Public Watchdog.org

A New Library Director, If We Can Keep Her

04.10.18

Recently the Park Ridge Library Board of Trustees unanimously (Trustee Mike Reardon absent) approved the hiring of Heidi Smith as the new director of the Library. Smith is currently the assistant director of the Waukegan Public Library.

Smith, a Highland Park resident, will be paid $110,000 and receive health insurance and pension benefits.

She will assume her new position on April 16, relieving the three interim co-directors – Laura Scott, Anastasia Daskalos and Angela Berger – who have done an outstanding job holding down the fort since the sudden retirement last June of the Library’s long-time director, Janet Van De Carr, who was paid $140,000+.

The serendipity of Smith’s availability and selection is noteworthy for a few reasons.

After Van De Carr retired, the Library Board hired John Keister – who runs a recruiting service for library bureaucrats – to find a new director. Keister promptly persuaded a majority of the Board (with the notable exceptions of Trustees Joe Egan, Char Foss-Eggemann and Mike Reardon) to run the search process in closed-session semi-secrecy, thereby producing two “finalists” that the taxpayers could finally be trusted to know.

One of those finalists, Jeannie Dilger, withdrew her name almost immediately after becoming a finalist in order to take the director position at the Palatine library, a position for which Keister was simultaneously recruiting her – reportedly without telling our Library Board. We wrote about that seeming lack of integrity on Keister’s part in our 12.15.17 and 12.26.17 posts.

And Keister’s other finalist, Aaron Skog, mysteriously withdrew his name almost immediately after a public meet-and-greet on November 27 of last year.

That commenced a round of hand-wringing from the likes of Go Green gadfly Amy Bartucci, who talks and acts like taxpayers exist for the government’s benefit; and who seems to consider public employment as the work of the angels, notwithstanding the good pay, job security and Cadillac constitutionally-guaranteed pensions that can be taken years earlier than the rest of us can collect our modest Social Security benefits. We wrote about Bartucci’s strange obsession with Library Board member meeting attendance in our 03.05.2018 post.

With Keister’s first flight of candidates having either crashed and burned or flown the coop, the Library Board authorized Keister to tender four new candidates from his stable of usual suspects.

Two of those, reportedly, were just plain unqualified non-starters who may have been thrown into the mix by Keister solely to create a plausible field of four candidates. And a third suspiciously pulled his name the moment he was designated a finalist – although the fact that he lived with his family way out in DeKalb suggests that he may have been little more than a stalking horse for the candidate whom Keister wanted the Library Board to accept: Ms. Smith.

This blog’s editor attended both the November 2017 meet-and-greet for Aaron Skog as well as the March 15 meet-and-greet for Ms. Smith, and Smith looked and sounded like a far better choice than Skog. So that’s a good thing for our Library.

But let’s not be naïve here.

The serendipity of Ms. Smith’s availability appears to have been the product of her being passed over for the top job in Waukegan in January, despite the strong endorsement of Waukegan mayor Sam Cunningham. Instead, the WPL board imported an Hispanic candidate, Selina Gomez-Beloz, from the Crown Point, Indiana library where she had served as director since 2014. Given that more than 50% of Waukegan’s population is Hispanic, with many having ESL needs, we can see how identity politics may have shaped the WPL board’s decision.

But we have to wonder whether the Park Ridge Library directorship is merely a resume-builder for Ms. Smith that Keister can use in a couple/few years to better market her to other libraries for another fee and even greater influence over the Chicagoland public library hiring market that he already seems to dominate.

In light of that possibility, we are reminded of when Benjamin Franklin was asked about what form of government was being proposed for the United States, and he answered: “A republic…if you can keep it.” His point was that a republic, although less factional than a democracy, was still a demanding form of self-government – the success of which would depend on an informed and committed electorate.

If Ms. Smith is accepting the directorship of our Library in order to position herself for her (and Keister’s) next move, the Library Board and we taxpayers need to be wary of any “new” Library programs and initiatives instituted by her more for their resume enhancement value than to meet the legitimate needs of our community. And the Library Board also needs to start thinking about ways to retain her, assuming she does a good enough job to deserve retention.

Because when you live in Highland Park, there are a number of public libraries requiring shorter commutes than the one to Park Ridge, starting with Deerfield, Lake Bluff, Lake Forest, Northbrook, Glenview, Winnetka, Wilmette, Buffalo Grove, Vernon Area and Indian Trails (Wheeling).

With that caveat, however, it looks like Ms. Smith has the potential for being a welcome breath of fresh air for a Library bureaucracy that had embraced a this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it performance benchmark for much of the past decade, if not longer. And for that reason we encourage all Park Ridge residents – and especially Park Ridge Library users – to welcome Ms. Smith with open arms.

And with wide-open eyes.

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Why The Park Board Should Adopt A Transparent Shibley Oaks Acquisition Process (Updated)

04.04.18

In a comment to our 03.26.2008 post (“Why Is The Park Board Discussing ‘Shibley Oaks’ In Closed Session?”), an anonymous reader asked:

“Is there never a place for closed sessions at the Park Board meeting? What about if they wanted to talk about negotiation tactics to acquire the land? What if they wanted to discuss a deal that is part City / part Park District for acquiring the land? What if they want to discuss maximum offering price that is lower than the $2.2 million; should that be none [sic] to the other side of the transaction? While I agree there is abuse of closed sessions, do you never see a reason for them?”

Because those questions demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of both closed sessions and the ability of the Park District to acquire land irrespective of the owner’s desire to sell it, we have decided to take this opportunity to address that misunderstanding in advance of tomorrow (April 5) night’s Park Board meeting for which the District’s acquisition of Shibley Oaks is an agenda item.

As we understand it, the Board will discuss – in open session for a change – whether there is a need, or even a significant want, for spending as much as $2.2 million of taxpayer money acquiring the Shibley Oaks property from its current owner. Given that the principal feature of that property appears to be nothing more than the 15 old oak trees situated on less than 1 acre of land in a commercially-zoned area along Busse Highway, the fundamental questions that need to be asked are:

(1) “Does the Park District’s mission include the acquisition of private property for the primary purpose of preserving that property’s nature and character”; and

(2) “Does the District need or want a park at Shibley Oaks?”

If you look at the District’s “Environmental Policy” the answer to question No. 1 may be: “Yes.” That leaves the Park Board to answer question No. 2

Assuming for the sake of argument that some reasonable justification can be made for the property’s acquisition by the District, what purpose would closed-session negotiations serve?

The Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) expressly provides that: “(1) It is the intent of this Act to protect the citizen’s right to know; and (2) The provisions for exceptions to the open meetings requirements shall be strictly construed against closed meetings.” That’s why even the recognized exceptions to IOMA’s open-meeting mandate, such as discussions about the acquisition of land, are merely permissive rather than mandatory. In other words, unless some other non-IOMA statute requires non-public debate and deliberations by the Park Board, NO closed sessions are ever required.

According to the commentator, closed session discussions of “negotiation tactics” would enable the Park Board to deliberate and decide in secret on a maximum offering price and a negotiation plan (presumably starting with a lowball offer followed by a series of escalating offers and counter-offers) that might result in the property’s acquisition below the owner’s asking price.

That would be a reasonable idea IF the acquisition process was your typical voluntary arm’s-length one between a private seller and a private buyer.

But the District’s acquisition of private property for a public purpose does not need to be a typical arm’s-length negotiation between a willing seller (i.e., the Shibley Oaks owner) and a willing buyer (i.e., the District). That’s because the District, like most other governmental bodies, has the legal authority under eminent domain laws to acquire the property for its fair market value (“FMV”) by the process of condemnation even if the owner doesn’t want to sell.

What does that mean from a practical standpoint?

Simply, that the Park District can call ALL the shots and, therefore, doesn’t need to hide its acquisition efforts and “negotiation tactics” in closed sessions.

Assuming the Park Board decides that buying the Shibley Oaks property makes sense, it should go about getting the property appraised (by a certified MAI appraiser) to determine its true FMV; i.e., the maximum price the District would have to pay for the property if it instituted a legal condemnation proceeding.

Once the Board has the FMV it can formulate an initial offer to the owner – presumably lower than the FMV and expressly conditioned on voter approval of its acquisition via a referendum question on this November’s ballot.

Assuming the PRPD’s initial offer is not accepted by the owner, the Board should then invite the owner to a special meeting convened for the sole purpose of “negotiating” – IN OPEN SESSION – a purchase price less than the FMV. That way, should the owner tender any counter-offers, the Board could discuss – IN OPEN SESSION – and vote on whether to accept or reject each of those counter-offers, and what amount the District might offer in response. Any such back-and-forth would occur in full view of the taxpayers who deserve to see just how competently the Board is negotiating on their behalf.

This process could continue until either the parties reach agreement – once again, subject to voter approval in November – or the “negotiations” reach the FMV, at which point both the owner and the taxpayers would know that the District can compel the property’s sale under eminent domain/condemnation. And so would any prospective private purchaser, thereby deterring such a purchaser from insinuating itself into the situation.

Of course, such a transparent process is nightmarish to the bureaucrats and elected officials who fear the taxpayers and loathe having any accountability to them – as well as to those folks who want the Shibley Oaks property for a park but rightly fear that its acquisition, even if approved by the Board, would never pass via referendum. All those folks would prefer a secretive process – much like the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals runs for electing a pope, where nobody on the outside knows jack until the white smoke starts pouring out of the Sistine Chapel’s chimney.

While that might work for picking the religious leader of the estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide, it’s a perverted way of acquiring private property for a public purpose in a community of less than 40,000 residents where IOMA mandates the open and transparent process of government.

Unfortunately, opacity and unaccountability has been standard operating procedure not only here in Park Ridge but throughout Illinois, whose motto should probably be changed from “Land of Lincoln” to “Land of 7,000 Secretive Governmental Units.”

So we’ll be curious to see how many Park Board members can grasp the foregoing analysis and adopt a transparent, open-session acquisition process – assuming a majority of them can discern any kind of value to the District and its taxpayers from acquiring the Shibley Oaks property in the first place.

Updated 04.07.2018. According to yesterday’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate story about Thursday night’s Park Board meeting (“Referendum, grants suggested for buying Park Ridge land for park,” 04.06.2018), the Board already has an appraisal for the Shibley Oaks property.

That’s a good thing.

The H-A story doesn’t say whether the District has an MAI appraisal or just a half-baked “market analysis” some broker threw together – although Commissioner Rob Leach’s comment that the appraisal was higher than the property’s actual value because Uptown properties were used as comparables suggests the latter.

That’s disappointing. But even more disappointing is the Board’s refusal to publicly disclose the amount of the appraisal/market analysis, on the grounds that it’s “confidential.”

Why? What’s so “confidential” about it?

In a word: Nothing. Which is why this appears to be just more of the same kind of anti-transparent, unaccountable secrecy that had the Park Board inexplicably discussing Sibley Oaks in closed session over the past several months.

The taxpayers deserve better.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Good Riddance To Maine Twp. Attorney

04.02.18

If anyone wonders just how sclerotic and out-of-touch the Maine Township government establishment has become, look no farther than an article in this week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Maine Township attorney resigns, citing ‘disagreement and controversy’ on divided board,” April 2), which reports that Dan Dowd has resigned as the Township’s attorney after more than 25 years in the position.

His alibi: He’s uncomfortable being “put in the middle” between the Board’s new majority – Trustees Dave Carrabotta, Claire McKenzie and Susan Sweeney, whom we have labeled “The Reformers” – and the Board’s old-line business-as-usual minority of Supervisor Laura Morask and Trustee Kim Jones.

In reality, Dowd is not “in the middle” of anything: He’s firmly in the corner of Morask, Jones, non-Assessor Susan Moylan-Krey, Clerk Peter Gialamas and Highway Commissioner Walter Kazmierczak; and he’s firmly opposed to The Reformers.

As reported in the H-A story, Dowd acknowledged he would be “uncomfortable” representing The Reformers’ majority in appealing a seemingly kinky deal cut by Morask and Moylan-Krey with the outgoing general counsel of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (“IMRF”) that granted a secret appeal by Moylan-Krey of The Reformers’ refusal to certify that her position requires at least 1,000 hours of work per year, thereby qualifying her for continued pension participation.

We wrote about that rancid situation in our 02.13.2018 post.

Fortunately, the new IMRF general counsel, upon being apprised of the secretive skullduggery, re-opened the process by which the Township can appeal the Moylan-Krey deal, via a majority vote of The Reformers.

That Dowd is pulling the pin on his Township gig is one thing. That he has been the Township’s attorney for more than 25 years – having been handed the position on a no-bid basis back in 1993 by then-Supervisor Mark Thompson and then-Trustees Carol Teschky and Jim Reilly, and having remained a Board majority lackey until The Reformers became the majority last May – is quite another.

With either Dowd’s advice or acquiescence, Morask has orchestrated Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) violations for such boneheaded maneuvers as having Clerk Gialamas vote as a trustee on a motion to destroy a closed-session audio recording; and conducting Township bill review meetings without keeping official minutes. That would be unacceptable from a rookie municipal attorney.

The H-A reports that Morask has a candidate for Dowd’s replacement that she intends to present at the Board’s April 17 meeting.

Given her track record, anybody Morask suggests should be considered as radioactive as Polonium-210. Now is the time for The Reformers to demand the issuance of an RFP for Dowd’s replacement.

And if Morask resists, she should follow Dowd out the door.

To read or post comments, click on title.