How About Two O’Hare Referendum Questions On April ’11 Ballot?


We’re guessing that when 7,592 Park Ridge voters said “no” on Nov. 2 to an advisory referendum question of whether the City should spend up to $500,000 in addressing O’Hare-related noise and pollution, they expected that vote to end this controversy – at least for the time being. 

But the City’s O’Hare Airport Commission (“OAC”) and its allies on the City Council aren’t accepting that decision. 

They now want the City to spend between $60,000 and $110,000 on an air quality/noise analysis and on attorneys’ fees to have the Taber Law Group of Irvine, California, research and write letters challenging the FAA’s 2005 Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) – which found that noise and pollution from the expansion of O’Hare would be within acceptable health and safety limits for the surrounding area, including Park Ridge. 

But it appears that would only be for starters. 

That’s because if the proposed air quality/noise analysis shows conditions significantly worse than what served as the basis for the 2005 EIS – and if the FAA doesn’t fold like a cheap lawn chair in response – the next step likely would be expensive litigation, although nobody on the OAC seems to want to say anything about that right now.

It’s a lot like the saying “In for a penny, in for a pound”:  The OAC is looking for the “penny” part while ignoring what the “pound” might be. 

At last Monday’s City Council COW meeting, Ald. Don Bach dismissed the recent referendum by suggesting that the results would have been different if the referendum amount were only $165,000 rather than $500,000.  On the other side of that coin, Ald. Joe Sweeney claimed that the voters casting “no” votes didn’t want the City to spend another dime on O’Hare-related issues.

Sweeney is wrong: Just because a substantial majority of voters said they didn’t want to spend up to $500,000 on battling O’Hare doesn’t necessarily mean they want to spend nothing at all.

Just because Sweeney is wrong, however, doesn’t mean Bach is right.  The referendum was given a $500,000 price tag because that’s the number the OAC itself came up with as its wish-list figure for dealing with O’Hare issues.  

And if the OAC is given carte blanche with the public purse, that $500,000 figure is likely to be only a fraction of what the ultimate cost will be – because it seems that, to the OAC’s members and those residents who view O’Hare expansion as the equivalent of terminal cancer for their property values and their health, no expense should be spared.  As Bach himself said several months ago, Park Ridge needs to fight O’Hare with “everything we’ve got” – apprarently irrespective of whether we’ve also got a realistic chance of winning that fight. 

In our November 11 post (“Another O’Hare Referendum In April?”), we suggested that this April’s ballot contain a new O’Hare advisory referendum question: “Should the City end its funding of measures related to O’Hare Airport?” We still think that’s a worthwhile question to ask. 

But we’re also willing to let the voters test Bach’s $165,000 hypothesis by adding a second O’Hare advisory referendum question to the April ballot, duplicating the November referendum language but simply changing the dollar amount: 

“Shall the City of Park Ridge allocate funding, in an amount not to exceed $165,000, to seek expanded and accelerated noise abatement solutions intended to address the negative impacts of O’Hare Airport expansion on residential property values, local schools and the overall quality of life in our community?”

Let’s see whether Bach will step up and propose this referendum to the Council for approval; and whether the OAC will support the $165,000 limit rather than a blank check. 

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Court Overturns City’s Foolish Re-Zoning


Back on July 8, 2009, we published a critique of the City Council’s July 6, 2009, vote to change the zoning of long-time commercially-zoned properties into multi-family residentially-zoned ones (“Private Property Rights And Sound Zoning Policy Hijacked By 4-3 Vote”).  One of those properties was the former Napleton Cadillac parking lot at 200 N. Meacham.

Our main objection than (as it remains today) was that such a decision favored more multi-family residential development, which increases the strain on our already overwhelmed infrastructure, over commercial development.  That kind of pre-emptive residential rezoning also effectively eliminated any possibility that those properties might attract retail or other commercial development – and the property and sales tax benefits that kind of development might bring – when there wasn’t even a residential developer seeking such a change.

The principal schemer for this foolishness was none other than Ald. Robert Ryan, who is so clueless when it comes to sound government policy and fiscal responsibility that he couldn’t find Col. Mustard in the Public Works Building with the new Vactor.  And Ryan’s co-conspirators were Alds. Jim Allegretti, Don Bach and Frank Wsol, all of whom disregarded the recommendation of the Planning & Zoning Commission that the zoning of those properties should remain unchanged at least until some developer comes forward with a plan that requires a zoning change.

As can be seen from the minutes of that July 6, 2009, meeting, an attorney for Napleton warned the Council that such a change would so adversely affect the value of his client’s property that a lawsuit was likely.  But Ryan and his merry band were not going to be intimidated, and they went ahead and voted for the change.

Well, folks, Napleton sued.  And according to this week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Cook County Circuit Court: Judge overrules rezoning of private property in 2009,” Nov. 23), Circuit Judge Peter Flynn agreed with Napleton that the zoning change made by the City Council over a year ago was unlawful because it required a three-fifths super-majority, rather than a simple 4-3 majority, vote.

That’s pretty much a technicality, but we’re fine with it because it restores the affected properties back to commercially-zoned status – where they likely will remain unless Ryan again pushes for re-zoning; and one of the three aldermen who voted against the change flips to Ryan’s side.

We don’t think that’s likely.  But one thing we’ve observed about Ryan in his 3+ years on the Council – and during his term on the D-64 School Board back in the late 1990s – is that he’s not one to let a bad idea drop, especially if it’s his bad idea. 

Remember: for months he lobbied for the ridiculous 20 S. Fairview (a/k/a Scharringhausen) lot purchase despite the City’s shaky financial condition and the fact that such a purchase would take yet another piece of private property off the tax rolls.  And Ryan can still argue, as he previously did, that conversion of those properties from commercially-zoned to multi-family residentially-zoned is consistent with the City’s now 8 year-old Uptown Comprehensive Plan which, not so coincidentally, he helped devise.

Fortunately, Ryan’s got less than six months left on the Council, which is one more thing to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.  On the other hand, City Mgr. Jim Hock supported Ryan’s boondoggle, and he has no known departure plans.  Nor does City Attorney Everette “Buzz” Hill and/or his deputy, Kathie Henn, who appear to have gotten the law wrong on the number of votes needed for the zoning change.  We wonder just how much that gaffe cost us in legal fees for the Napleton litigation.

But the H-A reports that Hill is saying he does not believe the City will appeal Judge Flynn’s decision, which should put a halt to further legal expenses.  So add that to the list of things to be thankful for.

For PublicWatchdog, that includes all you readers.

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Latest Mayoral Veto Case Of “Man Bites Dog”


In the 18 months he has been the mayor of Park Ridge, Dave Schmidt has already done something no Park Ridge mayor in memory had done – and he has done it 4 times, by our count.

He has vetoed City Council actions.

That’s the one power Illinois law gives our mayor to deal with legislation to which he objects. And we believe Schmidt used that power wisely the first three times: to veto the budget (over-ridden); to veto handouts of public funds to private community groups (10 of 13 sustained); and to veto a flawed contract for the city manager (sustained).

But we think Schmidt’s fourth veto this past Monday may have been his most significant use of that power, if only because it appears to have been something no other suburban mayor has done before: he vetoed a Council resolution that would have benefited one of his friends and campaign contributors by as much as $50,000!

That veto prevented O’Reilly’s Irish Pub from receiving funding from the City’s misbegotten and fiscally-foolish Façade Improvement Program. One of O’Reilly’s owners (and a neighbor of Schmidt’s), Ed Berry, contributed $175 to Schmidt’s mayoral campaign.

Given the size of the City’s budget, saving $50,000 – assuming Schmidt’s veto is not over-ridden by 5 aldermen at the Council’s December 6 meeting – isn’t earth-shattering in the economic sense. And those inclined towards trivializing achievements they oppose will undoubtedly note that $50,000 is less than 1/10 of 1% of the budget – like Alds. Allegretti and Ryan so often did in response to Schmidt’s veto of the Council’s public funds giveaway to private community groups.

But in this corrupt, “Ubi est mea” political cesspool known as Illinois, a public official stopping public money from filling the pockets of friends or campaign contributors is tantamount to the occurrence described by the fictional newspaper headline: “Man bites dog.”

On even a local level, Schmidt’s conduct stands in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Howard Frimark, whose tenure was marked by such questionable maneuvers as his closed-session lobbying for the City to buy 720 Garden from one of his country club buddies…at $200,000 more than the City’s own appraised value; or his casting of the tie-breaking vote to give $1,000 campaign contributor Napleton Cadillac $400,000 of site clean-up money even as GM was pulling its dealership.

We’d like to think that Schmidt’s victory over Frimark was, in part, a product of the voters’ rejection of such chicanery in City government, but that remains to be seen. Questionable deals like billboard licensing and the Fairview parking lot purchase still lay in the weeds; and, this being Illinois, they most likely are only the tip of the iceberg.

But this mayor, once again, has demonstrated that fiscally-irresponsible “business as usual” is no longer the unchallenged rule at City Hall.

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Indian Scouts Show What They Can Do For Their City


One of the most notable, and best, quotes from Pres. John F. Kennedy came near the end of his inaugural address on January 20, 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Unfortunately, for most of the past half-century since Kennedy spoke those words, too many people came to see government at every level as an ever-expanding cornucopia of benefits large and small.  Only some of the worst economic conditions since The Great Depression have finally caused some to reconsider such a view of government.

So when the Park Ridge City Council cut somewhere between $30,000 and $45,000 (depending on whose numbers you believe) of decorative holiday lights out of the City’s 2009-10 budget, more than a few people who have come to expect more from government than just basic services promptly whined about how the absence of lights would hurt the community’s…wait for it…”quality of life.”

But then a strange and wonderful thing happened.

The Indian Scouts program stepped up and, with the aid of a few local businesses, volunteered to put up the lights; and Park Ridge sparkled pretty much as usual last holiday season.

If you have been out and about over the past couple of weeks you have been able to observe the Indian Scouts’ handiwork again this year.  And the taxpayers have saved another $30,000 – $45,000 that can be put toward the essential services that government should provide in return for the taxes it collects.

Of course, there are some residents who view this scenario as evidence of a decline in our…wait for it again…”quality of life” because private volunteers, instead of the government, are doing the decorating.  And we expect others – such as Alds. Jim Allegretti and Robert Ryan, for example – to dismiss these savings as another meager fraction of 1% of the City’s $50 million-plus budget, just as they did in denouncing Mayor Dave Schmidt’s vetoes of the giveaway of public funds to private community organizations.

Apparently they were missing from grammar school the day the teacher opened Poor Richard’s Almanack and taught about how “a penny saved is a penny earned.”

Whatever money is saved by volunteers soliciting and contributing private funds and labor as a substitute for public funds and labor truly is money “saved” and, therefore, money available for more important public purposes.  And even small amounts of money, when added together, can be significant – as reputedly noted in the early 1960s by Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen in talking about federal expenditures: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Even more important than the actual savings, however, is the lesson this kind of volunteerism can teach those special interests for whom the expansion of government and government spending seems inevitable, if not even desirable.

Unlike those private community groups with the entitlement mentality who have become accustomed to getting handouts from government that they can’t get (or won’t make the effort to get) directly from the taxpayers themselves, the Indian Scouts and their parents are giving handouts to government.  That’s the kind of “volunteer” spirit we need more of, especially in these difficult economic times.

And that’s why we offer to those volunteers a hearty “Well done!”

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Another O’Hare Referendum In April?


Last summer, members of the City’s O’Hare Airport Commission told the City Council that a majority of Park Ridge residents wanted the City to fight the new O’Hare runways; and it asked for $500,000 to pay for a lobbyist, lawyers, additional noise studies, etc. 

Yet when the Council had the good sense to consider addressing this issue through an advisory referendum, Alds. Allegretti, Bach and Ryan opposed it – with Allegretti characteristically harrumphing about how the voters elect people like him to make these decisions, presumably without the voter input that a non-binding, advisory referendum provides. 

At a later meeting, a $500,000 cap was added to the referendum question by a 4-3 vote of Alds. Carey, DiPietro, Sweeney and Mayor Schmidt (as tie-breaker, in the absence of Ald. Ryan) v. Alds. Allegretti, Bach and Wsol, none of whom wanted the voters to consider the very dollar figure that the OAC was looking for from the City and, hence, from those voters. 

Not surprisingly, members of the OAC now want to read the 7,494 (56.9%) “No” to 5,678 (43.1%) “Yes” result in a glass-half-full way, with OAC chair Sue Perschke and member Christine Kutt both interpreting it as simply a rejection of the $500,000 amount rather than a mandate that the City stop spending money fighting O’Hare expansion. 

Fair enough. 

Now that we know a majority of the voters don’t want to spend $500,000 on battling O’Hare, let the City Council put the following question to another non-binding, advisory referendum on the April ballot, while this matter is still fairly fresh in the public’s mind: 

“Should the City end its funding of measures related to O’Hare Airport?” 

If a majority of the voters say “Yes,” that should serve as a convincing sign to the Council that the City should focus on solutions that don’t involve throwing any tax dollars at the problem.  And if the voters say “No” to that question, then the Council (and the OAC) can reasonably conclude that some middle-ground is needed – perhaps a combination of money for noise and pollution studies (for purposes of building a case for a supplemental Environmental Impact Study) combined with some political arm-twisting of Illinois’ new Congressional delegation.  

Perschke says the OAC is discussing the possibility of another referendum question, but with more specificity as to what noise abatement measures would be pursued.  

We think such a question, especially when paired with the one we propose, would be a fine addition to the April ballot…so long as it contains a dollar amount so that the voters aren’t being effectively asked to sign a blank check.  

Even if a blank check is exactly what the OAC, and the anti-O’Hareans, are looking for.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  We wish to remind our readers that today is Veterans Day, the one day each year that our country pays tribute to the men and women of its Armed Forces, both past and present.  Please take a moment out of your day to to give thanks and to honor them for their patriotism, their service and their sacrifice to help gain and preserve the freedoms we all hold dear.  And we also wish to once again remind our readers that, in addition to our gratitude, our veterans have earned proper medical care, educational opportunities, and jobs.

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“Money Has Never Been Cheaper To Borrow” – Dangerous Words From District 64


For Park Ridge residents who are unemployed, underemployed, or fully employed but still just hoping to make ends meet from week to week, the idea of borrowing money to buy or build stuff that they don’t desperately need just because interest rates are extremely low is not at the forefront of their thinking. 

Even successful businesses that appear to have weathered the current economic storm are cautious about borrowing “cheap money,” because cheap money still has to be paid back; and if there isn’t the likelihood of such borrowing producing a significant return, there’s little reason to do it. 

The reasoning employed by private individuals and private businesses, however, doesn’t seem to translate all that well to the public sector. 

Take, for instance, the Community Finance Committee (“CFC”) of the District 64 Board of Education.  This Committee is supposed to be the District’s financial brain trust – it was created several years ago when the District’s finances, even after cutting more than $12 million from the budget over a six-year period, remained so botched that the State Board of Education was considering taking over their management.  

The District avoided that embarrassment by passing a $5 million “backdoor” non-referendum working cash bond issue, and then bailed out those working cash bonds by passing the big 2007 tax increase referendum.  

At its October 14, 2010, meeting, CFC members discussed capital improvements to the District and how to fund them.  Needless to say, short and long-term bond funding was the topic of choice because “money has never been cheaper to borrow” – according to Page 2 of the minutes of that meeting. 

And who was leading the cheers for more borrowing?  

The District’s contact at its investment banker, William Blair & Co., who advised the CFC that “the District could sell up to $27 million of short-term debt without referendum” for projects to be completed within 3 years.  

That must have been the signal for School Board member Sharon Lawson to report that the Board’s Facilities Committee “is going to come back to life” to look at longer-than-3-year “needs” for capital improvements. 

In other words: Now’s the time to borrow, so let’s put the band back together and come up with some projects. 

Ms. Lawson wasn’t on the School Board back in 1996-97 when it decided to borrow and spend approximately $20 million (not including interest) to tear down what was then the newest school building in the District, Emerson Jr. High (then being leased from the District and successfully operated as the Futabakai Japanese School) and build a brand new Emerson Middle School. 

We haven’t seen any data that establishes the economic or academic ROI of that project, although we assume somebody can justify it by the academic version of the old reliable “quality of life” argument – perhaps Ald. Robert Ryan, for whom the new Emerson effectively was the valedictory of his one term as a District 64 Board member from 1993 through 1997, seeing as he headed up the District’s Long-Term Needs Advisory Committee that was instrumental in pushing for the new Emerson over the other proposed space solutions.    

If new brick and mortar really had that much inherent value, we’d expect Emerson Middle School to be consistently outperforming Lincoln Middle School, and Franklin Elementary doing the same to Roosevelt.  But we haven’t seen any data to support that kind of analysis, either here in Park Ridge or in other districts.  

And because public buildings tend to be specialized structures unsuitable for any other uses, they tend to be depreciating, rather than appreciating, assets whose value is usually only the land on which they sit. 

Which gets us back to the original point: Why is District 64’s financial brain trust thinking about a capital spending spree just because “money has never been cheaper to borrow”?

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Asking More From NIMBYs


As anyone who has read this blog knows, we generally like NIMBYs – people who take political action solely because of their unvarnished self-interest in preventing something they don’t want from happening in their literal or figurative “back yard.”  

That’s because, like canaries in a coal mine that provide an early warning to miners that danger literally is in the air, NIMBYs draw our attention to problems we might otherwise overlook because they’re not too high on our personal radars.  And that’s a good thing, irrespective of the actual merits of their position. 

The most recent example of NIMBYism here in Park Ridge is the cell tower T-Mobile wanted to erect at Northeast Park, next to the tennis courts. 

T-Mobile received the blessing of the Park Ridge Recreation & Park District, which stood to receive around $25,000 a year in license fees.  Although the Park Board approved the tower at a sparsely-attended public meeting back in April, an outpouring of NIMBY opposition at the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission hearing last Tuesday night (October 26) prompted P&Z’s denial of T-Mobile’s request for the necessary special use permit it needed for the tower.  

Frankly, the Park District screwed this up, big-time, by not giving the Northeast Park NIMBYs the direct-mail notice of the April Park District meeting it customarily gives neighbors before taking actions that would have a significant impact on any parks.  Had that custom been followed, the crowd that showed up at City Hall for the P&Z meeting likely would have shown up at Park District headquarters back in April; and the T-Mobile deal might have been scuttled right then and there. 

That mistake by the Park District created a lot of unnecessary ill will.  Hopefully, Director Ochromowicz and the Park Board members have learned their lesson. 

And we hope the entire community learned the lesson that a relatively small group of citizens – in this case, the 80 to 100 who showed up at the P&Z meeting – can have an impact on local issues that is generally impossible to achieve on the county, state or federal levels, absent the contribution or bundling of $500,000+ to some politician’s campaign fund.  

But we wonder whether a more important lesson was learned by, or lost on, the NIMBYs protesting the cell tower, many of whom seemed a little too impressed with what was achieved with only one visit to City Hall – a well-deserved victory, most assuredly, but one that may have been as much (or more) the product of T-Mobile’s own failure to satisfy all the City’s special-use application requirements as it was of the merits of the NIMBYs’ complaints. 

A cell tower in a park is the easiest of political targets, and clearly not representative of most governmental problems – whose complexities regularly bedevil our elected and appointed public officials.  

What about resolving the City’s continuing multi-million dollar deficits, or its flooding problems? What about District 64’s less-than-impressive performance on the ISATs compared to other districts?  What about the Park District’s losing almost $100,000 a year on Oakton Pool, and another almost $200,000 on the Senior Center?  Or, for that matter, how does the Park District go about replacing the $25,000/year it was going to get from the cell tower? 

These problems can’t be solved in one meeting, or by a few handfuls of impassioned speeches. But they are far more important to the present and future of this community than one cell tower in one park.  And they deserve a whole lot more resident attention and input than they seem to be getting. 

The big question is:  Can NIMBYs, including the Northeast Park variety still basking in the self-satisfaction of their recent cell tower victory, see their civic duty as extending beyond their own backyards?

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“Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.” (George Jean Nathan)

“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” (John Quincy Adams)

“If you have been voting for politicians who promise to give you goodies at someone else’s expense, then you have no right to complain when they take your money and give it to someone else, including themselves.” (Thomas Sowell)

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