The floor demolition saga at Pleasant Home feels scandalous. Oak Park isn’t used to scandal involving governing bodies. Scandal smacks of corruption.

This scandal doesn’t feel like corruption, though. What it feels like is a failure of our network of oversight, accountability and openness, which is at the heart of better-than-average governance, something Oak Parkers have long taken pride in.

When the Park District of Oak Park tore up the floor boards and tossed them into a dumpster at Pleasant Home, a historic building and public treasure under park stewardship since 1939, they violated the public trust. Pleasant Home is more than theirs to do with as they wish, even though, technically, they “own” it. All of us, in some sense, “own” this village’s historical legacy and its public treasures.

A full accounting of their decision and the actions that followed has not yet taken place, but the administration and the park district board owe us an explanation, and the public must demand that accounting. If we don’t demand it, then the public, too, is part of this failure of stewardship.

The Pleasant Home Foundation, the nonprofit charged with fundraising and restoring what is often called architect George Maher’s “masterpiece,” claims that the park district was not clear about their intent to rip out the floor and replace it with a new one. It’s a little hard to believe they could be caught completely unaware and were unable to raise the alarm, but if that’s the case, part of this lapse lies in a lack of communication between the foundation and the park district.

The park district says they weren’t hiding anything, that it was part of the budgeted plan, which the park board, presumably, would have to approve. If that’s the case, then the board of trustees came up short because it’s their job to provide oversight and raise questions. A plan to replace Pleasant Home’s floor should have raised questions, not to mention red flags.

The park district and park board may not have been acting “in secret,” but they certainly weren’t acting as if they understood the preservation implications. If the building is historic, so is its floor. Was it truly un-restorable? Who made that determination? The foundation said it was not consulted. If that’s true, it means the park district made the decision unilaterally.

I hope this wasn’t a case of, “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.” Were they afraid they wouldn’t get permission from preservation experts? They should have been far more worried that they won’t get forgiveness from the public.

Violating the public trust is not a smart strategy when you’re hoping to move forward with an ambitious and expensive project like the CRC (Community Recreation Center), the kind of project that needs significant taxpayer buy-in. The park district may not have been acting deceitfully (still to be determined), but they certainly weren’t acting with transparent openness.

To say the least, they have some explaining to do.

Jan Arnold is the obvious person for this task, as are the board members. Governing boards in some municipalities are guilty of being overly complacent and compliant. Rather than governing, they let their one and only employee, the administrative executive, govern them instead.

So Arnold is on the hot seat. Based on past experience, I’m fairly certain that Arnold’s predecessor, Gary Balling, would not have allowed this to take place without a full public airing first.

Speaking of which, your local newspaper also shoulders a portion of the blame. We paid much closer attention to park board governance in the past, before the economic downturn forced us to become lean to the point of bare-bones understaffed. As a result, our role as watchdog of local government has suffered. We sometimes had to rely on the public bringing issues like this to our attention before we could report on them.

If a community expects good governance — and it should — openness and transparency are essential. In this instance, the network failed. This case is bad enough, but it can serve as a wake-up call. We are clearly more vulnerable than we thought. And if this happened, then even worse can happen — with other public treasures and with other bodies of government.

The system is currently working — better at least — over at the high school, where a small group of citizens has pressed for more openness and accountability, which improved our reporting on the far bigger and more expensive Imagine OPRF renovation project. Hopefully that, in turn, will lead to a better outcome in the long run.

Public trust is a difficult thing to earn and, once violated, is even more difficult to regain.

The ball is now in the park district’s court.

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