Why Are Missing OAC Members Now Whining About O’Hare Referendum?


The Agenda for the Park Ridge City Council’s June 21, 2010, meeting contained three different items related to the City’s O’Hare Advisory Commission (“OAC”), including a resolution for the adoption of an advisory referendum question for the November 2, 2010, election about whether the City of Park Ridge shall support the efforts to stop the expansion of O’Hare Airport; and a discussion about hiring legal counsel for that effort.

No member of the OAC addressed the Council on any of those items.  In fact, it appears that no member of the OAC was even in attendance.

So yesterday’s article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Airport panel feels shut out of referendum decision,” June 29) causes us to wonder more than a little about the motives, and even the good faith, of certain members of the OAC.

According to that H-A article, OAC Chairwoman Jennifer Perry and members Christine Kutt and Gary Ziols were highly critical of the Council for not consulting with OAC on the referendum question.  Kutt suggested the OAC was formed to create “the illusion that [elected officials] care,” while Ziols said he intends to resign from the OAC in disgust that the Council has not acted on OAC’s proposed mission statement.

So why weren’t any of them at the Council meeting on June 21 to express those sentiments?

It can’t be because they didn’t know about it, as these items were on the agenda.  The City Staff’s liaison to the OAC, Steve Cutaia, even authored the memo about the resolution.  And we can’t believe Ald. Don “Air Marshall” Bach – or Ald. Jim Allegretti, who wanted to give OAC $250,000 in this year’s budget – wouldn’t have given them a heads-up.

So why weren’t they there?

Perry’s complaint about the referendum question as passed by the Council focuses, not surprisingly, on the inclusion of the $500,000 figure – even though that was the figure OAC had hoped to get in the City budget this year!  She believes (along with Alds. Allegretti, Bach and Wsol) that such a dollar amount will turn off the voters and prevent them from letting the City Council know their view on the really important issue: whether O’Hare noise solutions are important to residents.

Well, Ms. Perry, while the referendum is still over four months away, we’ll clue you in: O’Hare noise solutions are important to residents…but only if those solutions are realistically achievable, and without bankrupting the City.  And guess what?  Noise solutions have been important to a lot of residents for those many years prior to November 2008, when it first became important to you and many of your fellow Belle Plaine corridor folks. 

But we get the sense that most residents aren’t all that impressed with the likely effectiveness of much of what the OAC has proposed, especially when what we all would like – less noise and pollution – is vigorously opposed not only by the City of Chicago, but also by the State of Illinois and even the federal government (as evidenced by that recent $410 million for O’Hare runway construction).  While Air Marshall Bach says we need to fight O’Hare with “everything we’ve got,” we get the sense most residents feel we’ve already “been there, done that” during the decade-plus reign of O’Hare-obsessed Mayor Ron Wietecha and his rubber-stamp Councils.

Which means that while many of those residents oppose O’Hare expansion, they don’t want to give OAC or the officials sitting around The Horseshoe at City Hall a blank check for another tilt at the O’Hare windmill.  But all you OAC folks (and you, too, Gene Spanos) have the next four months to persuade the voters otherwise. 

But first you might try showing up at City Council meetings where OAC issues are being discussed and voted on.

A Small But Significant Victory For City Council “Transparency”


Our opposition to local government being conducted in secret has been strong and consistent. Unfortunately, too many of our local politicians have been equally strong and consistent in defending government operating away from public view, perhaps none more adamantly than Ald. Jim Allegretti (4th Ward).

At last Monday night’s Council meeting, Allegretti was the only alderman present (Fifth Ward Ald. Robert Ryan was absent) to vote for going into closed session to discuss the City’s acquisition of the parking lot property (asking price: $740,000) that the City currently leases from a limited liability company owned by the William Scharringhausen family. With that closed session motion defeated, the parking lot acquisition was continued to the Committee of the Whole meeting on July 12.

Allegretti didn’t explain the reason for his “yes” vote, but we found Alds. Rich DiPietro”s (2nd Ward) and Don Bach’s (3rd Ward) comments about why they were voting against the closed session that night interesting.

DiPietro voted against it because Ryan, the driving force behind the acquisition of that property, was absent; and because DiPietro believed it likely that whatever was going to be discussed in that closed session “would be in the public domain within 24 hours.”

That sounds like a thinly-veiled slap at Mayor Dave Schmidt, who as First Ward alderman in January 2008 disclosed closed session discussions about then-mayor Howard Frimark’s attempt to have the City purchase 720 Garden for a new police station – at $200,000 more than the City’s appraisal of its value. Schmidt’s whistle-blowing earned a “condemnation” by Frimark and five of Schmidt’s fellow aldermen: DiPietro, Allegretti, Bach, Ryan and Carey.

DiPietro still doesn’t seem to “get” that the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) only permits, but doesn’t require, closed session meetings, and that it also doesn’t require what goes on in closed session meetings to be treated as secret by the meeting’s participants.

But so long as the threat of Schmidt’s (or another Council member’s) “going public” with closed session information has made at least DiPietro think twice about running into closed sessions every chance they get, we’ll take that as a small but significant victory for City government transparency.

The ‘Dog Giveth, And The ‘Dog Taketh Away


In Wednesday’s post, “An Infrastructure Referendum Is Worth Considering” (06/23/10), we commended Ald. Don Bach (3rd Ward) on proposing a flood control/infrastructure referendum, even though we thought his $50 million bond issue figure was not fiscally prudent.

But after reading Bach’s comments about that referendum proposal, we have to wonder – once again – about that guy’s view of how local government is supposed to work.  And we need to take back our commendation.

According to an article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Alderman wants to ask voters $50M flood control question,” June 23), Bach’s reason for proposing a flood control referendum sounds like little more than criticism of the Council’s vote Monday night to pass a $500,000 O’Hare Airport referendum resolution:

“Since the Council seems to be okay with assigning an amount for a referendum question on O’Hare without any idea of what it may actually cost, I would think that every argument presented tonight to assign one to the O’Hare question is applicable to the flood control question.”

Not quite, Alderman.

In the first place, the Council reportedly took the $500,000 price tag for the O’Hare referendum from the figure proposed by the City’s O’Hare Airport Commission, so Bach’s suggestion that the number was pulled out of thin air is just plain wrong.  And if Bach can’t seem to distinguish between $500,000 current cash v. $50 million of bonded debt, he needs help.  Or prayer.     

As reported in a separate Herald-Advocate article about the O’Hare referendum resolution (“Want to spend $500K to fight O’Hare noise,” June 22), Bach bad-mouthed the $500,000 dollar figure: “The amount for the O’Hare question is inappropriate.  There’s no evidence that amount will do the job.”

Gee, Don, then why did you vote for it!

Was it because you were for it before you were against it?  After all, you voted against adding the $500,000 figure to the resolution only a few minutes earlier, so why didn’t you just stay the course and keep Ald. Allegretti company by voting “no” on the resolution itself? 

But troubling as Bach’s minute-to-minute flip-flop Monday night and his badmouthing of the resolution almost immediately after voting for it might be, we find his complaint that $500,000 may not be enough to “do the job” on O’Hare even more troubling.

Gee, Don, what exactly is “the job” that needs to be done?  And why isn’t $500,000 enough?

Although he has yet to articulate exactly what is “the job,” Bach sounds like he wants the taxpayers to write the Council a blank check for dealing with O’Hare: “We should fight the expansion with everything we’ve got, including legal means,” he intoned in his best Air Marshall voice from his seat at The Horseshoe during the O’Hare referendum debate. 

A fondness for blank checks is why spendthrift elected officials – and appointed ones, for that matter – dislike advisory referendums with dollar amounts attached.  It’s so much easier for them to spend money when they can get voter endorsement of some un-priced plan, program or project that they can then spin and leverage into however many dollars they like. 

So when it comes to dealing with O’Hare, we get the sense that the Air Marshall and his wing-men – Alds. Allegretti and Robert Ryan (when he’s not the “missing man” in that formation) – hate to see the “amount” line on the check already filled in.  

That’s the kind of attitude that drove O’Hare-obsessed former mayor Ron Wietecha and a rubber-stamp City Council to pour money down the Suburban O’Hare Commission rat hole for years, and then make that ridiculous $650,000 Peotone airport “investment” on our behalf.  But just when that Council finally woke up and realized our money was gone, Wietcha dropped his resignation letter on the city manager’s desk after hours one September night in 2003, and bolted for Barrington without ever giving his constituents a full accounting of that misbegotten deal.  

Sounds to us like Bach yearns for a return to those days of yore.

An Infrastructure Referendum Is Worth Considering


A few years ago then-Ald. Don Crampton (1st Ward) presented a detailed study of the City’s sewer and related infrastructure problems and suggested a $40 million bond issue to address those problems.  That suggestion went nowhere, and since that time our infrastructure has been passively maintained, if not outright neglected.

Now Ald. Don Bach (3rd Ward) wants the City Council to consider adding a referendum question to the November ballot that would ask the voters whether they want the City to issue $50 million in bonds to fund all 41 recommendations of the City’s Flood Control Task Force.

Taking questions such as that to the voters is always a good idea.  Getting 8,000+ “yes” or “no” answers to a fairly-drafted “yes” or “no” question gives our public officials a far better sense of the public’s view than 800 responses to cleverly-worded surveys that seem contrived to produce particular answers.

But with the City already servicing over $38 million of bonded debt – all of it appearing tied to the Uptown TIF, and much of it with many years remaining – we question the wisdom of more than doubling that debt and saddling homeowners with it for 20 years or more. 

Although bonded government debt is sometimes compared to home mortgage debt, that is an apples to oranges comparison.  Unlike home mortgage debt which is tax deductible and is incurred with the expectation that it is funding the purchase of an appreciating asset, municipal debt is not deductible by the City and the assets it funds (e.g., sewers), while essential, only depreciate in value.  So the financial equation is very different from that of a home mortgage.

One of the arguments being made for more bond issues now is the low interest rates.  But low interest rates that produce debt service obligations the taxpayers can’t, or don’t want to, meet are a false economy. 

We think the prudent approach is for the City to complete the sewer study and prioritize the sewers needing repair or replacement, and follow that with a plan for phasing in the work (and the bonding) over a 5, 10 or even 15 year period as the situation warrants.  The City also should look into bonding for a term shorter than the 20-year+ that adds substantial interest costs to the total price.  

The result would likely be a bond issue referendum question for a smaller, more-manageable amount that would not tie the City’s financial hands so tightly in future years while still providing the funding necessary to tackle the most pressing infrastructure needs.  

It would be ideal if this could be done by the late August deadline for the City’s putting a referendum question on the November ballot, as those general elections always seem to have better voter turnouts than the April local elections.  But getting the process right and at the right price is at least as important as getting it done quickly.

We commend Ald. Bach on raising this issue.  Now let’s see his – and the City Council’s – follow through.

If You Give The OAC A Referendum… (Updated 06.22.10)


The well known children’s book titled “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” describes the escalating consequences of honoring what appears, at first glance, to be an innocuous request. 

Tonight the Park Ridge City Council will consider giving the “mouse” known as the City’s O”Hare Airport Commission (the “OAC”) a “cookie” – in the form of a resolution to put the following innocuous-sounding advisory referendum question on the November ballot: 

“Shall the City of Park Ridge support the efforts to stop the expansion of O’Hare Airport?”

When it comes to O’Hare expansion, we would hazard a guess that the vast majority of Park Ridge residents are against it.  That’s because it’s hard for most of us to see a bigger O’Hare providing any substantial benefits for Park Ridge.  Instead, we see it bringing more noise and pollution. 

But it’s one thing to be against O’Hare expansion, and another thing to want to “support the efforts to stop the expansion of O’Hare Airport” by throwing away a lot of our increasingly scarce tax dollars – especially with Chicago, Cook County, the State of Illinois and the federal government all promoting that expansion, as evidenced by the Obama Administration’s recent $410 million gift to help Mayor Daley build two new runways and extend a third.   

So by proposing referendum language that doesn’t put a price tag on that “support,” Ald. Rich DiPietro (2nd Ward) is either an inept draftsman or just plain dishonest, because leaving out any dollar commitment appears designed to seduce a vote of general support that can later be used by the Council to justify whatever dollars it decides to appropriate for fighting O’Hare expansion – just like previous Councils used to do when appropriating $65,000 a year for Suburban O’Hare Commission (“SOC”) membership, or squandering $650,000 on a Peotone airport. 

Ironically, DiPietro’s referendum question was opposed by the three aldermen who wanted to budget $165,000, $200,000 and $250,000, respectively, for the OAC: Alds. Don Bach (3rd Ward), Robert Ryan (5th Ward) and Jim Allegretti (4th Ward).  Their objections, voiced at the last Committee of the Whole (“COW”) meeting, were directed to the arguable lack of time between now and November 2 to “educate” the voters so that they can make “informed” decisions. 

Ryan was the most vociferous on that point, and he should know: he was instrumental in both tax-hike referendums for Elementary School District 64 (1997 and 2007) which mobilized scores of volunteers and spent more than a year’s time “educating” the voters about why the District needed, in the first instance, a new Emerson Middle (a/k/a, Junior High) School and, in the second instance, multi-millions of additional dollars to shore up irresponsibly-depleted reserves.  From what we’ve seen, what Ryan calls “education” can also be called “propaganda.” 

But since DiPietro appeared to spring that language on the Council at the last COW meeting, maybe Allegretti’s, Bach’s and Ryan’s “no” votes were merely a knee-jerk reaction.  Because if they have had a chance to chat up DiPietro in the interim, they may have come to understand the deceptive benefits of a warm-and-fuzzy referendum question that doesn’t splash cold-water reality of what it will cost into the voters’ faces. 

While we think a referendum question without a price tag attached is dishonest, we do support a price-included O’Hare referendum for the November ballot, for the reasons stated at the last COW by Ald. Joe Sweeney (1st Ward) and Mayor Dave Schmidt.  Sweeney correctly pointed to the much higher turnout that November general elections enjoy over our April local elections, while the mayor correctly noted that the April election results would come too late for the 2011-12 budget cycle.   

Will DiPietro become enough of a stand-up guy to amend his referendum question to include a price tag?  If not, will Allegretti, Bach and Ryan figure out that DiPietro’s vague language might be their best chance to get voter support for something they can then use to argue for boxcar dollars for the OAC? 

Tune into 505 Butler Place tonight at 7:30 p.m. and find out.

Update (06.22.10): Last evening the City Council approved Second Ward Ald. Rich DiPietro’s O’Hare expansion referendum resolution for inclusion on the November 2, 2010, ballot – but only after Mayor Dave Schmidt broke a tie so that a dollar limit could be added to quantify the amount of “support” the voters will be asked to approve for fighting O’Hare.

With Ald. Robert Ryan (5th Ward) absent, Schmidt’s vote ensured passage of Sixth Ward Ald. Tom Carey’s amendment placing a $500,000 limit into the referendum question, someting opposed by Alds. Jim Allegretti (4th Ward), Don Bach (3rd Ward) and Frank Wsol (7th Ward).  Once the dollar figure amendment passed, however, Wsol and Bach joined with Carey, DiPietro and Ald. Joe Sweeney (1st Ward) to pass the referendum resolution over Allegretti’s lone objection.

Allegretti’s principal objection to any sort of O’Hare referendum, especially with a dollar amount attached, was that the addition of such an amount would increase the likelihood of the voters voting “no” – a result Allegretti consistently argued would be the product of ignorance.  But when questioned by a resident about what information he believed the voters need to cast an informed referendum vote, Allegretti’s response was: “a lot.”

Allegretti has been unwavering in his view that Park Ridge residents want the City Council to make decisions for them without these cumbersome referendums.  Fortunately, his view was in the minority…even if for only one night.

Oakton Pool Dodges Bullet Once Again


About 40 fans of Oakton Pool won a stay of execution for that facility last evening: they persuaded Park Commissioners Richard Brandt, David Herman, Stephen Vile and Mary Wynn Ryan to reject Director Ray Ochromowicz’s recommendation to close Oakton after the current season. 

Their winning argument was an interesting amalgam of emotion, nostalgia  and self-interest, with a marked aversion (if not outright hostility) to facts, figures and dollars.  But pleading the case for a decrepit and overlooked facility that has lost an average of $85,000 in each of the past three pool seasons – more than the other three outdoor pools combined – leaves few other options. 

Two positive things may have come out of that meeting, however, assuming those Oakton Pool Fans (“OPF”s) and the Park Board take full advantage of the opportunity presented. 

First and foremost, the OPFs need to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.  They need to come up with realistic ideas either for making Oakton Pool financially solvent “as is,” or for selling the District’s voters on a replacement facility.  And they should do it NOW…in time to turn those ideas into one or more referendum questions that can be put on the November ballot, thereby giving the Park Board some community-wide input in time to make an informed decision on whether to re-open Oakton for the 2011 season. 

In that same vein, if the Park Board is going to keep Oakton open, it should create a commission comprised of OPFs and entrust it with the management of Oakton Pool for next season.  Give it authority (albeit with Staff and Board oversight) for the planning, programming and executive-level management so that it can implement all those magic-bullet ideas that were flowing last night for getting more people to Oakton, such as more/better advertising, better programming, better maintenance, better swimming instruction, strategic partnerships with other swim clubs, corporate sponsorships, etc. 

Why?  Because the Park District has shown itself to be incapable of managing Oakton any better than what we’ve seen over the past three years.  If the OPFs can’t do a better job, the conclusion would become virtually inescapable that Ochromowicz, Board President Jim O’Brien, and Commissioners Rick Biagi and Marty Maloney are right: Oakton’s day in the sun has come and gone. 

To their credit, Biagi, Maloney and O’Brien tempered their votes for closing Oakton with support for putting one or more Oakton referendum questions on the November ballot by Board action rather than requiring citizens to run a petition drive…so long as the OPFs can come up with meaningful ones.  Hopefully, at least one more commissioner will sign onto that idea and make it a reality. 

Several commissioners noted that last night’s turnout was the biggest in the history of the Oakton Pool drama that has been ongoing since the diving well imploded back in 2005.  But one night does not a plan, a program, or a strategy make.  

Are the OPFs up to the challenge, or are they simply buying time with the taxpayers’ money?

Continuing The Push For Scharringhausen Land Deal


The Scharringhausen land deal got COW approval for full Council consideration this coming Monday night on a vote of 4-3: Allegretti, Bach, DiPietro & Ryan v. Carey, Sweeney & Wsol.  And if the “winning” four get their way, that consideration is likely to come in a closed session meeting, outside the presence of the public or the press.

So why are the “Scharringhausen Four” so hot to trot on buying that property now, after all these years of renting it from the Scharringhausens?  We don’t know, because we don’t recall any of the Scharringhausen Four so much as suggesting its purchase, even as recently as this April when the Council approved renewing that lease.  So what happened in just two months to make this such a front-burner issue?

Are they simply trying to do the Scharringhausens a favor by having the City take property off their hands that they haven’t had a whole lot of luck selling?  Are they just trying to give Realtor Owen Hayes II an easy commission? 

Or might this be an attempted under-the-radar first step in jump-starting the recently moribund redevelopment of TA-4, so that the real estate speculators with property (or options, or contracts on property) down that way can at least salvage their investments now instead of waiting until, if ever, developer interest in that part of town arises of its own accord?

For those not paying attention, the last time we recall the City hiding in closed session to discuss the purchase of private land was in early 2008, when former mayor Howard “Let’s Make A Deal” Frimark and the Council tried to finagle the City’s purchase of 720 Garden – ostensibly for the new cop shop that the public didn’t want, and at a price a couple hundred thousand dollars above the City’s own appraisal.  We wrote about that deal in posts like “Adding Insult To Injury” (01.28.08), “Why Are We Bidding Against Ourselves” (03.14.08) and “Why There’s No Need For ‘Secret’ Discussions Of Property Deals” (08.18.08).

That deal fizzled when then-Ald. Dave Schmidt blew the whistle on that behind-the-scenes, closed session wheeling and dealing, thereby distinguishing himself from Frimark and his fellow aldermen by achieving the understanding that “closed sessions” under the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) are voluntary, not mandatory; and that what goes on in them is neither “secret” nor even “confidential.” 

That earned Schmidt a rousing-but-meaningless condemnation by Frimark and alderpuppets Allegretti, Bach, Carey, DiPietro and Ryan – presumably for Schmidt’s having the audacity to provide public information to the public, as permitted by IOMA. Imagine that!

But that was then, and this is now – and at least four aldermen seem interested in going back into hiding this coming Monday night to once again wheel and deal over the City’s acquisition of private land that will do somebody(ies?) a favor with our tax dollars.

Will anybody blow the whistle on that?

Park Ridge Land Deals…Just Foolish, Or Kinky?


Tonight’s Park Ridge City Council Committee of the Whole (“COW”) meeting (City Hall, 7:00 p.m.) has two agenda [pdf] items dealing with land that got our attention for different reasons.

The first of those comes under the Procedures & Regulations section of the COW and is titled “Land use alternatives / 1200 Elm Street.”  The Agenda Cover Memo [pdf] contains the recommendation of the City’s Director of Community Preservation & Development, Carrie Davis, that the Council ask the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission (“P&Z”) to consider a zoning map amendment changing the old City Garage property at Greenwood and Elm from its current R-2 zoning to either R-3 or R-4.  Not uncharacteristically for work product from Ms. Davis, her recommendation provides no explanation of why this should be done, or done now.

As we wrote in our post ”Not The Time To Re-Zone Greenwood & Elm” (05.26.10), there is no good reason to fiddle with the zoning of that property at this time.  The proper time to consider a zoning change is when a real live developer comes to the City with a real live plan for that property which the City is interested in exploring.  Re-zoning in a vacuum, especially for such a unique parcel, is both premature and foolish.

But it’s the second land-related agenda coming under the Public Works section of the COW that is the more intriguing one, identified benignly as “Parking – Target Area 4.”  As stated in the applicable Agenda Cover Memo [pdf], this particular study was instigated by 5th Ward Ald. Robert Ryan, who requested Staff to look into “long term parking” related to future redevelopment of what is known as Target Area 4 of the City’s Uptown Plan. 

Instead of just coming right out and saying so, the wording of the memo by Deputy City Mgr. Juliana Maller suggests that the purpose of this exercise is to consider the City’s acquisition of the parking lot it has been renting for several years from the Scharringhausen Family.  And although Maller writes that “it is difficult to recommend land banking during these difficult economic times,” she doesn’t recommend against it but simply passes the buck by asking the Council to “Discuss and Provide direction to staff.”

We think “land banking” by the City is a bad idea, especially when the City already has shown itself to be completely incompetent at it – as it displayed with its money-losing purchase of the white elephant 229 S. Courtland property just south of City Hall a few years back.  Why should a purchase of 20 S. Fairview from the Scharringhausens turn out any better?

We questioned the sweetheart nature of the City’s parking deal with the Scharringhausens two years ago in our post ”The Politics Of Park Ridge Parking” (06.04.08), noting that it looked like the City was helping the Scharringhausens carry this asset until the right developer came along to cash them out for big bucks.  But with no developers on the horizon, is Ald. Ryan trying to get City taxpayers to cash out Scharringhausen?  After all, Ryan voted to give $400,000 to Bill Napleton to clean up his contaminated property, so using tax dollars for private purposes is not unprecedented for Ryan.

Our suspicions are raised even more by the fact that the property’s listing agent [pdf] is none other than one of Park Ridge’s consummate insiders, Owen Hayes II.  As we reported in “515 Busse Highway – The Park Ridge Police Station That Almost Was” (11.15.07), Hayes was on the verge of helping one of his clients turn a nifty $200,000 profit on what is now the Avenues to Independence building by selling it to the City…until  it was discovered that the lucky undisclosed “client” was Hayes himself.  How convenient!

As for a Ryan/Hayes connection, let’s start with the fact that Hayes was Ald. Ryan’s campaign treasurer [pdf].  Might that explain Ryan’s sudden interest in the City exploring the acquisition of property on which Hayes might earn a $35,000+ commission?  That’s not quite a Patti Blagojevich commission, but it’s not bad for sleepy little Park Ridge.

Whether these dots can be connected into a Chicago-style kinky land deal or whether they are just random circumstances coming together by mere happenstance is not yet clear – just like it’s not yet clear why Ald. Jim Allegretti has such an inordinate interest in putting up four billboard’s in the Second Ward. 

Maybe Ryan will explain it tonight.  Or not. 

A Salute To George Kirkland


When Mayor Dave Schmidt took office in May 2009, one of the first things he did was buy a camera so that City Council meetings could be videotaped and posted on-line for viewing by the public – to supplement the notoriously sketchy and even fickle meeting minutes.

But a camera is nothing without someone to man it, and Park Ridge was fortunate to have George Kirkland step forward to undertake that task.

We regularly hear about all the “volunteers” who do so much for this community.  And they do –  although some of them (including a few members of the City Council) seem to spend almost as much time patting themselves on the back as they do actually serving the community.  

Kirkland, on the other hand, performs his volunteer service the old-school way: He just shows up and quietly does his “job” – for two, three and even four hours some nights.  And that’s not just for City Council meetings, but for Committee of the Whole meetings and even special meetings like the budget workshops.  

Kirkland’s efforts (and those of Charlie Melidosian, who uploaded and hosted Kirkland’s videos on his Motionbox site for most of the past year) provided an object lesson on how much more information and insight into the workings of City government is available from videos than from the sources upon which we previously had to rely – even when those “workings” tend toward what Otto Von Bismarck compared to sausage-making.

And given City Staff’s and the Council’s historical resistance, if not outright hostility, to videotaping or televising meetings – by coming up with boxcar expense numbers that they knew would never fly – we suspect the track record of Kirkland’s mini-cam handiwork was no small factor in the City’s decision to post his videos on its website.

Because of the volunteer work of George Kirkland, we now enjoy more “transparency” in City government than ever before.

So here’s a big wag of the Watchdog’s tail to you, George…you most definitely deserve it!

Closing Oakton Pool – According To Yogi


For quite awhile the Park Ridge Park District’s “management” of Oakton Pool has reminded us of Yogi Berra’s comment about his team’s performance: “We made too many wrong mistakes.” 

That’s why we were gratified to read the front page story in today’s Park Ridge Journal, which reports the likelihood of the Park District making a decision on whether to close Oakton Pool at the Park Board’s June 17, 2010, meeting (“Closing Pool ‘Right Thing To Do’” June 9).

The story’s headline comes from a statement by Park District Executive Director Ray Ochromowicz, who correctly has identified Oakton Pool as a financial albatross around the District’s neck, flushing tens of thousands of scarce and precious tax dollars down its drains every summer.  And Ochromowicz has provided data that makes yet another compelling case for Oakton’s closure, including that in 2009 alone Oakton Pool:

*  accounted for 12.4% of the District’s revenue aquatic attendance but consumed 30% of the District’s aquatic expenses;

*  cost $10.93 per patron, versus $5.60 for Centennial and $5.28 for Hinkley; and

*  has lost more money than the other three outdoor pools combined over the last 3 years.

Ochromowicz also understands that Park Ridge has too much outdoor water for a community its size, especially when so little of it is of the water-park “entertainment” variety that caters to the current demand for aquatic “fun” at the expense of swimming for exercise or competitively. 

Sure, Oakton is our only pool designed for “competitive” swimming.  But it’s time to face the fact that neither Oakton nor any other outdoor pool in a climate like Chicago’s is going to become a breeding ground for competitive swimmers to rival places like Mission Viejo, CA or Coral Springs, FL.  Like it or not, the era of outdoor swimming facilities like Oakton has come and gone; and it’s not likely to return anytime soon, especially in places where outdoor swimming is confined to three months a year.

Oakton Pool has been a white elephant for at least the past five years, and probably longer.  That’s why we’ve been criticizing the Park District Board and Staff for letting Oakton manage the District rather than vice versa – letting it limp along under a “do not resuscitate” order because they didn’t have the guts to stop the bleeding and close a facility that was taking money away from other facilities.  It’s nice to hear Director Ochromowicz voice some of those same concerns in pushing for a proactive decision.

But as Yogi once said: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”  And as Ochromowicz also realizes, “[t]he closing of this pool will be unpopular to some” – which means that June 17 may be an interesting evening over at the Maine Leisure Center. 

That “some” to which Ochromowicz refers includes folks who tend to talk about how “important” Oakton Pool is, or how it provides a unique swimming opportunity, or how it hosted the Olympic trials decades ago, or how it is the “neighborhood” pool for that part of town.  We suspect a number of them haven’t even so much as dipped a toe into Oakton Pool in years but are happy to indulge their whims and nostalgia so long as somebody else pays most of the freight.

And then there are those relatively few Oakton swimming die-hards for whom the declining attendance figures provide the benefit of turning that facility into somewhat of a private club – but at no extra charge to them.  Many of them lament that the other pools are “too crowded” – but without the “Nobody goes there anymore” prelude that created another of the more famous Yogi-isms.

What we don’t hear from any of them, however, is their willingness to sign on to pay a premium fee per Oakton visit and to guaranty enough visits to bridge the $5+ per visit expense “gap” between Oakton and the other pools.  That’s because “money talks and b.s. walks,” a non-Yogi saying that seems especially true for the active users of taxpayer-subsidized government services and facilities who seem to pride themselves on getting more out of the government than they pay in.
So when Ochromowicz says that Oakton Pool “is draining tax dollars that could be put to better use,” he is speaking words that we wish his counterparts heading the other local governmental bodies would learn to pronounce.  

But first he has to teach them to his own Park Board.