Round three of the OPRF lights saga just began, as the high school applies for a special-use permit to put up large light standards to illuminate the stadium and allow for night games and practices. As we have opined many times, this is potentially a very good thing for the community, but the NIMBY neighbors who oppose it have been fighting it tooth-and-nail for a very long time and if they lose this round, you can bet they’ll take it to court for round four.
This battle has been going on longer than the one in Iraq or Afghanistan. It started in 2001.
Round one, long and protracted, involved the high school holding public forums during which the neighbors got to present their case against lights. The District 200 board voted to approve lights anyway.
After a long delay, the high school applied to the village’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for a zoning variance that would allow the installation of the light standards. The neighbors presented their case again. The hearings dragged on for months, the sessions sometimes lasting till after . The ZBA has seven members and by state statute, needs four votes to approve something (decisions are binding). But one member recused herself because her firm had done work with OPRF High School. Another member was frequently absent. After many delays, the ZBA finally returned a 3-3 vote, the tie going to the neighbors.
The high school then decided to go for round three, taking their case to the Oak Park Plan Commission, requesting a special-use permit this time.
The plan commission has nine members, so state statute requires a majority of five votes for approval. But at present, the plan commission has one vacancy, so they started with eight members. Five votes are still required to approve.
Then at the first hearing last week, the neighbors protested the presence of one member who happens to be a part-time IHSA track official (that is, he occasionally officiates track meets, presumably once in a while at OPRF). That’s a conflict of interest, the neighbors complained.
I thought sports officials were, by definition, impartial. If Vic Guarino is capable of officiating at OPRF without being biased, then he can certainly deliver an objective vote on a special-use permit. The neighbors’ objection is completely illogical, but the plan commission caved and ejected him from the proceedings. Presumably, that should disqualify all the rest of the commissioners because they, too, must have some connection to local sports. The OPRF track team, by the way, would in no way benefit from stadium lights.
So the plan commission was now down to seven members, but they still need five votes to approve.
Another member wasn’t present at the hearing last week because of a serious medical situation in the family, so that commissioner will most likely not take part in these deliberations, according to commission Chair Linda Bolte.
And then there were six. Five votes still needed.
Only five members were actually present at the first session last week because Commissioner David Sokol couldn’t make the meeting. Bolte doesn’t see a problem with his participation, but she doesn’t know for sure. He is, after all, the husband of Oak Park Village Clerk Sandra Sokol, and the neighbors will no doubt find that objectionable as well.
If he’s eliminated, that brings the commission down to five, meaning a unanimous vote is required for approval.
And that’s not all. One of the remaining members actually lives on the 300 block of Linden, just north of the stadium. The neighbors didn’t object to his presence (surprise, surprise) and neither did the high school (God knows why), so he remains to pass judgment. But, presumably, he knows most of the neighbors who are objecting. They may well be his friends. He may have personal objections based on living close by. If there was ever a case of conflict of interest, this is it, but he remains involved.
Kafka would have loved this.
Obviously a negative vote on this special-use permit is a foregone conclusion. The best thingthe plan commission can do, therefore, is vote quickly and get it over with, then pass on their highly tainted negative recommendation to the village board (the decision is advisory, fortunately, not binding). Let’s hope the trustees recognize how ridiculous this whole process has been and overturn the commission’s recommendation.
Then the board needs to start re-examining this highly flawed citizen commission process. The ZBA and plan commission are critical to how this village conducts its affairs, but the rules make it almost impossible to deliver fair or even credible judgments.
The situation is appalling and needs to be changed.
Read Ken Trainor’s blog, Just Wandering, most Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at WednesdayJournalOnline.com.