Public Watchdog.org

D64 Candidate Forum: No Hard Questions, No Hard Answers

03.19.15

Guest Post by Steve Schildwachter

This past Monday (March 16) evening I went to the District 64 school board candidate forum sponsored by the PREA teachers’ union, the Parent Teacher Organization and the Elementary Learning Foundation.  (I had to look up the latter organization, which appears to be a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit that awards “grants to teachers and staff who are committed to excellence in education” and is governed by a group of parents.)

The candidate line-up was different than I expected.  Tony Borrelli, an incumbent, was there, along with newbies Greg Bublitz and Tom Sotos, but Mark Eggemann was at work and sent a statement that was read by the moderator. Bob Johnson was there even though he is running unopposed to fill out the term to which he was appointed when a former board member resigned his seat last summer.

This post won’t attempt to be a strict account of the evening, just my impressions based on the public and private remarks of the candidates.  The newspaper article previewing the event promised that “members of the community will be invited to ask questions,” which turned out to be wrong. But I was able to squeeze in some informal questions when people were milling around afterwards.

My biggest impression:  None of the candidates made one.  It would have been hard for any voter to walk out of the forum ready to support any of the candidates – because none of them expressed any clear, specific points of view.

For example, a common refrain during the event was “for the children.” As in: “We’ll do what’s right for the children,” and other variations on that theme.  Look, it’s clear to me that everyone involved has the best of intentions and wants District 64 schools to be the best they possibly can.  No one needs to prove that.  But this phrase doesn’t translate into any firm point of view.

So, please, Messrs. Borrelli, Bublitz, Eggemann, Johnson and Sotos:  Can we please retire this rhetorical crutch?

The second most-used phrase of the evening was “do more with less,” a reference to the supposed tightness of D64 budgets which actually increase every year.  To that point, the candidates who said they’d “do more with less” never said how they’d achieve this.  There were some questions from the moderator about how candidates would manage spending and whether or not they’d raise taxes, but nobody committed to any positions beyond saying that if a ceiling was falling apart, “we should fix it.”

With the exception of Tony Borrelli, who’s been on the board for four years, there seemed to be a lack of knowledge of how the budget actually works.  For example, Sotos — who told me he’s reading “a big stack” of research — hadn’t even heard of the “step and lane” system by which teachers get annual pay increases according to their years of service (steps) and level of education (lanes).  Stated another way:  The 2% annual pay increase given to the teachers in 2012 is over and above these “lane and step” increases, meaning that they effectively get an average increase of +3.6% per year.

Although Tony can definitely claim he was only one of two “no” votes against the +2% pay increase of 2012, I was left wondering how serious he would be about controlling costs in his second term.  In December — just three months ago — Borrelli, Johnson and four others voted for a +4.6% budget increase, above the legal limit, because “we have to ask for more so Cook County will approve the maximum allowable.” The maximum allowable?  This does not sound like cost control to me.

In public comments Monday night Borrelli said the school board should let administrators do their job and only provide “oversight to ensure policies and procedures are being followed,” which didn’t suggest a willingness to hold administrators accountable.  I was waiting to hear a candidate say they would instruct the superintendent to prepare multiple budget options, e.g., one that cuts spending by 2%, one that keeps spending flat, and one that takes the fully-allowed-by-law increase (which is what they vote for every year).

To be sure, managing a big budget like this one is a tough task, and elected representatives aren’t paid to do it.  But these candidates were there willingly and perhaps should at least ask the hard questions.

Can we cut administrative positions?  Freeze administrators’ salaries?  Which of our expenses is rising faster than the CPI and which are rising more slowly?  If we cut the budget by 2% and didn’t cut teachers’ salaries, what would we cut? Maybe these questions are being discussed; but if so, no such discussions occurred Monday night.

The only outright gaffe of the evening was Bob Johnson’s statement that “the community doesn’t want a teachers’ strike,” accompanied by a colorful listing of all the negative consequences; e.g., Park Ridge on the 10 p.m. news (but, curiously, no concern for children not being able to attend class).  I’d venture to say that it’s true, the community would rather not have a strike.

But Bob was answering a question about how to handle the upcoming teachers’ contract negotiations. PREA teachers’ union president Andy Duerkop was sitting right in the front row and now knows at least one board member will be a pushover at the bargaining table.

On the same topic, I asked Greg Bublitz if he would recuse himself from teacher contract negotiations, but he didn’t really answer yes or no.  Would his experience as a District 63 teacher and administrator help inform the discussions, or make him sympathize with the union, or both?  What about the fact that his wife is a District 64 teacher?  My point was that he owed voters an answer before Election Day, not after.

All of this comes back to the budget.

When I moved to Park Ridge ten years ago my property tax bill was $9,880, and by last year it had doubled to $19,549.  I’ve since negotiated down my assessment, so my tax bill is “only” $16,836. But what that really means is only that I succeeded in shifting part of my tax burden to my neighbors.  Nevertheless, District 64’s portion of my tax bill has jumped from 37.3% ten years ago to 42.5% this year, which shows how fast the budget has increased.

When I explained this to one of the candidates, he retorted that I should be complaining about the City of Park Ridge’s planned +22% increase.  This really made me mad because, when I ask the Park Board for some fiscal responsibility, they blame the school districts. Yet now here’s the school district blaming the City.  Which is rich because a big chunk of the city’s increase stems from the Uptown TIF — and money it must pay to Districts 64 and 207 under the City’s TIF agreements with those districts.

We should be able to demand fiscal responsibility from all our local taxing bodies, all the more so because they are composed of our friends and neighbors — people we live and work with.  Which leads to my last point.

It seemed to me that none of the candidates were willing to stand up for a position on anything because they were too afraid to offend, alternately, the teachers, the administrators, or their neighbors.  It’s as if they must keep saying “for the children” as much as “do more with less” so they can’t be accused of being anti-child, anti-teacher or anti-tax increase.

I’m all for comity and friendship.  In fact, I genuinely enjoyed meeting Andy Duerkop, and we have some important, personal things in common.

But the candidates weren’t supposed to be there to make friends. They were there asking to be elected to a local body that decides how much money will be demanded from you, me and every single one of our neighbors. The least they could have done was tell us what they would do if elected.

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Monday’s Daily-Double: The City And D-64 (Updated)

03.16.15

Two important events will occur this evening that merit your attention.

Election of Acting Mayor: Early on in the Park Ridge City Council’s agenda for tonight is the scheduled election of the Acting Mayor pursuant to Section 5 of the Illinois Municipal Code. Because Mayor Dave Schmidt died with less than 28 months left in his term, state law provides that the Council shall elect the Acting Mayor from among its members.

Because state law does not provide for a “temporary mayor” who would serve until the successors to current Alds. Joe Sweeney (1st) and Jim Smith (3rd), the City Attorney has recommended that the Acting Mayor be chosen as soon as possible. Hence, tonight’s election.

We would hope that whomever is chosen will make a public commitment to continue on the trail Mayor Dave blazed over these past six years. This Council, and the one that will follow it come May, owe a debt of honor to his legacy of honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability in City government through what would have been the final two years of his second term, at the very least.

But just because state law doesn’t provide for a temporary mayor to serve for the six-plus weeks until the two new aldermen will be seated, doesn’t mean some ill-informed folks won’t call for the Council to wait anyway. As if brand new out-of-the-box aldermen could possibly have anything close to the sense of the current Council’s group dynamic – and what it’s like to work with each of these individual aldermen – that Sweeney and Smith have developed over 4 years of Council service.

So if candidates Cline, Moran, Van Roeyen and Wilkening want to demonstrate a little statesmanship, they should all show up at City Hall tonight and unanimously tell the Council, and their fellow citizens, that they don’t want the Acting Mayor vote postponed – because the aldermen most qualified to vote on the Acting Mayor are already sitting around The Horseshoe.

We’re not going to hold our breath waiting for that to happen, but we would be delighted if it did.

D-64 Candidate Forum: A candidate forum for Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 will be held tonight from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. in the Roosevelt School auditorium, 1001 S. Fairview.

The forum purportedly is being “sponsored” by the various D-64 Parent-Teacher organizations, the Elementary Learning Foundation, and the Park Ridge Education Association a/k/a the teachers union (“PREA”). But make no mistake about it: this is the PREA’s rodeo, as even the title of last week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate story suggested (“District 64 teachers, school groups host candidate forum,” March 10).

That story quotes PREA president Andy Duerkop as admitting (a) that the union recruited candidate Greg Bublitz, a former special-education teacher and current East Maine School District 63 administrator; and (b) that candidate Athan “Tom” Sotos sought support from the PREA. In other words, one started out in the PREA’s pocket, and the other happily climbed in with him.

Which would explain their campaign signs paired around town. And why the PREA wants to put as many PREA-beholden sock puppets on the new Board as it can, seeing as how that Board will be negotiating – with the PREA, naturally – the new teachers’ contract next year.

They’ve already got Scott “Mini-Heyde” Zimmerman in their pocket, and we can’t imagine the malleable Vicki Lee standing up to the PREA. Appointee Bob Johnson has done nothing in his 7 months on the Board to dispel the concerns we expressed about the process by which he was selected. Worse yet, the performance of two candidates whom we previously endorsed – Board president Tony Borrelli and Dathan Paterno – has been underwhelming, to say the least.

We wouldn’t be surprised if the PREA turns out a hefty number of teachers and friendly parents in support of their sock puppets. And to hiss their Public Enemy No. 1: candidate Mark Eggemann, who is decidedly not a sock puppet and who is the only D-64 non-incumbent (according to the H-A’s March 12, 2015 candidate profiles) who is demanding improved student achievement and more accountability to the taxpayers.

If you’re feeling a little civic-minded tonight, you could go to City Hall at 7:00 to see the Acting Mayor selected and still have time to catch most of the D-64 candidates forum at Roosevelt. But if you can only go to one, then the place to be is the Roosevelt auditorium.

Because that’s where you’ll find the sock puppets on parade.

UPDATE (03.16.15).  Moments ago, Ald. Marty Maloney (7th) was elected Acting Mayor by a 6-1 vote of the City Council: Alds. Milissis, Shubert, Knight, Mazzuca and Maloney – yes; Ald. Sweeney – no; Ald. Smith – abstain, which counts with the majority.  Maloney pledged to extend the legacy of the late Mayor Dave Schmidt.

Maloney said he would remain an alderman rather than give up his aldermanic seat in return for being able to exercise mayoral veto power.  Sweeney claimed Maloney’s refusal to relinquish his seat was the reason for his “no” vote, but Sweeney promptly congratulated Maloney after the vote.

Godspeed, Acting Mayor Maloney.

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There Will Never Be Another Mayor Dave

03.10.15

Last Monday night (March 2), Park Ridge Mayor Dave Schmidt gave his sixth consecutive “State of the City Address.” By his own admission, it was the most upbeat one he has given.

He didn’t know it was to be his last.

Mayor Dave was buried yesterday in the Town of Maine cemetery. He died suddenly late last Wednesday (March 4) night of what is believed to have been a brain aneurysm.

Ironically, in the address’s opening-paragraph Mayor Dave claimed to be “as optimistic as ever about the City’s future,” clearly unaware of how soon his own future would be cut short. Throughout his address he cited the progress made on such matters as the refinancing the Uptown TIF bonds, a lower projected TIF deficit, stopping further decline in Moody’s rating of the City’s bonds, surpluses in the General Fund, and the repair of the Touhy railroad overpass.

Always the realist, however, he echoed Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address (“a wise and frugal Government…”) in reiterating the need for City government to maintain its resolve that “every single dime we ask the taxpayers to give to us is spent as wisely and frugally as possible.”

That should be a prominent piece of the legacy Mayor Dave left his successors and our community.

The rest of Mayor Dave’s address was a mixed bag of the good and the not-so-good. But telling his constituents the bad as well as the good was a hallmark of Mayor Dave: he respected us enough to tell us the truth.  And he trusted us to understand and use that truth to vote and act in the best interest of our entire community.

That respect and trust should be a prominent piece of his legacy, as well.

One of Mayor Dave’s greatest virtues was that he never wanted to be mayor. As a first-term First Ward alderman he regularly scoffed at any suggestion that he was looking toward the big chair at The Horseshoe.

But about a year into his aldermanic term he saw and heard things that he knew weren’t right. He spoke out against improper closed sessions and the secret dealings that went on in them, most notably over the City’s attempt to acquire the 720 Garden property for a new police station.  That earned him a formal, albeit meaningless, “condemnation” from his predecessor and a majority of his fellow aldermen, even though everything he said and did was fully within the boundaries of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

It also contributed to a break with his mayoral predecessor – as did Ald. Dave’s siding with residents who opposed the traveling road show known as PADS because he believed it to be a half-cocked, ineffective and inhumane way to address homelessness; and because it violated the City Code.

Those positions made Ald. Dave a number of powerful adversaries. But it earned him even more supporters.

And the more he studied City finances, the more he realized they were a house of cards that nobody else around The Horseshoe – elected official or bureaucrat – wanted to acknowledge.

So when no other challengers to the then-sitting mayor stepped forward in 2009, Ald. Dave became Candidate Dave, a reluctant Cincinnatus with a simple campaign platform: “H.I.T.A.”

Honesty. Integrity. Transparency. Accountability.

Can you imagine any “politician” running on such a platform?  They’d be laughed right out of the politicians’ union. But Candidate Dave was no “politician” because he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he wouldn’t compromise principles just to make some half-baked, short-term deal that would make some special interest happy.

So despite running as the darkest of dark-horse candidates – a short-time Park Ridge resident with no kids in the local schools or sports programs, no family members living in town, no local business presence, and no Country Club, Rotary, Kiwanis or Lions club memberships – his message and his two-year record on the Council resonated with the voters. He won the mayoralty in 2009 by a solid margin over the incumbent.

His adherence to those H.I.T.A. principles and his straight-talking, stand-up style during his first term in office earned him the nickname “Mayor No” for having the common sense, courage and foresight to just say “no” to unaffordable and/or misguided spending; and the nickname “Mayor Veto” for doing what no other Park Ridge mayor had ever done: veto irresponsible budgeting and veto irresponsible spending.

Not all of his vetoes were sustained, but a majority of them were. And the ones that were sustained saved hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on untimely, unnecessary or just outright wasteful expenditures.

That earned him re-election in 2013 by an even wider margin than in 2009 – despite the first-ever endorsement of his opponent by (and a $1,000 contribution from) the union representing the City’s public works employees; and an unprecedented endorsement of that same opponent by the City’s three previous mayors and twenty-five former aldermen allegedly representing 100 years of City government experience.

Mayor Dave took that in stride: “If the people who caused all the problems we’re stuck with are for [my opponent], I must be doing something right.”

And indeed he was.  But that ended last Wednesday night.

In his six years in office, Mayor Dave was bolder and more courageous, and more fiscally responsible, than all three of his predecessors. Combined. He embraced the daunting tasks they left for him and “his” City Councils. And in that relatively short time he and those City Councils succeeded in mending the gaping holes in the City’s finances while at the same time invigorating the City’s spirit with a new style of government – grounded in reality but energized with a freshness, honesty, transparency and optimism that won him support from a broad spectrum of City residents.

Mayor Dave knew his own mind and had firm principles which he articulated clearly and acted upon decisively.  Although a staunch Republican, he never saw any City issue as a “Red” or “Blue” one.  He knew the color of most of the City’s problems was green, the color of money, which is why he was so focused on the financial side of City government.

He never backed down from a fight when he was championing the cause of Park Ridge, and especially its taxpayers.  Mayor Dave instinctively embraced the common sense of those taxpayers that Nelson Algren so marvelously memorialized in his book Chicago: City on the Make: “For the masses that do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart. And they think there’s something fishy about someone giving them a museum for nothing and free admission on a Saturday afternoon.”

Substitute “an Uptown TIF” for “a museum,” and “anything” for “admission,” and you’ve got the picture.

There will never be another Mayor Dave.

He was the right man at the right time for Park Ridge: an affable, tireless, guile-less yet savvy public servant who hated “politics” and the term “politician,” for good reason.  He strove every single day to do the right thing for the well-being of his adopted community with absolutely no expectation of, or desire for, any economic, social or personal gain.  Whether at his Loop law office, at the ballpark, or on vacation near some ocean a thousand miles away, he truly was the 24/7 mayor Park Ridge needed these past six years.

But now he’s gone.

So it’s left to those of us who believed in the principles of government he stood for to carry them forward – hopefully with something close to the humor and irreverence he regularly brought to the task.

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” (Dr. Seuss)

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R.I.P. Mayor Dave

03.06.15

Park Ridge Mayor David Schmidt dead at 57 (Park Ridge Herald-Advocate, March 5, 2015)

Mayor David Schmidt remembered for vetoes, civic passion (Park Ridge Herald-Advocate, March 5, 2015)

 

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.

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Candidates Forum Tonight!

02.19.15

cheltenhamexpert.co.uk

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.

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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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