A village trustee continued pushing to kill, or, at least, surface more information about, a lobbyist contract Thursday night. Over a period of seven years, the contract to provide the village with insight about possible plans to expand the Eisenhower Expressway has totaled more than $1.3 million. Now it appears that other Oak Park trustees are joining the chorus.
Trustee Ray Johnson has raised the issue in recent weeks. But Thursday night during a village budget study session, Trustee Glenn Brewer raised questions about the contract. A third trustee, Jon Hale also expressed concern about the contract.
Some $180,000 is budgeted next year for the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, and Brewer asked whether Oak Park has been getting its money worth for the long-running expense, which is projected at the same cost over the next five years.
"Are we getting reports that suggest we should be continuing to pay a consultant that kind of money?" Brewer said.
For the past seven years, Oak Park has been paying a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., to help keep tabs on whether the feds may look at expanding the Eisenhower Expressway. Oak Park started its partnership with Nossaman LLP in 2003. The firm was hired to provide "legal, technical-environmental and legislative services" related to the Ike. Trustees have been renewing the contract each year, most recently with a maximum cost of $171,000 in 2010.
Village President David Pope emphasized that the contract is capped at $180,000, and that village staff has been diligent in keeping bills from the firm much lower. About $90,000 was saved from the budgeted amount last year. Nossaman has provided legal updates on what's happening with the Ike, and was instrumental in Oak Park obtaining about $5 million in federal dollars, said Pope. Some $1 million of that total was used on feasibility studies related to capping the Ike.
In questioning continuation of the contract, Hale acknowledged the receipt of federal grants but said, "We have (elected) representatives in Washington that should be helping us on that. That's what they're there for."
The Illinois Department of Transportation is currently looking at whether it wants to expand the number of lanes on the Ike, or consider other alternatives, such as extending the CTA Blue Line.
"We're setting a foundation to be able to be sure we don't see IDOT sort of ramming something through that has the potential to expand the Eisenhower in a way that would be harmful to Oak Park and in particular the southern half of Oak Park," Pope said.
But some trustees were skeptical whether Oak Park was still getting its money worth. In the past, Nossaman provided regular updates to the board, but those seem to have tapered off, said Trustee Ray Johnson. The board received an update in September, but only after it was requested, and the report seemed hurriedly put together and confusing, he said.
He wants to reduce the budgeted amount or just keep the firm on retainer.
"I'm just not clear what they're bringing to the table," Johnson said.
He asked for a more comprehensive summary from village staff about the lobbying work, and also suggested that some of Nossaman's reports, outside of legal advice, be made public.
Village hall has denied a Wednesday Journal Freedom of Information Act request for the lobbyist's reports, saying that they contain "preliminary recommendations in which opinions are expressed and policies and actions are formulated." The reports are also confidential, says the village, under the law of attorney client privilege.
For more on this story, see the Nov. 10 print edition of Wednesday Journal.