Oak Park voters will pick three new village trustees in less than a week, and a controversial proposal to build an 18-story building at the corner of Lake and Forest has become a focal point of the race.
Challengers Deno Andrews, Dan Moroney and Simone Boutet have publicly stated their opposition to a zoning change necessary for Albion Residential to build the structure taller than the eight stories allowed under the existing zoning ordinance.
But incumbent trustee candidates Peter Barber and Glenn Brewer have been non-committal, both stating that it is the job of trustees to hear the developer's proposal before casting judgment.
Some candidates got a jump on the debate in late January, when they attended a public open-house meeting at the 19th Century Club where Albion first presented the project to the public.
That's because sitting trustees received a memo from Village Attorney Paul Stephanides telling them that attending the meeting would be considered an inappropriate "ex parte communication" with the developer.
Ex parte communication is a legal term more commonly applied to judges speaking to people involved in a court case – attorneys, clients and others – outside the confines of the court room. The idea is to prevent judges and officials from making backroom deals.
Incumbents have faced charges from some voters that they will rubber stamp the zoning change and were criticized for failing to attend the important meeting where challengers freely told voters they would oppose the project.
Brewer, who is running for a third term as trustee, said in a telephone interview that it is the first time on the board he can remember receiving a letter about ex parte communication.
He said the Stephanides letter was prompted by a question from former trustee Adam Salzman, who had been asked by constituents if the meeting was being held by the village or the developer.
"Since [Salzman] asked that question, the attorney thought it would be in the best interest to make clear that it was not [a village-sponsored] meeting," Brewer said, adding that Stephanides responded not just to Salzman but to all trustees, reminding them that they are encouraged to not attend such meetings due to the issue concerning ex parte communication.
Brewer said he and Barber have gotten emails and questions from constituents wondering why they didn't attend.
"It's on the advice of our attorney that we thought it would be inappropriate to be there," he said he tells them.
But why is it inappropriate for trustees to attend a public meeting that involves a potential future development that would have a long-lasting effect on the village. Village Trustee Colette Lueck says it's partly a perception issue.
Lueck said it was the first time in her tenure as trustee that she's been given such direction to not attend a meeting because of the potential for ex parte communication with a developer. But she added that she believes the memo from Stephanides was appropriate.
"The goal is to have a fair process because both sides of the issue know the lines of communication and how it works," she said. "Once you step outside that, it's not fair to the other side. Maybe you have access to information that they don't."
She said it's a "slippery slope" between attending such a meeting and participating, adding that stepping out of the process can "open the door for being accused of backroom deals."
Village Manager Cara Pavlicek declined to discuss how often memos concerning ex parte communication have been sent to trustees and declined to release a copy of the memo sent by Stephanides, citing attorney-client privilege on both matters. The village also did not immediately respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for the memo.
Pavlicek said the dynamic created by public meetings trustees are encouraged to avoid creates a dilemma for the elected officials because if they skip the meeting they'll be criticized by the public but if they go they'll be pressured to say whether they support the project.
"How can they say if nothing has been [formally] put forward [by the developer]?" she asked.
Answer Book 2019
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