Goodbye For Now, Ald. Knight


Dan Knight never really wanted to be an alderman.

He was content doing the things many 50-something suburban dads do when not working, such as coaching their kids’ sports teams and doing charity work – both through his church, St. Paul of the Cross, and through other organizations.

Little did Dan know what path he was starting down that day back in 2008 when he agreed to support some of his neighbors in challenging the misguided installation of a homeless shelter in the basement of St. Mary’s Episcopal, just a block from Dan’s home.

The instigators of locating such a shelter – operated by a private, Palatine-based not-for-profit corporation called PADS to Hope, Inc. (“PADS, Inc.”) – in Park Ridge were some prominent residents and a group of local clergy calling themselves the “Park Ridge Ministerial Association” (“PRMA”). And, not surprisingly, they were backed by opportunistic local politicians such as then-mayor Howard Frimark.

Like many of his neighbors, Dan didn’t buy into the idea of strangers – most of them acknowledged or suspected alcoholics, drug abusers and/or emotionally disturbed – being trucked into their quiet residential neighborhood one night a week from October to April just so PADS, Inc. could add another shelter to its roster, the better to leverage even more public and private grant funding. So Dan not only joined his neighbors, he became one of their leaders. He attended City Council meetings and other public hearings, asking tough questions and voicing his neighbors’ concerns, even to the point of calling out his own pastor for using religion to play politics.

But Dan also objected to the idea of treating such disadvantaged people like cattle, herding them night by night from a church basement in Park Ridge to a school gym in Evanston, to a church hall in Morton Grove, etc. So he tried to enlist PADS shelter supporters in an effort to provide longer-term housing, either by renting vacant local residences or by booking blocks of rooms in a nearby motel so that the homeless could actually have a “home”: the same place to go to, night after night, for the six months per year the PADS shelter program functioned.

Not surprisingly, that longer-term concept didn’t fly with either the PADS operators or their PRMA allies. But by the time PADS, Inc. and the PRMA walked away from Park Ridge rather than comply with the City’s requirement that PADS, Inc. obtain a special use permit in compliance with the City’s Zoning Code, Dan was hooked.

He became a trusted advisor to then-ald. Dave Schmidt (1st Ward), especially on financial issues. And when Schmidt decided to take on an incumbent Frimark in the 2009 mayoral election, Dan became not only a key part of Schmidt’s policy team but also his campaign treasurer.

Dan’s advice was instrumental in the creation of Schmidt’s noteworthy campaign platform of “H.I.T.A.” – Honesty, Integrity, Transparency and Accountability – that helped Ald. Schmidt become Mayor Dave in an upset victory over Frimark; and it was a hallmark of Schmidt’s administration until his sudden and untimely death last year.

For the initial two years of Mayor Dave’s first term virtually every financial policy initiative he proposed, and virtually every financial position he took, was informed and/or vetted by Dan. So valuable were Dan’s contributions that Mayor Dave encouraged him to run for 5th Ward alderman in April 2011. And so strong was Dan’s support in that ward that nobody ran against him.

Ald. Dan continued to be Schmidt’s sounding board on City issues great and small.

Just weeks into his aldermanic tenure Dan began working closely with the City’s relatively new Finance Director, Allison Stutts, to unravel the City’s arcane and sometimes misleading finances which were in shambles – in no small measure because of that white elephant known as the Uptown TIF that nobody previously had attempted to really understand.

Dan spent countless hours not only with Stutts but also with her successor, Kent Oliven, and his successor, Joe Gilmore, analyzing how best to address all those TIF deficits that kept sucking up money faster than City taxpayers could supply it – and that caused a downgrade in the City’s bond rating.

Once Dan and the finance directors went as far as they could go on their own, Dan advocated for bringing in TIF consultant Kane McKenna to provide the City with the first informed and honest assessment of what the TIF had done to City finances, and it was an eye-opener: as of year-end 2012, the City was still on the hook for over $39 million in TIF-related debt service; and the best-case scenario was that the TIF would end up costing the City over $7 million rather than producing the $20 million in profits the TIF perpetrators had predicted back in 2003-05.

But finally understanding the situation ultimately led to some TIF-related bond refunding that already has saved the City several million dollars of debt service, with the possibility of more to come. And that refunding, along with the policy of “prudent austerity” combined with “reasonable…tax and fee increases” (according to Moody’s Investors Service) instituted by Schmidt, not only helped put the brakes on the decline in the City’s bond rating but, also, caused Moody’s to remove the “negative outlook” for the City’s Aa2 general obligation bond rating.

Yet all this is only a fraction of what Ald. Knight did for this community in his slightly more than five years in office – most of which the general public will never know or appreciate. Which is the way he wanted it.

Dan never shied away from telling it like it is, often displaying the candor of his South Side Irish origin by calling “B.S.” on any public official or special interest lacking the proper respect for the City and its taxpayers. That’s why you could find no more honest and genuine a public official – in any branch of Park Ridge local government – and why he earned the respect and trust of his Council colleagues and of his constituents, who re-elected him without opposition in 2015.

“The pipes” called Danny Knight last week at age 58, leaving a legacy of service and accomplishments not unlike those of his friend and ally, Mayor Dave. Although they were public officials, they most definitely were not “politicians” because they would rather be right, and do right, than be popular.

Both of them left us far too early and with much still to be done. But they also left behind colleagues committed to H.I.T.A. and to putting the taxpayers first.

James Madison said: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” 

So we take some small comfort in believing that where Danny now is, no further duties will be required of him. 

Slán, Dan…do anois.

Hail To The Champions! – Part 2


In a span of less than one week the Maine South High School Hawks captured two state titles.

Most residents know about the football team’s upset of the Loyola Academy Ramblers for the Class 8A championship the Saturday after Thanksgiving down at Urbana-Champaign. And they recognize names like Leongas, Jarvis and McNulty, as well as that of Coach Dave Inserra.

But on December 2nd the Hawks’ Constitution Team also brought home the state title in the “We The People: The Citizen and the Constitution” competition at the Dirksen Federal Building in Downtown Chicago. Unlike their gridiron classmates, however, names like Boyce, Kreger and Touhy, and even that of Coach Andy Trenkle, aren’t as readily recognizable – so you can see the team’s roster here.

Also unlike their gridiron classmates, their season isn’t over: they will be heading to Washington, D.C. to compete in the national competition at the end of April, 2017.

Just as championship football has become a tradition at Maine South, so has championship civics as demonstrated by knowledge of the United States Constitution. The Hawks have “won state” in the Constitution competition every year since 1991, except for 1993; and they won the national championship in 1999. The team also has had a number of Top 10 finishes in the national competition.

The questions presented at the recent state competition were every bit as challenging, in their own right, to the Constitutioneers as any Loyola Academy pass rusher or ball carrier was to the Hawk gridders.

These teenagers’ accomplishments should serve as an inspiration to all of us, especially those of us who, over time, may have lost some of our knowledge and appreciation of perhaps the second greatest secular governing document – after the Magna Carta – the world has ever known.

Which is why Lincoln famously said: “We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.” And why Calvin Coolidge reminded us that: “To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.”

But while our Constitution provides the basic framework for the rest of our government at every level, we also need a better understanding of the nuts and bolts of local government, the civic “ground game” that is played not in Washington or in Springfield but right here in our own community.

Many/most voting-age residents would be hard-pressed to name both their mayor and their alderman. And they probably would have to guess well to get the names right of just two of the seven-member boards of the Park District or School Districts 64 and 207 – which combined account for approximately 80% of our property tax bills.

That level of civic ignorance tends to make the chances of getting effective local government as much a matter of luck as of skill. One need look at City government no farther back than a decade or so, however, to see that “luck” in local government can be bad as often, or more so, than it can be good.

Fortunately, our late mayor Dave Schmidt established H.I.T.A. – Honesty, Integrity, Transparency and Accountability – at City Hall, where it has retained its vitality since his sudden death in March 2015. Unfortunately, H.I.T.A. is most notable for its absence at D-64 and D-207, whose Board members view taxpayers and critics as enemies to be fought and overcome with spin, blatant propaganda, and secretive closed session meetings.

The State Champion Maine South Constitution Team members deserve this shout-out, therefore, not only for their achievement but also for the interest in the Constitution and local government that such an achievement might kindle or rekindle in the rest of us.

Ben Franklin announced our newly-formed government as being: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

That pithy description belies both the inestimable value of a government based on the consent of the governed, and the immense need for the informed and active participation of the governed in their government.

Especially at the local level.

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