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.

Park District’s “Green Space” Fund: The Slush Beneath Our Feet?

05.23.18

In our 04.03.2017 post we endorsed the candidacy of Harmony Harrington – along with candidates Jim Janak, Rob Leach and Jim O’Donnell – for election to the Park Ridge Park District Board of Commissioners. One reason for that endorsement was her professed support of referendums “for major capital projects outside [the District’s] current means.”

Since then we have applauded – in our 07.07.2017, 08.16.2017 and 11.07.2017 posts – several of the things she and her colleagues have done, or refused to do, while in office.

So when Ms. Harrington proposes that the Park District create a “Green Space Acquisition Fund” for the tail-wagging-the-dog purpose of buying land for parks should land become available, we have to wonder what the heck she’s thinking – because building up a pool of money for green space acquisition is a bad solution looking for a non-existent problem.

Unfortunately, the most plausible explanation for her off-the-reservation proposal is that she is trying to create a “slush fund” to provide an ongoing “current means” for the District to fund land (i.e., “capital”) purchases without having to get taxpayer approval via referendum. In other words, the slush fund becomes a convenient way to end-run her pro-referendum campaign position.

Harrington’s proposal comes at the same time a bunch of vocal folks are pressuring the District to spend as much as $2.3 million (or maybe less, if one believes there’s a lower appraisal that the District continues to hide from the taxpayers for unknown and/or specious reasons ) to purchase a tiny 3/4 acre parcel of land along Busse Hwy. in a business-zoned district that they call “Shibley Oaks.” They say they want to save the old oak trees on the property and to have their own neighborhood park in which their kids can make snow forts in the winter.

$2.3 million sounds like a boatload of wampum for several old oak trees and snow forts.

Could it be that Harrington’s idea is shameless pandering to that Shibley Oaks constituency? Such a suspicion draws support from a May 8, 2018 article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Park Ridge park commissioner seeks creation of ‘green space’ fund to buy future land”) which reports that Harrington cited the interest in the Shibley Oaks purchase as one indication that residents of Park Ridge desire more green space.

No, Harmony, it indicates nothing more than that, at most, 700+ residents of Park Ridge – out of the Park District’s approximately 24,000 voters and 37,000 residents – were willing to sign a petition asking the District to buy that property using tax dollars confiscated almost entirely from their fellow taxpayers who may or may not want their money spent that way.

As we noted in our post critical of the Park Board’s secret Shibley Oaks discussions, the District doesn’t need a readily available slush fund in order to buy available land, or even land that’s not technically “available”: The District has the right of eminent domain and can acquire any property it wants at its fair market value via condemnation should the owner not want to sell it voluntarily. And the District can tie the exercise of that condemnation power to taxpayer approval via a referendum.

But that’s not as convenient to special interests – like the Shibley Oaks crowd – that disingenuously claim they speak for the majority of residents but who never seem to want to let those taxpayers actually speak for themselves through their referendum votes.

That got us thinking about an alternative to Harrington’s slush fund, at least as it applies to the postage-stamp Shibley Oaks parcel: Let 400 of those 700+ petition signers pony up $5,000 each to purchase that parcel, assuming that the owner would be willing to part with it for $300K less than its $2.3 million list price (We’d bet a crisp new $1 bill that the owner would).

Once The 400 buy Shibley Oaks, they can donate it to the Park District under certain contractual terms and conditions, such as:

(a) The 400 get naming rights to the new park, if they want them;

(b) they get their names on a bronze plaque affixed to a granite marker, if they want it;

(c) they get a priority for things like picnicking, snow fort making, squirrel watching and tree hugging; and

(d) should any of those oaks die or get struck by lightning, they get priority rights to the lumber.

Who knows, maybe there’s a wood-worker dad among The 400 who could produce a collection of “Wonderboy” bats from that lumber, either for the baseball/softball-playing children of The 400 or to sell on e-bay.

And if 700 petition-signers contribute equal shares, the cost per petitioner drops from $5,000 to a bargain-basement $2,860. At that price they could put the contributions on their Mastercards or Visas and earn some travel miles.

That’s all it would take to save the Shibley Oaks.

No slush fund to be squandered by this Board or its successors. No annoying referendum to prove that the 700+ petition signers don’t represent anything close to a majority of taxpayers. No muss, no fuss. Just a bunch of public-spirited citizens putting their own money where their mouths are.

If Frank Capra were alive he just might make a movie about it.

But don’t hold your breath.

To read or post comments, click on title.

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.

Why Is The Park Board Discussing “Shibley Oaks” In Closed Session?

03.26.18

Running the east side of Busse Highway from Shibley Avenue on the north to Seeley Avenue on the south sits a non-descript, commercially-zoned parcel in the middle of a stretch of other commercially-zoned property.

At the Seeley end of the parcel sits a building that formerly housed the Maine Center, a mental health treatment center that closed down in April 2015 when its planned merger with the Elk Grove-based Kenneth Young Center fell through. The north roughly 3/4 of that parcel is vacant land bearing centenarian oak trees.

Until last year when the parcel’s owner, reportedly Park Ridge Development LLC, posted “no trespassing” signs on the property to the irritation of the neighbors who treated it as their own “park,” that parcel was not even a blip on the rest of the community’s radar.

But then those neighbors and a group of local tree huggers decided that the parcel – and the 15 old oak trees sitting on it – needed to be preserved as a vital remnant of a larger oak savanna that allegedly pre-dated European settlement of this area.

The parcel’s size: Approximately 3/4 acre.

The parcel’s price: Reportedly $2.2 million.

As is usually the case in situations such as these, the neighbors and the tree huggers aren’t offering to purchase the parcel and preserve it. Nor are they offering to purchase it and donate it to the City of Park Ridge or to the Park Ridge Park District.

Instead, it should come as no surprise that they have gathered petition signatures with which to cajole and/or pressure the Park District Board into prioritizing the purchase of the Shibley Oaks property. As in with Other People’s Money (“OPM,” i.e., the taxpayers’ money).

They’ve named the parcel “Shibley Oaks,” created a Facebook page for it, and are assembling a history of warm-and-fuzzy vignettes – presumably for public relations and marketing purposes. Among those vignettes: Shibley Oaks has served as an unofficial “park” for the neighbors, with water ponds in the summer and snow forts in the winter; and it has been, and can continue to be, a valuable storm water retention area.

Frankly, we love the idea of a bunch of people – neighbors, tree huggers, tree climbers, acorn collectors, even druids – organizing to preserve something that has meaning for them. But just because it has meaning for them doesn’t ensure it has the same meaning, or any meaning at all, for everybody else.

And at $2.2 million for less than an acre of land, that makes it an expensive amenity for what amounts to a special-interest group.

Such an amenity should be the subject of either a binding or advisory referendum question on the ballot this coming November so that thousands of voting taxpayers, instead of just 700-800 petitioners, get to express their opinion of the idea in an objectively-measurable way.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

What concerns us in the here-and-now is an article in this week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Residents petition Park Ridge Park District to buy Busse Highway property, preserve oak trees,” March 26) which reports that the Park Board has previously discussed the acquisition of that property in closed session meetings over the past year.

As we’ve repeatedly argued virtually from the time this blog was started, such secretive closed-session discussions tend to be the epitome of bad government for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that while such closed sessions are permissible under the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) to discuss a fixed range of specific topics, they are never required. That tends to make them into a kind of “safe house” for discussions of often controversial matters by elected officials and bureaucrats without the integrity or the spines to discuss those matters honestly and openly right out of the gate.

Because those discussions are held outside the view and hearing of both the public and the media, and the minutes of those meetings can be indefinitely hidden from that same public and the media, their potential for abuse, stupidity and corruption cannot be understated.

And in the case of the Park District’s wishing to acquire private land, closed sessions are unnecessary as a practical matter because the Park District has the legal right, under eminent domain laws, to acquire the property for its fair market value by condemnation, irrespective of whether the owner wants to sell or not.

Yet the Park Board’s approach to Shibley Oaks to date – as reported not only in the H-A article but as corroborated by a closed-session vote recorded on the video of the March 15 Park Board meeting (with only Board member Rob Leach voting “no,” member Jim O’Brien MIA) – is that the Board apparently has conducted numerous closed session discussions about whether Shibley Oaks should be acquired at all.

Has the Board discussed and decided, in open session, whether the District needs a park at Shibley Oaks?

Has the Board discussed and decided, in open session, whether the District wants a park at Shibley Oaks?

Has the Board discussed and decided, in open session, just what kind of park the District needs or wants at Shibley Oaks?

We don’t think so, times three.

Although IOMA does have an exemption for discussions of the acquisition of land (Section 140/2(c)(5)), why is the Park Board retreating into closed sessions to discuss the questions of need, want and use?

What should the Park Board do going forward?

The best practice would be what Board member Rob Leach is quoted in the H-A article as suggesting: Have an open-session, public discussion on April 5 about whether the District should consider buying the land, on the theory that “[e]verybody has the right to know what we’re talking about.”

Exactly!

And they have the right to know it now, not after all the meaningful discussions have occurred in closed sessions and the “public” discussion is little more than window dressing or Kabuki.

EDITOR’S NOTE (03.27.18): This post was published yesterday with a different title and a different conclusion. Although the basic points of this post remain generally the same, some of the facts stated and conclusions drawn were done so in uncharacteristically cart-before-the-horse fashion, and were erroneous. They have been corrected.

Nevertheless, we apologize for any confusion or inconvenience caused to our readers.

And we especially apologize to the Park Board for the erroneous accusation of IOMA violations.

To read or post comments, click on title.

How Much Is Enough – Part 2?

12.06.17

After borrowing over $20 million between 2013 and 2016 to build the Centennial water park and the new Prospect Park, one might think that the Park Ridge Park District might want to cool its jets about taking on more debt and more capital projects.

But, instead, it held a “Public Input Meeting” on November 30, 2017. The “public input” being sought? Coming up with a wish-list for borrowing and spending multi-millions of dollars at Oakton Park.

Why?

Because the Park District recently learned that the Oakton Ice Rink’s R-22 refrigerant will be eliminated by 2020, meaning that the Park District will have to tear up the rink and replace all the mechanicals to accommodate a new type of refrigerant.

But simply replacing the ice surface and mechanicals apparently isn’t enough for the Park District, even though the ice surface was replaced back in the mid-1990s because (as we recall) of cracks in the surface – and, ironically, the phasing-in of the R-22 refrigerant to replace a more environmentally-unfriendly refrigerant – without adding millions of dollars to the project for accessories.

According to an article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Pools, more ice among citizen suggestions for Park Ridge’s Oakton Park,” 12.04.17), although money for the actual replacement has been budgeted, there reportedly is no funding for any additional expansion of the ice rink or other wish-list projects at Oakton. But (per the H-A article) that didn’t stop the District from going out and hiring “Wight and Company architects and two other professional firms” to seek input from residents about what should be done at Oakton.

We’re big on “input from residents” but we’re not big on such input without any price tags affixed – especially since the Park District went to referendum on three Oakton projects in 2005-2006 – all of which were soundly rejected by the voters.

Although there is no video of the Public Input Meeting posted on the District’s website, a string of comments posted to the H-A article on the H-A Facebook page indicates the strongest support for either: (a) a major renovation of the Oakton ice rink and the addition of at least one more ice surface; or (b) a new pool, indoor or outdoor.

Back in 1994-95, the District spent over $100,000 on studies and actual plans for a Centennial water park. The then-board intended to use those plans to steamroll the taxpayers, but a group of 40 or so Centennial Park NIMBYs organized and made enough of a ruckus that the 1994-95 park board backed off and submitted the project to an advisory referendum. That project got soundly rejected by the voters, and its proponents took their cue and dropped it – until it was taken up again as one of the two referendum questions by the Park District in April 2005: The Centennial water park lost by 70% to 30%, while a referendum for building an indoor recreation center at Oakton failed 73% to 27%.

In March 2006 another Centennial water park referendum failed 69% to 31%.

And in November 2006, a $10 million plan to put a new aquatic center/water park at Oakton failed 57% to 43%.

Mindful of those failures, in December 2012 that park board chose to blow right past “permission” and head directly to “forgiveness” when it committed, based on very limited resident input, to borrow $7 million to build the current second/third-rate water park – sans the “lazy river” which was the single most wanted feature of the original design, based on 682 survey respondents – without a referendum. We wrote about it less than kindly in our posts of 12.05.12, 12.13.12, 12.19.12 and 12.29.12.

That decision by that board was both dishonest and gutless. Which, to paraphrase the fictional Dean Vernon Wormer, “is no way to go through [public] life.”

Frankly, we don’t care what the Park District wants to build at Oakton so long as it puts whatever the project(s) might be – along with a credible price tag – to referendum, preferably binding but advisory being better than nothing.

Before that is done, however, a lot more information and discussion is needed to determine what kind of project(s) deserve a referendum question, or two, or three on the November 2018 ballot. That’s assuming the Park Board doesn’t rush to judgment and try to ram something onto the March 2018 primary ballot by the filing deadline of January 2, 2018.

We trust that won’t be the case with this Park Board, the new majority of which act and sound as if they actually understand and respect the interests and concerns of the taxpayers as much, or more, than those of the users of the District’s resources. Such a rush to judgment would be a major dis-service to all the District’s stakeholders except for the highly-motivated special interests who, like their water park counterparts in December 2012, can be counted on to turn out and dominate any discussion over the next few weeks while the majority of folks who will end up footing the bills are busy getting ready for the holidays.

The deadline for putting a Board-originated referendum resolution on the November 2018 ballot is August 20, 2018. That should provide plenty of time for an intelligent, well-informed debate by both the Park Board members and the general public about what project(s) deserve consideration for a referendum question.

Because how much is enough at Oakton, or elsewhere in the Park District, is a question that needs to ultimately be answered by the countable votes of a fully-informed electorate, not by rank speculation and anecdote from a few handfuls of the specially-interested.

To read or post comments, click on title.

 

Increasing Park District Fees: Are You F-Ing Kidding Us!?!?! – Part 2

11.14.17

Today we discuss the economics of Kathy (Panattoni) Meade’s “Are you F-ing Kidding Me” demands for low-cost – if not “free” – amenities (not “necessities”) from the Park Ridge Park District, such as  organized recreational and sports activities, assorted types of entertainment, and a variety of “classes,” “camps” and activities that effectively serve as low-cost babysitting for many parents.

But, first, we need to make sure everybody understands the basic premise underlying these Park District amenities: The Park District (like all other units of local government) has no money of its own.

There’s no “Lost Dutchman” gold mine under the Centennial Park sled hill, nor any vast Vatican-like real estate holdings in Downtown Chicago and Manhattan. The Park District gets its money from the taxpayers, either through RE taxes or user fees. And because the District’s share of our total annual RE tax bills is roughly 6%, if your total RE tax bill is $10,000 per year you’re paying a modest $600 to the District whether you use the facilities and programs or not.

We also need to make sure everybody understands the genesis of the Park District’s money problems, which occurred around 1992 when it dug itself a large financial hole by borrowing approximately $8 million – more than the District’s annual budget at the time – to build the Community Center (now the “Centennial Recreation Center”) without a referendum that would have permitted the District to specially tax the residents to cover the capital cost of that facility.

Why did those 1990-92 park board members – Garry Abezetian, Joyce Clark, Bob Hamilton, Dave Hilquist, Mike Rozovics, Roy Sues and Mary Hester Tone – authorize such a facility without a referendum?

For the same reason that the City Council in the early 2000s didn’t go to referendum for its borrowing of tens of millions of dollars to subsidize the Uptown Redevelopment project. And for the same reason the Park Board didn’t go to referendum in 2012 for its borrowing of over $7 million for the new Centennial water park:

They were afraid they would lose a referendum vote! And then they would have had to assume the political consequences if they chose to disregard that vote and do the project anyway.

So in 1992 the Park Board basically maxed out the District’s non-referendum bonding power to build whatever it could get for $8 million. And all it could get was a haphazardly designed and hastily built facility with (a) an indoor pool too short and too narrow for sanctioned swim meets, (b) two basketball courts instead of the needed four, (c) an equivalently-undersized running track, (d) an exercise room that the exercise classes outgrew within the first year, (e) a lobby providing no way to control or manage access and traffic, and (f) so many other flaws and deficiencies that in 2004 the regional manager of a national fitness chain – after thoroughly inspecting the facility – pronounced it unworthy of purchase by, or even a management contract for, that chain.

Worse yet, the Community Center debt service severely handicapped the District’s ability to maintain, repair and renovate its parks and other facilities, especially after Cook County voters (in 1995) approved RE tax caps that limited annual tax increases by the Park District to the lower of 5% or the increase in the CPI.

The District’s finances were so shaky that it began issuing short-term, non-referendum bonds to pay the Community Center’s long-term debt service. Think of it as using your VISA card to pay your mortgage – only without getting any miles or points.

Consequently, Hinkley Pool was allowed to fall into such disrepair that it was pronounced “unsafe” and closed for an entire summer until it could be rebuilt. Oakton and Centennial pools suffered similar neglect from a lack of funding.

At least 4 times between from 1995 and 2006 – in November 1995, in April 2005, in March 2006 and in November 2006 – the voters rejected referendums for new outdoor pools. That’s why the 2012 Park Board decided to build the new Centennial water park by doing exactly what the 1992 park board did with the Community Center: Max out the District’s non-referendum borrowing power without giving the taxpayers a vote.

In order to cope with the Community Center debt fiasco and the tax caps, however, the District was effectively forced to institute and/or increase user fees so that the facilities, classes, sports and recreational programs that could generate revenue would begin covering some of their own costs.

And, ‘lo and behold, it actually worked!

As we understand it, the Park District now generates almost 51% of its $20 million annual revenue through user fees. And a good chunk of the credit goes to Executive Director Gayle Mountcastle (whom we have excoriated at times for sins of both commission and omission) and those Park Board members who have supported and encouraged that user-fee strategy, including the current Board majority.

What’s wrong with paying for the amenities you use?

Plenty, if you’re a big-time user of the District’s pay-to-play facilities, classes and programs. Paying for what you and your family use is a stake through the heart of our local “freeloaders” who are constantly “looking to leverage maximum benefits for themselves, their families and their friends by shifting the costs of those benefits onto the backs of their fellow taxpayers.”

In the freeloader universe, the Park District is like a Club Med-style, all-inclusive resort where your property taxes entitle you to anything you want at no extra charge, or at a nominal upcharge. And if that means your usage is subsidized by your fellow taxpayers, so much the better! Hence the beefing about fee increases by uber-users like Kathy Meade, who believe they shouldn’t have to go to Niles, Des Plaines, Chicago, or other communities to get “affordable” facilities, classes and programs.

Why not?

We’ve always advocated for “value” in local governmental services, meaning that the quality and/or quantity of the facilities, services, programs or activities should meet or exceed their costs to the taxpayers and consumers. That being said, consumers should be able to get their value wherever they can find it.

So if Niles, Des Plaines, Chicago or other nearby communities can offer better facilities, classes and programs – or comparable ones at cheaper prices – than our Park District can, why not take advantage of those? If our residents think they can get a better deal on their amenities from other communities, they are actually doing our non-freeloading taxpayers a favor by consuming those other communities’ resources rather than our own.

Better yet, they can start patronizing PRIVATE facilities like FFC Park Ridge that actually pay RE taxes rather than consume them.

In an optimal situation the taxpayers could cover the cost of the District’s capital expenditures for the parks, playing fields and facilities, as well as routine maintenance and repairs. To the extent the costs of operating those parks, fields and facilities – e.g., the costs of combatting the wear and tear from organized and programmed usage – can be allocated to those organized and programmed users, they should be. And the entire, fully-loaded cost of programs, classes and activities should be charged to the users.

That way, Ms. Meade and her ilk can choose to send their kids to Taft High School’s “week long soccer camp for $60 for 5 days and 3-1/2 hours a day AND offer lunch and a t-shirt” (which might help explain why the Chicago Public Schools are bankrupt) while still paying her taxes to our Park District.

We call that a win-win for the taxpayers. And we encourage Ms. Mountcastle and the current Board majority to keep up the good work in that regard.

But, just for a reality check, maybe the Park Board could put a referendum question on the ballot that lets the taxpayers vote on whether they want to pay higher RE taxes so that the District’s facilities, classes, programs and activities can be all-inclusive without any user fees whatsoever.

Then those Park Board members could sit back and wait for a different kind of “Are you F-ing kidding us!?!?!” complaint – followed by the inevitable landslide of “No!” votes.

And another predictable whine from Ms. Meade.

To read or post comments, click on title.

More Ice At Oakton? Take It To Referendum

08.16.17

It was public intellectual George Santayana who penned that well-known aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

That’s the thought that popped into our mind the other day when we read a string of comments to a Facebook post on the Park Ridge Concerned Homeowners page about how the Park District’s Oakton complex NEEDS a second ice surface.

Why?

Because “[t]he demand for ice time in this area is astronomical”; and “[h]ockey players, figure skaters and coaches are being forced to look elsewhere for ice time (Which translates to finances leaving Park Ridge),” according to the FB post’s author, Teresa Smith Nelson.

Those of you who have been around Park Ridge and who actually can “remember the past” may recall how the issue of a second ice surface at Oakton has popped up every so often over the past 20 years, usually wrapped in the same rhetoric: A huge demand for ice time, “finances leaving Park Ridge” and how the facility will pay for itself. That rhetoric is advanced primarily by parents who are tired of schlepping their kids to other towns for early morning or late night ice time, as well as those who object to paying the higher non-resident rates for the ice-time and/or programs.

Government-owned recreational facilities rarely pay for themselves even on merely an “operating” basis, much less by covering the debt service for their construction costs. Consequently, even preventing all those “finances leaving Park Ridge” rarely, if ever, generates enough revenue to turn the ledger ink for that facility from red to black.

Which is why there are so few purely private ice rinks (a la Johnny’s Ice House on West Madison in Chicago) being built in the Chicagoland area. And why many/most of the private rink complexes still in operation have gone through one or more foreclosures and/or bankruptcies until vulture investors could pick them up at deep discounts (a la Seven Bridges in Woodridge).

This blog’s editor played hockey from age 7 to age 40 so, frankly, we have no problem with a second, or even a third, ice surface being added at Oakton. Heck, throw in a major renovation and expansion of the current locker rooms, team rooms, etc. Maybe go whole hog and add a restaurant, bar, gift shop and parking deck!

But unless some private developer shows up with a grand plan and a check big enough to pay for it, we hope the Park Ridge Park District Board sends any proposal for more ice at Oakton to referendum.

That way, the taxpayers who will end up on the hook for a facility only a small fraction of our residents seem to want – an amenity, not a necessity – can get the chance to express their support or lack thereof at the voting booth.

We already have two second/third-rate Park District facilities that were foisted on the taxpayers without referendum, both coincidentally at Centennial Park: The Fitness Center (formerly the “Community Center”) and the water park, each one costing the taxpayers over $10 million, give or take a million or so once the debt service is added in.

The Fitness Center was so undersized and so badly designed from the day it opened back in the early ‘90s that, fifteen years ago, an executive of a major fitness chain took a tour of the place before concluding that his company wouldn’t accept ownership or management of it even if they could get it for free!

Among his many deal-breakers: Only two basketball courts; no exercise room; not enough racquetball/handball courts; a swimming pool too short and too narrow to hold swim meets; and access to that pool area that required walking through the middle of the men’s locker room showers, where curtain-less showers (at that time) created an interesting dilemma for dads taking their young daughters into the pool area for swimming lessons.

Similarly, by keeping the cost of the 3-month-a-year water park within the District’s non-referendum debt limit so that it didn’t have to go to referendum, the 2012-13 Park Board limited its borrowing to just over $6 million of 15-year non-referendum bonds by cutting out some features, including a lazy river – the feature most desired by the District’s 682 survey respondents.

Fortunately for District taxpayers and fans of good government, this past April the voters elected Harmony Harrington, Jim Janak, Rob Leach and Jim O’Donnell, thereby creating a Board majority which already has demonstrated – with their anti-perks vote – that they are a more fiscally-responsible majority than the profligate Board majorities that built the Fitness Center or the water park.

If the drumbeat for more ice surfaces at Oakton continues, expect to hear the traditional war cry of those folks who doubt their pet project can actually win a referendum and, therefore, need to avoid it: “You Board members were elected to make these kinds of decisions!”

They weren’t, of course – because over the past two decades none of them actually campaigned by promising multi-million dollar special-interest amenities without voter approval. Even tone-deaf candidates who believe in spendthrift government know that such overt disrespect for the taxpayers would be political suicide.

So they wrap themselves in the mantle of “fiscal responsibility” and solemnly insist that they “respect the taxpayers”… until they get elected.

Hopefully we now have a Park Board majority whose members really are what they campaigned as, and who really do respect the taxpayers.

To read or post comments, click on title.

New Park Board Members Bid Adieu To Freebies (Updated)

07.07.17

Every so often one of our units of local government does something that is unequivocally good and right.

Today that accolade goes to the Park Ridge Park District for its June 15 vote to eliminate free use of the Park District’s facilities and programming by our elected District officials.

What a difference a change in Board membership makes!

Back at the Park Board’s November 19, 2015 meeting, Commissioner Mel Thillens was the only Board member in attendance (Commissioners Biagi and Phillips were absent) to vote against an amendment to the District’s Policy 3.03 – somewhat deceptively titled “Opportunities for Oversight of Park District Programs and Facilities” – that slightly modified, but nevertheless continued, the District’s policy of letting Commissioners use District facilities and programs free of charge.

Those kinds of benefits are known as perquisites, or “perks”: a privilege, gain, or profit incidental to the holding of office.

They very well also may be unlawful “compensation” because the Illinois Park District Code prohibits compensation of Park District commissioners.

But that didn’t stop then-Board member Joan Bende and Richard Brandt, along with still-Board members Cindy Grau and Jim O’Brien (Rick Biagi and Jim Phillips absent), to retain those perks back in November 2015. Only Mel Thillens voted “no” that night, stating (according to that meeting’s minutes) that “he believes the amount of free stuff Commissioners receive should be limited.”

Not a Lincolnesque statement, to be sure, but accurate nonetheless.

The leader of this successful effort to ban Commissioner freebies appears to have been new Board member Robert Leach, who was concerned about the perks being prohibited “compensation.” He was joined in his repeal vote by fellow Board newbies Jim Janak, Jim O’Donnell and Harmony Harrington (all of whom we endorsed in April) agreed, joined by veterans Thillens and O’Brien, the latter of whom apparently finally found religion.

Or maybe he just didn’t want to be the only dissenter, given that freebie-lover Cindy Grau was absent.

Perks had been a mainstay of the Park District for decades, interrupted only when a Park Board majority – of which this blog’ s editor was a member – voted to discontinue them in the late 1990s, before a new Board majority reinstated them.

Freebie-loving Commissioners always have argued that free memberships and programs enable them to better observe and evaluate the facilities and programs. Not surprisingly, rarely if ever did any of the Commissioners partaking of those freebies report back to the Board or Staff on the facilities and programs they were using.

And since they weren’t paying for the perks, their ability to do any cost-benefit analyses was totally compromised.

The elimination of the perks was termed “a great idea” by veteran Park District attorney Thomas Hoffman – although he refused to opine on their legality, according to an article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Park Ridge Park District board ends free classes, memberships for elected commissioners,” June 27).

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Association of Park Districts (“IAPD”) – a shameless self-promoting, fluff-and-stroke organization that serves as a quasi-union and lobbying arm for career park district bureaucrats statewide – is quoted in the H-A story as justifying such perks as being “within the discretion of these elected boards.” Of course, the IAPD has never seen a taxpayer dollar it didn’t like or couldn’t find a way for its members to spend, so its attempt to justify perks of any and all stripes was to be expected.

But the good news is that we appear to have four new Park Board members – a majority – who may actually represent the taxpayers every bit as much as, if not more than, the tax spenders and tax consumers.

In the State of Corruption and profligacy that is Illinois this new jerk-the-perks policy, led by the newest Board members, is a good start.

Updated 07.14.17.  Glad to see the Chicago Tribune editorial board agrees: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-park-ridge-perks-free-edit-0713-jm-20170712-story.html

Another group of freeloaders bites the dust.

To read or post comments, click on title.

A Big Win For Yesterday’s Victors, An Even Bigger Win For H.I.T.A.

04.05.17

Eight years ago mayoral candidate Dave Schmidt sparked the flame of good government when he promised to bring H.I.T.A. – Honesty, Integrity, Transparency and Accountability – to a City administration that was bereft of those principles. He also pledged to put taxpayers first because there would be no City government without the taxes they provide.

Since then that flame has grown stronger and burned brighter, finally becoming a torch that illuminated the workings of City government through initiatives like televised meetings, the online posting of meeting materials in advance of meetings, and reducing closed sessions to the barest minimum.

Yesterday that torch was officially passed to a new generation of leaders with the election of Marty Maloney, a staunch Mayor Dave ally and an even stauncher proponent of H.I.T.A., as mayor of Park Ridge.

His election alone, by a margin of roughly 70% to 30%, would have been enough to keep Park Ridge on the H.I.T.A. path and moving forward in all other respects, especially because it was accompanied by the re-election of pro-H.I.T.A. aldermen Nick Milissis, Marc Mazzuca and Roger Shubert.

But that wasn’t the half of it.

The voters of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 made their voices heard with the election of vocal H.I.T.A. proponents Rick Biagi and Fred Sanchez to that Star Chamber Board which, by our unofficial tally, leads all units of Park Ridge local government in the number of closed sessions it holds, and in the obfuscation that comes with them. At the same time those voters just said “No!” to three candidates whose most notable – and controversial – qualification for office was that they all were married to D-64 teachers and shamelessly wanted to put themselves in the untenable position of voting on their wives’ raises and working conditions. Or recusing themselves, thereby effectively reducing the Board to the bare mininum of four members required to do business.

That was about as anti-H.I.T.A. as you could get, and the voters wisely rejected such shamelessness.

Over at the Park Ridge Park District, Harmony Harrington, Jim Janak, Rob Leach and Jim O’Donnell – although not espousing H.I.T.A. by name – advanced many of its principles in their successful campaigns to oust two decidedly non-H.I.T.A. incumbents and their two unofficial running mates.

The same can be said for successful Maine Twp. High School District 207 candidate Linda Coyle, who we understand was, ironically enough, a law school classmate of Mayor Dave’s.

All told, yesterday may have been the single greatest across-the-board good government day Park Ridge has had in decades – in no small measure because it was a victory, first and foremost, of principles instead of just personalities.

But make no mistake about it: Yesterday’s victories didn’t make everybody happy.

There are still residents, some of them very brazen and vocal, with special-interest axes to grind and a related lust for spending OPM (“Other People’s Money). These residents will continue to denigrate H.I.T.A. as a kind of code word for “conservative” (shudder) or “Republican” (double shudder) guys and gals.

That’s just sour grapes from folks who can’t accept the voters’ repudiation of the dishonest and failed tax, borrow and spend policies of local governments past and present.

So don’t be surprised if those naysayers try to demean yesterday’s results by decrying the “low turnout” – which was 28.29% for the mayoral race, down from the 34.87% of 2013. A similar decline in voters was also the case for the other races as well.

But it was the late Rev. Theodore Hesburgh who stated: “Voting is a civic sacrament.” So those who refused that sacrament deserve whatever damnation they may subsequently complain about as being visited on them by yesterday’s winners.

The H.I.T.A. revolution, while started by Schmidt and advanced by the aforementioned winners, hasn’t been the work of any one person, or even several people. Instead it has been the work of hundreds of Park Ridge citizens who initially believed that local government could be made better than it was, more cost-effective than it was, and more respectful of the taxpayers than it was. But where H.I.T.A. really gained traction was when those same people came to realize that making local government better in those aforementioned ways actually was an achievable goal.

Schmidt’s election in 2009 and his re-election by an even larger margin in 2013 proved that. So did the elections and re-elections of Alds. Maloney and Dan Knight in 2011 and 2015, respectively, as well as the election and/or re-election of Alds. Mazzuca, Moran, Milissis, Shubert and the other aldermen who served on the Council these past several years.

Now it’s time for Maloney and the rest of yesterday’s victors to emerge from the long H.I.T.A. shadow Schmidt created and start creating shadows of their own by walking their campaign talk.

And doing so in bright sunlight.

That will be most challenging for Biagi and Sanchez at D-64, where there is a longstanding anti-H.I.T.A. bias and culture, and where they likely will have to confront Board president (and closed-session aficionado) Tony “Who’s the Boss?” Borrelli and his puppetmaster, Supt. Laurie “I’m the Boss!” Heinz, right out of the gate. Whether Biagi and Sanchez can get any support from Board members Mark Eggemann and Tom Sotos – heretofore regular rubber-stampers of Borrelli’s closed-session motions and uber-secrecy about the PREA contract and Heinz’s contract extension – remains to be seen. So do the proclivities of newbies Larry Ryles and Eastman Tiu.

Over at D-207, Coyle will find herself surrounded by Board members afraid of their own shadows – and, therefore, possessed by a vampire-like fear of sunlight likely engendered by the desire to avoid any accountability for Maine South’s continuing and heretofore ignored decline in the rankings of Illinois high schools.

These local races, however, need to be viewed in the context of our state government which, over the past 40 years, seems to have grown as ethically bankrupt as it has grown financially bankrupt. That state of corruption won’t be reversed overnight.

But maybe, just maybe, the torch of good government passed last evening to these new Park Ridge leaders can also light the way for the officials of other communities to raise their games and adopt H.I.T.A. as the overarching principle of good government in their own communities – which can, in turn, start a grassroots turnaround statewide.

If so, it’s you voters who showed up yesterday to put your own imprints on local government – by means of the candidates you elected – who will deserve the credit.

Well done, voters!

To read or post comments, click on title.

Our Endorsements For Park Ridge Park District Board

04.03.17

For many years the Park Ridge Park District has had the highest number of contested races, and this year is no exception.

First-term incumbents Joan Bende and Jim Phillips appear to be running on an unofficial “slate” with newcomers Carol Becker and Laurie Pegler Mallin for four seats on the 7-member Park Board. Phillips, in a March 24 letter to the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate, claims that those four are the true “Friends of the Parks” – running against alleged “Republican candidates” while identifying only Jim O’Donnell, former Republican candidate for State Senator, by name.

For us, Phillips’ – and his running mates’ – philosophy of government is captured in Phillips’ minimizing the District’s recent tax increase as “the amount added to the typical property tax bill this year is $3.42, the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks!” Politicians who demean tax increases in that fashion rarely have any respect for the taxpayers or the money taken from those taxpayers.

That was demonstrated four years ago when Bende and Phillips also ran on an unofficial “slate” with then-incumbent Steven Vile – billed as “The Last Three” because of their ballot positions. Their major issue then was support of private corporation Senior Services Inc. and its efforts to walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars bequeathed to what was then known as the Senior Center, which they used to form their own short-lived senior club in Niles.

Vile lost his bid, but Bende and Phillips did not. And, not surprisingly, during the past four years they have consistently voted for annual property tax increases, voted against competitive bidding, and voted against repeal of the District’s policy of freebie uses and memberships of District facilities by Board members, and have regularly blanched at the mere thought that the Park District can be operated somewhat like a business.

Yet the Park District is the unit of local government best suited to operating on a business model.

It is both the smallest, budget-wise, and least essential of our four units of local government: Its 2017 budget of $22 million is less than 1/3 that of either the City or Park Ridge-Niles School District 64, and less than 1/6 that of Maine Twp. High School District 207. And most, if not all, of its facilities and services are amenities – albeit desirable ones – rather than necessities like police, sewer, water, or education.

Unfortunately, there were no debates (or “forums,” for those gentle souls like the League of Women Voters who view debates as too harsh and adversarial, if not downright traumatic) for the Park Board candidates. That prevented the Bende/Phllips/Becker/Mallin “slate” from having to answer hard questions about the costs and cost-effectiveness of their cause celebre this time around: The GoGreen “natural” method of grass, tree and plant management.

But from information about the candidates – available primarily from the March 9 Park Ridge Herald-Advocate article (“Q&A with eight candidates running for the Park Ridge Park District Board”) and Facebook– we believe the best choices for filling the four Park Board vacancies are first-time Park Board candidates who (in alphabetical order) favor a more business-oriented approach to District operations: Harmony Harrington, Jim Janek, Bob Leach and Jim O’Donnell.

Harrington is an attorney and lobbyist, which makes her the candidate best-suited to pursue the private partnerships and grants she believes can supplement the property taxes and user fees now funding the Park District. She believes that “a healthy park district needs to operate like a business, use market-based principles yet maintain affordable access. While we all pay our share of taxes – 5% of our City of Park Ridge tax bill goes to the Park District – those taxes cannot cover all Park District amenities. Hence, the reliance on market-based user fees is essential.”

She also believes that “for major capital projects outside our current means, public referendum is a very important component.” Exactly right!

Janak is running with O’Donnell. Both of them favor voter input, via referendum, as a condition of any tax levy increase. That novel idea means that the Park Board would need to anticipate its revenue requirements and levy on a two-year basis to correspond to the odd-year local election calendar, unless the District wished to also utilize the even-year primary and general election calendar. That might mean more work for the Board and staff, but it would also ensure more thought than currently goes into the moronic “Use It Or Lose It” reflexive increases favored by Bende and Phillips, which would also mean greater taxpayer scrutiny and accountability.

They also realize that the competition from other recreation and fitness vendors like the new Fitness Formula Club (“FFC”) only a few blocks from the District’s Centennial Fitness Center (f/k/a the “Community Center”) requires that the District be more circumspect about the strengths and weaknesses of its facilities and programs.

Interestingly enough, Leach favors a two-year strategic plan – of a more readily understandable 20 pages instead of the current 331 pages – which would fit neatly into Janek’s and O’Donnell’s levy referendum process the he also supports. He wants the District to focus on improving the quality and value of those programs our residents actually want or need instead of trying to be all things to all people.

Harrington, Janak, Leach and O’Donnell deserve a shot at making the District a better value for all of our residents.

To read or post comments, click on title.