The Oak Park Ethics Committee ruled to dismiss a complaint from an Oak Park resident who says Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb violated ethics and conflict-of-interest ordinances over a proposed development at Madison Street and Oak Park Avenue.
Oak Park resident Chris Donovan, who has opposed the development, says the mayor acted inappropriately in his communications with executives of Jupiter Realty, which was chosen as the preferred developer for the project.
Abu-Taleb recused himself from the deliberations of the Ethics Committee, which is made up of the remaining members of the Oak Park Board of Trustees. Donovan on Dec. 28 had filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court to force the local Ethics Committee to hear the complaint.
Simone Boutet was the sole dissenting vote to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the committee should rule against the complaint, rather than dismissing it.
Donovan voiced a number of complaints against the mayor at the hearing, noting he believes Abu-Taleb engaged in “ex parte communication” with the developer. The term became part of the board’s vernacular last year, when Village Attorney Paul Stephanides warned trustees to not attend a public meeting held by another developer, Albion Residential, on its proposal for a high-rise building in downtown Oak Park.
Wednesday Journal filed a Freedom of Information Act request for that letter from the village attorney last year but the village rejected the request, saying the document does not have to be released because of attorney client privilege.
Donovan argued that meetings held with the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC) – Abu-Taleb serves as a voting member on that board – and Jupiter also would constitute ex parte communication.
The OPEDC is a quasi-governmental nonprofit that contracts with the village to attract and retain business development in Oak Park. It is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests for documents concerning the Jupiter development.
Donovan also argued that the mayor has held private meetings with residents, Jupiter executives and OPEDC members in 2017.
“Those meetings were not made public, and the contents of those meetings are still not part of the record,” Donovan said.
“When those meetings did become public knowledge the village president cancelled future meetings. That was about the same time the village attorney issued his warning about ex parte communications with Albion. Coincidence? I think not,” Donovan said.
Donovan said his lawsuit goes to trial in Cook County Circuit Court on March 12, although it is unclear whether the lawsuit is moot, considering the Ethics Committee’s ruling to dismiss.
Donovan said in a telephone interview following the Ethics Committee hearing that he has filed a Freedom of Information Act Request for the letter from the village attorney to trustees directing them to not attend the Albion meeting.
Donovan said if the village responds to his FOIA request, he might drop the lawsuit. If the village rejects the FOIA, however, Donovan said he might amend his complaint to try to force Oak Park to release the letter.
Following Donovan’s testimony before the Ethics Committee on Jan. 16, Stephanides stated that nothing in the complaint violates any provision of the village code and recommended the Ethics Committee dismiss and deny the complaint.
Boutet said that nowhere in Donovan’s complaint is there an allegation that Abu-Taleb stands to gain anything personally from the proposed Jupiter development.
“I think there’s a lot more we can talk about with respect to transparency in the village and the way we do development, but I don’t think that conversation is appropriate when we’re strictly hearing this ethics complaint,” she said.
Trustee Jim Taglia noted that “the business of municipal government is competitive, and Oak Park needs an active and vigorous advocate to advance the village’s interests.
“The mayor understands this and takes his responsibility seriously.”
Taglia said he believes the complaint has “become somewhat of a personal issue” for Donovan and that Abu-Taleb has pursued interests in the village that are to the detriment of his own restaurant.
“Cooper’s Hawk [restaurant], for example, doesn’t help the mayor’s business, but he does what’s best for the village as a whole without fail,” Taglia said.
* This article was updated to include additional comments from Chris Donovan.