Public Watchdog.org

Kool-Aid, Anyone?

03.31.08

Memo to Park Ridge-Niles Elementary School District 64 Board members John Heyde, Ron James, Marty Joyce, Chris Mollet, Sue Runyon, Ted Smart and Genie Taddeo: Why do you need to enlist help from our community’s “key communicators” to win support for your plan to add more than $700,000 a year in new personnel, including more administrators? 

As reported in last week’s Herald-Advocate (“District 64 invites public to discuss new staff additions,” March 27), District 64 has invited certain select individuals – including members of last year’s referendum committee and other District 64-affiliated groups – to attend a “Power Point presentation” (a/k/a, a dog-and-pony show) by Supt. Sally Pryor about this new personnel plan this Wednesday, April 2, so that those “key communicators” can, in turn, “spread the word” to the community about what a great idea this is.

But if this is such a great idea, we would expect its benefits to be pretty self-evident from whatever information persuaded you board members.  So why not simply publish that information on the District’s website where the general public could read it?  And even if this plan needs some explanation, aren’t all of you Board members who seem to endorse it, or Supt. Pryor who helped devise it, capable of providing that explanation without recruiting mouthpieces from the ranks of the same folks who helped you sell the big tax increase referendum to the voters a year ago?   

Yes, we know that other members of the public are also “welcome to attend” this meeting, so long as they RSVP (by calling 847.318.4300) before showing up.  But the use of invitations sends a pretty clear message about who you want at this meeting.   

If you really wanted to know what the community thinks about spending almost three-quarters of a million dollars annually on new personnel, you should have sought public input for the idea months ago – before Staff even put this plan together – rather than after you devised it, announced it, and began catching the flak you should have expected given how, only a year ago, you were assuring the voters that the extra revenues from the tax increases would not be used for new personnel. 

Instead of packing a room with cheerleaders and passing out the Kool-Aid, why not hold a truly “open” meeting and, for starters, address the issues raised by Robert Smith in his March 13, 2008, letter to the editor of the Herald-Advocate (“Promises didn’t include more positions”)?  If you tried asking the public about what you want to do before deciding on it, maybe you wouldn’t have to recruit others to “sell” the public on it.

Gimme Shelter

03.28.08

Judging from the articles and letters to the editor in this week’s local newspapers, as well as the comments on this site, the PADS shelter set to open in October at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church has become a hot topic in Park Ridge.  But this is an issue that deserves more light, not more heat; and for starters that light should shine squarely on the people who tried to fly this shelter into the basement of St. Mary’s under the radar.

Let’s start with the Park Ridge Ministerial Association, which suggests that its member churches actively shared information with and solicited opinions from their constituent congregations.  Since St. Mary’s gave “St. Mary’s Carousel of Learning” the boot last summer after more than 20 years on those premises, apparently to pave the way for the PADS shelter, how many of those churches devoted even one Sunday sermon to engaging their congregations in a meaningful discussion of homelessness, its effects on our community, and the “need” for a PADS shelter in Park Ridge? 

And if, as is now being reported, the City and several of its officials (including the mayor and the chief of police) were apprised of this PADS initiative months, if not years, ago, why wasn’t it placed on the agenda by the City Council for public discussion – such as when, for example, the Carousel whirled its way over to Park Ridge Presbyterian and the Council chamber was filled with neighbors raising their concerns about the effects of that move?  We also question why weren’t several alternative shelter sites publicly identified and publicly debated before St. Mary’s was chosen?

Of course, the Park Ridge Ministerial Association is not a governmental body, so it’s operations are not governed by laws like the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) that are designed to demand transparency and accountability from  our public officials.  But purely on the basis of ethics and morals – the very things invoked by the PADS shelter proponents/apologists against anyone who dares question their plans – don’t these churches, the clergy and boards that operate them, and our public officials all owe their members and the community as a whole far more transparency and accountability than they’ve shown so far?

Separation of church and state is a fundamental principal of this country.  But both of those institutions depend for their continuing vitality and credibility on fostering the more exemplary attitudes and behavior over the lesser – as in, for example, valuing the asking for permission before taking action above the asking for forgiveness after the deed is already done.

As we suggested in Wednesday’s article, we need a lot fewer dissembling politicians and a lot more straight-talking, public-spirited leaders.  And we need them every bit as much in our religious and social organizations as in our governmental ones.   

What Would Jesus Do About PADS?

03.26.08

Last week’s edition of the Park Ridge Herald Advocate contained a letter from most of our local churches (and several other organizations) soliciting support for, and explaining the genesis of, the initiative that will bring a PADS (Public Action Delivering Shelter) facility to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church beginning this October (“PADS initiative was outgrowth of outreach,” March 20).

As we’ve said before on this site, we have not yet formed an opinion on this PADS initiative…for the simple reason that we do not believe that there has been the kind of full and fair public discussion that such a facility – as well as the people of this community (especially those St. Mary’s neighbors) – deserve.  Residents, especially those St. Mary’s neighbors, deserve to know how many people will be housed at St. Mary’s, what kind of problems (financial? drugs? alcohol? sexual deviancy? violence?) those people may have, what kind of treatment/care/assistance (besides temporary housing) they need and are receiving, and how they will be monitored and accounted for.  

We also question what appears to be the less-than-forthright and transparent way the PADS proponents have gone about the process of bringing such a facility to our community.  For example, the letter states that “[t]hree feature articles about the project appeared in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate,” an assertion which seems directed at a perception among at least some local residents that there has been an attempt to sneak this facility into town with a minimum of scrutiny by the taxpayers. 

We don’t know what three articles they are talking about, because we could find only one H-A article when we did a “Search” of the H-A website – from the February 28, 2008, edition of the H-A.  And that article portrayed the PADS facility at St. Mary’s as virtually a done deal (“Park Ridge to join PADS network of shelters”[pdf]), not an early-stage proposal on which the public could provide meaningful input. 

The letter goes on to recite a litany of meetings purportedly held over several years, again with the seeming intent of depicting a process that was both fully-disclosed to, and openly-discussed by, the community as a whole.  We seriously doubt, however, that many of the 37,000-plus Park Ridge residents regularly attend, or regularly receive the minutes of, meetings of the “Park Ridge Ministerial Association” – where many/most of those discussions may have taken place. 

Similarly, we don’t put much stock in a “survey” of PADS support reportedly consisting of 600-plus pew cards collected from various churches, which sounds about as reliable as Ald. Don Bach’s (3rd Ward) “survey” of a whopping 30 of his constituents that inspired him to vote for a giveaway of up to $2.4 Million taxpayer dollars to Napleton Cadillac.  Neither “survey” sounds like a good way to measure overall community sentiment or to make decisions that can significantly impact our residents, especially when only the number (“over 600”) – and not the contents – of those pew cards is reported.

But where the letter’s authors really start to sound more like politicians (insult intended) rather than religious leaders is their claim that they “sought a church that did not have a school or day care in its building” for the PADS site, and then “invited St. Mary’s Episcopal Church to consider being the host church.”  Unless we’re grossly mistaken, St. Mary’s did have a school/day care center, St. Mary’s Carousel of Learning [pdf] (now “Christie’s Carousel of Learning”), until it hastily packed up and moved over to Park Ridge Presbyterian Church with no real explanation other than that St. Mary’s “wanted to use the…space for other things.”[pdf]

More troubling still is the fact that those PADS proponents remained strangely silent and out of sight all during last Fall’s debate over whether the Carousel’s new location could safely and acceptably accommodate the expected additional traffic.  If the relocation of the Carousel from St. Mary’s was primarily to make way for the PADS facility there – as now appears to be the case – basic honesty and decency would suggest that such information should have been volunteered by the PADS proponents at that time.

So what would Jesus do about a PADS shelter in Park Ridge?  We’re not nearly as sure about the answer as the religious “pros” who support the PADS initiative seem to be, perhaps because we see a number of potential problems that have been glossed over by the PADS proponents instead of publicly aired and resolved.  But from our “amateur” reading of the Bible we do know that Jesus always told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what he was doing, and why.

For starters, maybe the PADS proponents should give that a try.

A Well-Deserved Salute

03.24.08

Every so often it’s nice to take a break from reporting on the problems and follies of the various branches of local government in Park Ridge and recognize something that’s being done well.  That’s why today we salute the Maine South High School varsity Scholastic Bowl team for its second consecutive IHSA regional title, which it won by defeating Schaumburg, Conant and Lake Forest High Schools. 

The Scholastic Bowl format mimics the old “G.E. College Bowl,” which ran on national television from 1959 to 1970: Team members buzz in to answer questions on a variety of subjects and score points for their teams.

In the sectionals, Maine South tied Loyola Academy and New Trier, but lost a “total points” tie-breaker to Loyola.  Nevertheless, the team will be competing with approximately 160 teams worldwide at the National Academic Quiz Tournament to be held in Rosemont over the Memorial Day weekend.  

The team is coached by faculty member Jason Dutmers, and is comprised of the following Maine South students: Lauren Cichowski, David Cottrell, Luke Elderkin, James Garbossa, Jimmy Grizzell (Capt.), Kendra Johnston, Jogin Jose, Nick Kohler, Summy Lau, Melanie Mendez, Patrick Mirski, Greg Piekos, Mike Rago, Dan Schallmo, Brian Wagner, Laura Walsh, Tim Warnock and Steven Wear.

Well done!

The Watchdog’s Kibbles & Bits – Box 8

03.21.08

It Ain’t Over ‘Til Howard Says It Is?  Like some schoolyard bully, Park Ridge Mayor Howard Frimark figuratively punched Ald. Dave Schmidt (1st Ward) in the nose a couple of weeks ago with a petty, ineffective and perhaps even illegal “condemnation” of Schmidt for having the nerve to tell the public the truth about what the City Council was doing in secret.  But Schmidt punched back this past Monday night with a trenchant rebuttal of Frimark’s folly.  And Frimark, just like a bully who is finally confronted, seems to have lost his bravado and now calls for an end to the “condemnation debate” he himself started, claiming (as his face-saving alibi) that the “City Council has important business to address.”   

Yes it does, Mr. Mayor, just as it did two weeks ago when you chose to take your cheap shot at Ald. Schmidt, apparently expecting him to cower and become another one of your alderpuppets.  Too bad you needed Schmidt to smack you upside the head in order for you to realize it. 

Park Ridge’s “Super K–Mart.”  You’d think that filling potholes, balancing a budget, and performing the other essential tasks of city government would be enough to keep the City Council engaged.  But while those essential tasks go begging, the Council is preparing to embark on the frolic and detour of redevelopment of what it’s marketing as the “Higgins Corridor.”  And based on early reports, the big-ticket property in the Higgins Corridor is Mr. K’s Garden and Material Center at 1440 Higgins. 

For the time being, Mr. K’s owner, Mark Kowalski, is keeping his cards close to his vest.  “I don’t know if we’ll sell to a developer, develop it ourselves or do a land lease of some sort,” he is saying. “We’re just starting out right now. We’re very much in the infancy of this.”  And for the time being, we’ll take him at his word and wish him the best in his capitalistic endeavors – preferably free of any meddling by our city bureaucrats (and their mercenary consultants) whose redevelopment efforts so far have generated many more millions in expense and debt than in revenue.  

Heading For The Hills.  After 57 years, the business now known as Hill’s Hobby and Collectors’ Shop is closing and moving to Buffalo Grove.  The current owners have given several reasons for the move, including that the average Park Ridge shopper spends only $30 while about half of its customers from the north and northwest suburbs spend an average of $300.  No wonder Hill’s is moving closer to those bigger spenders – while we are left to wonder whether it suggests some serious problems for Park Ridge in attempting to re-invent itself as a retail mecca. 

But another one of the reasons for Hill’s’ departure is more puzzling and troubling. As reported in yesterday’s Herald-Advocate (“Hill’s Hobby to move to Buffalo Grove”): “Mayor Howard Frimark has said the former car dealership building, from which Hill’s has operated since 1985, may be sold to a developer.” 

We can’t help but wonder whether that might explain why Hill’s was offered only a two year lease that included a termination clause if the building is sold. Which causes us to also wonder why Frimark is making such gratuitous pronouncements (or speculations) about existing commercial properties, especially if they create the kind of uncertain business climate that may have helped make Hill’s’ departure a fait accompli.  

Maybe “Integrity” Ain’t What It Used To Be.  Despite his other success last Monday night, Ald. Schmidt failed in his attempt to advance his proposal to require both elected and appointed city officials to recuse themselves from voting on a matter before them if they have an ongoing economic relationship with the person or entity interested in that matter.  While we see some pros and some cons in that proposal, we were amazed at the passion with which 4th Ward Ald. Jim Allegretti denigrated it, going so far as to claim that it “slights us intellectually and slights our integrity.” 

Since you brought it up, Ald. Allegretti, where was your integrity when you came before the City Council in June, 2005, for confirmation as Mayor Frimark’s handpicked aldermanic successor and failed to even mention that you had given Frimark’s campaign fund a $300 contribution just a few months earlier – a fact that could not even be independently discovered at that time because Frimark’s campaign had not yet reported it?  And where was Mayor Frimark’s integrity when he, too, failed to disclose that contribution to the aldermen considering your appointment?  

The fact that you made an additional $200 contribution to Frimark’s campaign fund a few weeks after your appointment was confirmed also raises the specter of the kind of pay-to-play political chicanery (albeit on a much smaller scale) for which Gov. Blagojevich crony Tony Rezko is on trial down at the Dirksen Federal Building.  

Perhaps thou doth protest too much? 

Schmidt…For The Defense

03.19.08

Only a few short weeks ago, Mayor Howard Frimark and his Alderpuppets – Jim Allegretti (4th), Don Bach (3rd), Tom Carey (6th), Rich DiPietro (2nd) and Robert Ryan (5th) – expressed their condemnation of Ald. Dave Schmidt (1st) for daring to make public certain information about the hiring of attorneys to investigate/audit the Park Ridge Police Department, and about the City’s attempt to purchase 720 Garden for a new police station.
 
Frimark solicited support for that condemnation statement from the Alderpuppets and Ald. Frank Wsol (7th) – while keeping it secret from Schmidt – and then read it during the “Mayor’s Report” portion of the Council meeting, thereby preventing any pre-meeting publication and any citizen comment. That statement falsely claimed that Schmidt’s disclosures had compromised the acquisition of the 720 Garden property as well as the privacy of certain police officers. 

Not surprisingly, that statement – although clearly intended by Frimark as an official act of the Council – had no legal force and effect, a fact of which Frimark apparently was informed in advance of the meeting by City Attorney “Buzz” Hill. Consequently, Frimark’s subsequent reading of it was nothing more than a naked political ploy, a gratuitous shot at Schmidt for shining a light on backroom dealings concerning matters which deserved public scrutiny. 
 
This past Monday night (March 17), however, Schmidt presented his defense to Frimark’s charges.  For those of you who were unable to attend, we present the full text of Schmidt’s comments for your delectation:

ALDERMAN SCHMIDT’S RESPONSE
TO THE MAYOR’S “STATEMENT OF CONDEMNATION”

I.          PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND LACK OF DUE PROCESS

            On March 3, 2008, Mayor Frimark read a statement condemning my actions for disclosing to the public contents of two confidential memos authored by then-City Manager, Tim Schuenke, dealing with the Park Ridge City Council’s closed session discussion of issues related to a police station and an investigation of the City’s Police Department.  The condemnation was joined by Aldermen DiPetro, Bach, Allegretti, Ryan, and Carey.    

        According to Black’s Law Dictionary, to “condemn” an individual means to “[t]o find or adjudge guilty.”  The civil law definition of the term “condemnation” is “[a] sentence or judgment . . . which declares that [the individual’s] claim or pretensions are unfounded.” Exhibit 1.pdf 

            In other words, the mayor and the Frimark Five adjudged me of guilt by secret ballot, without giving me any opportunity to respond and defend myself. 

            Since the mayor and the Frimark Five have deemed it appropriate to adjudge me of being guilty of wrongdoing, I will take this opportunity to present my defense and then let the Court of Public Opinion decide who is guilty.

II.         I CANNOT BE CONDEMNED FOR TAKING ACTION WHICH WAS LEGAL
           
            First, and most importantly, I received an e-mail from Mr. Schuenke sent shortly after my disclosure of his memos confirming that he had no knowledge of any statute, ordinance or rule that prohibited the disclosure of closed session materials and discussions. Exhibit 2.pdf  I also received an e-mail from the City Attorney confirming that my actions were legal.Exhibit 3.pdf  Therefore, the mayor and the Frimark Five took the absurd action of condemning me for doing something which the City Manager and City Attorney conceded was perfectly legal.
           
            I am not alone in finding such an act to be absurd.  In fact, the Illinois Attorney General has stated in an official opinion letter that “the possibility of imposing sanctions against a member of a public body for disclosing what has occurred at a closed meeting would only serve as an obstacle to the effective enforcement of the Act, and a shield behind which opponents of open government could hide.  Such an absurd construction of the law, which would render ineffective the public policy of this State favoring openness in government, must be avoided.” Exhibit 4.pdf (emphasis added).

            To summarize, the mayor ran around behind-the-scenes and consulted privately with individual aldermen who gave their consent to what amounted to an adjudication of guilt against me without giving me any notice of the charges to be brought against me, without giving me any chance to respond and for doing something which the City Manager and City Attorney said was legal and which the Attorney General says is protected conduct.  Now, that is truly absurd.

III.        THE MAYOR’S “STATEMENT” WAS AN ILLEGAL RESOLUTION

            Black’s Law Dictionary defines a “resolution” as “[a] formal expression of the opinion or will of an official body or a public assembly, adopted by vote.” Exhibit 5.pdf

            According to the City Attorney, the mayor asked him to draft a resolution, which he said reflected the will of the majority of the aldermen. Exhibit 6.pdf  The document that the mayor circulated to the aldermen and sought their support for was labeled as a “resolution.” Exhibit 7.pdf

            At some time after the mayor circulated the resolution but before the City Council meeting, the mayor was advised that a resolution would require open discussion and an open vote.  To circumvent that requirement, the mayor had the audacity to simply change the heading of the document to “STATEMENT” and remove some verbiage which clearly identified the document as a resolution. Exhibit 8.pdf  However, Alderman DiPetro wrote to me, “A majority of the Council enacted a Statement condemning the release of Confidential Closed Session matters.” (emphasis added).  That is the definition of a resolution. Exhibit 9.pdf

            I hereby condemn the mayor and the aldermen who joined him in adopting such a resolution in secret, without any due process and in violation of the law.

IV.        MY ACTIONS IN RELEASING CLOSED SESSION INFORMATION WERE PROPER AND IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CITIZENS

            Finally, let’s examine the substance of the meaningless condemnation/resolution itself.  I was accused of compromising the City’s position on the purchase of real estate for a police station without any evidence supporting the accusation.  In fact, before the mayor delivered his statement at the City Council meeting, he knew, and had told others, that the negotiations with the potential seller were still very much alive.  Moreover, I make no apology for disclosing to the public the fact that the City was attempting to purchase property for a police station before having public discussions as to whether we should put a police station there or anywhere and, if so, how we were going to pay for it.

            The second transgression I was accused of was compromising the integrity of police officers and the police department in general.  However, not a single active police officer was named in Mr. Schuenke’s memo. (See the memo attached as Exhibit 10.pdf.)  The mayor simply made it up.  Moreover, I again reiterate that I have no qualms at all about my disclosure to the public.  The citizens had every right to know about the Council’s discussions concerning the scope of the police department investigation.

            So, in short, the mayor ignored the Open Meetings Act, circumvented proper procedure for a resolution and fabricated grounds for a condemnation, and the Five joined in without discussion.  Why?  The answer seems pretty clear.  I have stood up to the agenda of the mayor and the Five which has rewarded the mayor’s political contributors at the expense of the residents and the taxpayers.  I will let the residents decide who is right and who is guilty.

            The defense rests.

Well said, Alderman.

Letters Worth An Extra Look

03.17.08

Last week’s (March 13, 2008) Park Ridge Herald-Advocate contains a trio of letters to the editor that are definitely worth a look.

That trifecta is kicked off by “Fix neglected Cumberland Ave” by Ellen and Mike Ribaudo, which makes the spot-on observation that Park Ridge is seriously under-achieving its upscale image with its infrastructure, especially when a main thoroughfare like Cumberland Avenue is a dangerous and embarrassing collection of potholes.

As the Ribaudos point out, we pay heavy-duty property taxes for what should be top-drawer infrastructure, but isn’t.  Of course, when Mayor Frimark and his Alderpuppets (Allegretti, Bach, Carey, DiPietro and Ryan) are more concerned with giving away millions of our tax dollars to Frimark campaign contributors like Napleton Cadillac, or giving above-appraisal purchase offers to unidentified property owners (like whoever owns American Insurance Agency), who’s got the time or the money to worry about such mundane matters as potholes?

                    *                           *                           *
Dan Knight’s “On efforts to condemn openness” provides another dose of well-deserved criticism of Frimark’s and The Alderpuppets’ “condemnation” of 1st Ward Ald. Dave Schmidt’s crusade against the over-use and abuse of closed session meetings and questionably “confidential” information that combine to deprive us ordinary citizens of “timely and full disclosure of matters of importance.”

Knight correctly asks those condemners to “try breaking out of the insularity of the apparent closed circle of friends and supporters who will tell you what you want to hear” and start talking to the rest of their constituents.  Good advice, Mr. Knight…but don’t hold your breath.

                    *                           *                           *
Last but not least is a letter from Robert Smith, who takes the District 64 School Board to task – with his “Promises didn’t include more positions” – for how they are already starting to spend the extra tax money we gave them via last April’s referendum. 

Smith sounds betrayed, and rightly so, because Supt. Sally Pryor and the Board let Smith and others who worked for the passage of the referendum hustle the voters with promises “that 100 percent of the additional funds raised [through that referendum] would go into the classroom” rather than for new administrators and staff.

Too bad Mr. Smith and the others weren’t paying attention since the late 1990s when Dist. 64 imported a superintendant from another district to sell us a $20 Million new middle school (Emerson) that appears to have started the District down a road of deficit spending and financial mismanagement that included landing on the State Board of Education’s financial “Watch List” of districts who can’t manage their finances.  Notwithstanding almost $12 Million of budget cuts – that the District insisted would not harm the quality of education – and a less-than-honest “backdoor referendum” in 2005 through which the District borrowed an additional $5 Million in working cash bonds so that it could use the incoming tax revenues to shore up its depleted fund balances without actually going to the voters for the money, the District still needed last April’s referendum. 

But now, flush with that fresh cash, it looks like the District has given itself the green light for spending on such proven education quality-enhancing features as more administrators.  Which brings to mind the words of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who, writing in The Wall Street Journal this past December, criticized the American education system in a way that seems to apply in spades to Dist. 64:

[W]e have built too many bureaucracies that lack clear lines of accountability, which means that mediocrity and failure are tolerated, and excellence goes unrewarded. We recruit a disproportionate share of teachers from among the bottom third of their college classes. Then we give them lifetime tenure after three years, and we reward them based on longevity, not performance.

But so long as we let District 64’s Board and bureaucrats get away with what they’ve been getting away with for more than a decade, we’ll keep on getting what we’re getting.

Why Are We Bidding Against Ourselves?

03.14.08

Mere stupidity or outright corruption?  We can’t tell for sure, but Park Ridge Mayor Howard Frimark is sure making it a tough choice. 

As we previously reported here, the real estate appraiser hired by the City of Park Ridge came up with an appraisal of $770,000 for the American Insurance property at 720 Garden, the most recent flavor-of-the-month site for the big new police station the City wants to build.  Because the appraiser had the wrong square footage (how does an appraiser get the square footage wrong?), however, former City Mgr. Tim Schuenke (good riddance) adjusted the price upward to $888,000, which he then rounded up to $900,000 before inexplicably recommending that the City offer $1.1 Million for it! 

But just when we thought that process couldn’t get any more fiscally irresponsible, Mayor Frimark has kicked it up a notch to theater of the absurd: He has announced that he wants the City to get a second appraisal done – because he claims the City’s first appraisal was too low! (“Mayor wants second appraisal on land,” Herald-Advocate, March 13).

Is it merely stupid, or outright crooked, to offer $200,000 above your own appraiser’s stated value for a piece of property the City has the right (by eminent domain) to condemn and purchase at its provable fair market value?  And is it even more stupid, or more crooked, to then demand a second appraisal that you have already decreed must be higher than your first…especially when you’re the buyer?   
 
We’ve suspected for quite awhile that there were real estate deals being secretly worked out in the area south of the tracks known as “Target Area 4″: Although the City has proposed cop shop sites willy nilly, for some unknown reason it seems fixated on Target Area 4 – even though the City has not even attempted to determine the ideal geographic location for a new police station.

We here at PublicWatchdog are unrepentant capitalists.  We have no problem with anybody making a lot of money – even from the City – so long as it’s done honestly and  in plain view.  But when a city manager first gooses up an offer by $200,000 more than the City’s corrected appraised value of the property, and then the mayor wants a completely new appraisal because he claims the first one was too low, something smells.

It also causes us to ask: “Just who’s side are you on, Mr. Mayor?”

Avoiding Our Own “Operation Board Games”

03.12.08

An influence peddler named Tony Rezko is currently on trial – the result of a federal investigation called “Operation Board Games” – for helping get the “right” people appointed to State of Illinois boards and commissions by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.  Those board and commission positions are unpaid, but they are nevertheless highly desirable because of the contracts those boards and commissions give out. 

It’s alleged that Blago buddy Rezko sold his good-as-gold recommendations for big bucks, some of which went to Blago’s campaign fund while the rest was kicked back to Rezko and his cohorts.  Meanwhile, favored insiders walked away with profitable contracts doled out by those boards and commissions populated by Rezko’s “people” and the “people” of other influence peddlers, suggesting that being in a position to influence “those that gives” can go a long way toward determining “those that gets.” 

The City of Park Ridge has its own boards and commissions and, like the state’s, they are comprised of people chosen by one man.  In Springfield it’s Gov. Blago, while in Park Ridge it’s Mayor Howard Frimark.  Although the City Council provides advice and consent on those appointments, that traditionally has been a mere formality.  And with the current crop of Alderpuppets (Allegretti, Bach, Carey, DiPietro and Ryan) rubber-stamping virtually anything he wants, Mayor Frimark’s appointments have all had smooth sailing.

We want to make clear that we endorse the concept of altruistic citizens, through service on these boards and commissions, providing input on many of the decisions that ultimately are voted on by the City Council.  In fact, we think they are needed even more than before, with only a seven-member Council and a City government hemorrhaging senior staff due to both a misguided early retirement policy (enacted by the prior Council) and what may be active “housecleaning” by the mayor. 

That’s also why it’s more important than ever before that those board and commission members are the best available, free of the social, economic and political ties that can cause the kinds of shenanigans being revealed in the Rezko trial – even though we want to make clear that we have no evidence that would call into question any of the actions by those boards and commissions to date.

Unlike the state boards and commissions which tend to have final say over many of the issues they address (e.g., how much funding gets allocated to low-income housing, who gets to manage the billions of dollars in state pension funds, etc.), most of our boards and commissions merely make recommendations that must be approved by the City Council.  But even when the Council had 14 members it rarely rejected those recommendations, so there’s no reason to expect heightened scrutiny of future recommendations from a Council with only half that many members.

Just because those boards and commissions don’t make the final decisions, however, doesn’t mean that their recommendations to City Staff and the Council as to who should get the consulting contracts for proposed projects and programs don’t carry a lot of weight; and those consultants, in turn, seem to have significant input as to who ultimately gets the contracts that end up costing us taxpayers multi-millions of dollars and/or put the City multi-millions of dollars in debt.  

What do we know about the members of the various City boards and commissions that have this kind of influence?  Nothing but their names, judging from the “Boards and Commission Members” page of the City’s website.  Whether that’s the product of mere sloth on the part of the City or just another insult from the Culture of Secrecy, we still deserve to know more about those appointees than just their names.

What we should be told about them are things that we might not otherwise know or can readily discover, but which would help explain why they were appointed and also give us some insight into why they say and do the things they say and do.  Let’s start with who appointed/re-appointed them and when.  Throw in their educational background, current occupation and by whom they are employed, along with any other significant qualifications, credentials or experience that may have figured into the mayor’s decision to appoint them.  And include a photograph so that we can recognize them when we see them on the street, on the Metra train, or at the Jewel.

And while you’re at it, City, why not do the same for our elected and appointed officials?  For example, telling us only that Ald. Schmidt is a “law partner,” that Ald. Ryan is a “Vice President national civil engineering firm” and Ald. Wsol is a “Group Manager of Information Technology,” doesn’t give us a whole lot to go on.

One of the ways to end the Culture of Secrecy is to make sure the average citizen knows enough about all of the “players” to make informed and reasoned judgments about what those players are doing and why.  And since we can’t tell the players without a scorecard, it’s time the City gave us one.

Let’s Make A Deal: The Higgins Corridor Version

03.10.08

From what we’ve seen in Park Ridge and some other suburbs we have come to the conclusion that government bureaucrats are pretty inept, if not totally clueless, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of private real estate development.  And for the most part, the elected officials don’t seem measurably better. 

Unfortunately for us taxpayers who foot the bills, that doesn’t stop them from pretending to understand development and throwing our money at it.  That’s why some of those bureaucrats and elected officials from the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission will meet tonight (7:30 at City Hall) to kick off what the City has already started hyping as the “Higgins Corridor” redevelopment – and what already has the appearance of another one of those “we’ll get our money back in 10-20 years” boondoggles. 

Tonight’s featured dog-and-pony show will be the “Higgins Road Corridor: Findings Report” [.PDF] by Camiros, Ltd. (“Camiros”) and Valerie S. Kretchmer Associates, Inc. (“Kretchmer”), who were retained by the City to the tune of $50,000 ($25,000 of which appears to have come from a matching state grant obtained by State Sen. Dan Kotowski) to help prepare a “plan” for the approximately 30-acre stretch of Higgins Road between Dee on the west and Canfield on the east.  And perhaps because the City has hired Kretchmer in the past – she was paid to come up with reasons to fill the Library Block with retail – she has also thrown in a separate “Market Assessment for the Higgins Road Corridor.” [.PDF]

If you have a few minutes you might actually want to take a look at these two documents on the City’s website, if only to see how little real substance you get for $50,000 these days: A lot of canned data, the same map reproduced several times only with different colored areas, and some wishy-washy opinions that seem only slightly more believable than a tea-leaf reading. 

What these reports amount to, as we see it, are a sales pitch for Mr. K’s Garden Center (2.2 acres) and, to a lesser degree, the former Budget-Rent-A-Car site (.73 acres).  Well, not exactly a sales pitch – more like a buying pitch that will ultimately become an argument for the City’s throwing a lot of money in the direction of the owners of those two properties, either by buying those properties outright (can you say “Bredemann”?) or by “facilitating” their sale with taxpayer dollars (can you say “Napleton”?).

Interestingly enough, neither Camiros nor Kretchmer identified any real impediments to private developers purchasing one or more parcels in the Corridor and formulating their own development plan that could be presented to the Council for approval.  After all, no matter what the City thinks or does, it’s going to be the developers putting up the cash who will ultimately call the tune on any Higgins Corridor redevelopment, just like it was PRC who called the tune on Uptown’s Target Area II and Park Ridge 2004 LLC who did the same with Executive Office Plaza.

So why did we pay $50,000 for the Study?

Because the City’s bureaucrats, Mayor Frimark, and his Alderpuppets all need “cover” for any new giveaways to developers, especially in view of the flak that they’ve been catching over the recent zoning giveaway at Executive Office Plaza and the potential $2.4 Million giveaway to Napleton.  So they order up some reports and opinions from bought-and-paid-for “experts” and hope that all of us dumb taxpayers will be dazzled by such insights as that the Higgins Corridor “is heavily trafficked and congested during rush hour,” and that one of its attractive qualities is “its access to the CTA’s Blue Line Train at Cumberland Avenue, which travels from Chicago to O’Hare Airport” (Camiros report, at page 12).  Wow!

We don’t know whether Camiros is providing the dog and Kretchmer the pony, or vice versa.  But we’ve seen this movie before with Uptown Redevelopment, only with a different group of animal trainers in the starring roles.  And as best as we can tell from the questionable information the City has made available about Uptown, we’re still years away from even achieving a positive cash flow on that project, and many more years away from retiring the debt we undertook to sell Uptown to PRC.

But tonight’s meeting will be yet another sign to the development community that Park Ridge is open for business.  Mayor Frimark’s already wearing his Monty Hall “Let’s Make A Deal” jacket, and Economic Development Director Kim Uhlig is an acceptable stand-in for “the lovely Carol Merrill.”

Too bad it’s our tax dollars behind Door Nos. 1, 2 and 3.