Public Watchdog.org

Mayor Dave’s Fine Arts Barbecue Tonight At Hodges Park

07.31.15

Four years ago we published a post about a barbecue the late mayor Dave Schmidt and Ald. Dan Knight (5th), with the help of a handful of “civilian” volunteers, threw to raise funds for the Park Ridge Fine Arts Society after Schmidt and the Council cut funding to the FAS and various other community groups as part of an effort to get the City’s financial house in order.

They raised over $1,200 that first year.

Over the next two years the entire City Council became involved, along with an additional handful of civilians. And the donations grew as well – aided considerably by our local Whole Foods Market which this year is donating all the food for what is being billed as “Mayor Dave Schmidt’s 4th Annual Grilling for the Arts” that kicks off at 6:00 p.m. tonight in front of City Hall.

For the first time in the brief history of this event, however, Mayor Dave won’t be manning a grill dressed in his standard-issue cargo shorts and Hawaiian shirt, topped off by a chef’s toque or a Detroit Tigers cap. But he will be there in spirit, watching over the aldermen as they briefly increase City Hall’s carbon footprint by incinerating 300 hamburgers and 100 hot dogs.

In honor of Mayor Dave’s penchant for Hawaiian shirts, we understand that Acting Mayor Marty Maloney has declared today Park Ridge Hawaiian Garb Day, and is encouraging residents to show up tonight dressed in Hawaiian style.

WARNING: This isn’t a Jimmy Buffett concert. Males arriving in grass skirts and coconut-shell bras will be prosecuted.

As has been the custom for this event, the food is free but donations are very welcome – all of which will go to the Fine Arts Society to help defray the costs of putting on its summer concerts in the park.  Last year the barbecue raised over $2,000 for the FAS, so the Council is hoping to bump that up a good bit this year.

And at 8:00 p.m. the renowned Brian Patti Orchestra will present a musical “Tribute to Frank Sinatra” in celebration of Old Blue Eyes’ 100th birthday year.

It should be a great night and a great event for a great cause in memory of a great mayor.

In the immortal words of Det. Steve McGarrett: “Be there. Aloha!”

To read or post comment, click on title.

Will Chamber Lead Way On Wonderful Lights? (Updated)

07.22.15

Sometimes it’s easy to become jaded about what a wonderful community we live in.

So wonderful, in fact, that at last week’s (June 13) Park Ridge City Council COW meeting newly-minted First Ward Ald. John Moran evoked images of the fictional Bedford Falls in Frank Capra’s classic movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” to support his and Fourth Ward Ald. Roger Shubert’s plea for the City to reinstate its holiday lights program that was suspended back in 2009 for financial reasons.

We are suckers for several of the movies some critics have dubbed “Capra-corn,” including classics like “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Meet John Doe.” And, frankly, we can’t imagine a Christmas season without at least one (or preferably two) viewings of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Similarly, we can’t imagine anybody not appreciating the joyous quality those holiday lights used to bring to the Uptown area each year.

Back when the lighting program was suspended, the City was spending around $50,000 annually. As The Recession took a toll on property values and residents’ incomes, however, the City Council wisely adopted a number of austerity measures to keep property tax increases in the 3-5% range – including the elimination of the City’s donations to private corporations like the Center of Concern, the Maine Center for Mental Health, the Park Ridge Fine Arts Society and Brickton Art Center.

And, back then, nobody seemed inclined to argue for spending tens of thousands of City dollars on holiday lights instead of on those community groups – a continuing budgetary and policy nuance that seems to have escaped the lights advocates’ attention.

For a few years thereafter various local groups tried to fill the gap with donated lights and volunteer efforts. But even at its best, the effect didn’t come close to what the professional decorators provided. And with each passing year, the volunteer effort diminished to the point where the results became more pathetic than joyous.

So Moran, joined by Shubert, proposed that the Council revisit its decision of earlier this year not to include holiday lighting in the FY2015-16 budget.

That proposal didn’t sway a majority of the Council, even at the bargain-basement – and, it would appear, the totally unrealistic – price of $5,000-7,000 for lights and another $5,000 for City employee overtime to help a group of volunteers install them. And, frankly, we can’t believe that such a paltry sum will create anything remotely close to the Bedford Falls effect about which Moran reminisced.

If Park Ridge is going to do this, let’s do it right. That means a price tag of closer to $50K than $15K. And professional light hangers rather than 9-year olds and their parents on tippy-toes.

But Moran is definitely onto something, even if he seems to have missed the central theme of Capra’s “wonderful life” message that the private charity and good works of the people, not government, make the difference.

Many of those less well-off Bedford Falls residents were able to buy their homes not because of some Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac loan program or government handout but because of the privately-run Bailey Bros. Building & Loan. In fact, we don’t recall any mayor, alderman, or city official having a role in the movie; and the only “government” folks of any significance are the bank examiners looking to throw George in jail.

In the climactic scene when George and the Building & Loan are saved from prison and financial ruin, it’s the people – common folks like Bert, Ernie and Violet; local business owners like Mr. Gower and Mr. Martini; and the affluent Sam Wainwright – who transcend any class warfare and, instead, together dig into their own pockets to bail out their neighbor and his business.

So instead of expecting an already-strapped City government to fund the holiday lights, we think the better way to go is for a civic organization to lead and coordinate the fundraising needed to hire a professional lighting company to do the job right, like Ald. Moran and the rest of us remember.

That should be the Park Ridge Chamber of Commerce.

After all, nobody benefits more from an attractively-lit Uptown or South Park than the merchants, business owners and building owners in those areas. And nobody’s in a better position to tap into the financial support of those folks than the Chamber.

Just think if the roughly 350 Chamber members each donated a mere $100…that’s $35,000 right there with no real effort to speak of. And if the ones with storefront presences on Prospect, Northwest Hwy., Main, Summit, Fairview and Devon tossed in an additional $100 for the extra ambience they’ll get from the lights, the total would be at $40-45,000.

That’s without even counting any community group and individual donations that should come in, especially if an individual, family or community group wants to “sponsor” a tree.

C’mon, Chamber, step up and lead the way instead of looking for excuses to pawn this off on the City.

That way, by Christmas Day 2015, you will have earned your wings. And the whole community can echo George Bailey with a heartfelt:

“Attaboy, Chamber!”

UPDATED (07.31.15)  Chamber of Commerce member (and Park District commissioner) Rick Biagi has offered to chair a Chamber holiday lights committee – and pledged $500 from his law firm, which promptly brought a matching pledge from Ald. John Moran’s company.  That’s exactly the kind of CIVIC-MINDED LEADERSHIP we would expect from a local institution like the Chamber.

Biagi reportedly is still waiting on official authorization from the Chamber hierarchy, so we can’t yet say “Attaboy, Chamber!”

But we can say “Attaboys, Rick and John!”

And put us down for $200…to cover the City’s “share” as a Chamber member, plus a bit more.

To read or post comments, click on title.

With Charges Filed, Will Stonewalling End?

07.17.15

More than a month ago, on June 3 to be exact, a high-speed collision of two automobiles occurred at the intersection of Devon and Cumberland, resulting in four people being injured.

Yesterday it was announced that the criminal investigation into the accident resulted in charges against Park Ridge resident William J. Kivit, 20, for three counts of felony aggravated reckless driving and one count of felony aggravated fleeing and eluding in connection with that accident. That announcement was made via a Park Ridge Police Department press release.

With that investigation now out of the way, we can only hope that the Police Department will finally stop stonewalling the Park Ridge City Council and City taxpayers, and provide an explanation of why it took almost four days, and an ABC7 I-Team investigative report based on a tip from a PRPD insider, to finally admit that a Park Ridge police officer was involved in that crash – after the department had issued several (we hear it was three) press releases about the incident that made no mention that it occurred in connection with a police chase.

You can get the background on that from our 06.10.15 post, “‘Whole Truth Goes Missing In Police Dept. Account Of Crash.”

The PRPD’s radio silence about those false press releases is a troubling sign for a department that already has shown itself to be at least a quart or two low on transparency, yet high on self-promotion and congratulation – as evidenced by all those fluff-and-stroke “Complimentary Letters” Police Chief Frank Kaminski keeps on sticking in the record at every Public Safety COW meeting.

Despite Chief K’s assurance to the I-Team investigators that those press releases were not intended to cover up the involvement of the officer, more than a month later he has said and done nothing to dispel the impression that he and his department are stonewalling all inquiries about how and why they repeatedly handed out misleading information until they were caught by a t.v. news team, based on an insider’s tip.

To the contrary, at every turn Chief K seems to conflates the “internal investigation” of the accident itself (i.e., did the officer act properly in participating in the police chase) with whatever “internal investigation,” if any, is being done of who lied about the incident, albeit by omission, in those press releases.

That’s simply not right, and it’s not even close to transparent.

Worse yet, the City Council is letting him get away with it, if the Public Safety segments of the last two Committee Of the Whole (“COW”) meetings are any indication.

Chief K’s first report to the Council about the accident starts at the 3:50 mark of the June 8 COW meeting video. Although it kind of sounds (from the 6:05 mark to the 7:05 mark) like maybe he’s alluding to the press releases when using words like “gap” and “inconsistencies,” one cannot tell for sure. Unfortunately, neither Committee Chairman Ald. Nick Milissis, an attorney, nor any other alderman asked for a more substantial explanation.

And this past Monday’s COW meeting was just the same old same old, with Chief K offering (beginning at the 7:10 mark of the July 13 meeting video) more palaver about an “internal investigation” involving “interviews and interrogations,” without even mentioning the press releases or answering the two basic questions that could have, and should have, been answered a month ago:

  • Who issued the erroneous press releases?
  • Why wasn’t the police officer’s involvement mentioned?

Ald. Milissis has repeatedly shown himself to be a vigorous and relentless advocate for his constituents when it comes to issues like flooding, so we were both puzzled and disappointed with his meek, almost apologetic, tone in posing a few lightweight questions to Chief K as the rest of the Council sat silently.

On this issue, not unlike others that touch on policing and public safety, Chief K seems to exert a Svengali-like influence over a Council that responds like a gaggle of Trilbys.

In his six-year tenure here (after 32 years with the Evanston Police Department) Chief K has shown himself to be, perhaps, the most masterful politician in City government. He holds an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellog School of Management and he clearly knows how to “manage” – or, in this case, withhold – information. He’s like a combination of Teflon and Kevlar, deflecting or harmlessly absorbing whatever comes his way.

At this point we will repeat again, for the record, that we are supporters of Chief K and the Police Dept. We believe they generally do a fine job of policing our community, and they deserve our respect and gratitude.

But that doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye toward things like the PRPD’s sending out erroneous/false press releases that appear designed to conceal what might be seen as an embarrassing fact, or of stonewalling once the error/fraud is discovered –including by rejecting (so far, as we understand it) a FOIA request by the Channel 7 I-Team.

Just like we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the way the PRPD handled/mis-handled last summer’s Hinkley Park incident where a middle-aged Park Ridge man was beaten by several young thugs egged on by a large crowd of teens – including the PRPD’s rejection (so far, as we understand it) of a FOIA request by the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate.

And just like we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the curious way in which a PRPD officer was found not guilty of DUI when the PRPD arrest report mysteriously failed to include the results of a blood-alcohol test reportedly taken at Lutheran General Hospital following the arrest last October, as reported in a February 10, 2015 H-A article.

John Adams, the 2nd president of the United States, wrote that “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.”

So far, Chief K doesn’t seem to understand or feel bound by that right.

And, so far, our elected representatives on the Council don’t seem inclined to hold him accountable for it.

To read or post comments, click on title.

City Re-Visiting Evanston Water “Agency” Tonight

07.13.15

We rarely have anything good to say about that banana republic to the east of Park Ridge known as the City of Chicago. 

Then again, what good can be said about what purports to be a “world-class” city but has been driven to the brink of bankruptcy from decades of pillaging by the Daley Family and its retinue of carpetbaggers and scalawags –and now presided over by Daley Family confidante The Rahmfather? So when somebody suggests a way for Park Ridge to break its shackles to Chicago as its exclusive supplier of Lake Michigan water – a suggestion that is being re-visited by the City Council at this evening’s meeting – our default reaction is to jump at the chance.

That’s probably a mistake.

Park Ridge currently is served by two water lines from Chicago, thereby giving it redundancy in case one line fails. So far, there has never been a failure in the supply of water from Chicago.

The proposed water agency to be formed by Niles, Morton Grove and Park Ridge, on the other hand, would bring in Lake Michigan water through Evanston. But it would do so by only one line, without any redundancy.

The start-up cost to Park Ridge is now estimated at $49.9 Million, which would be funded by a 30-year GO (“General Obligation”) bond, which requires that ALL City assets and income streams be pledged to secure repayment.  The assumed interest rate of 4.5% means that the City would end up paying more than $90 Million over the 30-year loan term – for only 50% of the infrastructure (one water transmission line) that it already has in place with Chicago!

Sorry, folks, but undertaking a guaranteed $90 Million debt for 30 years in order to reap projected savings on water, without any redundancy in the system, sounds like fool’s gold to us.

Kind of like the Uptown TIF funded by GO bonds that were to produce a $24 Million profit after 23 years and are now projected to saddle us with a $15 Million loss.

The bottom line here is that Niles and Morton Grove want at least one more warm municipal body to share the boxcar infrastructure cost, and Park Ridge is it. Which is why they are putting on a full-court press to force Park Ridge to join their club.

As we wrote in our April 21, 2015 post: we’ve seen this movie before, and it’s a horror film.

Except without the popcorn and Raisinettes.

To read or post comments, click on title.

One TIF Problem Solved, Dozens More To Go

07.09.15

Today we’re giving a Watchdog bark-out to the Board and Administration of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 – and the Park Ridge City Council and Staff – for resolving their dispute over that economic black hole commonly known as the Uptown TIF.

As reported by the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“City: New agreement will lower Park Ridge TIF payments to schools,” June 23), it looks like the City and District 64 will be amending their existing intergovernmental revenue-sharing agreement that was entered into back when the Uptown TIF was created in 2003.

Interestingly enough, we believe that H-A article may be the very first time either local newspaper has referred in print to that Uptown boondoggle as being “the failed Uptown Tax Increment Financing District.” [Emphasis added.]

“Failed” is an apt description of was once touted as a once-in-a-lifetime “investment” of tens of millions of dollars of long-term bonded debt by the City’s “ready, fire, aim” cheerleaders back then: mayors Ron Wietecha and Mike Marous; a substantial bobblehead majority of the then-14 aldermen Council; Rasputin-like city manager Tim Schuenke; and all the “buy us more retail” folks populating the Chamber of Commerce.

Ironically, according to some of the financial projections circulated back then by Schuenke and the City’s hired-gun consultant, S.B. Friedman, 2015 was supposed to be the year that the TIF was to have started generating enough revenue to cover all of its debt service payments and actually produce a profit. Instead, the City is currently looking at a projected deficit/loss of over $15 million by the time the TIF expires in 2027.

The good news is that deficit/loss figure is down almost $8 million since the City’s current TIF consultants first calculated it, presumably because of some of the advanced bond refunding already done and taking into consideration the anticipated savings that the City is projecting from revising its revenue-sharing agreements with D-64, Maine Township High School District 207, and the Park Ridge Park District.

D-64 attorney (and former School Board member) Ares Dalianis noted a general consensus by the City and D-64 that “the language of the existing agreement is a little ambiguous” – in no small measure because that agreement contemplated that the Cook County Clerk would annually calculate the Equalized Assessed Value (“EAV”) for the new property growth in the TIF district, apparently without anyone at the City or D-64 actually confirming that fact with the Clerk’s office.

That’s because the mayors and the folks on the Council back then were so intent on getting the TIF passed and the project built that they were like cats in heat (or like folks with personal financial interests?). And the go-along-to-get-along D-64 Board members back then were more than happy to accept the City’s financial bribery and waive their well-founded objections to the TIF.

That apparently resulted in a slap-dash agreement with “ambiguous” terms that was negotiated in…you guessed it…closed sessions and rubber-stamped by both the Council and the School Board without the kind of public vetting that today’s City Council would be expected to require. 

Rubber-stamping is what used to pass for “due diligence” at City Hall. And that’s what still might pass for “due diligence” at D-64 – except that it’s almost impossible to tell for sure because that Board still conceals much/most of its deliberations about the important stuff in closed sessions and/or by not publishing relevant documents.

Unfortunately for all involved, however, the County “only measures new property [growth] at the end of a TIF district and there is not an accepted methodology on measuring new property during the life of the TIF,” according to Dalianis, and confirmed by City Mgr. Shawn Hamilton in slightly stronger terms back in 2013.

“The Cook County Clerk has never and will never, as a matter of fact and law, determine or recognize new property within the Uptown project area.”

Not surprisingly, none of the previous three city managers (Schuenke, Jim Hock and acting-CM Juliana Maller) seems to have made any effort to find that out. Instead, Maller came up with a bunch of mojo calculations of what the City owed to the other local taxing bodies, which now appear to have been flat-out wrong. But because Maller vouched for them and nobody questioned them, they became S.O.P. for the City and D-64 thereafter.

During her short tenure as the City’s finance director, Allison Stutts started looking into Maller’s calculations. But it was her successor, Kent Oliven, who in his even shorter tenure as finance director (relying on his prior experience with TIF and TIF accounting) suspected that those calculations were bogus. That led to the City’s hiring of Kane McKenna and KM’s confirmation of their bogusness.

That led to the dispute between the City and D-64 over the difference between what the City actually owed and what the City had paid based on Maller’s calculations of the incalculable, which payments continued even after she packed up for Hanover Park.

With such a ridiculous history as backdrop, therefore, it’s nothing short of a minor miracle that the current Council and Staff, and the current D-64 Board and Administration, were able to overcome their predecessors’ buffoonery and reach a resolution without resort to costly litigation that would have bled the taxpayers from both sides.

Well done, folks!

To read or post comments, click on title.

Heinz’s Extension And Raise One More D-64 Charade

07.06.15

In our 07.01.15 post we wrote about the almost reflexive propensity of a majority of the current Park Ridge-Niles Elementary School Board members to run into closed sessions and hide from the taxpayers whenever they can get away with it, and especially when they are discussing how to spend more of the taxpayers’ money.

Today we’re addressing the charade by which that Board contrived a one-year contract extension and a raise for rookie superintendent Laurie Heinz.

As we did in our July 2 post, we refer you to the June 22 meeting videotape as the best evidence of how disingenuously clueless (or cluelessly disingenuous?) this Board can be. The Heinz discussion commences at the 4:01:04 mark with Board president Tony Borrelli – such a cheerleader for Heinz that we wonder where he was hiding his pom poms – announcing how he “wanted to read something” about Heinz’s performance.

That “something” turns out to be a five-minute gush about Heinz and her alleged accomplishments, all of which Borrelli claims were documented in two separate Board evaluations, one at mid-year and the other at year-end, neither of which were part of the June 22 Board meeting packet, or “Report.” Nor could we find them anywhere else on the District’s website.

According to Borrelli, there were a few wrinkles noted in Heinz’s mid-year evaluation that needed a little extra ironing. But by year-end “it was 4th of July, the fireworks went off!”

Yes, that’s what he says on the video.

The absence of those evaluations from the meeting packets and D-64 website leads us to believe that neither Borrelli nor Heinz wanted to subject those evaluations to public scrutiny. That’s consistent with D-64’s institutionalized disrespect for the taxpayers who pay the bills for what appears to be a stagnant-to-declining operation, suggesting that whatever “fireworks” Heinz’s rookie-year performance might have set off were little more than a couple of bottle rockets and one stray Black Cat.

But that was more than enough to keep this Board “ooh”-ing and “ahh”-ing, as if watching a display of pyrotechnics engineered by the famed Grucci Family.

Borrelli insists that “[t]he entire attitude of the District has changed” thanks to Heinz, and that there has been “[s]ignificant improvement in the growth MAP scores” so that “[t]he needle, therefore, is moving” – a pointed response to a statement in our 06.22.15 post that “as best as we can tell, Heinz has failed to move the needle of student/District achievement or rankings even one click upward.”

Borrelli concludes with “[t]his District is lucky to have Dr. Heinz as our superintendent.”

We’d love to agree, really we would.  Because that would mean not only that the District’s students might be getting a better education but, also, that the District’s taxpayers might be getting more property value for the bigger and bigger property tax bucks the District keeps demanding, thanks to your unfriendly neighborhood School Board.

Unfortunately, this Borrelli-led Board is barely (if at all) any more transparent than the traditionally opaque boards of the past. Hence, not only are Heinz’s evaluations missing from the Board packets and District website, but so are those “rigorous” goals and standards that Board allegedly set for Heinz during this just-concluded school year. And we can’t seem to find the details of those reportedly rockin’ MAP scores, either.

From the sound of things, however, all those matters were discussed in the closed session at the May 11, 2015 meeting (Mark Eggemann and Tom Sotos voting against the closed session); and in the closed session at the May 18, 2015 meeting (Eggemann and Sotos voting “no”); and in the closed session at the June 1, 2015 meeting (Eggemann voting “no”); and in the closed session at the June 8, 2015 meeting (Eggemann and Sotos voting “no”). All the while, the taxpayers saw and heard nothing.

Nevertheless, at the 4:06:22 mark the rest of the Board members take over from Borrelli before voting unanimously to give Heinz a one-year contract extension worth more than $250,000. And beginning at the 4:09:12 mark (when Borrelli tries unsuccessfully to herd the Board into closed session), there’s more gushing until a 4-3 Board majority (Borrelli, Bob Johnson, Vickie Lee and Scott Zimmerman v. Eggemann, Dathan Paterno and Sotos) gives her an approximately $4,200 raise and some undisclosed but larger additional payment that will provide her with “full” health care coverage.

If you detect some schizophrenia there, join the club.

And as if the lily needed any further gilding, cheerleader Borrelli, still sans pom poms, attempts further justification of the Board’s group psychosis by noting that Heinz purportedly was hired at a “below market” rate, despite making as much in her rookie season as her vastly more experienced predecessor made in his final year; and that, even with the raise, she was still being paid “below market.”

Hey, you Board folks! If a “market” salary for Heinz is so important that Borrelli has to make special mention about it, why didn’t you leave Heinz with two years remaining on her contract and use some of that $250K-plus contract extension money to get her salary up to “market” – whatever that might be?

Oh, wait, we know that answer: that would have been the prudent thing to do!

This particular Kabuki would not be complete, however, without a few words from Heinz herself, who demonstrates her gratitude – at the 4:16:12 mark, between the extension vote and the raise vote – by insisting that, even though “the community” might expect significant improvements in student achievement and school rankings as a benchmark of her success, “[s]tudent achievement is one part of my job, it is not the sum total of a superintendent’s role.”

Yes, Ms. Heinz, student achievement is not the only measure of your success. But you darn well better realize that it’s Job One…by a mile.

Now, if only a majority of Board members could figure that out.

To read or post comments, click on title.

4th Of July Is America’s Highest Civic Holy Day

07.04.15

The Republic given us by our Founders 239 years ago today is among a handful of the greatest governing documents the world has ever known.

But it seems as if those of us who are the beneficiaries of their work too often forget, and take for granted, the document that embodies it. So we think it’s time, once again, to remind ourselves and our readers of the giants who gave it to us, and the risks to their own and their families’ “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

As American historian Walter A. McDougall so well described the importance of this day:

“It is a day when Americans, especially young ones, must reflect on how absurdly implausible the birth of this nation was, how its survival hung by a thread on many occasions, and how its Founders were emboldened because – be they Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Deists, or Freemasons – they believed the Author of History meant this to happen.”

And we take this opportunity to remind our local elected officials that, as Jefferson wrote: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

So whenever those elected officials intentionally hide from their constituents and hide what they’re doing from their constituents, those officials aren’t just disrespecting those constituents.

They are insulting the memory of the Founders and the spirit of their Declaration.

To read or post comments, click on title.

A Breath Of “Transparency” Becomes Just Another Charade At D-64

07.01.15

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Edward Carrington in which Jefferson reminded him that:

“We have the greatest opportunity the world has ever seen, as long as we remain honest – which will be as long as we can keep the attention of our people alive. If they once become inattentive to public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors, would all become wolves.”

If a giant like Jefferson could be concerned about becoming a wolf due to his constituents’ inattention, our local public officials should be downright terrified.

Unfortunately, at least some of them seem to be so delighted by that prospect that they go out of their way to keep their constituents in the dark on anything important – at least until after it becomes a done-deal.

So when it comes to making and keeping the public inattentive, no local unit of government does it “better” than the Board of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64. And one of its principal techniques for putting the taxpayers and local media to sleep is holding numerous “closed session” meetings where the public and the press are excluded, no minutes or recordings are made available to the public and, consequently, the average taxpayer can’t make heads or tails out of what is actually going on over there.

By our unofficial count, the D-64 Board holds more closed session meetings than the Park Ridge City Council and the Park Ridge Park District Board combined. For a governmental unit that consumes a full third of our property taxes (versus the City’s roughly 10% and the Park District’s 5%), that’s far too much secrecy and far too little accountability that’s been going on for far too long.

But last week’s (June 22) D-64 Board meeting provided a rarity worth noting: for the first time in memory a D-64 Board actually voted not to go into a scheduled closed session.

Before you leap to the conclusion that this is a harbinger of some real winds of change blowing through the historically-opaque D-64, however, we strongly encourage you to watch at least a couple of segments of the meeting video, starting with the first 8 minutes 12 seconds. If you do, you very well may conclude – as we have – that the one vote against a closed session was but the faintest of breezes that barely even rippled D-64’s curtain of secrecy.

It also may have been a one-off aberration.

Start watching around the one-minute mark and you’ll see Board president Tony Borrelli announce that “we’re going to do something a little different tonight.” The little difference? Dividing the scheduled three-in-one combination motion of three closed-session action items into three individual motions for separate votes.

So far, so good.

But Borrelli immediately falls (jumps?) off the transparency wagon when he makes the motion for a closed session to discuss potential or pending litigation.

He stays pretty much on script by reading the particular section of the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) that permits a “litigation” exception to IOMA’s open meeting requirements – although he does let slip that the pending or threatened litigation is about “residency.”

SIDEBAR: IOMA requires that all meetings be “open” to the public, but it permits closed meetings for discussions of certain limited topics or matters. However, closed sessions are not required for any of those topics or matters. And, even more significantly, IOMA does not require that the public officials participating in closed session meetings keep those discussions secret. An official could come out of one of those meetings and recount in minute detail everything that went on in the meeting, without any legal consequences under IOMA.

*****************************

If “transparency” actually meant anything to Borrelli, he could have proved it by immediately placing on the public record – legally and properly under IOMA – some basic information about that litigation, including: (1) the identity of the person(s) who have filed or are threatening the litigation; (2) the name(s) of any attorney(s) representing the person(s); (3) the names of any individuals (besides the District itself) who are or are threatened with being defendants; and (4) the reason(s) why the suit has been filed or threatened.

But that kind of transparency is to Borrelli what castor oil was to “Spanky” McFarland in those old-time “Little Rascals” short films: totally distasteful. And it’s no more palatable to Board members Bob Johnson, Vickie Lee, Dathan Paterno and Scott Zimmerman.

The meeting video shows the “litigation” closed-session motion quickly passing by a vote of 3 (Borrelli, Johnson and newcomer Tom Sotos) to 1 (newcomer Mark Eggemann), with Lee, Paterno and Zimmerman MIA at that point in the festivities.

Next comes Borrelli’s motion to go into closed session to discuss Supt. Laurie Heinz’s contract extension and raise, which he tries to justify as being “purely for getting our thoughts together.”

Yes, folks, he actually said that!

That’s because, in Borrelli’s faux-transparent, faux-accountable parallel civic universe, the process by which our elected officials get their thoughts together on things like extending, after only one year, the multi-year contract for the District’s top (and highest paid) bureaucrat – and throwing in a raise to boot – is so far beyond the ken of us simple-minded taxpayers that it cannot be shared with us. For our own good, of course.

We can almost hear Borrelli channeling Jack Nicholson’s “Col. Jessup”:

“The truth. You taxpayers can’t handle the truth!”

So, not surprisingly, Borrelli and Johnson quickly vote “yes” and Eggemann just as quickly votes “no,” dropping what could be the decisive vote in Sotos’ lap at the 2:35 mark of the video. And what we get for the next 2 minutes is Sotos Agonistes, grappling with the dilemma of running yet again into another closed-session discussion of Heinz’s performance and the reason(s) for rewarding it.

At one point Sotos actually suggests, mirabile dictu, deferring the vote to another meeting so that the Board could publish – sufficiently in advance of that next meeting– the basic terms of Heinz’s extension and raise, thereby giving the public a chance to learn those terms and perhaps comment on them before the vote is taken.

But Borrelli was having none of that. He promptly repels Sotos’ suggestion by insisting (with Heinz nodding her agreement) that “the stuff we’re going to be discussing has already been presented in open session” – without giving chapter and verse about when and where that was done, or where the taxpayers might find that information, or any video of it, or any written account of it.

SPOILER ALERT: From the videos we’ve watched and all the Board packets we’ve reviewed, Borrelli’s statement appears to have been nothing short of a complete lie – although we would love to be proved  wrong on this point.

Which may have been why Sotos wasn’t convinced and voted “no,” thereby creating a 2-2 tie that would have nuked the closed session – if not for the arrival of Lee (“at the right time,” according to Borrelli at approx. 5:25 of the video) who promptly broke the tie with her “yes” vote for the closed session.

That evil deed being done, the Board moves on to the last of those closed-session motions: a discussion of the new deals being given to the District’s secretaries, custodians, maintenance, exempt and administrative employees. Borrelli gives his assurances that, following the closed session, he has “every reason and every intent on providing as much documentation in summary as possible before we take that vote.” Meaning that they would come out of that closed-session discussion, put a smattering of information about the new deal on the record, and then vote on the deal seconds later.

Can you say: “The taxpayers be damned”?

But after Sotos and Eggemann announced they would be voting “no,” Borrelli apparently decided he could afford to look a bit magnanimous after having already locked in closed sessions on the two most important of the three closed-session motions. So he announced that Eggemann had persuaded him to change his mind, and he voted “no.”

Johnson, his moistened finger detecting Borrelli’s breeze, took his cue and joined what by then was clearly a majority – leaving the clueless Lee to cast the sole “yes” vote on the basis that no “consensus” (that’s what they call an unofficial “vote” taken in closed session to ensure they’ve got the necessary votes to do whatever it is they want before coming out into the sunlight and staging the official vote) had been reached in previous closed sessions, thereby requiring further discussions out of the taxpayers’ earshot.

Because at D-64, the curtain of secrecy barely ever ripples.

And in our next post, we’ll be addressing in greater detail the Board’s charade surrounding Heinz’s new deal.

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