Not a single vote has been cast, but the Island Lake resident who led a grass-roots campaign to put an advisory referendum about a proposed building plan on the November ballot feels like he’s already won.
In the few weeks since Mark Beeson and a small group of allies started speaking to their neighbors and at village board meetings about burgeoning plans for a new municipal building, public awareness of the project has grown dramatically.
A pair of recent town hall-style meetings were packed with people asking questions about the project’s timeline, its financing and other elements. Village officials also began sharing information online.
“We’ve got the public involved now,” Beeson said. “The word is getting out, and it’s getting out strong.”
The question that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot asks people if the town should spend millions on “a combined public safety facility” — a phrase that appeared on early meeting agendas but no longer is used by Mayor Debbie Herrmann, trustees or their consultants.
Officials want to build the facility in Water Tower Park, which is on Route 176 at Newport Court. With an estimated base price of $4.9 million, the complex could house village offices, a police station, a community center and other services.
Village staffers and police now share a building on Greenleaf Avenue. The facility — a 57-year-old former school — also contains a preschool, a senior center and a gymnasium.
Officials are planning to borrow money without raising property taxes to pay for the project. That approach would bypass asking voters for approval.
Cutting residents out of the decision doesn’t sit well with Beeson and other critics.
They’ve complained the proposal was developed without proper public input and that it’s progressing too quickly. They’ve also said not enough information about the project was shared with the public.
“The voters are outraged,” former trustee candidate Joe Ptak said. “Most hadn’t heard anything about this.”
In early August, Beeson, Ptak and five other residents spent a weekend gathering signatures on a petition to put a referendum about the project on the ballot.
Trustee Laurie Rabattini, ex-Mayor Charles Amrich and former police chief Tony Sciarrone were among the volunteers.
Grass-roots referendums are rare; typically, questions are brought forth by governmental boards, not residents. Because of how they originate, they’re not binding.
The door-to-door effort succeeded in getting the requisite number of signatures. It also drummed up public interest in the project, which was Beeson’s primary goal.
“We can’t speak for everybody,” said Beeson, who has announced he’ll run for trustee in 2013. “People need to get out there and find out more.”
Last month, officials hosted two meetings about the project in the gymnasium at village hall. Dozens of people attended each meeting and asked questions.
Additionally, information has been made available on the village’s website. Trustee Shannon Fox has posted comments about the plan and the various meetings on the village’s Facebook page, too.
The town hall gatherings, the Facebook posts and the release of documents about the plan on the village website were not prompted by the public’s complaints or Beeson’s efforts, Fox said. The timing was coincidental, she said.
A few days after the volunteers gathered the signatures for the referendum, Island Lake resident Daniel Field tried to derail the effort by formally objecting to the petition.
In his own filing, Field questioned the validity of some signatures and said some may have been obtained fraudulently.
Beeson was prepared to defend the petition before the village’s electoral board, but Field withdrew his objection and the case was dismissed.
Whereas Field had questions about the signatures on the petition, Herrmann has expressed concern about the referendum’s wording.
In recent weeks, village officials have been calling the proposed building a “municipal center.” But on some early documents, including the agenda for a June 7 presentation about the plan, it’s referred to as a “combined public safety facility.”
After consulting with an attorney, that’s the phrase Beeson chose to put on the ballot.
Herrmann said the text is misleading. She claimed she never referred to the proposed building as a public safety facility and blamed then-Village Clerk Jen Gomez for the phrase’s appearance on the June 7 agenda.
“The village didn’t call it that, Jen Gomez called it that,” Herrmann said during a recent interview. “I don’t even recall looking at the agenda.”
Gomez resigned later that month.
When asked how the proposal being debated is different from something that could be called a public safety facility, Herrmann acknowledged the current plan contains a police station and “will include a public safety facility.”
“I suppose you could call it whatever you want,” she said.
Even though they’re not responsible for the referendum, Herrmann said she will ask trustees how they want to address the matter.
“I don’t have a problem with a question being on the ballot,” Herrmann said. “I just don’t feel it reflects what we’re actually proposing.”
Beeson said he’d change the phrase to “municipal center” if he legally could, but he cannot.
Although he’s talking with residents about the referendum, Beeson doesn’t intend to create a campaign committee or website to promote the issue, nor will he raise money to make signs or mailings.
“All we’re trying to do is bring this project to light,” he said.
Beeson’s question won’t be the only referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot in Island Lake.
Voters also will be asked to decide if the village clerk should continue to be elected to 4-year terms or if the position should become a staff job like the police chief or finance director.
Unlike the question about the construction project, the result of that referendum will be binding.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.