Public Watchdog.org

Is D-64’s Videotaping Propaganda A Benchmark Of Overall Credibility?

08.29.11

Late last week a “blast” e-mail went out from School District 64 Supt. Philip Bender that included the following bullet-point:

  • I am pleased to announce that District 64 is now videotaping Board of Education meetings.   The videotaping is one of the ways the Board is enhancing the transparency of its operations and engaging stakeholders.  It also meets our Strategic Plan goal of accelerating the use of advanced technology.  Beginning with the August 22 meetings, the full-length videos can be viewed by selecting the meeting link on our website: http://www.d64.org/subsite/dist/page/board-education-meetings-984

To listen to that bit of propaganda, one would think that Bender and the School District 64 Board were in the forefront of promoting transparency and accountability of D-64 activities.   

But as recently as the July 11th board meeting, Board member Scott Zimmerman – sounding clueless about the Illinois Open Meetings Act – branded the videotaping of meetings as “against school board policy,” while Bender insisted that he would need an opinion from the District’s legal counsel because he was “extremely uncomfortable that someone could manipulate and edit the video.”  With only newbie board member Anthony Borrelli speaking in favor of videotaping, it looked like it would be buried “in committee” for several months, if not longer.

Enter Marshall Warren and several other citizen activists, who showed up at the Board’s August 8th meeting with video camera in hand and videotaped that meeting on their own, uploading the video to a YouTube site appropriately labeled “sunshine4d64.”

As if by magic, the District had its own video camera up and running at the very next (August 22nd) meeting – and almost immediately its propaganda machine began shamelessly spinning the “transparency” credit away from the citizens and towards the District’s administration, as if videotaping were its idea all along.  

The shameless deception can only be appreciated in light of the fact that even the TribLocal story dated August 26, 2011, carried the headline “Prodded by parents, District 64’s school board begins recording meetings,” and noted that, even after videotaping had been requested, “the district didn’t budge.”

For the time being, Warren et al. are planning to keep on videotaping while at the same time lobbying WOW to provide the camera and equipment for broadcasting D-64 meetings live as WOW recently did for Park Ridge City Council meetings.  And they should continue their own videotaping, given that the apathy and even outright antipathy D-64’s cast of characters (save for Borrelli) has displayed toward videotaping raises a possibility of some controversial segment of some future board meeting mysteriously disappearing into a “Rosemary Woods”-style, 17-minute gap.

Which brings us to the most important element of this videotaping saga: credibility.  Specifically, the credibility of D-64’s leadership. 

If not for Warren and his merry band of activists, there is no way in H-E-double hockey sticks that D-64 would be videotaping its meetings – just like there was no way the City was going to videotape Council meetings until then-newly elected Park Ridge Mayor Dave Schmidt donated a video camera and recruited George Kirkland and Charles Melidosian, thereby proving that it didn’t cost anywhere near the $120,000 City Staff had budgeted to start videotaping City Council meetings.

What would it have taken for Bender and the D-64 Board to have prefaced their propaganda statement with the words “In response to the requests from members of this community…”?  Only the willingness to start playing it straight with the citizens who have made Bender and his fellow D-64’s administrators the 4th highest paid in the State of Illinois, and D-64’s teachers the 25th highest paid teaching staffs in the state – according to a May 31, 2011, study published in the Chicago Sun-Times – while the academic performance of D-64 students doesn’t begin to approach either of those two lofty rankings.  

But apparently that kind of honesty is too much to ask, either from the bureaucrats themselves or from the public officials known as the School Board we have elected to make sure those bureaucrats keep their collective thumb off the scale, so to speak. 

Which should make all of us wonder: If D-64’s administration and board can’t be trusted to tell the truth about something as simple and innocuous as videotaping meetings, how credible and forthright can they be expected to be when it comes to the really big issues, like the $70 million-plus 2011-12 budget that is scheduled for approval next month, or the upcoming teachers contract negotiations?

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Shameless Frimark The Perfect Taste Inc. Spokesman (Updated 08.25.11)

08.24.11

Park Ridge Mayor Dave Schmidt and Finance & Budget Chair Ald. Dan Knight (5th Ward) wanted at least one of the operators of Taste of Park Ridge NFP (“Taste Inc.”) to appear at a City Council meeting and answer some questions about Taste Inc.’s management of Taste of Park Ridge (“TOPR”) – starting with what it did with all the money it made running TOPR as a for-profit Subchapter S corporation from 2005 through 2008, even as it was praising itself as a not-for-profit corporation whose “volunteer” operators never made a penny for their efforts. 

Every last one of the Tastees – Albert Galus, Dave Iglow, Dean Patras, Sandy Svizzero, Barb Tyksinski, John Warnimont, Jackie Matthews and Mel Thillens – basically told Schmidt and the Council (and, indirectly, the taxpayers) to go pound sand: they were too busy, and they would remain too busy until some unspecified future date which, as Schmidt quipped, seemed like “eternity.” 

But while they were laying low (and, perhaps, watching the proceedings live on WOW?) an “unofficial” spokesman showed up at Monday night’s City Council meeting  to rant on their behalf, while disingenuosly (as evidenced by all his “we” references) claiming to be speaking only for himself.

Their champion was none other than former mayor Howard “Let’s Make A Deal” Frimark, who came out with guns blazing at Schmidt, Knight, and anybody else who might dare even to hint that his Tastee buddies were anything other than Mother Teresas in orange TOPR golf shirts.

Frimark called Schmidt a “liar,” called Knight a Schmidt “lackey,” and accused City Staff of “cooking the books” in calculating the $20,000-plus in direct and indirect costs of all the City services that Taste Inc. received for free again this year.  And he provided a history of TOPR that was so incomplete and distorted that it would stretch the meaning of the term to call it merely “revisionist.” 

But while almost everything Frimark said was, typically, of questionable veracity, one line stood out, even for him:

“[The City] doesn’t own the Taste.  You have to get that through your thick skulls.”

The reason that line stood out is because it may have been the only completely truthful and factually accurate statement Frimark made all evening, because just last Thursday (August 18), Taste Inc. registered the “Taste of Park Ridge” trademark, along with its logo, with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. 

That’s a pretty slick business/legal move for people who only recently admitted (through a press release) to being so unsophisticated that it took them more than four years to discover a “paperwork error” and figure out that they were a for-profit corporation instead of a not-for-profit one.

The practical effect of this move by Taste Inc. is that if the City chooses to bid out next year’s TOPR, neither the City nor the winning bidder will be able to call the event “Taste of Park Ridge” – unless, of course, the winning bidder is Taste Inc., or the winning bidder gets a license from Taste Inc. to use the name.

While the slickness and the timing of the move surprised us, the attitude it reflects is spot-on for a group of people whose stewardship of TOPR has been a continuous display of secretiveness, self-aggrandizement and arrogance for over 7 years.  Which is why Frimark is the perfect Taste Inc. spokesman: a shameless opportunist who seems to view “government” as little more than a vehicle for letting private individuals and enterprises feed at the public trough.

In other words, Chicago-style government in Park Ridge – compliments of ol’ “Let’s Make A Deal.”

UPDATE (08.25.11)   Just when we thought nothing could be more bizarre than Howard “Let’s Make A Deal” Frimark’s emergence Monday night as the unofficial shill for Taste Inc., Howard and the Tastees have produced an unsigned “Memorandum of Understanding” dated 1/1/2006 from head Tastee Dave Iglow (Pine’s Mens Wear) to then-mayor Frimark (naturally), claiming an “understanding” by Taste Inc.’s “directors” that Taste Inc. from that point on had no further financial or reporting obligations to the City.

As Dana Carvey’s “church lady” character used to say on SNL: “Now isn’t that special.”

Not surprisingly, we can find no mention of this Memorandum in any of the admittedly sketchy records on the City’s website for 2006; and we could find no reference to it despite a pretty darn thorough Internet search.  And as best as we can tell, no mention of it ever surfaced in any of the achingly self-serving statements Taste Inc. has issued over the past few years.  So we have to wonder whether it’s just a total scam, or whether it’s something Iglow cooked up a few years back and Frimark stuffed under his mattress just in case Taste Inc.’s (and Frimark’s?) for-profit TOPR scheme was ever discovered and Taste Inc. faced the kind of Council scrutiny it is now under.

We can’t wait to see what the next treasure from the Taste Inc./Frimark Wonder Cave will be.  Could it be a secret 99-year license for Taste Inc.’s exclusive use of Summit Ave. for 4 days each July?  An undated general pardon from then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich?  A “Dude for Supervisor” campaign button?  Jimmy Hoffa?  

When dealing with the likes of Frimark and the Tastees, nothing seems too implausible or outrageous. 

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Overdue Confession Leaves A Bad “Taste” (Updated 08.22.11)

08.17.11

To nobody’s surprise (least of all ours), none of the folks who operate Taste of Park Ridge NFP (“Taste Inc.”), the private corporation with the no-bid monopoly on the Taste of Park Ridge event (“TOPR”) since June 2005, showed up at Monday night’s City Council meeting to answer Council questions about their seven-year stewardship of the City’s premier event.

As Mayor Dave Schmidt quipped about the no-show excuses given by Taste Inc. vice-president Albert Galus, it seems like Galus and all of his fellow Tastees – Dave Iglow (Pines Men’s Wear), Dean Patras (Broadway Livery Service), Sandy Svizzero (Parkway Bank), Barb Tyksinski (All on the Road Catering), John Warnimont (Activision Electric), Jackie Matthews (Rainbow Hospice) and Mel Thillens (Thillens Service Corp) – are unavailable to attend a Council meeting “for eternity.”

The Tastees, however, did send the City a well-crafted (albeit undated) “Press Release” that sounds like they’ve already “lawyered up,” as terms like “aldermanic purview” and references to “federally protected rights” and Illinois statutes like “35 ILCS 120/11” don’t normally trip lightly off the tongues of non-lawyers like Mr. Galus or his fellow Tastees.

But the most notable information in that entire Press Release is Taste Inc.’s admission – or maybe it should be called a confession – of what we’ve suspected for a few years: that for the first four years of its existence, Taste Inc. really wasn’t a not-for-profit organization, as the Tastees always claimed when bragging about their thousands of hours of uncompensated volunteer service for TOPR.  Instead, we now find out that Taste Inc. was just a standard for-profit business, the profits from which the Tastees could lawfully treat however they wanted, including by stuffing their pockets with them if they so chose. 

And those profits were enhanced each year at the taxpayers’ expense by approximately $20,000 of free City services “donated” to the for-profit Taste Inc. during 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008; and then donated to the belatedly not-for-profit Taste Inc. for the past 3 years.   

We actually enjoyed, in a twisted sort of way, the Tastees’ “spin” (or was it just an outright lie) about how they didn’t realize they weren’t really a not-for-profit until they discovered “a paperwork error” that made Taste Inc. “an S corporation instead of the 501(c)(6) as desired.”  Yeah, right. 

Even if we bought into that fairy tale, the Tastees should have discovered that “paperwork error” when it came time to file Taste Inc.’s 2005 tax return, since they would have needed their 501(c)(3) or (c)(6) certification from the IRS to file the IRS Form 990 (which not-for-profits file and which are published on GuideStar) instead of the IRS Form 1120S filed by regular “S” corporations that are private and not published on GuideStar.   And they should have had three more of the same “I could have had a V-8” moments with the filing of each of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 tax returns.

And even if we assume the most extreme version of Taste Inc.’s fairy tale, in which the Tastees somehow didn’t discover that “paperwork error” until they closed down the original Taste Inc. and re-incorporated as a 501(c)(6) in March 2009, why did they continue the charade and not admit until August 2011 that Taste Inc. hadn’t been a lawful not-for-profit for its first four years in business? 

Which raises the question of what other TOPR-related things the Tastees have not been truthful about – including what Taste Inc. has done with all the TOPR revenue over the past 7 years, whether any of the Tastees have been taking dough, and/or whether they have been giving sweetheart deals to friends and favored vendors, all while taking the $20,000+ a year in City services.   

That’s what Ald. Dan Knight appears to have been trying to find out when he recently asked Taste Inc. for “cash flow statements” – and what Taste Inc. is trying to prevent the City from finding out when, “exercising its federally protected rights,” it unequivocally refused to produce them.

This being Illinois, schemes and outright scams by people in and around government at any level should no longer surprise us.  That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised by what is looking more and more like a scheme hatched back in 2005 by then-mayor Howard Frimark and the Tastees to hand over TOPR not to an ad hoc committee of the City (as Frimark initially proposed) but to the private Taste Inc. – a scheme that was eagerly rubber-stamped by a semi-clueless City Council that, back then, was too busy dodging all those pro-Frimark purple ribbons to pay any real attention to the no-bid, no accountability giveaway of the City’s premier event.

That’s the way government waste and corruption works in Illinois.  To paraphrase our late U.S. Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen: $20,000 here, $100,000 there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

But the end of Taste Inc.’s TOPR gravy train may be in sight.  The future of TOPR is on the agenda at this coming Monday night’s (08/22/11) Finance & Budget COW, at which F&B may explore alternatives to the TOPR monopoly by the secretive and arrogant Taste Inc. crowd.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE (08.22.11)

On Friday, August 19, Taste Inc.’s Albert Galus ratcheted-up his arrogance another few notches by demanding that Mayor Dave Schmidt apologize for Schmidt’s comments about Galus’ and his fellow Tastees’ refusal to appear at last Monday night’s City Council meeting or otherwise provide the Council with various information and documentation about Taste Inc.’s operation of TOPR for the past 7 years.

We think that’s hilarious, in a sick and twisted way:  Having already been caught misleading – if not outright lying to – the citizens of Park Ridge about Taste Inc.’s being a not-for-profit corporation during its first four years of operation, Galus apparently is adopting “the best defense is a good offense” strategy by trying to put Schmidt on the defensive.  We hope Schmidt doesn’t let that happen, because allowing a totally shameless Galus to hijack the debate on Taste Inc.’s continuing monopoly of TOPR and/or to blunt the long-overdue inquiry into whether Taste Inc. actually defrauded the people of Park Ridge would be its own breach of the public trust. 

We feel no need to comment on most of Galus’ self-serving drivel, but a few of his “respect” lines are irresistible:   

  • “As an elected official, you owe me, the taxpaying citizen, respect.” 

No, Fatuous Albert, Schmidt doesn’t.  As Edmund Burke noted, an elected official (like Schmidt) owes his constituents his “industry” and his “judgment.”  Schmidt has been plenty industrious in his first two years in office, which is why he has been able to pare the City’s annual deficit down from multi-millions to what we are hearing will be a couple hundred thousand dollar for the just-completed fiscal year, despite having several of his cost-cutting vetoes over-ridden by the Council; and his judgment, especially as it applies to Taste Inc. and TOPR, appears to be spot-on.

  • “Additionally, I demand respect from you on behalf of all other volunteers in Park Ridge who strive to build a community that edifies one another.”

You have no right and no authority to demand anything for the true “volunteers” in Park Ridge – the ones who do what they do without sucking money out of the taxpayers’ pockets, without shameless self-aggrandizement and promotion, and who are transparent and accountable to the public for their activities.  In that regard, you appear to have so little in common with those true “volunteers” that your claiming the “volunteer” sobriquet for yourself is itself borderline fraud.

  • “When you disrespect me in public fashion as you have done, you disrespect every citizen in Park Ridge.”

No, Albert, you and your fellow Tastees are the ones who have been “disrespect[ing] every citizen in Park Ridge” for the past seven years – and you continue to do it by thinking that those citizens are so stupid and/or gullible that they might actually buy into this latest public relations scheme of yours.  

Obviously, Albert, you missed the memo that most of us got as young kids – the one that says “respect isn’t owed, it’s earned.”

If you and your fellow Tastees want respect, Albert, start earning it by opening the Taste Inc. books and records to prove to this community that Taste Inc. hasn’t been just a self-serving, special-interest, pocket-lining scam since you folks took it over in 2005.  Until you and your fellow Tastees come clean, you’ve already received way more respect – and taxpayer funds – than you deserve.

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Hey, Albert! Is Taste Inc. Heading For The Exit?

08.12.11

Is the don’t-ask, don’t-tell, monopoly of Taste of Park Ridge (“TOPR”) by private corporate operator Taste of Park Ridge NFP (“Taste Inc.”) coming to an end? 

From the ‘tude being copped by Taste Inc.’s top honchos – as expressed in Taste Inc. vice-president Albert Galus’ August 9, 2011 letter in response to City Mgr. Jim Hock’s July 21, 2011 invitation – that looks like a distinct possibility. 

According to Galus, neither he nor any of his fellow honchos can make Monday night’s Council meeting – or, apparently, any other Council meeting for the rest of eternity – to answer Council questions about Taste Inc. and its running of the TOPR event for the past 7 years.  So Galus wants “all questions the Council members have [to] be submitted…in writing” in order that he “may appropriately research for the correct information.”

Fatuous Albert seems to be disregarding the June 8, 2011 e-mail he received from Finance & Budget Chair (and 5th Ward Ald.) Dan Knight, in which Knight asks for, among other things: (a) an explanation of how Taste Inc. “evolved” from what was supposed to be a City committee into an allegedly 501(c)(3), and then a 501(c)(6), private corporation; (b) reasons why TOPR should continue to be run by private corporation Taste Inc. instead of a City committee; (c) all of Taste Inc.’s tax filings “since the organization’s formation”; and (d) Taste Inc.’s “cash flow statements going back as far as possible.”

Hey, Albert, how much “research” would it really take to put that information together? 

From what we’ve seen and heard (and, perhaps more importantly, not seen or heard) from Taste Inc. over the last few years, we have to wonder just how many shenanigans Taste Inc.’s operators have been pulling and covering up since June, 2005, when the TOPR “franchise” was handed over by then-mayor Howard Frimark and a semi-clueless City Council to what was supposed to have been an all-volunteer City committee that would have paid all TOPR profits to the City.

Instead of reaping those profits, however, the City has been getting stuck with the bill for all the City services that Taste Inc. has been using.  This year alone, those services cost the City’s taxpayers a whopping $20,292.41 in direct and indirect City staff expense!

Hey Albert, what happened to all the money TOPR generated for Taste Inc. over the past 7 years? 

For 2005 through 2008, Taste Inc. should have filed IRS Form 990 tax returns that would have been posted on GuideStar.org. – assuming Taste Inc. really was a not-for-profit corporation as its operators constantly claimed, and as the “NFP” (“not for profit”) in its corporate name identified it.  Producing those Form 990s would at least prove that the Tastees weren’t lying to the City Council and the people of Park Ridge all these years about Taste Inc.’s being an NFP.

We also wonder who has been running the beer tent all these years, and where all that money has been going.  We’ve heard rumors that the Maine Twp. Republican organization has a piece of that action which, if true, it presumably acquired back when Bob “The Dude” Dudycz abided as both a Taste Inc. honcho and the Republican Supervisor of Maine Township.  One thing we know for a fact, however, is that Taste Inc. displayed its appreciation to The Dude by spending $1,000 of its profits on a table at his retirement party back in 2007.

Hey, Albert, can you say “Busted”?

In addtion to whoever has been profiting from the beer tent, we wonder whether some of those unidentified TOPR vendors who have been providing Taste Inc. with various goods and services all these years may have been receiving sweetheart deals.  Could it be possible that Taste Inc. may have helped a favored few of those vendors’ bottom lines by paying a premium for things like insurance, electrical wiring and lighting, transportation, public relations, food, those nifty orange golf shirts, etc. – or even paying for stuff it never received?  After all, Taste Inc. has no actual shareholders to beef about profligate spending on such sweetheart deals.

For these reasons and more, we’re betting Taste Inc. finally has realized the jig is up and that it’s time to sneak away before the public picks up on these cues and starts demanding to know whether the Tastees have pocketed any of the profits generated by Taste Inc.’s no-bid monopoly of TOPR.  By getting out now, the Tastees can leave with all their secrets preserved, whatever money they may have pocketed undiscovered, and with the easy excuse that they were driven away by Mayor Schmidt, Ald. Knight, and even this “evil blog.”

Hey, Albert, you guys planning on using that 501(c)(6) status to finance any political campaigns with the remaining Taste Inc. funds?

Frankly, on one hand we are a little surprised that those local merchants who run Taste Inc. – Dave Iglow (Pines Men’s Wear), Galus (Academic Tutoring Centers), Dean Patras (Broadway Livery Service), Sandy Svizzero (Parkway Bank), Barb Tyksinski (All on the Road Catering), John Warnimont (Activision Electric), Jackie Matthews (Rainbow Hospice) and Mel Thillens (Thillens Service Corp) – don’t seem to have enough integrity or even the common courtesy to appear before the City Council and provide the transparency and the accountability that has been missing from TOPR since Taste Inc. took over. 

If they didn’t pocket any dough, they’ve got nothing to hide – although if they weren’t getting any direct or indirect benefits from running TOPR, they could have done it as a City committee, as the deal was originally sold to the City Council back in June 2005.

But on the other hand, Taste Inc.’s (through Galus’ letter) telling the City (and its taxpayers, many of whom are TOPR patrons) to pound sand is pretty much what we here at PublicWatchdog have come to expect from those individual Tastees. 

Thanks, guys (and gals), for not disappointing.

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The Sun Finally Shines On District 64’s Board Meetings

08.09.11

A watershed event occurred at last night’s meeting of the Board of Elementary School District 64: a handful of private citizens videotaped a D-64 Board meeting.

That’s right: resident Marshall Warren manned the camera on loan from the City of Park Ridge (donated by Mayor Dave Schmidt and, until recently, used by George Kirkland to video City Council meetings) to record the public business being done by the D-64 Board.  Amazingly, this occurred less than one month after Supt. Philip Bender, in response to a request by new Board member Anthony Borrelli, expressed deep reservations about such videotaping and even wanted a legal opinion because he was “extremely uncomfortable that someone could manipulate and edit a video.”

Who would do that, Phil?  Islamo-fascist terrorists?  America’s Funniest Home Videos?  Jerry Springer?

At that same July meeting – which we wrote about in our post “Activist Citizens Add New Dynamic To D-64 Board Meeting (07.12.11) – Board member Scott Zimmerman lamely suggested that videotaping was against Board policy, thereby displaying the fear of transparency and accountability which has plagued the D-64 Board for the past 15+ years. 

As we’ve noted many times before, no branch of local government has seemed as obsessed with secrecy as D-64, whether it involves the hiring of a new superintendent, interviewing Board appointee candidates, retaining an architect of record, finding ways to obfuscate the mediocre student performance on standardized testing, or posting Board-packet materials on-line so late that interested citizens barely have time to review them prior to the meetings.  As recently as July 30, 2011, District 64 “reaffirmed” a set of “Operating Principles” that not only are almost laughable coming from the secretive and combative D-64 administration, but that also appear to mis-state the Illinois Open Meeting Act (“IOMA”):

  • Information required by statute to be discussed in closed session and so discussed will remain confidential.

Under IOMA, nothing is “required…to be discussed in closed session” or required to “remain confidential.”  But if these “Operating Principles” are referring to some statute other than IOMA, they should say so to avoid further misunderstandings about what IOMA requires and doesn’t. 

Hopefully D-64’s secrecy and misinformation took a big hit last night, thanks to Warren and his merry band that included Charlene Foss and Shelley Weiner in speaking roles, all of whom pushed D-64 into something it clearly didn’t want to do.

We haven’t yet heard when or where Warren’s video will be publicly accessible, but we assume that will be known shortly.  Kirkland and Charles Melidosian found a way to broadcast the videos of the City Council’s meetings until the City redesigned its website and began hosting them itself, followed by cable newbie WOW’s installing its own equipment in the Council chambers and commencing live broadcasting of those meetings just a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, we applaud Warren, Foss, Weiner and their associates.  With a $67 million budget teed up and ready for adoption – $10 million more than the City budgets for running the whole darn town – D-64 can certainly use as much scrutiny as the citizenry can muster.

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Economic Development Task Force Worth A Try

08.04.11

Can Park Ridge ever become a “retail” or commercial mecca…or even a mini-mecca?

Yet another attempt at answering that question may be taking shape, as the Park Ridge City Council contemplates the creation of an Economic Development Advisory Task Force – made up of volunteers from the community – to develop ideas for enhancing the City’s economic base.  According to Deputy City Manager Julianna Maller, the City’s recent economic development efforts in cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce just haven’t gotten enough traction.

The history of economic development in Park Ridge over the past decade or so has been generally uninspiring. 

For several years prior to 2010, the City paid an in-house economic development director over $100,000 annually for the most modest of results.  And for several more years before that, the City provided most of the financing for something called the Economic Development Corporation (“EDC”) – a public/private partnership of local business people with a paid part-time executive director (realtor Sharon Curcio) that cost the City almost $80,000/yr until the EDC disbanded rather abruptly in 2004, shortly (and merely coincidentally?) after the City decided that the EDC’s members would be required to sign economic disclosure statements like every other public official and City committee/commission member.

While Alds. Joe Sweeney (1st) and Jim Smith (3rd) have voiced their preference for a paid economic development “professional,” Alds. Sal Raspanti (4th) and Dan Knight (5th) favor the volunteer task force concept.  The creation of such a task force, however, does not need Council approval, as it is legally within the discretion of Mayor Dave Schmidt. 

Having followed the activities of both the EDC and of the in-house development director, we didn’t see a whole lot of “production” by either.  As best as we can tell, neither of them were given (or established for themselves) any benchmarks for measuring their success or failure.  Without any performance standards, they mistook activity for achievement (to paraphrase a quote by the late, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden) – a mistake that also seems to have been shared by the Chamber of Commerce.

That’s why an all-volunteer economic development task force is worth a try.  At the very least, the price is right: given recent history, we certainly can’t get any less than we previously paid for.

But we think the first “task” for any such task force – before it runs off hither and yon with every half-baked idea somebody thinks could/might improve economic development or retail (see, e.g., façade improvement program) – should be to think long and hard about whether Park Ridge realistically can become any sort of a retail or commercial destination for anybody besides its residents, at least without making significant changes to the character of the community.

Ten years ago we were told by a group of well-meaning but somewhat naïve volunteers on the Uptown Advisory Task Force (“UATF”), aided by some hired-gun consultants happy to tell the UATF and the City Administration anything they wanted to hear, that if we built new retail space with parking, the retailers and their customers would come.  So we did, with visions of Crate and Barrel, Barnes & Noble, the Gap, and Ann Taylor dancing in our heads.

Unfortunately, all we have to show for that effort so far is tens of millions of dollars of bonded debt…and $6 million or so of red ink, representing the tax dollars that have been pulled out of the City’s General Fund to pay the debt service on the City-owned parking garage and other Uptown Redevelopment improvements that the City has not otherwise been able to pay because that project hasn’t generated the revenues all its proponents fearlessly predicted.

But, hey, we’re still guardedly optimistic that if/when the country climbs out of this recession, that Uptown project might finally become a cash cow – assuming that what we were told by all those UATF folks, our public officials, and the hired-gun consultants back then wasn’t just a bunch of bull.

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Senior Inc.’s Case Built On Fiction, Not Facts

08.02.11

A quote from the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is becoming our favorite in this age of increasing misinformation/disinformation: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  Unfortunately, the members of Seniors Inc. (a/k/a Park Ridge Senior Services, Inc.) don’t seem to buy into that concept. 

Instead, as they become more and more aggravated by the Park Ridge Park District Board’s unwillingness to continue operating the Park Ridge Senior Center according to its longstanding but increasingly dysfunctional, deficit-producing model, Seniors Inc.’s criticism of the Park Board has become a product almost entirely of fiction masquerading as fact.  And that appears designed to promote a resolution intended to let Seniors Inc.’s roughly 800 Park Ridge members pull another $160,000+ a year out of the taxpayers’ pockets so that those members can have their semi-private “clubhouse” for two more years at an annual cost of $45 in “dues.”

At the top of the list of fictions is Helen Roppel’s insistence that “[s]enior citizens make up approximately 35.9% of the population of Park Ridge” (13,000+ residents) and contribute $2,730,069 of the Park District’s $7,604,649 recreation budget.  That may be “the truth,” but only if one accepts Seniors Inc.’s definition of “senior citizens” as anyone 55 years and up.  But increase that “senior” status to the more conventional over-65 figure and the number of Park Ridge “seniors” drops down to around 20% of the population (around 7,400 residents). 

Big difference.

Another fiction is Ms. Roppel’s contention that “seniors” are “being taken advantage of” by the Park District because the approx. $172,000 Senior Center operating deficit the taxpayers subsidized (back in 2008, judging from that amount) is only a “measly 2.26%” of the Park District’s $7.6 million recreation budget, despite “seniors” (all 13,000+ of them) paying approx. $2,730,069 in property taxes toward the Park District’s recreation budget.  She conveniently ignores the fact that those taxes from Seniors Inc.’s 800 members accounted for only approx. $164,000 of that $172,000 deficit, and it would reach that level only if every property tax dollar they purportedly paid to the Park District went solely toward that Senior Center deficit and not to any other Park District expense!

What could be viewed as “the truth” but not “the whole truth,” on the other hand, is Seniors Inc. member Rita Johnson’s complaint that “many of the members of the Senior Center are on fixed incomes” and, therefore. can’t pay the higher membership dues that would allow the Senior Center to continue to cater to Seniors Inc. members, but on a break-even basis rather than burdening the taxpayers with those big annual operating deficits.

“Fixed incomes” is one of those terms used to create the impression of Social Security-only poverty.  But “fixed incomes” can – and often do, in communities like Park Ridge – include “fixed” pension benefits, “fixed” annuity payments, and even “fixed” bond coupon payments which produce income well beyond mere Social Security.  “Fixed incomes” also conveniently exclude the principal value of the annuities or investment portfolios generating that “fixed income.” 

And “fixed incomes” don’t include the value of those mortgage-free homes, many of which are still worth $400,000+ that seniors are sitting on, which put their net worth at well-above that of many still-working Park Ridge families, and which could be tapped for additional income through reverse mortgages. 

Then there’s the fiction from Seniors Inc. member Bobbi Oschger, who claims that seniors “have far fewer choices [than children and younger adults] for meaningful activities in Park Ridge…[and] far fewer ways to even be with other human beings to make life more joyful and worthwhile.”

Yo!  Ms. Oschger!  Ever hear of Starbucks (Park Ridge has three of them)?  Panera?  Einsteins?  The Pickwick theater and restaurant?  Goldie’s?  Mac’s?  For a relatively modest “investment” one can spend hours among other human beings, conversing and/or being entertained at those venues and in many others around town.  Seniors could also take in all those wonderful programs the Library puts on, most/all of which are free.

Or how about getting involved in some of our community organizations like the 20th Century Club, Community Women, Toastmasters, Friends of the Library, Lions Club, Park Ridge Historical Society, or even the Park Ridge Hysterical Society if you’re looking for a few laughs?  Or governmental/political organizations like the City’s boards and commissions, the League of Women Voters, Park Ridge Republican Women, etc.?  We can assure you that there are plenty of “human beings” involved in those organizations; and membership in many of them is inexpensive or even…wait for it…free.

Or aren’t those activities “meaningful” enough for you?

If there are seniors who wish to belong to the Senior Center but truly cannot afford $200+ in annual dues – and can provide the financial statement(s) to prove it – then some accommodations surely can be made, such as through the Park District’s Park’s Foundation.  Or Seniors Inc. could use some of that $215,000 it was sitting on at last report to subsidize the truly needy seniors.

What is certain at this point, however, is that all the fictions that Seniors Inc. can manufacture cannot obscure the simple fact that this is a contest of wills between the Park District Board members elected by the voters on a community-wide basis and accountable to the entire community, and a less-than-800-member special-interest group elected by themselves, representing only themselves, and pressing their own personal advantage at the expense of the taxpayers.

If fact triumphs over fiction, the Park District Board and the District’s taxpayers will win.  And that’s the kind of “win/win” we like to see.

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