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A routine contract to remove dead trees around Oak Park has turned into a hush-hush secret that most local officials are loath to discuss.
Earlier this month, the Oak Park village board voted 4-3 in favor of paying $585,000 to two companies to cut down trees and remove the stumps. Trustees did not offer their opinions during the board meeting, and those who voted in opposition have declined to elaborate on why they opposed the seemingly mundane decision.
It's unclear, still, whether any other discussion of the issue took place elsewhere. A Journal FOIA request turned up no e-mail correspondence on the matter. One trustee said she had a concern related to the payment of prevailing wages being paid by vendors. And one trustee said that while the contracts were not discussed in executive session that there may have been some back-and-forth on tangentially related topics.
The contracts awarded $375,000 to Lombard-based B. Haney and Sons for summer tree removal, and another $210,000 to Riverside-based A&B Landscaping for winter tree removal and grinding stumps year round. The village has awarded similar contracts in the past, and Oak Park did not outsource any staff positions as a result of these contracts according to Public Works Director John Wielebnicki.
Still, Trustees Ray Johnson, Bob Tucker and Colette Lueck all voted no on the contracts earlier this month. That came after the board pulled the decision off its "consent agenda," a list of routine items taken together at every meeting without any discussion.
Tucker and Johnson declined to comment when questioned about the vote.
"I've got nothing for you," Tucker said last week. "It's really not that interesting."
Lueck, meanwhile, said there's a new interpretation of when municipalities have to make sure that outside contractors pay a "prevailing wage" to their employees.
"I personally feel that villages should pay prevailing wage, regardless of what the law requires or what the interpretation is," she said. "But I'm clearly the minority opinion on that because it's much more expensive."
But she stopped short of saying that was the reason why she voted no, and added that "I think other people voted against it for different reasons than I did."
So are these two contractors paying a prevailing wage? Wielebnicki said the contract does not specify prevailing wages, and it's the village's belief that the Prevailing Wage Act does not apply to the agreements.He said Oak Park has been removing trees this way for years, and that it just recently went out for bids on the work, just to test the market.
Wielebnicki said the prices were favorable, and Oak Park was happy with the response.
Trustee John Hedges said the contract seemed pretty standard, and he had no concern related to prevailing wages.
"I was kind of surprised myself that it wasn't unanimous," said Trustee Adam Salzman.
Board members who voted yes all declined to provide insight into why their counterparts disagreed, instead deferring comment to the naysayers.
So did any discussion take place on the vote between board members? Wednesday Journal submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for any emails or memos between elected officials and staff regarding the issue. That FOIA turned up nothing.
Village President David Pope said it is perfectly possible for board members to read the materials related to an item — for this one, there was more than 200 pages — and then reach a decision without talking it out. He said part of the issue was whether Oak Park wanted to move forward with removing trees in the winter or spring. Pope said it's possible Oak Park could have waited six months for better prices, but the village went ahead with winter work to stay on top of removals.
"I don't know that there's any big issue there that needs a lot of elaboration," Pope said, later adding, "The agenda item itself laid out the detail about it, so I think everybody read it and determined what they thought. It's not unheard of to see 4-3 votes on our board, obviously."
The state's open meetings act allows public bodies to meet privately to discuss sensitive matters, away from the public eye. Some of those exemptions include pending or probable lawsuits; setting the price for the purchase, sale or leasing of property; or negotiating salaries for an employee or union.
But the circumstances surrounding the Jan. 3 vote seem strange, said David Barsotti, a former Oak Parker who has previously challenged village hall's interpretation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. "That does seem kind of weird," he said. "I'm not familiar with it and I wasn't present there, but it does seem odd to say the least."
Village trustees met in executive session before the public meeting on Jan. 3 to discuss "collective bargaining" and "potential litigation," according to the meeting's agenda. But members of the board, along with the village manager, public works director and village attorney, didn't say whether issues related to the tree removal contracts were discussed privately ahead of time.
"I never discuss what's discussed in executive session, whether it is or isn't," said Village Manager Tom Barwin. "I don't think it's helpful because those are sessions where you're dealing with sensitive issues."
Trustee Glenn Brewer, however, said there was no private discussion beforehand about the contracts, specifically, though there may have been a back-and-forth about some tangentially related topics. He couldn't elaborate, but emphasized that what was hashed out behind closed doors will reach the sunshine eventually.
He just wasn't sure when.
"There are a great number of issues in the hemisphere of those contracts that need to be discussed, and at some point they will be public discussions," he said.
Answer Book 2018
To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2018 Answer Book, please click here.
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