Public Watchdog.org

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.

15 comments so far

So you are saying that the Park Board members have violated IOMA because you are against Shibley Oaks. You are so obvious its sad.

EDITOR’S NOTE: No, we were saying that they violated IOMA because we thought they violated IOMA, but as you can see from the revised version of this post we were wrong. Nevertheless, Shibley Oaks is still the reason why they ran into closed session – unnecessarily, in our opinion.

The agenda for that March 15 meeting only says “Closed Session.” What kind of crap is that? Where is the explanation on the agenda of what the subjects of the closed session are?

You endorsed the majority of the Park Board that you now say violated IOMA. Makes me question your judgment.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Note that we revised this post to correct our erroneous conclusion that the Board violated IOMA with its closed-session meetings about land acquisition. Nevertheless, when it comes to local government and the people who run it, we question our judgment every day.

The main problem is even people who talk the H.I.T.A. talk don’t necessarily have an organic sense of what H.I.T.A. means or how to achieve it. If you have to think about it rather than simply feel it, you’re going to struggle with it and are likely to fail at it, at least occasionally.

For example, the folks who want the Park District to buy Shibley Oaks, or the folks who wanted the Centennial Water Park, or who want a new pool at Oakton, don’t want H.I.T.A. because that interferes with their ability to get what they want as easily as they want it – which means NO REFERENDUM that would let people who disagree with them provide their objectively-measurable opposition. Much easier for the special interests to claim “everybody wants this” without any proof that it’s so.

Is 700-800 signatures on petitions enough to get the question to referendum, either binding or advisory? PRPD better be damn careful, their spending habits have been pretty sketchy lately.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We don’t know, but it should not come to that: The Park Board should put it to referendum by resolution, which would require NO petition signatures.

So what we have here is a Park Board that does not want to discuss in open session whether it needs or wants a less-than-1-acre park on Busse Hwy, and what kind of park it would put there. Is that the product of cowardice or deviousness?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hard to say.

For some unknown reason the Board members seem to have been brainwashed into believing that the District will somehow get some super-sweet deal with the owner if they do everything in secret – because, after all, given the two H-A articles in the last few months, the Shibley Oaks petition drive, the Shibley Oaks FB page, and the FB discussions, how could ANYBODY who might be thinking about buying that parcel have the foggiest idea that the Park District might be in the market for it?

Look, I love trees as much as the next person. The first place we bought in PR had 5 huge trees that were great. Of course over the years they all had to go one by one like on so many streets in town. But 2.2 mil for that small plot?!?

Think about what that money would mean in terms of other debates about spending in PR. Even if you bump, the numbers for prevailing wage and inflation that is about 40yrs of Christmas lights!! If that does not strike your fancy how about reinstating community group funding for 20+ years.

If the board goes for this it will only be to prove they can find something more wasteful that prospect park. Will they be putting in paddle tennis courts??

EDITOR’S NOTE: At least Prospect Park went to referendum (albeit a kind of bait-and-switch one), unlike Centennial Water Park..

If this Board goes to referendum on Shibley Oaks, tells the truth about the project and its costs, and prevails in November, good for them. But if they don’t go to referendum, or pull another Prospect Park bait-and-switch, then they are either bad government gonzos or idiots.

What happens if the trees are hit by lightning, or storm damaged, or just die? $2 million down the drain?

EDITOR’S NOTE: The park would still be good for snow forts in the winter.

The oaks are just an excuse to get the Park District to blow all that money on a tiny park for the neighbors. Stupid.

More and more families are enrolling their children in leagues OUTSIDE of Park Ridge–soccer and basketball to name a few. Park Ridge’s facilities are in bad shape, poorly designed and the use of schools for their basketball house leagues is getting old. Niles has taken the lead in building sports facilities that are not only great, but other suburbs are PAYING to have tournaments and their leagues there. Is the board so out of touch with reality that they just do not care? Paying for land simply to have land seems counter productive. Build something for our families to use and at the same time create a money stream to help pay for the venture as well as future endeavors.
We drive 45 minutes to tournaments outside of Park Ridge for basketball for all Three of my children. The facilities are PACKED. There is an entrance fee for the team, a fee for everyone who comes watch the kids play and a concession stand that is busy as heck. When asked why we do not have any in Park Ridge–only silence and big bills for buying land that most families in Park Ridge do not use…only those in close proximity to that land. Shame.

EDITOR’S NOTE: George:

We think a park at Shibley Oaks is a waste of money, as is a 3-month per year outdoor pool/water park at Oakton. But if the Park Board puts either of those projects to referendum in November and the voters want it, c’est la vie.

From years of practical experience we know that Park Ridge families have been enrolling their kids in leagues “OUTSIDE of Park Ridge” for decades, usually in search of better competition (e.g., AAU, “club”). And Niles has a ton of retail and industrial tax money that Park Ridge doesn’t have, so the comparison is not really legit. Plus we don’t hear of many Park Ridge families packing up and moving to Niles just to use its sports facilities.

The bottom line is that the Park District is landlocked, with too few green fields for the sports and activities that require them. So assuming the Park District wanted to build a four-court basketball complex and the taxpayers supported it by referendum vote: Where do you put it?

Like other posters I have no problems with trees, but the idea of the park district spending an enormous amount of money to buy a very small parcel of land for a few trees seems foolish at best. Especially when you look at how the PRPD has spent money in the past. Prospect Park is a disappointment to say the least. The Centennial Water Park is nothing to write home about. If you want to watch your child’s swimming lesson at the indoor facility at Centennial, good luck. There’s certainly good with the PRPD, but boy, there’s a lot that needs improvement and the money that the Shibley Oaks people want the PRPD to spend on that little piece of land could certainly be put to far better use. We’re being taxed beyond reason for schools and there’s a referendum in works there coming sooner than later. For the PRPD to hit us up for higher taxes for Shibley Oaks without at the very least asking if that’s what we want would be irresponsible. If there’s a Sugar Daddy/Momma out there that wants to donate the land, great, otherwise, no thanks!

George I can’t see what you’re complaining about. While I don’t know a thing about other park districts but I can’t see what the fuss is. I’ve visited many parks and they don’t look bad to me and I see the fields getting used and what more do you want? Plus what does the schools getting old have to do with anything concerning sporting events? If they were good in the past then I see no reason why they’re bad now.

I watched the video of the March 15 meeting and at 40:30 a woman named Daisy Bowe says that she lives across the street from Shibley Oaks and wants the PRPD to buy the property because it would be cheaper than to put in new sewers the property is developed. Isn’t that the same person who said she was raging screeching vagina at that school board meeting when they lynched Paterno?

EDITOR’S NOTE: It appears to be, although her actual claim was that she was a “Screeching raging vagina” – not the other way around – which scandalized D-64 Board member “Tilted Kilt Tommy” Sotos.

Ms. Bowe did not quote any cost numbers for her sewer claim, although that cost would be the City’s – not the Park District’s. That’s still a burden on Park Ridge taxpayers, but remember that the City is a home rule body that can raise its taxes without referendum while the Park District needs to go to referendum to raise its taxes above the CPI.

Anonymous 03.29.18 @ 7:15 am again:

Watch the meeting video and you will see Mel Thillens (standing in for the absent president Jim O’Brien) talking about closed session discussion of Shibley Oaks as if it is S.O.P. Not a H.I.T.A. guy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Like too many “politicians” (real or self-styled), he’s a “pleaser.” And when pleasing a special interest conflicts with H.I.T.A., the latter will usually lose out.

I agree with PW that an outdoor pool at Oakton for 3 months a year is a huge waste of money, as is acquiring Shibley Oaks. But I am still waiting to hear from Mr. Korovilas (or anybody else) on where we would put the kind of facility it sounds like he wants.

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 to the other side of the transaction? While I agree there is abuse of closed sessions, do you never see a reason for them?

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Negotiation tactics”? The PRPD doesn’t need any “negotiation tactics” when it has the power (by eminent domain) to force the owner to sell the property for its Fair Market Value (“FMV”).

Consequently, the first question that needs to be discussed and decided IN OPEN SESSION – hopefully this Thursday (04.05.2018) – is: Does the PRPD need or want a park at Shibley Oaks? Only if the answer is “yes” should the PRPD then go about having the property appraised to determine its FMV, which by definition should be the maximum price it would have to pay for the property.

Once the Board has the FMV it can formulate an offer to the owner – presumably lower than the FMV and subject to voter approval on a referendum question this November. Assuming the PRPD’s offer is not accepted by the owner, the Board should then invite the owner to a special meeting convened for the purpose of “negotiating” – IN OPEN SESSION – a purchase price less than FMV. At various times during that special meeting the Board, IF NECESSARY, can adjourn to closed session to determine its response to any counter-offer from the owner, and then come back into OPEN SESSION to present that response to the owner. This process can continue until either the parties reach agreement – once again, subject to voter approval in November – or the “negotiations” reach the FMV at which, presumably, the PRPD can compel the property’s sale under eminent domain/condemnation.

This way, the whole process, save for the Board’s closed-session caucuses, will be in OPEN SESSION and subject to taxpayer scrutiny; and then subject to the taxpayers’ vote in November.



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