Do “The People” Matter To Park Board, Staff?


“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories.” Thomas Jefferson.

For those of you who like your “rulers” feeding you amenities funded by the rest of us taxpayers, without us taxpayers having a real voice in the decision-making process, tomorrow night’s meeting of the Park Ridge Recreation & Park District Board of Commissioners meeting (7:30 p.m., Maine Leisure Center, 4801 Sibley) should warm your holiday hearts.

The Park Board is expected to pass its 2013 budget that will be financed with a 5.97% property tax levy increase, the highest increase of any of our local governmental bodies this year.  Although the Park Board and Staff will deny it, we’d bet a crisp new $1 bill that the District is trying to stockpile extra cash (in this case, an extra $354,100 next year alone) to cover the debt service for its new Centennial Pool project, thereby providing those officials with plausible deniability for their claim that the project will not increase taxes.

The Board also will be discussing its resolution to put its $14 million Youth Campus acquisition/development project referendum on the April 2013 ballot – but only because the District doesn’t have the non-referendum bonding power to do that project without bonding authority from the taxpayers via referendum.  Otherwise, you can be sure this bunch of Park Board members would be telling us no referendum was needed because: (a) they were elected to make these decisions; and (b) everybody wants the Youth Campus property turned into a park. 

Just like they’re doing with the Centennial Pool project.

Which is why there’s a resolution approving that project on tomorrow night’s agenda.  The Board and Staff desperately want to get that project locked up and under contract while most taxpayers are still distracted by the holidays and not paying attention to something that will cost over $7.1 million, require $6.3 million of 15-year bonded debt, and will only be usable 3 months of the year – and that won’t be on April’s ballot because the Board members are insisting that: (a) they were elected to make these decisions; and (b) everybody wants the new Centennial Pool plan. 

Most of these Board members insist they are so sure of popular support for the project that they don’t need a referendum to prove it.  Besides, they’ve already spent thousands of our tax dollars on a survey of 682 residents which confirms that the most desired new Park District capital project is…wait for it…restrooms in our parks.

That’s right: By a margin of 9% – 34% to 24.9% – real restrooms are more desired than the Centennial aquatic facility by those 682 survey respondents.

But this isn’t about what the residents want, otherwise the District would stop wasting time and money on surveys they disregard and go directly to The People via referendum. 

What this is about is giving a small special interest that has the ear of most Board members what it wants: a new outdoor aquatics facility at Centennial.  And it’s about giving those Board members a bronze plaque with their names on it.  And it’s about giving this executive director something to brag about at future parks and recreation conferences.  And it’s about the lack of integrity and outright cowardice of those Board and Staff members.

Lack of integrity?

Yep.  If those Board members (and the District’s executive director) truly believed that a majority of residents wanted this project, they would welcome an advisory referendum to prove it.  But they don’t believe that for a minute, which is why continuing to tell this particular big lie demonstrates their lack of integrity.

Outright cowardice?

Yep.  An advisory referendum isn’t binding, so the Board could go to referendum on this project, assess the results, and still do exactly what they want – while incurring whatever resident criticism and political backlash might come with such a decision.  But these cowards don’t have the courage to make that kind of decision.  So saying “no” to any referendum avoids that awkward situation.

No matter how many times they repeat their mantra that they were elected to make these kinds of decisions, they really weren’t.  They were elected to perform basic oversight of the bureaucrats and the ordinary operations of the District, including the preliminary work that brings us to the point where these kinds of decisions can be made – by the taxpayers, through a referendum vote. 

Nobody elected them to make a decision that will leave a substantial, indelible mark on this community for the next 30-40-50 years, as the new Centennial Pool will do; or that will burden the taxpayers of this community with multi-million dollar debt for the next 15 years.

That’s why the Board majority believes it needs to immediately authorize the Executive Director to sign a contract that locks the District into some major initial expenses for design and construction preparation.  That way, they can use such a contract and its costs to effectively foreclose the possibility that tomorrow night’s decision can be meaningfully reconsidered or reversed after the holidays, when the taxpayers start paying attention again.

When public officials lack integrity and courage, and don’t trust the people they were elected to represent, that kind of rush-to-judgment is an effective political strategy.

And a despicable abuse of government power.

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