Oak Park trustees warned to avoid Albion meeting

Village attorney sends reminder about communication with developers

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

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.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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Reader Comments

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Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: April 3rd, 2017 4:26 PM

Adrian - I have a feeling Anan, and whomever shuffles in his shadows, feel they want to create a "developer-friendly village". Which I take to mean - we are going to get them in now to cherry pick some primo spots and not give them a hard time. We'll make this easy for them. Then when developers see they can come in and basically build anything they desire from their list of cookie cutter and cost effective design plans, they'll come running. I agree with whomever said if "I wanted to live at North and Clybourn I would." I am so happy to see their are many people who feel more thought needs to be put into the master plan of our community.

Adrian Ayres Fisher  

Posted: April 3rd, 2017 1:21 PM

"...expanding development to Madison St., and then on to North Ave. and Roosevelt Rd." Exactly right. Also, another good area for (smart) Transit Oriented Development would be along the Ike near the Blue Line. The Green Line doesn't help Rush Hospital and UIC employees, among others. Why is that area being neglected? Why not strengthen the south Oak Park Ave. district?

Adrian Ayres Fisher  

Posted: April 3rd, 2017 1:15 PM

And, the planning commission meeting has been cancelled for the second time in a row, denying citizens the opportunity to comment on the Albion project.

George Irving Thompson from Oak Park  

Posted: April 2nd, 2017 8:31 PM

The village attorney's recommendation fails the common sense test. How can it be inappropriate for a trustee to attend a public meeting on an issue of interest to the public. Now I would agree if the Trustee took part in the presentation but mere attendance seems perfectly acceptable to me. The Trustee might be warned not be be committal or to have private discussions with the developer, but being warned not to attend seems ridiculous and over the top. The very nature of being a public official requires interaction with the public at public events. The fact that this presentation is from a single developer does nothing to reduce the fact it is open to the public. Certainly other developers could have similar events. Attending any and all would make a trustee more knowledgeable and provide the opportunity for feedback informally from the public. The recommendation seems way over the top to me.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: March 31st, 2017 4:08 AM

Someone cue the organist.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: March 30th, 2017 11:12 AM

If you cannot make decisions without input from developers, you might as well leave the board.

Barbara Joan  

Posted: March 29th, 2017 8:57 AM

" I'm focused on expanding development to Madison St., and then on to North Ave. and Roosevelt Rd "..AGREE with this thinking. Lawyers-Consultants-TIF $ to private developers-Backroom deals--that ship sailed long ago.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: March 28th, 2017 11:28 PM

Let me get this straight. Abu-Taleb, in his capacity as a member of OPEDC,meets with a developer, but has since had no further contact with Albion while serving in an official position of Village President. So when did he decide that anyone who opposes the tower is "not in their right minds"? That must have been one heckuva sales pitch he got. Sounds like there are no open lines of communication with the community or any attempt at fair process.

Peter Barber from Oak Park  

Posted: March 28th, 2017 11:19 PM

As I've shared during several public forums, I think we have enough high rise development already in place for downtown Oak Park and I'm focused on expanding development to Madison St., and then on to North Ave. and Roosevelt Rd. With regard to the proposed Albion development, I plan to vote against any proposal that risks harming Austin Gardens or that creates additional frustration for the neighbors in the area.

Laura K. Stamp from Oak park  

Posted: March 28th, 2017 5:05 PM

According to a previous article (http://mobile.oakpark.com/News/Articles/1-17-2017/New-tower-planned-for-downtown-Oak-Park/), Mayor Abu Taleb and John Lynch were already talking to the developers as members of the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation. Peter Barber is also a member of the board of that organization. So it's difficult to know exactly where the "no communication" line would be drawn.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: March 28th, 2017 3:36 PM

Was Abu-Taleb also advised not to meet privately with the developers?

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