Why The Park Board Should Adopt A Transparent Shibley Oaks Acquisition Process (Updated)


In a comment to our 03.26.2008 post (“Why Is The Park Board Discussing ‘Shibley Oaks’ In Closed Session?”), an anonymous reader asked:

“Is there never a place for closed sessions at the Park Board meeting? What about if they wanted to talk about negotiation tactics to acquire the land? What if they wanted to discuss a deal that is part City / part Park District for acquiring the land? What if they want to discuss maximum offering price that is lower than the $2.2 million; should that be none [sic] to the other side of the transaction? While I agree there is abuse of closed sessions, do you never see a reason for them?”

Because those questions demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of both closed sessions and the ability of the Park District to acquire land irrespective of the owner’s desire to sell it, we have decided to take this opportunity to address that misunderstanding in advance of tomorrow (April 5) night’s Park Board meeting for which the District’s acquisition of Shibley Oaks is an agenda item.

As we understand it, the Board will discuss – in open session for a change – whether there is a need, or even a significant want, for spending as much as $2.2 million of taxpayer money acquiring the Shibley Oaks property from its current owner. Given that the principal feature of that property appears to be nothing more than the 15 old oak trees situated on less than 1 acre of land in a commercially-zoned area along Busse Highway, the fundamental questions that need to be asked are:

(1) “Does the Park District’s mission include the acquisition of private property for the primary purpose of preserving that property’s nature and character”; and

(2) “Does the District need or want a park at Shibley Oaks?”

If you look at the District’s “Environmental Policy” the answer to question No. 1 may be: “Yes.” That leaves the Park Board to answer question No. 2

Assuming for the sake of argument that some reasonable justification can be made for the property’s acquisition by the District, what purpose would closed-session negotiations serve?

The Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) expressly provides that: “(1) It is the intent of this Act to protect the citizen’s right to know; and (2) The provisions for exceptions to the open meetings requirements shall be strictly construed against closed meetings.” That’s why even the recognized exceptions to IOMA’s open-meeting mandate, such as discussions about the acquisition of land, are merely permissive rather than mandatory. In other words, unless some other non-IOMA statute requires non-public debate and deliberations by the Park Board, NO closed sessions are ever required.

According to the commentator, closed session discussions of “negotiation tactics” would enable the Park Board to deliberate and decide in secret on a maximum offering price and a negotiation plan (presumably starting with a lowball offer followed by a series of escalating offers and counter-offers) that might result in the property’s acquisition below the owner’s asking price.

That would be a reasonable idea IF the acquisition process was your typical voluntary arm’s-length one between a private seller and a private buyer.

But the District’s acquisition of private property for a public purpose does not need to be a typical arm’s-length negotiation between a willing seller (i.e., the Shibley Oaks owner) and a willing buyer (i.e., the District). That’s because the District, like most other governmental bodies, has the legal authority under eminent domain laws to acquire the property for its fair market value (“FMV”) by the process of condemnation even if the owner doesn’t want to sell.

What does that mean from a practical standpoint?

Simply, that the Park District can call ALL the shots and, therefore, doesn’t need to hide its acquisition efforts and “negotiation tactics” in closed sessions.

Assuming the Park Board decides that buying the Shibley Oaks property makes sense, it should go about getting the property appraised (by a certified MAI appraiser) to determine its true FMV; i.e., the maximum price the District would have to pay for the property if it instituted a legal condemnation proceeding.

Once the Board has the FMV it can formulate an initial offer to the owner – presumably lower than the FMV and expressly conditioned on voter approval of its acquisition via a referendum question on this November’s ballot.

Assuming the PRPD’s initial offer is not accepted by the owner, the Board should then invite the owner to a special meeting convened for the sole purpose of “negotiating” – IN OPEN SESSION – a purchase price less than the FMV. That way, should the owner tender any counter-offers, the Board could discuss – IN OPEN SESSION – and vote on whether to accept or reject each of those counter-offers, and what amount the District might offer in response. Any such back-and-forth would occur in full view of the taxpayers who deserve to see just how competently the Board is negotiating on their behalf.

This process could continue until either the parties reach agreement – once again, subject to voter approval in November – or the “negotiations” reach the FMV, at which point both the owner and the taxpayers would know that the District can compel the property’s sale under eminent domain/condemnation. And so would any prospective private purchaser, thereby deterring such a purchaser from insinuating itself into the situation.

Of course, such a transparent process is nightmarish to the bureaucrats and elected officials who fear the taxpayers and loathe having any accountability to them – as well as to those folks who want the Shibley Oaks property for a park but rightly fear that its acquisition, even if approved by the Board, would never pass via referendum. All those folks would prefer a secretive process – much like the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals runs for electing a pope, where nobody on the outside knows jack until the white smoke starts pouring out of the Sistine Chapel’s chimney.

While that might work for picking the religious leader of the estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide, it’s a perverted way of acquiring private property for a public purpose in a community of less than 40,000 residents where IOMA mandates the open and transparent process of government.

Unfortunately, opacity and unaccountability has been standard operating procedure not only here in Park Ridge but throughout Illinois, whose motto should probably be changed from “Land of Lincoln” to “Land of 7,000 Secretive Governmental Units.”

So we’ll be curious to see how many Park Board members can grasp the foregoing analysis and adopt a transparent, open-session acquisition process – assuming a majority of them can discern any kind of value to the District and its taxpayers from acquiring the Shibley Oaks property in the first place.

Updated 04.07.2018. According to yesterday’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate story about Thursday night’s Park Board meeting (“Referendum, grants suggested for buying Park Ridge land for park,” 04.06.2018), the Board already has an appraisal for the Shibley Oaks property.

That’s a good thing.

The H-A story doesn’t say whether the District has an MAI appraisal or just a half-baked “market analysis” some broker threw together – although Commissioner Rob Leach’s comment that the appraisal was higher than the property’s actual value because Uptown properties were used as comparables suggests the latter.

That’s disappointing. But even more disappointing is the Board’s refusal to publicly disclose the amount of the appraisal/market analysis, on the grounds that it’s “confidential.”

Why? What’s so “confidential” about it?

In a word: Nothing. Which is why this appears to be just more of the same kind of anti-transparent, unaccountable secrecy that had the Park Board inexplicably discussing Sibley Oaks in closed session over the past several months.

The taxpayers deserve better.

To read or post comments, click on title.

19 comments so far

Excellent post!

It’s about time somebody pointed out how these deals can be negotiated in open sessions rather than in closed. And I think this process would also work for labor union contracts as well, although not only do the bureaucrats and elected officials hate that but so do the unions and the attorneys for our government units who roll over for the unions while bragging about doing a great job for the taxpayers.

Cindy Grau will definitely be against this kind of negotiating, and I’m betting Thillens and O’Brien will be, too. That leaves Harrington, Janak, Leach and O’Donnell to step up or else we’ll be back to closed sessions again.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks. As we’ve repeated time and again, if you’re an elected or appointed official you either “get” – and embrace” – H.I.T.A. or you don’t.

If our public officials trust their constituents, believe in H.I.T.A. and have a spine, doing things in open session rather than closed becomes an automatic default position. But if they distrust and fear their constituents, don’t believe in H.I.T.A. and are human windsocks, they’ll grab at any straw to run off and hide what they’re doing. And that goes double for those officials who desperately want to be liked far more than respected for their principles.

Grau has mocked H.I.T.A. as “BullsHITA” (or some similar bastardization) because she doesn’t “get” it and never will; and because she and her particular constituency are folks whose goal is to pull more dollars worth of benefits out of government than they pay in.

The nose count tomorrow night should be interesting.

I think the acquisition of Shibley Oaks is a waste of money, but I agree that the process you have proposed would be the best way for the Park Board to deal with this matter.

Makes sense to me, which means there’s a good chance it won’t happen. Nice try, though.

Were it not for the generosity of Paula O’Connor Prospect Park would not have the very nice building there for public use. Perhaps Ms. Grau should step up and buy the Shibley Oaks property and donate it to the PRPD and have it named for her, the Grau Shibley Oaks Park. Seems reasonable to me since she’s the driving force behind the whole thing.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Don’t hold your breath waiting for that unless you’re auditioning for a role in the next Smurf movie. Public officials like her get off on spending OPM, not their own $$.

Open session is definitely where these “discussions” need to take place. If thoroughly strategized/debated in open session the “negotiations” should be nothing more than a formality. Unfortunately, the concept of HITA is something Million Dollar Mel and Jimmy OPM O’Brien genuinely don’t follow or believe in.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sadly, too many of our elected and appointed local officials “don’t follow or believe in” H.I.T.A., with the worst offenders sitting on both of our local school boards. While officials like Mayor Dave, when confronted with a motion for closed session, would ask “Why?”, Tony Borrelli and “Tilted Kilt Tommy” Sotos ask “Why not?”

We’ll be interested to see how Mel and JO’B handle the issue tonight.

Don’t blame Mel. All he does is what you let him get away with. There has been more bitching about Mel on this blog over the years and yet all the editor does is endorse him in every election. I would also hazard a guess that 95% of the posters (including those above) who complain about Mel voted for him every chance they got.

He can do whatever the hell he wants and still get your endorsement and/or vote.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mel is a fine fellow. The trouble is that he’s a pleaser: He desperately wants to be liked, which too often causes him to pander to whichever special interest he needs/wants to please. Hence, his support for the Centennial Water Park without a referendum.

That being said, even with those shortcomings the candidates who run against him – most recently, Marty Moylan and Laura Murphy – are worse than Mel, which is why we endorse him.

Isn’t this like the Edison Park Home (now Brickton Place) situation years ago when the Park District tried to condemn all that property for a big park down there?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Not quite. Cambridge Homes had just purchased that land from the religious organization that was running the Edison Park Home, so the FMV was established by that purchase price. In recognition of the Park District’s ability to condemn the property, Cambridge Homes graciously said it would not begin work on the property – which arguably would increase its FMV – until the results of the referendum scheduled for several months later; and it would sell the property to the Park District for the price Cambridge paid if the referendum passed.

The referendum failed, however, and Cambridge went ahead to build Brickton Place.

Any word from last night’s meeting?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our initial stringer’s report is what could be expected: Folks demanding that Shibley Oaks MUST BE SAVED; insisting that’s what the Park District is for; and arguing that it shouldn’t have to go to referendum.

“Mel is a fine fellow . . . which is why we endorse him.” – Public Watchdog

Should I ever be foolish enough to run again for anything that would require a vast mail campaign, that’s going on one of them.

Report from last night: (and as a disclaimer, these views are my own and not that of the entire park board) the meeting last night was as expected. About 30 residents in favor of the park district acquiring the property showed, and some voiced their opinion, a few quite passionately.

Many board members also voiced their opinion. I stated that I was in favor of a referendum, sooner than later. The executive director pointed out that with the potential large capital expenditure looming at Oakton, and the other maintenance projects we have going we need alternative funding if we are going to consider this, which could come from grants, donations, or a binding referendum. Commissioner Grau forwarded other options to acquire the property, such as an entity that will buy the property with a certain percent down, and then if funding doesn’t come through, they sell it. She rightfully mentioned that the rest of the board is not interested in that option. Commissioner Leach fleshed out the legal framework for eminent domain as it relates to the park district acquiring property.

The fact that we do not have numbers for other big projects potentially on the horizon, which might also include a referendum, coupled with the fact that we have until August 20 to put this referendum on the November ballot, has made me consider that we should get all the information together and to the voters before we ask them if they want to fund this property.

I also suggested that the very motivated people in the audience, at this meeting and previous, if they didn’t want to wait for the board to act, could also place a binding referendum on the November ballot through the gathering of petition signatures. I encouraged them to do so.

I also agree that it was not early enough that we began discussing these details in open session.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks for the comment, Commissioner, and for signing your name to it.

Being a “fine fellow” is more important than being a public official, and light years better than being a “politician” – as we pointed out in our 05.04.2013 post about Ald. Rich DiPietro’s retirement from the City Council.

Commissioner Grau and her fellow travelers are masters at spending OPM on their pet projects, especially if they can take it forcibly (albeit legally) from us taxpayers. But nobody should be foolish enough to hold their breath waiting for her and her crew to form an entity, sign any contract, or put down money to acquire Shibley Oaks.

All “big projects” should go to referendum, if possible in November elections when turnout is always largest and the most residents opining. That suggests your folks have a lot to do in order to get the details of any such project(s) formalized and budgeted – especially if the District intends to avoid the dishonest/reckless bait-and-switch of its last two “big projects”: Centennial Water Park, which was significantly over-budget despite omitting the “lazy river” that was, according to the District’s own survey, the most desirable feature; and Prospect Park, also significantly over-budget despite omitting the paddle tennis courts (and an artificial turf field with lights?).

Finally, the way to avoid not discussing things “early enough” in open session is NOT TO RUN AND HIDE IN CLOSED SESSION!

Wow, talk about Bullshita!

EDITOR’S NOTE: In reference to what, exactly?

Re: 11:34 comment – sorry, should have referenced the comment by Anonymous at 7:30 a.m. and Editor’s Note.

More secrecy for no good reason. Are these officials anti-transparency, or are they just too weak to stand up for transparency and the taxpayers.

EDITOR’S NOTE; Flip a coin.

Public records show that the current owner bought the property in two transactions in December, 2016. One transaction with the building is actually 4 lots for which he/she paid $415,000. The other transaction which was 6 lots was recorded at $715,000. Is the property worth more, less or the same than what was paid in December, 2016? If the PRPD does not get an MAI appraisal and make the results public they are doing the taxpayers of Park Ridge a very real disservice.

Can somebody explain to Cindy Grau that grants and “alternative funding” are still OPM, just not Park Ridge OPM? And that if we poach somebody else’s OPM, somebody else is certain to poach ours?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We doubt her freeloader mentality can process those concepts.

The Board is blaming advice from their attorney as the reason why they are keeping the appraisal secret. I can’t think of anything detrimental to the Park District that could result from the appraisal being disclosed. What gives?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Politicians and bureaucrats know that the easiest way to manipulate public sentiment is to manage the flow of information, especially information about budgets and project costs. And attorneys for the politicians and bureaucrats are more than happy to assist them in that info management.

The bottom line is that the appraisal hasn’t been disclosed because not one of the 7 Park Board members want it disclosed. If they did, they could have disclosed it by their own unilateral action – without any legal consequences whatsoever, notwithstanding the attorney’s alleged advice.

Who is the PRPD’s attorney?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thomas G. Hoffman. He’s been the Park District’s attorney since at least 1994.

He’s a decent enough fellow but he’s got the old-style gov’t attorney mindset that the taxpayers should be treated like mushrooms: Kept in the dark and covered in manure.

As a follow up to your response to Anonymous 04.08.18 at 9:43 am’s comment, did any Board member even ask Hoffman why the appraisal needs to be treated as “confidential”?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our stringer did not report that, and since the meeting video is not yet posted on the District’s website we cannot check there.

PW, you endorsed every member of the current Park Board except for Grau. Guess you’re no better at picking H.I.T.A. candidates than the rest of us.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We do the best we can with the information we have at the time. And most of the time our endorsements are relative: We endorse candidates not in absolute fashion but vis-à-vis their opponents. That means if a candidate publicly espouses H.I.T.A., is not a freeloader or freeloader apologist, and believes his/her first duty as a public official is to the taxpayers, we likely will endorse him/her over the Cindy Graus, Mary Wynn Ryans, “Tilted Kilt Tommy” Sotoses, or Howard Frimarks.

Also, don’t underestimate how tough it is to walk the H.I.T.A. walk as opposed to just talking the talk. When a staff of career bureaucrats and/or a career gov’t attorney tell you to keep a secret or hide in closed sessions, it takes some gumption to tell them to go pound sand.

That being said, we will be disappointed if we find out that no Board member challenged the bureaucrats or the attorney on why the appraisal should be kept secret. Hopefully the District will get around to posting the meeting video one of these days so we can see and hear exactly how appraisal secrecy was discussed, if at all, in last Thursday’s meeting.

Rob and Daisy Bowe collected almost 800 petition signatures. That should count for something.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Petition signatures are better than anecdotes but meaningless compared to actual votes in an election.

for the April 2013 Prospect Park referendum, 9,372 voters cast ballots, with 5,118 voting “yes” and 4,039 voting “no.” Contrast that with the November 2014 Library funding referendum, where 15,275 voters cast ballots (almost 6,000 more than in April 2013), with 8,515 voting “yes” and 6,344 voting “no.”

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