WWRD…Besides Hide From Mayoral Debates?


As any regular reader of this blog knows, we love contested elections. 

We love it when two or more candidates for the same public office are forced to show why they deserve to be elected over their competition.  We love it when an incumbent actually has to defend his/her record, and when a challenger has to demonstrate that he/she actually has better ideas than the incumbent.

Which is why the current mayoral campaign has, so far, been a disappointment.

In one corner we have one-term incumbent Mayor Dave Schmidt, an iconoclastic fiscal conservative who comfortably defeated tax-and-spend incumbent opportunist mayor Howard “Let’s Make A Deal” Frimark in 2009 by effectively capturing the roughly 1,000 votes which provided Frimark his margin of victory in 2005. 

By 2011, Schmidt – who acquired the nickname “Mayor No” for vetoing unaffordable, unsound and/or unwise spending – had outlasted four of Frimark’s alderpuppets, who slunk off the Council without even standing for re-election.  And after several years of the City piling up millions of dollars in annual operating deficits, Schmidt and the new Council have begun posting annual operating surpluses which, cumulatively, are expected to top $2.5 million for the three most recent fiscal years, the third of which will end April 30.

In the other corner we have newcomer Larry Ryles, a challenger who nevertheless acts like he’s running a “rose garden” campaign by dodging mano-a-mano match-ups with Schmidt whenever possible – starting with a February 7 “town-hall” debate scheduled for the Park Ridge Senior Center that will also include aldermanic candidate debates. 

As reported in this week’s Park Ridge Journal (“Town Hall Still A Go”) and Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Ryles turns down request for second Park Ridge mayoral debate”), Ryles’ alibi for dodging that town hall debate is that Schmidt organized it.  Seriously.  Even though it will be held on a “neutral” site (a Park District facility) and will be moderated by members of the City Hall press team.

Ryles is also reportedly trying to dodge the Park Ridge Republican Women’s Forum on March 7.  Which leaves him committed to only the Chamber of Commerce luncheon debate at the Park Ridge Country Club on March 13, and the League of Women Voters debate the following evening.

That’s unfortunate, because good government is furthered by Schmidt’s record being challenged on its merits by a competent critic.  Yet all Ryles seems capable of mustering are a few spitballs from the weeds – most notably his criticism of Schmidt for the Council’s recent reduction of what originally was looking like an 11.11% property tax levy increase, down to a 2.15% one – even though Ryles uttered not a peep of protest at the December 17 City Council meeting when that 2.15% levy was approved. 

That’s not surprising, however, given that we don’t see how Ryles can possibly reconcile his criticism of the levy reduction with his tub-thumping insistence that taxes should not be raised any higher than the inter-year increase in the Consumer Price Index. 

But so long as Ryles keeps hiding in plain sight by dodging debates with Schmidt, the voters will continue to be deprived of the opportunities they deserve to see and hear the two candidates meaningfully go toe-to-toe on all the important issues facing our community. 

And to find out specifically what would Ryles do about them that would be different from what Schmidt has been doing for the past four years.

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Hail, Kalo!


Today we’re giving our inner-curmudgeon a well-deserved rest and offering a big Watchdog bark-out to those folks over at the Kalo Foundation for winning Park Ridge’s most recent Governor’s Hometown Award for its efforts to save the Alfonso Iannelli home and studio at 255 N. Northwest Hwy.

Not only did they perform a grand community service by saving that historically-significant building from the wrecking ball and replacement by several townhomes, but they did it without…wait for it…a handout of taxpayer dollars from City government.

Huzzah!  Huzzah!  Huzzah!

For those who might not remember, we had our doubts about whether the Kalo Foundation would go the way of so many other not-for-profit private corporations which wrap themselves in the mantle of “community group” and then expect to get a substantial portion of their funding each year just by showing up at City Hall with their hands out – usually with a few former aldermen or other former elected officials in tow for the appropriate winks and nods.  In our 11.26.07 post with a subsection titled “Hello, Kalo”, we sounded a critical note when the newly-established foundation started making sounds like it was heading to the public trough.

But the Kalo folks strapped it on, going on a fundraising quest that generated in excess of $300,000, including a six-figure matching-type challenge grant from an anonymous donor.

There’s still a ways to go before the Kalo Foundation realizes its goal of completely restoring the Iannelli building and turning it into a fully-operating museum.  But we’re not about to bet against Betsy Foxwell, Anne Lundy, Dennis Van Mieghem, Judy Barclay, Marcia Burgis, and all the rest of those intrepid Kalo Foundation volunteers and arm-twisters who pulled the nails out of that building’s coffin at the eleventh hour.

And they’ve provided a shining example – for whatever other local private-corporation community groups want to watch and learn – of how private taxpayers will support community groups and projects perceived by those taxpayer as both providing valuable services to the community, and making a genuine effort to generate the revenue they need instead of resorting to big-dollar City handouts.

And that deserves a hearty Watchdog “Well done!”

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Two Lessons On Governmental And Political Integrity (Updated)


Most of us have heard the old chestnut about how you know when a politician is lying because his lips are moving. 

Sadly, we’ve almost come to expect a certain lack of integrity from our state and federal officials – most of whom we never have met and with whom we are unlikely ever to have any meaningful discussions.  Nevertheless, folks generally still seem to believe their local government officials are different, perhaps if only because they are more visible and approachable.  

So when those officials play fast and loose with the truth, or speak disingenuously about public policy, it often feels like more of a betrayal than when state and federal officials do likewise.  And when that happens, we often try to blame it on a mistake by those local officials rather than on a lack of integrity.

Today we discuss two examples of this phenomenon.

The first relates to a story in this week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Park Ridge aldermen postpone purchase of emergency equipment,” 01.21.13) about our City Council’s postponing the purchase of 5 replacement cardiac monitors/defibrillators commonly known as AEDs.  That purchase was deferred until the new fiscal year (beginning in May) because an expected federal grant that was to provide most/all of the amount budgeted for the new AEDs ($153,000 per the H-A story, $137,814.05 per Fire Chief Mike Zywanski’s 01.14.13 Agenda Cover Memorandum) did not come through. 

As best as we can tell, that’s the right fiscal decision by the Council.  The Fire Department can budget for that amount from its regular FY2013-14 funding rather than from OPM (“Other People’s Money,” in this case federal funds) and make the purchase when the new FY begins a few months from now. 

So why, then, does Chief Z seem to be trying to create the impression that even a short delay poses an irresponsible threat to public safety, while giving nary a thought to the fiscal considerations? 

In both his cover memo and as reported by the H-A, he notes that AEDs were used on nearly three-fourths (73%, to be exact) of all emergency medical service calls last year.  That sounds like a lot.  But why didn’t Chief Z choose to include the total number of “emergency medical service calls” in his cover memo or in his H-A comments, so we can’t tell how many calls that three-fourths figure actually represents?

Chief Z’s cover memo also makes it look/sound like the current AEDs are failures waiting to happen, pointing out that they have been “out of warranty for three years and are beginning to experience increasing rates of downtime due to repairs.”  In the H-A story, he ominously states: “Obviously, I can’t predict a breakdown.”

That sounds like classic panic peddling, made more troubling by Chief Z’s failure, again, to explain or quantify in any meaningful way how much “downtime” and what kinds of “repairs” he is talking about, as well as whether the safety and operation of “out of warranty” AEDs is any more problematic than the safety and operation of out-of-warranty automobiles, appliances, etc.

But from just a little quick research it appears that, irrespective of the warranty, many/most AED manufacturers publish an “expected useful life” of their AEDs of 10 years.  And the actual useful life of an AED appears to be virtually indefinite so long as the AED passes its daily self-tests designed to ensure that all of its components are functioning properly; and so long as the battery and other components are replaced as needed.

Of course, those kinds of details – along with the other missing details we’ve pointed out above – might not be nearly as effective in stampeding the herd (i.e., a majority of aldermen and their constituents) into dipping into the City’s General Fund as are Chief Z’s generalizations about percentages and risks.  And holding the Fire Department accountable for its FY2012-13 budget (which included the federal grant money the City never received) rather than providing a General Fund-based bailout might be a “first” in City fiscal management.

All in all, that’s misleading by omission – the omission of the relevant information both Chief Z and the Council should have had in order to make a well-informed decision on this issue.  Whether that kind of misleading is the product of negligence/a dumb mistake, or intentional deception, remains an open question.  But, either way, it’s fundamentally bad government.

Our second example relates to a story in last week’s H-A, “Park Ridge voters to decide Youth Campus purchase,” about the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District’s issuing of $13.2 million of bonds to purchase the 11-acre site previously occupied by a non-profit provider of supervised residences to troubled youths, and to develop that site into a park and recreational campus.

The H-A story reads like a puff piece written by the Park District’s own public relations person – or by Park District commissioner Mel Thillens, who is the District’s point man and head cheerleader for that project.  And the foremost factor making it a puff piece is that there’s no mention (or even a hint) of the fact that the Park District is going to referendum on this project not because it wants to, but because it HAS to: the District doesn’t have sufficient non-referendum bonding power to do this project without a popular vote.  

That’s a significant missing detail that becomes even more problematic when (as reported in the H-A) Thillens figuratively wraps himself in the American Flag by grandly proclaiming: “I think empowering the citizenry to make that decision is important.”  This, from the same Park Board member who didn’t give one whit about “empowering” that same citizenry to provide advice, via an advisory referendum, on whether or not the District should borrow $6.3 million over 15 years to build a third-rate water park that will dominate a good chunk of Centennial Park for the next 30-40-50 years.

Not to be outdone, Commissioner Mary Wynn Ryan echoed Thillens: “I don’t think we can say we should keep this [Youth Campus referendum] from the public because a handful of people said they don’t like the idea.”  This, from the same Park Board member who voted to proceed on the new Centennial aquatic project without an advisory referendum because a handful of people said they like that idea.

Rest assured that if Thillens, Ryan, and their fellow travelers on the Park Board could legally have gotten away with doing the Youth Campus project without a referendum, that deal already would be signed, sealed and delivered – the voters/taxpayers be damned by a lack of governmental and political integrity.

Two different local governmental bodies, two different lessons about local governmental and political integrity, and two more reasons to be skeptical and suspicious.

Next stop: pessimistic, misanthropic, or cynical?

UPDATED (01.25.13):  A commentator correctly pointed out that what we termed “AED”s are, instead, cardiac monitors/defibrillators.  The former are the heart jump-starters readily available in most public buildings, while the latter are more elaborate, multi-functional and expensive devices.  All information about useful life, maintenance and repairs related to the AEDs should be disregarded for now; and we apologize for our error. 

Subject to that correction, however, we stand by the rest of our post. 

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Did Mayor, Council Get It Right On City Mgr. Hire?


Park Ridge Mayor Dave Schmidt caught some aldermanic flak over his hiring of Acting City Mgr. Shawn Hamilton last summer after the Council sent then-city mgr. Jim Hock packing by unanimous vote. 

The flak came primarily from Alds. Sal Raspanti (4th ward) and Marty Maloney (7th), and it was directed toward the process Schmidt employed – because it didn’t include Council involvement other than to approve Hamilton’s hiring.  Those were legitimate criticisms, especially about a process employed by a mayor who not only has talked but also walked “transparency” line for the past four years he has been mayor. 

From the moment Hamilton’s hiring was confirmed by the Council – over Raspanti’s and Maloney’s “no” votes, as we recall – the primary question was whether Hamilton could do the job well enough to keep it beyond his May 1, 2013, contract end date.  His performance also would be a significant test of Schmidt’s theory that a city manager with a strong private-sector background could do a better job than the traditional public-sector bureaucrat. 

So the Council’s solid endorsement of Hamilton at last Monday night’s Council meeting was a significant achievement for the Acting City Manager.

Leading the cheers for Hamilton was Ald. Joe Sweeney (1st), who suggested dropping Hamilton’s “acting” status and making him the regular City Manager – in part because of Hamilton’s efforts in hiring new personnel and executing the Council’s cost-cutting agenda.

Unfortunately, Sweeney promptly left the reservation and began witlessly advocating for a one-year contract extension for Hamilton, insisting that Hamilton was just one Council meeting away from termination; and that he deserved “job security” because the City is “taking [from Hamilton] and not giving.”

Say what?  Since when did a six-figure salary and benefits become all “taking,” Ald. Sweeney?

But we probably shouldn’t expect more from a guy who voted to give Hock his 18-month contract with a $130,000 severance – even while acknowledging that it was a great contract for Hock but not such a great one for the taxpayers.  Apparently Sweeney doesn’t subscribe to the aphorism: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Fortunately, Raspanti nailed it when he reminded Sweeney that job “security” is not a right or an entitlement in the real, non-governmental, world: “Maybe the public sector works a little different…but anybody who works for a living is one bad move away from losing their job.”


While the other aldermen didn’t go as far as Sweeney, it was clear from their comments that most of them approved of Hamilton’s job so far.

Ald. Marty Maloney (7th Ward) said Hamilton has done a “fantastic job,” but noted that the Council “owe[s] it to the taxpayers” to put the right person in the job, and at the right price – pointedly referencing the sweetheart contract the previous Council (including Sweeney and Ald. Rich DiPietro) gave Hock in December 2010…for reasons that make no more sense today than they did back then: “I’m not interested in putting together a sweet deal like you guys did for Jim Hock.”

Despite how well Hamilton’s interim appointment appears to have worked out so far, we believe a more formal search process – even at the $20-30,000 cost being discussed – is the right approach for a position as crucial to City government as city manager.  In our form of government, the city manager is the CEO and COO rolled into one.  Which might explain why the City’s current financial problems and questionable infrastructure can be attributed in large measure to the bumbling and dissembling of the City’s two most recent city managers – Tim Schuenke and Jim Hock – aided and abetted by compliant, complicit, rubber-stamp City Councils.

Meanwhile, the biggest test for Hamilton so far will be the 2013-14 budget process. 

If he and new finance director Kent Oliven nail it, Hamilton might have an inside track to losing his “acting” status when the formal search is commenced after the new Council is seated in May.

If not, however, his honeymoon may well be over.

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Are Essential City Services Being Neglected?


When anybody mentions “essential government services,” we think in terms of sewer, water, police, fire, streets and sidewalks. 

The problem with water and sewer, however, is that they are buried under the ground.  Consequently, they tend to remain out of sight and out of mind – the easier to neglect without a hue and cry of protest – until a sewer collapses or a water main breaks.

So an article in last week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Dry summer meant tough break for water mains,” Jan. 4) caught our attention because it reported 65 water main breaks in Park Ridge during the first half of FY2012-13.  That’s 10 to 15 more than is customary for an entire year.  And that doesn’t include 22 water service leaks during 2012.

Worse yet, that also doesn’t include the winter months when most breaks tend to occur. 

This situation becomes even more problematic given that the City’s Public Works Department already has spent its $50,000 overtime budget.  So Public Works will likely need to use money from City’s the construction fund to address future water main breaks between now and the beginning of FY 2013-14 on May 1.

That got us thinking and looking for any comprehensive information about the City’s sewer and water systems. 

Unfortunately, we could find no such information on the City’s website.  That’s a problem for several reasons, the first and foremost being that it suggests the City itself doesn’t have such information – or at least not in a sufficiently user-friendly form that it could be posted on the website for all to see.  That lack of transparency is a dis-service to the taxpayers, especially when boatloads of tax dollars are spent on a variety of other things that those taxpayers may not consider as “essential” as sewer and water. 

What we would expect is a map showing the entire network of sewers and water lines, with clearly-marked date(s) when each particular section or feature (e.g., a pump) was last inspected, when it was last repaired, and when it was last replaced.  That way, residents would have real-time knowledge of the condition of our unseen infrastructure…and a better idea of whether some portions of that infrastructure are ticking time bombs that shouldn’t be neglected further.

According to the H-A article, Public Works Director Wayne Zingsheim correctly notes that a water main break is “something you can’t let run [because] people need to have water,” but that the City’s efforts at replacing older, less-durable piping have been slowed by the cost involved. 

The apparent lack of a comprehensive sewer and water map with accurate up-to-date status reports on the condition of those systems’ components would seem to leave the Public Works Dept. with an inability to develop a comprehensive, systematic multi-year process of inspecting, maintaining, repairing and/or replacing those components.  And it also makes sound budgeting decisions almost impossible.

But perhaps the worst part of having no such comprehensive analysis available to the taxpayers is that it prevents them from understanding a significant portion of the City’s infrastructure needs, including those needs that directly affect each individual taxpayers’ sewer and water systems.  Which means that, come budget time, those taxpayers are unable to provide their aldermen with any meaningful, informed input or feedback about how much money is being budgeted for those “essential” services – versus how much is being budgeted for discretionary spending.

The more the taxpayers remain in the dark on matters such as this, the easier it is for their elected representatives and the City’s bureaucrats to set the City’s spending agenda and manipulate public opinion.  Until a few more water mains break, or a few more sewers collapse.

And the City has already spent that money on discretionary items.

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New Year 2013: Looking Backward, Hoping Forward


Another year – and 103 more PublicWatchdog posts – has passed.  So it’s time to take a brief look back and a brief look forward.

The year 2012 began with our questioning  whether then-city manager Jim Hock would raise his game in response to the City Council’s demand that he start earning his approximately $215,000 annual compensation.  He didn’t, and he was gone before mid-year.  But the City’s taxpayers are still holding the bag for his defaulted interest-free home loan, which former mayor Howard Frimark and then-and-now City Attorney Everette “Buzz” Hill conspired to subordinate to a bank loan Hock also took out for less than half the amount of the City’s loan, all without even telling the Council. 

Whether Mayor Schmidt and the Council learned anything from that wasteful exercise remains to be seen.  It also remains to be seen whether Hock’s replacement, Acting City Manager Shawn Hamilton, can raise his game enough to lose the “Acting” but still retain the rest of the title when his contract runs out this Spring. 

And with number-cruncher extraordinaire Allison Stutts having left the City’s finances in the hands of newcomer Kent Oliven, we hope he and Hamilton have the common sense and the work ethic needed to stick with Stutts’ battle-tested budget playbook rather than start cutting corners on what appears to have become the best budget process the City has employed in at least 20 years.

At the beginning of 2012 we also called for open-session contract negotiations between our local governments and the various employee unions, with special mention of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64’s then-upcoming teacher negotiations.  The idea would be to have all such negotiations occurring in meetings open to the public, and broadcast/videotaped for viewing by those citizens who were not able to attend in person.  That way, the public could judge for itself who was being unreasonable in their demands or offers.

Not surprisingly, that didn’t occur for any of the negotiations conducted last year.  Worse yet, the D-64 negotiating team of Board president John Heyde and member Pat Fioretto agreed to a new contract that continued the D-64 practice of actually requiring secret, closed-session contract negotiations.  Chalk up yet another bargaining coup for the Park Ridge Education Association, a/k/a the teachers union. 

Last year saw the closing of the Park Ridge Youth Campus up in the City’s 1st Ward.  A local institution for over a century, in recent years it had become a continuous source of police calls related to resident runaways and physical altercations between residents.  Come April, the voters will have a chance to decide whether to borrow and spend over $13 million to turn that 11+-acre parcel into a park and recreation complex – or leave it available to private developers, most likely for single-family residential.

We also look forward to this April’s local elections because of all the contested races, including: 

  • for City of Park Ridge mayor, Mayor Dave Schmidt and challenger Larry Ryles;
  • for 2nd Ward alderman, Nicholas Milissis and George Korovilas;
  • for 4th Ward alderman, Roger Shubert and Jane Johnson;
  • for 6th Ward alderman, Ald. Marc Mazzuca and Vincent LaVecchia;
  • for Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 School Board, incumbent Scott Zimmerman and newcomers Terry Cameron, Vicki Lee, Dathan Paterno, Benjamin Seib and Rick Van Roeyen vying for four seats;
  • for Maine Township High School District 207 Board, incumbents Eldon Burk, Eric Leys, Margaret McGrath and Carla Owen vying with newcomers Mary Childers, Jin Lee, Jeffrey Spero and Sean Story for five seats; and
  • for Park Ridge Recreation and Park District Board, incumbents Rick Biagi, Richard Brandt, Steven Hunst and Stephen Vile vying with challengers James Phillips and Joan Bende for four seats.

Our hope for these elections is that the candidates will take their campaigns seriously and actively engage each other in substantive debates not only on the issues but also on their individual philosophies of local government – instead of hiding behind vague pronouncements, warm-and-fuzzy promises, and outright dishonesty about the costs of those promises.

Unfortunately, the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District will be giving the taxpayers only one referendum (a binding one, for $13 million, on the Youth Campus park and recreation plan) in April instead of two (the second being an advisory one, for the $7.1 million Centennial outdoor pool project), but only because it legally can’t get away with giving us none at all.  That display of contempt will earn this Park Board the dubious distinction of being the first in 20 years to do a major multi-million dollar project without seeking the advice of the voters via referendum.

Nevertheless, our hope for 2013 is that all members of this community – individuals, businesses, community groups, etc. – strive to become more self-reliant and less dependent on local government (a/k/a, the taxpayers) to solve their problems.  In that regard we close this post with two quotes from the late longshoreman/public intellectual (and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner) Eric Hoffer:

“It still holds true that man is most uniquely human when he turns obstacles into opportunities”; and “The troublemakers are they who need public cures for their private ails.”

Happy New Year!

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