Why Is The Park Board Discussing “Shibley Oaks” In Closed Session?


Running the east side of Busse Highway from Shibley Avenue on the north to Seeley Avenue on the south sits a non-descript, commercially-zoned parcel in the middle of a stretch of other commercially-zoned property.

At the Seeley end of the parcel sits a building that formerly housed the Maine Center, a mental health treatment center that closed down in April 2015 when its planned merger with the Elk Grove-based Kenneth Young Center fell through. The north roughly 3/4 of that parcel is vacant land bearing centenarian oak trees.

Until last year when the parcel’s owner, reportedly Park Ridge Development LLC, posted “no trespassing” signs on the property to the irritation of the neighbors who treated it as their own “park,” that parcel was not even a blip on the rest of the community’s radar.

But then those neighbors and a group of local tree huggers decided that the parcel – and the 15 old oak trees sitting on it – needed to be preserved as a vital remnant of a larger oak savanna that allegedly pre-dated European settlement of this area.

The parcel’s size: Approximately 3/4 acre.

The parcel’s price: Reportedly $2.2 million.

As is usually the case in situations such as these, the neighbors and the tree huggers aren’t offering to purchase the parcel and preserve it. Nor are they offering to purchase it and donate it to the City of Park Ridge or to the Park Ridge Park District.

Instead, it should come as no surprise that they have gathered petition signatures with which to cajole and/or pressure the Park District Board into prioritizing the purchase of the Shibley Oaks property. As in with Other People’s Money (“OPM,” i.e., the taxpayers’ money).

They’ve named the parcel “Shibley Oaks,” created a Facebook page for it, and are assembling a history of warm-and-fuzzy vignettes – presumably for public relations and marketing purposes. Among those vignettes: Shibley Oaks has served as an unofficial “park” for the neighbors, with water ponds in the summer and snow forts in the winter; and it has been, and can continue to be, a valuable storm water retention area.

Frankly, we love the idea of a bunch of people – neighbors, tree huggers, tree climbers, acorn collectors, even druids – organizing to preserve something that has meaning for them. But just because it has meaning for them doesn’t ensure it has the same meaning, or any meaning at all, for everybody else.

And at $2.2 million for less than an acre of land, that makes it an expensive amenity for what amounts to a special-interest group.

Such an amenity should be the subject of either a binding or advisory referendum question on the ballot this coming November so that thousands of voting taxpayers, instead of just 700-800 petitioners, get to express their opinion of the idea in an objectively-measurable way.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

What concerns us in the here-and-now is an article in this week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Residents petition Park Ridge Park District to buy Busse Highway property, preserve oak trees,” March 26) which reports that the Park Board has previously discussed the acquisition of that property in closed session meetings over the past year.

As we’ve repeatedly argued virtually from the time this blog was started, such secretive closed-session discussions tend to be the epitome of bad government for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that while such closed sessions are permissible under the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) to discuss a fixed range of specific topics, they are never required. That tends to make them into a kind of “safe house” for discussions of often controversial matters by elected officials and bureaucrats without the integrity or the spines to discuss those matters honestly and openly right out of the gate.

Because those discussions are held outside the view and hearing of both the public and the media, and the minutes of those meetings can be indefinitely hidden from that same public and the media, their potential for abuse, stupidity and corruption cannot be understated.

And in the case of the Park District’s wishing to acquire private land, closed sessions are unnecessary as a practical matter because the Park District has the legal right, under eminent domain laws, to acquire the property for its fair market value by condemnation, irrespective of whether the owner wants to sell or not.

Yet the Park Board’s approach to Shibley Oaks to date – as reported not only in the H-A article but as corroborated by a closed-session vote recorded on the video of the March 15 Park Board meeting (with only Board member Rob Leach voting “no,” member Jim O’Brien MIA) – is that the Board apparently has conducted numerous closed session discussions about whether Shibley Oaks should be acquired at all.

Has the Board discussed and decided, in open session, whether the District needs a park at Shibley Oaks?

Has the Board discussed and decided, in open session, whether the District wants a park at Shibley Oaks?

Has the Board discussed and decided, in open session, just what kind of park the District needs or wants at Shibley Oaks?

We don’t think so, times three.

Although IOMA does have an exemption for discussions of the acquisition of land (Section 140/2(c)(5)), why is the Park Board retreating into closed sessions to discuss the questions of need, want and use?

What should the Park Board do going forward?

The best practice would be what Board member Rob Leach is quoted in the H-A article as suggesting: Have an open-session, public discussion on April 5 about whether the District should consider buying the land, on the theory that “[e]verybody has the right to know what we’re talking about.”


And they have the right to know it now, not after all the meaningful discussions have occurred in closed sessions and the “public” discussion is little more than window dressing or Kabuki.

EDITOR’S NOTE (03.27.18): This post was published yesterday with a different title and a different conclusion. Although the basic points of this post remain generally the same, some of the facts stated and conclusions drawn were done so in uncharacteristically cart-before-the-horse fashion, and were erroneous. They have been corrected.

Nevertheless, we apologize for any confusion or inconvenience caused to our readers.

And we especially apologize to the Park Board for the erroneous accusation of IOMA violations.

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