Rec center debate nixed

Oak Park trustees cancel executive session after protests

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Oak Park trustees Monday agreed to cancel a scheduled executive session to discuss transferring the village-owned recreation centers to the park district. The decision came after WEDNESDAY JOURNAL sent a letter to Village Manager Carl Swenson stating its position that the session would violate the Open Meetings Act (OMA), and board members Robert Milstein and Galen Gockel requested that the discussion be moved to open session.

In order to hold the meeting in executive session, the village cited an exception to the OMA that states, "The setting of a price for sale or lease of property owned by the public body."

According to Milstein, documents provided as part of the planned executive session stated the price of sale would be $0, and that "village staff doesn't recommend payment for the land or buildings."

Beyond setting of the price, he also said documents included conditions that would be placed on the sale?#34;including a stipulation that if the district did not put together a capital plan, and take other measures, ownership of the recreation center properties to revert back to the village.

"[The document] alluded that if it didn't work out, we would go back to the old model," Milstein said, adding that the document also included requirements that would have to be met before the village would transfer or sell the property. Documents also discussed elements of the district's comprehensive plan that were "missing," he said.
Prior to the meeting?#34;and before WEDNESDAY JOURNAL sent a letter objecting?#34;Village Communications Director David Powers said the village believed it was legal to discuss the conditions of any sale, as those conditions may impact the price.

However, Scott Sievers, an attorney with the Illinois Press Association, said "you are not supposed to read anything more into" exceptions in the Open Meetings Act, and that based on the cited one-sentence exception, the village board should only discuss setting of a dollar amount.
He also said that, because the price was set at $0, one could "argue strongly that it is barely a sale at all."
Following discussions with Sievers, WEDNESDAY JOURNAL sent a letter stating that discussing anything beyond a price would violate the OMA, and that it was the newspaper's intention to file a protest with the Illinois Attorney General's office.

"Oak Park is a community which values open government. Being true to the Open Meetings Act is important," said Dan Haley, editor and publisher of the newspaper. "We're glad to see that the village board understood our concern. This is a complex issue which needs to be discussed in open session."

Despite the documents Milstein cited in the executive session documents, Village President Joanne Trapani said prior to the meeting Monday that the discussion would strictly focus on "whether or not the village should set a price."

"This should not be about politics. It seems to me there is some value in saying we're going to charge for the land or not," she said, adding that agenda item was only meant to help move ahead discussion on the park district comprehensive plan recommendations.

Agreeing with Trapani, Trustee Ray Johnson said, "This narrow setting of the price of the sale sends a clear message with regard to recommendations down the road."
"I'm a little confused as to what happened. We've moved this up a month," he added.

However, at the start of the meeting, Gockel requested that the discussion be moved to open session, with Milstein arguing that the scheduled executive session was "illegal" and "served no purpose."

Other board members did not debate the legality of the meeting, but suggested it may be more effective if the board discussed whether or not to sell the properties, before settling on a price.

"I don't really see how this [discussion of price] allows us to move ahead," said Trustee Gus Kostopulos.

"My preference would be to talk about whether or not to move forward with a transfer," said Trustee David Pope.
The board can only discuss whether or not it wishes to sell property in open session. The board has not yet decided at an open meeting whether or not it intends to transfer?#34;or sell?#34;the rec centers to the park district.
No elected body is ever required to go into executive session.

There was not expected to be a negotiation with the park district regarding sale of the centers, as district officials were not invited to the meeting.

The village board will likely not discuss the park district plan in open session until January.

Contact: kgrayson@wjinc.com

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