Public Watchdog.org

Comm. Biagi Teaches IOMA Lesson To Park Board

01.06.12

Some scholars trace the concept of “transparency” in government to Jefferson’s famous quote:  “Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day.”

For a concept with such a noble origin, however, transparency sure has taken a long time to catch on with the political class.  In recent years, it has become almost a cliche with public officials at every level, most of whom act like they would rather conduct the public’s business from a secret bunker.  In Nepal.  Which is why, at the local level, there are a few – make that a very few – public officials who actually walk their “transparency” talk.   

At the City level, Mayor Dave Schmidt, while still an alderman, outed then-mayor Howard Frimark’s attempts (in closed session meetings, naturally) to finagle the City’s purchase of 720 Garden, ostensibly for a new police station that hadn’t even been approved by the Council, at a price hundreds of thousands of dollars higher than the City’s own appraisal valued it.   More recently, Ald. Dan Knight (5th) led what is believed to be the first-ever defeat of a City Council motion to go into closed session.

At Elementary School District 64, only Board member Anthony Borrelli has shown signs of both understanding transparency and legitimately supporting it.  That’s in marked contrast to his fellow board members who do nothing more than pay lip service to it until it’s forced on them, as when D-64 began videotaping its meetings only after resident Marshall Warren began creating cinema verite with his own camera.  And we’ve seen no push for transparency at High School District 207.

But on January 3, 2012, Park Ridge Park District commissioner Rick Biagi kicked the concept of “transparency” up another notch when he issued his own press release blowing the whistle on a secret exit deal for recently-“retired” Senior Center supervisor Teresa Grodsky.

As can be seen from our recent posts (Dec. 12 and 28) about the Grodsky situation, we took what the Park District and Grodsky were saying about her “retirement” at face value.  We even scoffed as certain members of the Senior Center were claiming Grodsky was forced out. 

Silly us. 

According to Biagi’s press release, Grodsky was “strongly encouraged” to “retire” back in October/November for conduct which may well have justified her outright termination.  But in typical “it’s not our money” government style, PRPD Supt. Gayle Mountcastle allowed Grodsky to stay on the job until year-end, earning both her salary and enough pension credits to push her into a higher pension benefit bracket.  And, also in typical government style, that exit deal’s only discussion by the Park Board was in one or two…wait for it…closed sessions, out of public view.

Shame on them…especially given the contentiousness of the Senior Center issue and the “cult of personality” that had sprung up around Grodsky through the efforts of Senior Center members like Barbara Ingolia, Helen Roppel and Millie O’Brien, and which was only exacerbated by the Park District’s concealment of the exit deal.

And shame on them again for letting themselves be pushed into the deal by the Park District Risk Management Agency (“PDRMA”), the District’s insurer that would rather see the District bribe Grodsky with an exit deal funded by our tax dollars than run the risk of a lawsuit by her that, no matter how frivolous it might be, PDRMA would be obligated to defend on the District’s behalf, using some of the hefty premiums the District pays.

Another interesting twist to this tale is how Commissioner Steven Vile may have aided and abetted Grodsky’s alleged misconduct by, among other things, distributing Park District attorney-client privileged internal communications to certain officials of private corporation Park Ridge Senior Services, Inc. (“Seniors Inc.” or “SSI”), which has been battling the Park District for control over the Senior Center for more than the past year – and on whose board Vile sits.

Can you say “conflict of interest,” Mr. Vile?

The point of this post, however, isn’t just to criticize the foolish Grodsky deal.  It’s to point out how so much of that deal appears to have been done by Mountcastle and the Park Board under the radar.  That, in turn, causes us to wonder how many other such deals, or worse, have been concocted by the Park District, or by the City, or by School Districts 64 and 207, with at least the tacit approval of our elected officials after one or more closed session discussions, leaving the taxpayers none the wiser?

Frankly, we wish that Biagi had just said “no” to those closed sessions during which this whole Grodsky exit deal was hatched, like Ald. Knight did to the closed session motion at City Hall; and that, like Schmidt, Biagi had blown the whistle on the deal immediately after he found out about it.  But the bottom line is that Biagi, and only Biagi, blew the whistle on it.  And he did it big-time. 

Curiously, Biagi’s candor may have provoked the proposal for a new Park District ordinance that would impose a $1,000-per-violation fine for each disclosure of closed session information.   Fortunately, four of the five commissioners present at last night’s Park Board meeting reached a consensus not to pursue such an ordinance – which would violate the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) because, according to Page 28 of Atty. General Lisa Madigan’s Guide to IOMA, no sanction against a public body member is permitted for disclosing information or issues discussed in a closed meeting. 

Ironically, that’s the very same lesson that all local public officials should have learned – but apparently didn’t – from the “Frimark” City Council’s failed attempt at sanctioning Schmidt’s whistle-blowing four years ago.

Can anybody lend Biagi a Telestrator?

To read or post comments, click on title.

6 comments so far

Wow! Good for Commissioner Biagi. We should nominate him for Mayor!!!

We are glad that Biagi brought out the truth. These closed meetings in government make it difficult to really know what the truth of each personnel issue is. You can’t take topics at face value without knowing what is going on behind the scenes.

EDITOR’S NOTE: So are we. And that’s why we don’t much care for closed meetings.

Can Commissioner Vile be recalled? Sounds like he should step down as he breached his public duties.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We are aware of no recall process for park district commissioners. It would seem, however, that he has some ‘splainin’ to do.

the closed meeting policy was not inspired by Biagi’s unilateral revelation of how the “retirement” went down. It was inspired earlier by Vile’s sharing of attorney-client privileged documents with Grodsky and Senior Services, Inc. leaders. In fact, people who encouraged the closed meeting policy draft were pleased with Biagi’s revelation. A bit of confusion, methinks.

EDITOR’S NOTE: But, as we understand it, Vile did not disclose “closed session” information but, instead, he distributed attorney-client privileged documents unrelated to closed session discussions.

Thank you, Mr. Biagi, for not letting this stuff get swept under the rug. Secrecy and bad government go together. Can Mr. Borrelli do the same at D-64?

It’s kind of a sad commentary when disclosures like this seem revolutionary, because secrecy really has no place in public bodies at all. Otherwise it would be called serving in private office, no?

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s not just “kind of a sad commentary,” it’s pathetic. Secrecy and closed sessions should be be the rare exceptions to full disclosure, not the other way around.



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