By Lee V. Gaines
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office is looking into a complaint filed by a Winnetka-based nonprofit organization that accused the village’s plan commission of violating state regulations by restricting public comment in a meeting on the controversial One Winnetka development.
Gail Schechter, director of Open Communities, a nonprofit fair housing advocacy group, filed the complaint on behalf of the organization in early October, according to both the state’s attorney’s office and Schechter.
In the complaint, Schechter wrote that Winnetka Plan Commission Chair Tina Dalman refused to allow public comment before a vote Sept. 30 on a resolution recommending approval of the large multi-use development, which is planned for Lincoln Avenue and south Elm Street.
That decision, Schechter wrote in the complaint, violated Illinois’ Open Meetings Act, which states that “any person shall be permitted an opportunity to address public officials under the rules established and recorded by the public body.”
Dalman did not return a request for comment, but Winnetka Village Attorney Peter Friedman said in an interview that the commission closed the public comment portion of the public hearing on the development at its Aug. 26 meeting and therefore Dalman violated no laws when she announced no further public comment would be allowed.
Friedman said the public was given an opportunity to speak on agenda items toward the end of the September meeting after the commission voted 8-2 to recommend village approval of the One Winnetka plans.
Schechter, in a recent interview, criticized the project’s lack of affordable housing and said the plans for the building excluded, rather than included, the community.
But she said her organization’s concerns with the One Winnetka project are not the reason why she filed the complaint.
“Everybody in Winnetka should have the opportunity to voice their opinion, and that is our issue,” she said.
Schechter requested the Attorney General’s Office order the village’s plan commission to put the resolution recommending approval back on its agenda to allow for more public input.
In response to Schechter’s complaint, Assistant Attorney General S. Piya Mukherjee wrote in a letter to Dalman late last month that the office had “determined that further action is warranted” and requested the commission address the allegations laid out in the complaint. Mukherjee asked that the village plan commission provide its reason for restricting public comment.
“At the outset, we must express how surprised the village is to receive Ms. Schechter’s letter from your office,” Friedman wrote in response to Mukherjee’s request.
In the response, Friedman wrote that a public hearing on the development was opened in March and continued for seven meetings, concluding with the commission’s recommendation for approval in September. He said the public was allowed to comment on the project and “cross-examine the applicant and its experts regarding various aspects of the proposed development” at six of the seven meetings.
The public hearing went on as long as it did “because it’s a complicated development and there were a lot of people who wanted to speak at various points and at various meetings,” Friedman said in a later interview.
Though Schechter and others had opportunity to address commission members regarding the development at previous meetings, she wrote in her complaint that the public had not had a chance to comment on the draft resolution discussed by commission members at the September meeting.
In response, Friedman wrote that because no new evidence was presented at the meeting, the plan commission was “under no obligation to re-open public comment and testimony prior to deliberating and acting on its resolution.”
He also noted that the village’s zoning ordinance calls for an eight-step approval process for developments allowing for “public comment at each and every step” and requiring four formal public hearings. The recently concluded plan commission hearing was the first of the four.
At the commission’s August meeting, Friedman said Dalman asked if anyone else wanted to speak on the planned development before officially closing the public comment portion of the hearing.
“The village worked hard to balance both the public’s right to participate in the zoning process and the need, at some point, for the village officials to have the opportunity to deliberate and render a recommendation,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, Eileen Boyce, said Schechter would be given an opportunity to respond to Friedman’s letter before any further action was taken.