Thursday, June 08, 2006

Not Boring

No one will ever be bored by this board, By JIM BOWMAN in Wednesday Journal of OP&RF, June 07, 2006

DIFFICULT MEETING: Oak Park Trustee Martha Brock saved the day, or night, at the village board meeting a month ago when she and Trustee Elizabeth Brady changed their minds about who should lead the Colt building redo. Brady had explained herself reasonably enough: matters of substance had combined with matters of politics. There was nothing substantive to add when Brock’s turn came.

But speaking after Trustees Bob Milstein and Geoff Brady, she saved the situation. The other two had called out an editor, a political opponent who had addressed the board, and fellow trustees in a remarkable display of pique, disappointment, and veiled or unveiled animosity, chilling the room, or at the least the one where I sat watching on TV.

Brock rambled a bit but did not hesitate. She got personal but not maudlin and not angrily defensive. Like an earlier speaker, she spoke of resigning. But she accused no one. It was not a masterpiece of argument but a candid, apparently guileless display that cooled things down. She finished, the meeting proceeded, business was completed, everybody went home.

HISTORICAL PRECEDENT: The affair was all about backing into a meat grinder. The butcher’s wife did that. The result was predictable: Disaster. So did our bold if misguided Board Majority back into a public opinion meat grinder. The result? Temporary setback apparently viewed as disaster. Two defected, leaving two others disturbing the ether with ineffectual haymakers.

But all four may take grim consolation from Oak Park political history. Officeholders and staff have had to swallow some bitter medicine over the years. At a hot District 97 board meeting a long time ago, a disgruntled parent asked a board member to step outside. (He didn’t.)

When the library board tried to close a branch, people demanded otherwise. The Village Manager Association, still chewing dust from the last election, lost a much earlier one over the firing of a garbage man. A lawsuit did the same for a hard-charging school board. Former officeholders have left town. You need insulation from the slings and arrows.

LANDMARK ALERT: Meanwhile, Oak Park’s Historic Preservation Commission convenes with statutory authority to declare your building a landmark with all the benefits and liabilities that includes—whether you like it or not.

That’s what Trustee Greg Marsey learned at the May 15 board meeting, where the 400 North Maple block condo development was discussed. Marsey asked and got it verified by Village Attorney Ray Heise, who admitted the coercion written into village ordinance—no, the owner cannot decline landmark status—only after noting that the owner is invited to participate in landmark discussions.

Marsey appeared stunned. President David Pope, trying to wrap up discussion, said he did not want to get into "nuance" at that point. But one man’s nuance is another’s heart of the matter. Someone can start the process for you the owner? And in the end you have to go along with commission and board decision, with drastic implications as to what you can do with your own property? You have in mind neither whorehouse nor shooting gallery nor saloon, but a spanking new building with toilets that work, but it doesn’t matter, or might not matter.

There was more. So clearly was the board moving to stop the Maple Avenue development that Trustee Baker volunteered on the spot to mediate in the matter of developer vs. NIMBY neighbors. He would recuse himself from voting when its landmark status came before the board, he offered, presenting himself as a neutral third party who would bring developers and neighbor to agreement.

But elected officials normally recuse themselves only when past activity indicates conflict, and they do it regretfully. They don’t do it ahead of time so as to adopt a new role that an official considers more important than the one he was elected to fill. Milstein dissuaded Baker from his bad idea, though without saying how bad it was.

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