Public Watchdog.org

Thank You, Shibley Oaks Owner! (Updated)

08.03.18

We’ve made no secret of our opinion that the Park Ridge Park District’s purchase of the postage-stamp parcel of land at 815 Busse Hwy – recently branded the “Shibley Oaks” property, presumably for “marketing” purposes – is a waste of taxpayers’ money, an opinion we’ve expressed in our 03.26.2018 postour 04.04.2018 post and our 05.23.2018 post.

Since then we have spent hours reading the Park Board’s meeting packets and watched the meeting videos of those few discussions of Shibley Oaks that the Board has not hidden from the taxpayers by running into closed session. You remember closed session, don’t you: That anti-transparency tactic our public officials use to hide stuff from us taxpayers even though closed sessions are not required but are merely permitted under the Illinois Open Meeting Act (“IOMA”).

And even though such closed session meetings can be conducted outside the view of the taxpayers, nothing in IOMA requires that what goes on in those closed-session proceedings must be kept secret – although the public officials who scurry into closed session whenever possible rarely, if ever, tell us what went on in them, or post the minutes of those closed-session meetings for us to read. 

One of the Park Board’s champions of closed-session secrecy is president Mel Thillens, who – to the best of our knowledge – has never met a closed session he couldn’t vote for. Both he and Jim O’Brien have been on that Board long enough to know that IOMA makes closed sessions permissive rather than mandatory, assuming they actually cared as much about transparency as they seemingly care about talking and acting in secrecy.

SIDEBAR: Yes, we endorsed both Thillens and O’Brien for their positions on the Park Board…twice. But the first time we endorsed them was as an alternative to an SEIU-backed slate of candidates, and the second time we endorsed them was as an alternative to Cindy Grau. We chalk both of those up to the lesser of two evils, even though we realize that’s “still choosing evil.” (per the late Grateful Jerry Garcia).

But, frankly, we can’t recall seeing or hearing about any of the seven current Park Board members actually voting against a closed session. We would love to be proved wrong about that, really we would. But we aren’t going to hold our breath waiting for that to happen.

Unfortunately, all those secretive closed sessions prevented us taxpayers from hearing the Board members discuss the reasons, if any, why buying Shibley Oaks made any sense, considering that: (a) the District had no plan for creating a park in that part of town; and (b) we can’t recall the last time the District even considered acquiring such a tiny parcel of land. Those kinds of discussions could have been held – and should have been held – in open sessions.

So thank you, NOT, Park Board members, for gratuitously hiding those discussions from us taxpayers.

We also didn’t get to hear if those Board members secretly discussed how neither the Shibley Oaks neighbors nor any of their tree-hugger allies suggested making Shibley Oaks into a District park until after the parcel’s owner posted “No Trespassing” signs on the property – and then built a fence around part of it – that annoyed the heck out of those neighbors whose kids had been using that property as their own private park/playground for years.

So thank you again, NOT, Park Board members, for also hiding that discussion from us taxpayers (assuming you actually even had such a discussion).

But what really peaks our curiosity is how and why the Board gave Director Mountcastle the authority to make such a bogus purchase offer of a piddling $1.15 million that the owner wouldn’t even dignify with a counter-offer, as reported in last week’s Park Ridge Herald Advocate (“Park Ridge Park District: $1.15 million purchase offer for ‘Shibley oaks’ site rejected,” July 24).

Why do we call that offer “bogus”?

Let’s start with the H-A’s report that the listing price of that commercially-zoned property is $2.35 million, or double the District’s offer. And if that doesn’t make the offer bogus enough for you, consider that the District reportedly has some sort of an “appraisal” (secret, of course, and most likely not a formal MAI version that any responsible land purchaser would require) that puts the property’s value at $1.43 million, or almost $300,000 more than the District’s offer.

But what makes the District’s lowball offer truly bogus is that it was made even though the District, because of its eminent domain powers, can legally force the owner to sell the property to the District at its fair market value (“FMV”) anytime the District wants.

That means the owner of Shibley Oaks most likely KNOWS that if he isn’t stupid enough or desperate enough to jump at a lowball offer, the worst he’ll ever get –even if the District ever has the stones to employ its eminent domain power – is the property’s FMV, or $300,000 more (based on the District’s rumored $1.43 million “appraisal”) than the District’s $1.15 million lowball offer.

In other words, the Board authorized that bogus $1.15 million offer either out of ignorance of how its eminent domain power could guarantee an FMV purchase price, or because it actually wanted a rejection of the offer and no counter.

If the bogus offer was the product of ignorance of eminent domain, then shame on those Board members for not doing their homework and asking the right questions of Director Mountcastle and Attorney Tom Hoffman. And double shame on Mountcastle and Hoffman for not adequately advising those Board members of what we just stated in the previous two paragraphs. This wasn’t Mountcastle’s or Hoffman’s first rodeo, so they most certainly knew better and should have advised better.

If ignorance is not the culprit, however, then why did the Board want a rejection of the offer and no counter?

Because we weren’t privy to any of those closed sessions, we can’t say for sure. But if we had to place a small wager on it, we would suggest that a majority of Board members wanted the offer to fail without a counter because:

  1. Grau definitely wants the District to buy Shibley Oaks, and Thillens, O’Donnell, O’Brien and Harrington apparently don’t have the stones to tell the Shibley Oaks folks that buying the property is stupid and a waste of the taxpayers’ money;
  2. the District doesn’t have the financial ability – due to the $20 million or so of bonding power the District spent on the Centennial Water Park and Prospect Park – to buy Shibley Oaks without a tax increase that requires a binding referendum;
  3. a couple/few of the Board members previously indicated on the record that they preferred that the deal go to referendum in November;
  4. since then, both those Board members and the Shibley Oaks folks have figured out that such a referendum is unlikely to pass even at the questionable $1.43 million “appraisal” price, so neither group wants it to go to referendum in November and fail; and
  5. neither group wants to publicly admit that they know a November referendum would fail, because that would effectively be an admission that the Shibley Oaks purchase IS a stupid waste of taxpayer money that a majority of voters do not support.

So…by secretly authorizing Mountcastle to make a bogus, lowball $1.15 million offer that likely wouldn’t even get a counter, those Board members and Shibley Oaks folks can now blame the owner for not negotiating a realistic price that the Board could take to referendum this November.

And, guess what? That’s exactly what they did.

Per the H-A article, “Grau called the outcome of the real estate talks ‘very unfortunate’…[and]…the park district’s offer ‘a fair price’,” while branding Shibley Oaks’ owner “an unwilling seller.” Not surprisingly, Grau wants to end any current attempt to buy Shibley Oaks because: “We don’t have that kind of money.”

Gee, Cindy, isn’t not having that kind of money why the District was going to have to go to referendum in the first place?

Putting off any November referendum is the dishonest way of preventing Shibley Oaks from getting blown out of the water in a higher-turnout November referendum while also giving the Shibley Oaks folks more time to build a public relations campaign to sway a much smaller voter turnout for an April 2019 referendum.

Which is why Shibley Oaks leader Rob Bowe is quoted in the H-A article as stating: “We’ll continue to do what we have to do and grow support and increase awareness that this is our only park in that whole area.” And, presumably, they’ll get to that point just in time for…wait for it…an April referendum.

But that’s what we get when cowardly politicians prefer pandering to special interest groups and hiding their pandering discussions from us taxpayers in secretive closed sessions.

Dishonest? Check. Anti-transparent? Check. Anti-accountability? Check.

Unfortunately for us taxpayers and for anyone who believes in honest government, it works – at least for those pandering politicians and the special interests to which they pander.

By having all these closed-session Board discussions and secret “negotiations” with the Shibley Oaks owner, the Park Board has delayed the matter until it now has only one more meeting, on August 16, for the Board to vote to put a Shibley Oaks referendum question on the November ballot before the August 20, 2018 deadline for doing so.

If this Park Board had even an ounce of H.I.T.A. it would put the tax-increase referendum question on the November ballot at a purchase price of $1.43 million, the FMV of the District’s own unseen “appraisal.” But we’re not betting the ranch on that happening.

So all we can do is say “Thank You, Shibley Oaks Owner!” – for being the only person connected to this Shibley Oaks boondoggle with enough common sense and backbone to just say “No.”

UPDATE 08.05.2018. After reviewing the minutes from the Park Board’s meetings we discovered that Commissioner Leach was the sole “No” vote against going into closed session to discuss the Shibley Oaks acquisition at the meetings of 12.07. 2017, 01.25.2018 and 03.15.2018 – which appear to be the only votes against any of the closed sessions at which Shibley Oaks was discussed.

And although the Board, at its April 19, 2018 meeting, unanimously passed a motion by Thillens “to authorize the Executive Director [Mountcastle] to apply for the waiver from the National Park Service, to allow for negotiation with the seller, and to negotiate a contract with the seller for the best possible deal for purchase of the Shibley Oaks property contingent on the passing of a referendum in the November election for the purchase price, plus the development of the property,” less than a month later – at its May 17 meeting – Grau tried to bail on her earlier November referendum vote; Leach continued to push for it; and Thillens was almost comical in pirouetting around the issue so as to avoid taking any stand.

You can find the meeting video here, with the Shibley Oaks follies starting at the 00:09:30 mark and ending at the 00:17:00 mark.

To read or post comments, click on title.

12 comments so far

I am sure you nailed it right on the head, PW. This has been one big stall tactic by Mountcastle and Grau, aided and abetted by Hoffman, to avoid the November referendum’s big turnout.

It is too bad, however, that not one of the other six commissioners (Harrington, Janak, Leach, O’Brien, O’Donnell and Thillens) had the H.I.T.A. to blow the whistle on those closed session discussions where this whole delay strategy was being cooked up.

I will join you in saying “Thank you, Sibley Oaks owner.” This kind of stuff sickens me and hopefully it sickens other taxpayers enough to put the same kind of pressure on the Park Board member that the Shibley Oaks people did.

Another thing this blog editor is against. Those trees are irreplaceable and conservation is part of the mission of the Park District. This is Park Ridge’s legacy and should be preserved, even if it means paying the asking price because that still isn’t all that much per household.

EDITOR’S NOTE: What this blog editor is FOR is a November referendum at the $1.43 million of the reported District “appraisal” or even the owner’s $2.35 million asking price. Irrespective of how irresponsible it would be for the District to buy Shibley Oaks, if a majority of the voters support it we’re fine with it.

What we’re not fine with, however, is the Park Board, Director and Attorney dishonestly pushing off the referendum from November’s bigger turnout to April 2019’s several thousand vote less turnout just because they know it’s easier to influence the vote when the turnout is lower.

It’s incredibly unfair to defame the Board, Director and Attorney by accusing them of pushing the referendum from November to April. What evidence do you have to support it?

EDITOR’S NOTE: You mean in addition to the five numbered points and the discussion following them?

We also just heard that Cindy Grau met privately with the Shibley Oaks owner last year to discuss the Park District’s purchase of that property, which we understand was done without any prior notice to, or authorization by, the rest of the Board.

And we’d bet some real cash that, were the Board willing to release the closed-session minutes and audiotapes, the evidence would be overwhelming. But we all know that ain’t happening.

Proof, Robert? I would think as an attorney you would be more careful with your accusations.

I met with the owner of the property as a citizen with another citizen and with the knowledge of several Park District employees. At the time Friends of Shibley Oaks was looking into grants to buy the property and deed it to the Park District. I have proof, do you? I explained this all to Mr. Leach, your obvious source, who is also conspicuously missing from your missiles above.

It is too bad your plan for a fall referendum failed. Is it even possible to do eminent domain based on a referendum outcome?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Proof, Cynthia?

All the circumstantial evidence described in the post is more than sufficient, practically and legally, to support the conclusions drawn in that post. As a trial lawyer, however, of course I’d prefer direct evidence if it was available. Unfortunately, you and a majority of the Park Board, by hiding all that direct evidence in closed-session meetings, prevents that.

If you and your Star Chamber allies would ever decide to play it straight with the taxpayers and publish those closed-session minutes and audio tapes, I’m sure there would be plenty of direct evidence of your and your allies’ kinky secretive efforts to acquire Shibley Oaks while avoiding a November referendum at all costs. But officials like yourself who compulsively hide in closed sessions whenever you can get away with it won’t let that happen.

I always favor referendums, especially November ones where the turnouts are always several thousand voters more than in our April elections, as the best way to find out what the most taxpayers want. It’s just too bad you have such contempt for those taxpayers that you feel compelled to take that vote away from them; and to do so while hiding in secretive closed sessions.

I read the minutes of the Park Board’s April 5 meeting and heard a woman named Daisy Bowe and Rob Bowe (her husband, I presume) speak in favor of the Park District’s buying the property. Is Daisy Bowe the “screeching vagina” woman from that appeared at a D64 meeting to demand Dr. Paterno’s expulsion from that school board last year.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Actually, she referred to herself as a “screeching, raging vagina.”

Once again PubDog is bailing on elected officials who he endorsed just a year ago but who have failed to walk the PubDog walk. If Harrington, Janak, Leach and O’Donnell had voted for open sessions instead of closed, you wouldn’t have anything to complain about. The same if they had voted for a November referendum.

The credibility of your endorsements is tarnishing with every post like this you publish. And I’m loving every minute of it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We endorsed Harrington, Janak, Leach and O’Donnell over Bende and Phillips, two incumbents over whom we would have endorsed “None of the above” if that were the only other choice.

As a candidate Harrington talked the talk, which we quoted in our 04.03.2017 post: “[A] healthy park district needs to operate like a business, use market-based principles yet maintain affordable access”; and “for major capital projects outside our current means, public referendum is a very important component.” Janak and O’Donnell both claimed to favor referendums as a condition of any tax levy increase. So, needless to say, their insistence in hiding almost all their Shibley Oaks discussions in closed sessions, and their failure to push for a November referendum on Shibley Oaks, is disappointing – although no more disappointing than Bende’s and Phillips’ behavior would have been.

Only Leach has advocated for a November referendum and also raised the issue of using eminent domain to purchase the property IF a majority of taxpayers support it in a November referendum. That makes him the only one of the four who hasn’t been a disappointment in this regard.

As for the credibility of our endorsements, occasionally we get to pick between two qualified candidates. Sadly, most times it’s a choice, figuratively, between heart disease and brain cancer; or between candidates who have as much substance as two high school freshmen running for home room rep. to the student council. And yet other times we get fooled by people who talk the talk but can’t, or won’t, walk the walk.

C’est la vie.

I’ve never understood why our local government units hate referendums. Well, actually I do. Referendums prevent our officials from lying to us about all the people who support what those officials want.

I agree that a November referendum at $1.43 million would give the Park District the ability to eminent domain the property at what it says is the fair market value. Let the voters decide!

Nice write-up, Bob, but can’t help but think you buried the lede a bit. The lede in this case being that someone is still making ‘NOT’ jokes in the Year of Our Lord two thousand and eighteen.

EDITOR’S NOTE: There’s always room for retro (or “vintage,” as some call it), judiciously used.

Like you I view closed sessions the way parents view their children being out after midnight: Nothing good happens. That causes me to thank Mr. Leach for his sole dissenting vote on those closed sessions. But if you look at the minutes of those meetings, Thillens made the motion to go into closed for two of the three closed sessions that Leach voted no on.

BTW, if Grau met with the Shibley Oaks owner “as a citizen” and “with the knowledge of several Park District employees,” does that mean that she didn’t tell her fellow Board members who are not “Park District employees”?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We missed that, but you’re right. You’d think that after 7 years on the Board, a run for state rep and a run for state senator, he’d have learned by now that you don’t need a secret “negotiating strategy” when you have the legal ability (through eminent domain) of forcing a property owner to sell the property for its FMV.

As for your question, perhaps Commissioner Grau could point us to the meeting minutes or portion of a meeting video in which she advised her fellow commissioners that she was going to be having some back-channel conversations with the owner. Cynthia?

“You’d think that after 7 years on the Board, a run for state rep and a run for state senator, he’d have learned by now that you don’t need a secret “negotiating strategy”……”.

You’d think, but you know better than that and you knew better when you endorsed him. Here is what is so hysterical. You will whine and bitch about this event….and the next time(s), and there will surely be a next time, and when he runs again you will endorse him!!

EDITOR’S NOTE: As we’ve said before, sometimes the choice is between congestive heart disease and brain cancer. Whether we endorse him again will depend, as it has depended in the past, on how bad are the candidates running against him.

PD you are correct. Sometimes there is no perfect choice or even great/good choice.

So you choose heart disease but now you bitch and whine that you can’t make it up the stairs. Mel voted for closed meeting…..Duh!!! That apparently was acceptable to you when you made your calculation to endorse.

Some people decide to make the family trip to Disney World in the summer when it is less expensive. That’s fine but don’t complain when you are sweating your a$$ off.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Just because you choose what you believe is the less lethal disease doesn’t mean that you stop seeing it as a disease that needs to be treated so it doesn’t kill you.



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