After serving only a few months as chair, Iris Sims abruptly resigned from Oak Park’s Plan Commission during its Dec. 16 meeting. Sims, the sole female commissioner, implied the commission was sexist in the lead up to her sudden resignation, after refusing to entertain suggestions made by her fellow commissioners.

“I move to resign. Have fun,” Sims told commissioners. “I’m out.”

Her resignation came in the middle of a public hearing regarding the proposed apartment complex slated for 261 Washington Blvd. proposed by Ambrosia Homes Inc., whose representatives witnessed Sims’s surprising departure. 

Located in the Ridgeland-Oak Park Historic District, the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) endorsed the project prior to its hearing with the Plan Commission. Commissioner Jeff Clark called it a “miss” that the HPC did not identify the building’s narrow setback.

“This is a historic district, and this is a pretty big issue,” he said.

Sims countered Clark’s concern by saying the commission’s guiding principles do not give the Plan Commission authority to make decisions on projects based on how they would fit into historic districts. 

 “I think it would set a horrible precedent because it’s outside of the bailiwick of things that govern our decisions,” said Sims.

“Can I just say that I disagree with that?” said Clark.

To which Sims replied, “I’m speaking.”

Sims continued to shut down commissioners’ attempts to express their unhappiness with the materials used as the building’s façade material. At one point, Sims asked the commission’s attorney to comment on commissioners having the ability to “create their own rules.”

The debate over the role of the commission continued throughout the hearing. Sims held firm to her strict interpretation of the commission’s authority, believing it cannot make decisions on projects based on how they would fit into historic districts or direct developers to make aesthetic changes.

Comparing herself to the country’s vice president-elect Kamala Harris, Sims expressed her frustration for what she perceived as being constantly interrupted by other commissioners. 

Commissioner Paul May said he respected Sims for trying to keep the commission on task, but commissioners have the ability, based on the ordinance under which it was created, to “provide opinions as to whether something meets the standard of enhancing the community, enhancing the neighborhood.” 

While May did not find the building’s appearance of concern, he stated he still wanted to hear out the commissioners who did, and that the community relied on the commission to have those discussions.

“No one is suggesting that there’s any sort of censorship going on,” said Sims, who added she felt some of those types of conversations were  productive.

“What I’m saying is none of us, no commissioner, not me, has the right to tell a developer that they have to use a singular material based on that person’s assessment of a given neighborhood.”

Commissioner Lawrence Brozek said he was still struggling with how the building would fit into the historic district and cited a particular item within the Plan Commission’s charter that backed up his desire to have the developer address those concerns. 

“‘Buildings should be complementary to the character of the surrounding community,'” Brozek quoted. 

In Brozek’s four years on the commission, he said commissioners have given developers recommendations to alter the appearance of proposed buildings.

This appeared to further frustrate Sims, who replied, “Larry, we’ve done all of that and I’ve said all of that. I’m not really sure what you’re driving at, honestly, really.”

Village Planner Craig Failor suggested asking Ambrosia Homes whether they would be willing to consider an all-brick façade for the side facing Washington Boulevard to satisfy appearance concerns. 

“I don’t think we ask the applicant to do that or not. This is Larry’s opinion. He’s one person. He has a right to vote against if he doesn’t like it,” Sims said. 

Commissioner Jon Hale then suggested Brozek make a motion to have the commission vote on recommending Ambrosia Homes make aesthetic changes to its façade.

“At the same time, I would not be voting in favor of that,” said Hale. 

But putting it up for a vote would allow the commission an opportunity to square away the issue once and for all in a very transparent manner, said Hale.

Sims did not take kindly to Hale’s suggestion or the reasoning behind it. 

“There is nothing that we’re doing that is not transparent; there is nothing that is not above board,” said Sims. 

Hale interrupted Sims to apologize, saying, “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have said it that way.”

Sims’ frustration appeared to reach a fever pitch when Commissioner Nick Bridge said he wanted to hear what the applicant thought of changing the appearance. 

“Nick, excuse me, hello!” said Sims. “I realize that it’s highly unusual to have a woman chair this commission, but here’s the thing, I’m the chair.”

While Sims replaced a man, David Mann, as chair of the Plan Commission, the commission has had multiple female chairs, most recently Mann’s predecessor Linda Bolte. As chair, Bolte succeeded Colette Lueck, who in turn succeeded Carolyn West. 

Sims incorrectly said that commissioners voted to name her chair, which is decidedly not in the commission’s purview. Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb appointed Sims chair.

“If you want to vote me out, you can do it, but you’re not just going to take over and decide how we’re going to do things or not do things because you feel like it,” Sims told commissioners before leaving the virtual meeting.

Without Sims, the commission voted 6-2 to recommend the village board approve the project, with Clark and Brozek voting no.

Wednesday Journal has reached out unsuccessfully to Sims for comment.

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