The Oak Park village board returned with a bang to its regularly scheduled Monday night meetings after a two-week hiatus. The discussion over whether the village should purchase a self-cleaning portable restroom for an undecided downtown location became an argument over the differing political ideals of two veteran trustees versus two trustees early into their second year on the board.
“This is honestly about the dignity of human life,” said Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, now in the last year of her four-year term.
The potential restroom could be the fully automated two-cubicle Jupiter model manufactured by EXEloo, a company that specializes in hygienic and safe public toilets. The commode has a quoted cost of $181,300 with an estimated delivery charge of $5,000. The village also received a quote from The Portland Loo for a single-occupant toilet costing $130,000. With its many associated costs, including $1,500 for a handwashing basin, the Portland Loo model comes out to an estimated total price of just under a half a million dollars.
Village staff recommended using Community Development Block Grant money to pay for the restrooms, rather than the previous recommendation to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds. The village board was widely in favor of using CDBG funds, however, Trustee Ravi Parakkat believed the ongoing maintenance costs of the restroom were not “fully represented” as they are not eligible to be paid for through CDBG. Those expenses would be accounted for in the village’s general revenue fund. Parakkat said the long-term costs of the latrine would make Oak Park too expensive for residents, particularly older adults, to live in.
“This is exactly the trend that will push them out of the community,” said Parakkat, who completed his first year on the board last month.
Parakkat offered staff further critique by questioning the lack of “measurements of success” for the restroom included in the board’s materials. His desire for a quantifiable restroom success scale left other board members scratching their heads.
“I don’t know what the success metrics for this are – how many people go pee in a bathroom?” Walker-Peddakotla said. “That’s just a wild question to me.”
This viewpoint was shared by Trustee Susan Buchanan, also in the last year of her four-year term. Buchanan called the idea of metrics “ridiculous.”
The public restroom initiative, according to Development Customer Services Director Tammie Grossman, is a collaboration between the village, police and the Oak Park Homeless Coalition. The efforts were prompted by the dearth of restroom access caused by the COVID-19 shutdown.
“That actually has not improved that much, but there is a little bit better access to bathroom facilities in the downtown area,” said Grossman.
Walker-Peddakotla and Buchanan were again united in their mutual belief that public restrooms offer all people, regardless of their housing situation, the chance to relieve themselves in a private, civilized manner. They were also unequivocally opposed to the idea that public restrooms could present a threat to community safety – a concern held by Trustee Lucia Robinson, who, like Parakkat, is fresh into her second year on the board.
In researching the agenda item, Robinson said some of what she “read online caused concerns,” naming the potential for “increased criminal activity,” which Robinson said ultimately led to “some communities” removing the restrooms. By increased crime, Robinson meant illegal drug use.
Robinson continued to use the experiences of “other cities” and “other communities” that had public restrooms and removed them to emphasize her point. She did not name specific cities she had researched.
Oversight of the restroom was important to both Robinson and Trustee Jim Taglia, but for different reasons. While Taglia wanted to discuss supervision to prevent overdose deaths, Robinson’s fears were more rooted in the effects of the restroom on the neighborhood, inquiring how close the restroom would be to local businesses and condos.
She asked Grossman if the restroom’s estimated yearly maintenance cost of $12,000 covered “increased police patrols,” a measure she said would help feel her “reassured” considering the restroom would be open for use at all times.
Walker-Peddakotla believed extra policing unnecessary, arguing that downtown Oak Park is already heavily patrolled. Providing a public restroom, she said, “was just the right thing to do.”
A disagreement broke out between Robinson and Walker-Peddakotla with each speaking loudly at each other. Losing her temper, Robinson snapped, “You’re not going to talk over me,” at Walker-Peddakotla, who accused Robinson of “cherry picking data.”
The two only stopped arguing after Village President Vicki Scaman, who is involved with the Homelessness Coalition, banged a makeshift gavel. The board directed staff to complete the paperwork to get approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to use CDBG funds for the restroom.