The Peckish Pig patio debate (RoundTable Aug. 28), and the recent revelation that the City is contemplating selling the Harley Clarke Mansion to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) rather than leasing it, share one comment element: a lack of transparency.
In the case of the Peckish Pig patio, the City, as landlord, built a patio for its tenant, the Peckish Pig, 623 Howard St. Many have pointed out, correctly, that improving property for a tenant can be a good thing. But since public money was involved, we feel the situation could have been handled differently. The City says that the cost of the patio – labor and materials – came under the $20,000 mark that triggers a need for Council approval. City officials also cited the need to complete the patio while the weather was still fine.
One problem with that argument is that the City controlled both labor and materials and could thus essentially set the value of the work done.
In contracting the job to itself, the City chose not to seek bids. Perhaps an Evanston contractor could have completed the job in a timely fashion for as much or even less money. The City is always touting local jobs and workforce development as a priority, but City officials circumvented the process by taking over the job.
We cannot blame people who now openly wonder how many times this has happened before, and whether this only came to light now because frequent City critic Junad Rizki happened to be driving down Howard Street on that particular Saturday.
The potential sale of the Harley Clarke mansion is disturbing, in part because many residents have long indicated a very vocal opposition to selling the property. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable that the City knew the state’s preference for purchase back in July, but the City kept it under wraps because many people were out of town over the summer.
We are told that in the July 28 executive session, Council members discussed only a price for the mansion. But how could Council members discuss a price for a piece of property if they had not talked about selling it? If the Council discussed selling the property, they should have done so in public. After that, a closed session to discuss the price would likely have been proper. It is difficult to believe that Council discussed a price for the mansion without someone’s raising the issue of whether it should be sold – and an ensuing discussion on the topic.
Given the sensitive nature of the Harley Clark decision, and a recent history of discussing things improperly in closed sessions – along with the debacle of the mysteriously destroyed recordings of one of those meetings – it is disappointing to see again the City’s lack of transparency.
Process is at play here as much as outcome. People will likely enjoy the Peckish Pig patio, and there is likely to be some public debate at the Sept. 22 City Council meetings. But these instances continue to erode the public trust in our elected and appointed City officials.
The City has won accolades for its website, and they allude to “transparency.” We think, however, that transparency in government is something greater than a website full of events and recordings. It is a climate of government.