Dust up over Oak Park zoning rewrite

Top staff resent trustee's implication of 'inappropriate' changes

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

Debate became heated Sept. 5 at the Oak Park Board of Trustees meeting, where officials confirmed that a rewrite of the village zoning code still requires a two-thirds majority vote to approve planned developments rejected by the village's Plan Commission.

The issue was brought up by Trustee Simone Boutet, who noticed that the rewrite of the zoning ordinance had removed language stating that if the Plan Commission, which is tasked with reviewing planned developments, rejects a proposal, then the board of trustees must achieve a 5-2 majority vote to override the commission.

Village Manager Cara Pavlicek and Tammie Grossman, Oak Park's director of development customer services, both said the removal of the language was intended as a technical cleanup, because the language was duplicative and already required under the special use provision of the village statute.

Paul Stephanides, the village's attorney, also confirmed at the meeting that the two-thirds majority provision is required under state law and could not be changed at the municipal level.

The issue is relevant to the controversial proposal by Albion Residential, which wants to build an 18-story residential tower at the corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue. The Plan Commission rejected the proposal earlier this month, putting the proposal in jeopardy.

"At the end of the day, I think it's important to recognize, or at least for us to reiterate, that the two-thirds supermajority has never been totally removed from this zoning ordinance," Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb said at the meeting. "It was packaged a little different. Some people may feel that it is not as clear to them, and so the whole idea here is to duplicate it in another paragraph and make sure it is crystal clear."

Abu-Taleb said that no one at the village was trying to "pull a fast one" on the community. He argued that those concerned about the removal of the language should have contacted village staff for clarification before making accusations.

"I think the village manager deserves candid feedback from the board members, so we don't have to go through all this distrust between neighbors," he said.

Boutet said the proposed change was never presented to the Plan Commission or the trustees, adding that it "would have been a significant major impact on a highly controversial development in our town."

"I think we're making excuses and these are the kind of excuses that are resulting in people in the community saying they don't trust this board, because the excuses that are given are not credible, and I have a big problem with that," Boutet said.

Grossman defended the proposed change in language, reminding Boutet that it would have no effect on the two-thirds majority rule.

"I was the project manager of the zoning ordinance, and Simone, I've known you for a very long time and I don't think anybody can ever attack my integrity or honesty in my level of responsibility," Grossman said. "And when I tell you that we believed that this provision was in the special use section, that was our belief and that's exactly the truth, and I resent your accusing me of doing something inappropriate."

Boutet called the proposed change "suspicious" and restated that the village staff failed to report the proposed change.

Other trustees voiced support for Grossman, but Trustee Andrea Button warned that the village should be up front about these kinds of changes because of the atmosphere of distrust with government at all levels.

"Tammie, I have the highest respect for you and your work, and I believe you operate with integrity," Button said, adding that village staff needs to be "very, very careful" when it comes to transparency.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Craig Williams  

Posted: September 15th, 2017 2:56 PM

Yes Bridgett, I watched the meeting. I won't disagree with you on the content of the memo as a good detailed response and I will instead clarify that in my interpretation of the first sentence in her memo I think she could have written it differently. I'm probably completely wrong but I took her first paragraph of the memo as not letting it go. This is entirely my own opinion and i'm sure you and others will disagree.

Bridgett Baron  

Posted: September 15th, 2017 1:07 PM

Craig, Did you watch the 3 hour and 6 minute meeting? I did. And when you have a Trustee questioning the integrity of the process, when you have other Trustees feeling the need to publicly come to a staff member's defense, when you have people at the meeting, including trustees (as you see Trustee Button quote at the end of this story) and over social media wanting more transparency, why would you come to the conclusion that a staff member wrote the memo as if she were some petulant child? The process was being called in to question. And the *way* it was called in to question demanded a thorough, detailed response. There is now an 87-page attachment to that memo, for anyone who wants to examine the process.

Craig Williams  

Posted: September 15th, 2017 11:28 AM

Interesting update to this. Looks like Tammie couldn't let it go, so she had to write a memo in response to recent statements regarding a lack of attention, that's included in Monday's 9/18 reading of the the zoning ordinance.

Leonard Grossman  

Posted: September 13th, 2017 7:58 PM

When a Trustee learns of an item in the agenda only a few days before a Council meeting and discovers a "discrepancy" in language in a huge document it is not unreasonable to call it to the public's attention as soon as possible. If you saw the way the change in the height limit of some parcels from 80 ft. to 125 ft was bulldozed through at the same meeting you realize it is necessary to make the public aware of problems as efficiently as possible. Facebook is one way to do that. One cannot control the nature of comments to one's post. Trustee Boutet is not responsible for the ire reflected in some of those comments. Don't blame the messenger. Trustee Boutet has handled herself with grace under fire. The whithering disdain with which The President who would be Mayor ignored her, storming over her questions later in the evening was shameful. Put the blame where it is. It is not unlikely that if she had not publicly raised the issue, the questionable omission would have been retained in the Planned Development section of the ordinance. And we might not know what interpretation would be given until the night the Albion proposal comes up for consideration, when could be too change.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: September 13th, 2017 4:23 PM

Interesting that you bring up decorum at the board table. Brian. I'm sure you are aware that a ;lack of civility and boorish behavior exhibited by the Village president has been brought up by other trustees in private and public meetings. Despite assurances that he will change, there hasn't been any noticeable difference.change in his interactions with board members. Constant interruptions and attempts to limit discussions remain a problem.

Brian Souders  

Posted: September 13th, 2017 2:30 PM

Jim, mistakes can be made - even by highly paid consultants. It's easy to do with several electronic versions. I'm glad you agree with me that "speculating intent does a disservice." It seems Trustee Boutet and all the commenters on her public post speculated the intent here was a conspiracy, not an error. My point is: bring it up internally to see if there's a simple explanation before publicly questioning the integrity of fellow policy makers and those we count on to implement the policies. I'm confined to you and I want the same result here, Jim. I would just like to get it with less scorched earth and more decorum.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: September 13th, 2017 2:19 PM

Village Hall does have experts, including a paid consultant, who should be capable of analyzing the contents of complex documents. How did they miss this "clerical error", Brian? This would have been significant change in the approval process and certainly deserved exceptional scrutiny by the consultant, project manager, Village manager and Village attorney. Speculating on intent is disservice without knowing all the facts. That's information yet to be shared with the community.

Brian Souders  

Posted: September 13th, 2017 2:01 PM

Obviously, there was a discrepancy in the formatting of the document. I'm neither a legal or goverment process expert, but I've seen how complex documents can develop errors in their evolution. Part of the process is to find and eliminate them. But I don't think that's what Trustee Boutet's intention was here. When she found the discrepancy, it seems she went right to Facebook to publicly rile up the the anti-Albion and anti-Anan crowd. I know my Facebook feed included reposts of her comments with additions like "That dirty Anan! He's at it again! I hate that guy!" Shoot-first-ask-questions-later moves like this don't just affect the people I mentioned, but erodes trust in local government in general ?" do we really want every possible clerical error whipped into a conspiracy? And I know if I worked in Village Hall and saw how this went down, I would be reluctant to cooperate enthusuastically with Boutet on any issue moving forward. Is that how we want our government operating? Next time, ask questions of the staff and notify fellow board members, THEN if you don't get sufficient answers, go public.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: September 13th, 2017 1:59 PM

The onus was on the Village Manager to contact the trustees and members of the Plan commission once she realized there might be an issue with the removal of the language. Of course, if she hadn't read the document prior to submitting it for board approval; that's another story. And one that still needs to be told.

Leonard Grossman  

Posted: September 13th, 2017 12:43 PM

The idea that a simple call to the Village Manager could have clarified the matter is absurd, not because of any failure on her part. The language of the proposed amendment was inconsistent. She could only rely on interpretations of the Village attorney. Paragraphs 14.1 and 14.2 of the amendment explicitly included the supermajority language. But the paragraph expressly referring to "Planned Developments" did not. If the language needed to be repeated in the first two paragraphs, why would it have been duplicative to repeat it in a third? Cannons of constructions would look to the lack of parallel language to infer that the 2/3 requirement was not applicable to planned developments. Certainly, it remained open to interpretation at best and it was completely reasonable for trustees to insist that the language be clarified to avoid the need for interpretation. Note: The article does not mention that the Trustees voted to amend section 4.5

Leonard Grossman  

Posted: September 13th, 2017 12:28 PM

The relevant section of the Illinois code(65 ILCS 5/11-13-1.1) provides: "In addition, any proposed special use which fails to receive the approval of the commission or committee designated by the corporate authorities to hold the public hearing shall not be approved by the corporate authorities except by a favorable majority vote of all aldermen, commissioners or trustees of the municipality then holding office; however, the corporate authorities may by ordinance increase the vote requirement to two-thirds of all aldermen, commissioners or trustees of the municipality then holding office. (Source: P.A. 97-336, eff. 8-12-11.)

Rolando Palacios  

Posted: September 13th, 2017 10:38 AM

This is confusing. The article states "Paul Stephanides, the village's attorney, also confirmed at the meeting that the two-thirds majority provision is required under state law and could not be changed at the municipal level." Simone's comment contradicts that: "The law does NOT state that a supermajority is required." They can't both be correct. Tim Inklebarger, which is it?

Simone Boutet  

Posted: September 12th, 2017 8:23 PM

Two quick points. The law does NOT state that a supermajority is required. This is an error in the reporting. The law states it is a majority unless a specific ordinance is adopted. That is why this was a big deal. Second point, this is not and never was about Tammie.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: September 12th, 2017 8:12 PM

It does raise questions when the only "simple paperwork error" involves such a critical requirement, Brian. I'm not looking to pounce on those who should have been more careful. Residents should be grateful that one of our elected officials did catch the "error" and asked for an explanation. That's how transparency and accountability works.

Brian Souders from Oak Park  

Posted: September 12th, 2017 5:25 PM

But Jim, you seem to be a village hammer looking for a nail here. Law states that you need a supermajority to override the zonign board, so it doesn't matter what was in the doc to the Trustees ?" there needs to be a supermajority. I agree they need to look at their paperwork flow and certainly transparency. But does going public before asking village staff about this change (that appears to be a simple paperwork format error) increase transparency or trust in public government?

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: September 12th, 2017 5:01 PM

Village Hall has not been forthcoming with answers, Brian. What you describe as a "minor paperwork change" could have significant impact in the future. So, why make the change at all? Did this all come about without any input from the consultant or was it in response at an official request? Ms. Grossman took the heat but it seems unlikely she alone made that decision. I believe the trustee was correct to alert board members and residents to a procedural change that had not previously reviewed by the trustees or members of the Plan commission. Her actions certainly are not the cause of a perceived erosion of public trust in government. You are right about getting answers but there are questions that still need to asked and addressed. Transparency and accountability have long been promised but to date there's been little progress on promoting those values.

Brian Souders  

Posted: September 12th, 2017 4:30 PM

Jim, how about getting answers before going public with your doubts on the integrity of fellow trustees and village staff? This sounds like A) this was a minor paperwork format change B) state law says there needs to be a supermajority - a law a lot of those crying malfeasance didn't (but should) know. In this case, Trustee Boutet could have made a quick phone call to village staff and received an answer before needlessly eroding people's trust in government with her Facebook post.

Steve Kelley from Oak Park  

Posted: September 12th, 2017 4:18 PM

Thank you, Simone Boutet, for bringing this issue out into the open.

Charlie Kohler from Oak Park  

Posted: September 12th, 2017 2:16 PM

Anyone who deals with Village Hall knows that Tammie Grossman deals in nothing but excuses and slight of hand. Suspicious is the best word to describe her work. Here is another example: http://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/5-12-2017/Family-displaced-by-fire-says-Oak-Park-made-rebuilding-frustrating/

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: September 12th, 2017 10:27 AM

How about some answers first, Phillip? The only "mistake" discovered in an important document relates to changing the rule that involves overriding a Plan commission decision. It was the Village Manager who allowed the legal document to be presented to the trustees. Oak Park hired a highly paid consultant to revise our local zoning ordinances.and she has offered her views and shared expertise on a number of occasions. Did she have any input regarding the "mistake"? Seems strange that the Village attorney and two trustees who are lawyers didn't catch the "mistake". I doubt any of them would say they needed "help reading and understanding".

Phillip Maggio  

Posted: September 12th, 2017 9:51 AM

So when does Boutet plan to apologize for making and publicizing an accusation that is untrue? The Zoning Ordinance is a legal document many might need help reading and understanding, so it isn't really anything to be ashamed of. She should admit her mistake and move on, instead of letting this inflame public sentiment. He response to a clear explanation of facts is to claim it's "suspicious"? Bad form

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: September 11th, 2017 5:47 PM

What role did the Village's paid consultant have in the "omission"? It should be noted that she was not asked to speak on the matter during the meeting. Did the Village Manager and other staff members review the document prior to it being submitted to the board for approval? If the community determines that our elected officials cannot be trusted how will government effectively function? Now is the time for leadership at the board table. Abu-Taleb and his rubber stamps must promote transparency, accountability and civility if they expect staff to do the same.

Judith Alexander from Oak Park  

Posted: September 11th, 2017 3:40 PM

The North Avenue District was also surprised at the change in description of secondhand dealers. A previous draft of the new zoning code specifically excluded pawnshops from this definition. Pawnshops are no longer a permitted/special use in Oak Park. But our district is stuck with 3 of them (grandfathered because they were operating before the zoning code change). We requested that they once again be specifically excluded, which the board directed staff to do. Many thanks to Trustee Tucker and the entire board for their support on this and a further tightening of the "massage services" definition.

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