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posted: 10/26/2013 8:00 AM

Wheaton Warrenville no closer to public outreach

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Since August, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials have vowed to tap into their constituents through an in-depth community engagement process.

After two months, however, they have yet to leave the starting gate for fear of entering the process with a board divided over the initial step: the proposed hiring of St. Louis-based public relations firm Unicom Arc at a price of $49,500 to facilitate a series of six to eight public workshops to help set the district's direction for the next five to seven years.

After pulling the contract off the table at their Oct. 10 meeting, board members are likely to approve the deal by a 5 to 2 vote on Nov. 13.

A majority of the board's seven members, including the district's Community Engagement Committee Chairmen Brad Paulsen and James Vroman, said the district is not equipped to match Unicom's proposed system to return the answers the board seeks about the concerns of the community and the willingness of the district's taxpayers to fix them.

"I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that if the question is 'Can we just do this on our own?' We cannot," said board member Rosemary Swanson. "We can ask some questions but we'd never be able to have the resources that a professional firm can bring to bear. We just can't do it. We just don't have the expertise to do it."

Vroman said he believes a district-led effort would provide less meaningful information than a process led by Unicom. "A true community engagement isn't directed to achieve a specific result, it's directed to obtain from the community what it believes the priorities for our district should be," he said.

Board member Joann Coghill said earlier this month that she "would have liked to have seen more" from Unicom. After spending two weeks hearing from references, she's ready to hire the firm.

"I just don't think there's a downside to it," she said. "I think we should do it."

The two likely votes against the contract will come from Jim Gambaiani and Jim Mathieson.

Gambaiani said he believes board members need to lead and "be the face of the project for a fraction of the cost.

"We, whether it's one night or five nights, because we were elected to do this, should be there so people can engage with us and know our hearts and interests lie with theirs," he said. "A 'keep it simple' philosophy works best in these settings."

Mathieson, however, continues to oppose approving a $49,500 contract without knowing exactly what the district will get in return.

"I'm very concerned that we get an end product. I don't want this to be a wish list because we can't fund wish lists," he said. "If we come back with a wish list we have to make sure we can afford it. I don't want recommendations, I want data from them and then we as a board can make decisions on prioritizing those recommendations."

Vroman, realizing members had "exhausted everything they had to say," said he anticipates the contract will be put up for a vote at the board's Nov. 13 meeting, despite not having consensus across the board.

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