees not to give what could be viewed as “legal advice” about candidate petitions, not only because that could make the employees witnesses in legal proceedings over such advice but, also, because doing so could constitute the unauthorized practice of law. And according to the H-A article, a State Board of Elections deputy general counsel voiced similar concerns, even while saying that nothing in the Election Code expressly prohibited the giving of such advice.

Those concerns make plenty of sense, considering that even separate branches of the Illinois Appellate Court can’t agree on something as simple as whether or not a paper clip satisfies the Election Code requirement that all pages of a petition being submitted for filing “shall be neatly fastened together…at one edge in a secure and suitable manner.”

Consequently, in Bendell v. Education Officers Electoral Board, 338 Ill.App.3d 458 (1st Dist., March 28, 2003), one appellate court panel held that a 6-8 page petition (Grau’s petition had 29 pages) fastened with a paper clip that needed to be removed to separate the pages “strictly complied” with the securely-fastened requirement. But in Girot v. Keith, 341 Ill.App.3d 902 (3d Dist. July 11, 2003), another appellate court panel held that petition pages fastened with a paper clip “could not meet the purposes of the [Election Code’s] requirements” and were not even in “substantial compliance” with such requirements.

As Justice (and law school dean) Warren Wolfson wrote in his dissent in Bendell: “Fastening securely is not a trivial or nitpicking requirement. It obviously is intended to prevent fraud or tampering, thus preserving the integrity of the papers. It is too easy to slip papers in or out of a packet when a paper clip is used.” Which is why there are staplers, and why the vast majority of people who papers securely fastened staple them rather than paper-clip them, or binder-clip them.

But until the Illinois Supreme Court decides to reconcile these two seemingly inconsistent decisions, or the geniuses in our General Assembly amend the current Election Code to expressly state whether the secure-fastening requirement can be satisfied by paper-clipping, binder-clipping, stapling, spiral binding, velo-binding, or arc welding, candidates would be wise to consult a competent election lawyer.

Which reportedly is what Grau has done, now that her petitions have been challenged. We’re guessing that will cost her a lot more than a pre-filing consultation would have – which might explain why her buddy Bende was in such a fine whine about petition-challenging “bullies” and how “terrible” and “fundamentally unfair” the petition rules and Park District’s no-advice policy are.

According to the H-A article, however, City Clerk Betty Henneman, a non-lawyer, claims that she does a petition compliance review for candidates for City office. Henneman even admits to having “accepted things with a clip on them and stapled it” because she doesn’t “see a big deal with that and…[doesn’t] think that should be an obstruction to running for office.”

Maybe not, but she seems to be getting uncomfortably close to petition tampering. And if the stapling of paper-clipped petitions is not a consistently-enforced City policy, there’s always the chance that one candidate’s paper-clipped petitions might get stapled while another candidate’s might not, thereby unfairly subjecting the latter’s to objections.

We wonder if City Attorney Everette “Buzz” Hill knows that’s what Betty’s been doing all these years?

When all is said and done, however, the competence, diligence and judgment of a prospective candidate must be called into question when she would go to the effort of collecting 200+ signatures but then consider anything short of stapling as a “secure and suitable manner” for fastening those petitions together – assuming she even read that requirement.

And we also have to question the competence, judgment and basic common sense of a sitting Park Board member who wants the Park District to voluntarily (and at no cost to the candidates) substitute for the private legal counsel even the State Board of Elections strongly suggests candidates should consult.

Apparently in Bende’s view of local government, that’s what friends are for.

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