2004: It's soooo over

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Oak Park has a passion for planning and process, and even debating the process of planning. So it was fitting that in 2004, news in the village centered less on the here and now, than on creating best-laid plans for the future. 

And to plan just right, there was no shortage of consultants holding forums, dispatching surveys and making presentations.

They came to craft plans for the park district, downtown, the Ike cap, Austin Gardens and draft designs for a new Public Works center. They gauged Oak Parkers' satisfaction with village services. They were brought in by District 97 to identify problems at Brooks and Holmes?#34;kicking off the School Leadership Team process?#34;and conduct the search for a new school superintendent.

And as with every year in Oak Park, there were the now-perpetual issues that many thought would come to an end that haven't (Barrie Park), others that were discussed fervently, and fizzled, ("Participatory Planning") and others that seem to be beginning all over again (Whiteco).

But all this is not to say that a lot didn't happen this year. Some big changes were made, including the village board's decision to take the unusual step of funding two District 97 programs, and some triumphant moments had?#34;Oak Park and River Forest High School alum and teacher Aaron Podolner receiving the Golden Apple award.

And the end did come for some debates sparked during the year (or years) before: The Barrie Park Neighborhood Investment program, approved; Three dogs, it is; retail and office space, but not the Historical Society, on Lake Street; Skate Park at Stevenson, OK.

Though the outcome of many are still pending, some planning efforts also have come to a meaningful end, especially for the park district, which is now set to go for a referendum for the first time in over 30 years. Meanwhile, some stories came a sad conclusion?#34;a short trial resulting in the acquittal of one man charged with the drunk driving death of Ann Monaco.

There is still much news to come from all the processes kicked into gear in 2004?#34;the results of a state discipline audit of OPRF, a final master plan for downtown, a new Dist. 97 superintendent, and more.

But, if anything, this year certainly didn't fail to bring new issues and ideas to a village that loves to debate?#34;maybe even more than it loves to plan.

Planning finale puts park referendum in place

Years of planning finally came to a conclusion this year for the park district, culminating in a park board decision just this month to put a tax hike referendum on the ballot for the first time in over30 years.

On the heels of an Infrastructure Study, which identified a need for millions in capital improvements, the district embarked on a comprehensive planning process. The plan yielded significant recommendation for the future of the parks, including ending its decades-old dependence on a village subsidy.

That recommendation drew some concerns from village board members, and a consultant's proposal to revamp the rec center model of recreation led to some opposition from residents.

In addition, another debate that faced both the village and park boards finally came to end this year, with construction of the skate park at Stevenson Park.  

Village steps in to fund D97

In February, the village board made the unprecedented decision to consider providing cash-strapped District 97 with $4 million over the next three years to fund two school programs.

The money is slated to go toward funding of two programs the district and village governments argued are tied to maintaining diversity in the community, bussing and multicultural education. The agreement allowed the schools to avoid going for a referendum for at least two years.

The decision sparked some small-scale debate as to whether the deal marked a "back door referendum," as taxpayers will see a minor increase in their village tax bills as a result. Ultimately, however, it was approved unanimously by the village board.

As part of the agreement, the district also agreed to lease school open space, to be used for recreation, at no cost to the village. What will happen next as a result of that arrangement has yet to be seen.
 

OPRF teacher, alum, gets Golden honor

Only four years into his career as a physics teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Aaron Podolner became one of 10 Chicago area teachers to win an award from the Golden Apple Foundation.

One foundation observer described Podolner, an OPRF alum, as "an exceptional educator?[with] guileless enthusiasm, energy, youth and willingness to explore new ideas."

Along with the other winners, Podolner was inducted into the Golden Apple Academy, and received a tuition-free sabbatical at Northwestern University, $2,500 and a personal computer from Apple.

Suspect acquitted in Monaco death

In September, an ending came to a story that was, from its beginning, a victim of unfortunate coincidences.

In July, a Chicago man was acquitted on charges of reckless homicide in the drunk driving death of longtime resident Ann Monaco. The ruling came after the defense argued that it could not be proven that the defendant, or his drinking companion, was the driver. The pair had allegedly left a Stone Park bar at 6 a.m. the day of the incident; the next day, a new law was slated to go into effect that would have mandated bar closing time to be 4 a.m.

Following the acquittal, an internal review by the Cook County State's Attorney's office found that the prosecution was "not up to the professional standards we demand." The lead prosecutor in the case left the office and his assistant was reassigned.

Discipline, leadership problems, found at Brooks, Holmes

A consultant brought in by District 97 identified problems at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School and Holmes, kicking off a School Leadership Team process.

The report, which found problems in leadership in discipline at Brooks, and race, climate and media issues at Holmes, drew controversy from parents. The SLT process is still underway.

OP may wave goodbye to the Y

After the Zoning Board of Appeals nixed the YMCA's proposed $9 million expansion plan due to traffic and safety concerns, the Y announced that it may leave Oak Park altogether.

State audits OPRF discipline

A state agency was asked by five local legislators to conduct a discipline audit at Oak Park and River Forest High School, after complaints surfaced from an African-American parent organization.

Another group, the Community Code of Conduct Committee, had also raised concerns about the school cracking down harder on white students to compensate for having too many African-American students involved in the discipline system.

Whiteco: It's baaaaack

After a months-long hiatus, Whiteco Residential returned with a new design team to present a revamped development proposal for Harlem and Ontario.

After holding numerous community meetings, the developer settled on a 14-story apartment and retail complex, still slated to be occupied by a Trader Joe's.

Despite modifications, controversy over the project hasn't died down much, and up ahead next is yet another series of Plan Commission hearings. Hearings for the first 17-story project lasted over 40 hours.

Early last year, a debate over developing a new planning process ended in an abrupt vote that left several village board members confused as to, well, where their colleagues were in the decision making process.

The debate began with a "Participatory Planning Resolution" proposed by a group of citizens early last year, later turned toward "Public Participatory Planning Procedures" drafted by village staff, and ended with a 4-3 vote against the the staff resolution in June.

The 10-step planning process, discussed at a village study session, listed policies requiring that a public forum be held before publicly-owned parcels are developed, and that responses to RFPs be presented at an open meeting, among others.

Several board members thought that a consensus had been reached to approve the policies, while the majority thought there was still more to discuss. It all ended in a 4-3 vote, and has not been re-visited since.

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