A Cook County judge recently told OPRF High School and Oak Park Village Hall they should resolve their long-running dispute outside of court — to save money on legal bills.
For almost a year, the village and the high school have been battling in front of a judge. At issue is how much money village hall owes the high school in a dispute over tax increment financing dollars. A source with the high school claims the amount could hit $40 million over the course of the next decade, while the village says that number should be far lower.
To date, the two sides — plus Elementary School District 97, which was added to the lawsuit last year — have amassed more than $100,000 in legal bills. Jan. 31, Judge Peter Flynn suggested the three sides resolve their differences in front of a mediator, rather than in a courtroom.
Village Attorney Ray Heise said he agrees with the suggestion. While a mediator would still cost the three sides money, it would be far cheaper than a long-lasting lawsuit, he said.
"It certainly is a much more economical manner for local government entities to resolve disputes," Heise said. "The taxpayers who fund each and every one of these entities also fund their litigation."
The three governmental bodies have until March 1 to submit a letter to Judge Flynn, saying whether they want to resolve the dispute through a mediator. The village already submitted its letter on Feb. 3. Heise wrote that Oak Park "wholeheartedly" supports Flynn's idea.
District 200 board member John Allen said Friday that the high school had not yet decided whether it was interested in hiring a mediator. The board planned to meet in a closed session on Feb. 8 to discuss its options.
"We'll take it seriously," he said. "We're not just going to rule it out of hand, but we're not going to just sign in to it, either, until we figure out what our position is."
Both Allen and District 200 board President Dietra Millard could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning after the meeting. Chief Financial Officer Cheryl Witham did not return a phone call late Monday, while board member Ralph Lee deferred comment to Millard and Allen.
Village officials also noted that Flynn, again, dismissed count II of the high school's lawsuit, which claimed that village hall violated the state's TIF act. Dist. 200 also has the option of filing a third amended complaint against the village. Allen was unsure as of Friday whether the high school would take that option.
Village Manager Tom Barwin said the three sides continue to meet behind closed doors trying to reach a settlement. He hopes the lawsuit will run its course soon.
"In light of the judge's ruling, sending this off to mediation, I think that's where it should go next," he said.
Village President David Pope agreed.
"Rather than wasting taxpayer money and the court's time, being able to sit down and resolve this is certainly in everyone's interest," he said. "We've been wanting to do that for a year."