The elected leaders of Oakwood Hills have seen a storm of opposition over a proposed natural gas-powered plant in the almost entirely residential town near Crystal Lake. The village’s board has already approved the plant’s “hosting agreement.”
It appears the village failed to keep residents in the loop, judging from the hundreds of angry residents who have since attended board meetings. The Village Hall closed its doors until further notice because, village officials said, they have received threats.
Village President Melanie Funk told the media that this recent controversy is in sharp contrast with the village’s usual atmosphere. Before, almost no residents attended meetings, and she couldn’t find people to serve on village committees.
Oakwood Hills, a bedroom community, had hardly any businesses, so just about anyone who works leaves town and probably doesn’t have a lot of time to follow village government. Making matters worse, we have more units of government in Illinois than any other state, which makes the job of watchdog that much tougher.
In every election, candidates tell us they will work for the public interest and most genuinely want to do that. So we trust them to do their jobs without citizen supervision. Unless something really bad happens.
In Oakwood Hills, the power plant was really bad in the eyes of many residents. Many came out of the woodwork, likely attending a village board meeting for the first time.
In such situations, officials often question why people hadn’t come to a meeting before.
The truth is, things seemed to be going fine before, or at least, nothing was so serious to cause people to drop their usual routines to attend a government proceeding.
When I attended Round Lake Beach’s Village Board meeting recently, a grand total of one ordinary citizen – of a population of 28,175 – showed up without any official business before the board.
He spoke during public input about the condition of his street.
Often, when a group of residents starts attending meetings to watch over their government and complain about problems, the officials in charge label that group as a “vocal minority.” Often, though, these folks represent a larger group who are unhappy with the status quo but who have no time to attend meetings. I have yet to hear the term “vocal majority.”
In some places, municipalities have committed groups of citizens who attend meetings, ask many questions of their leaders and issue public records requests.
Remember the city of Dixon, where the bookkeeper, Rita Crundwell, made off with more than $50 million during a couple of decades and was sent to prison as a result. That city had no contingent of vigilant watchdogs.
I’m betting its leaders wish they had. The more eyes, the better.
Residents in Oakwood Hills have a reason to feel blindsided about the power plant; no one told them about it beforehand.
The first step in the approval process was the hosting agreement, which lays out the ground rules the developer must follow.
In May, the Village Board’s agenda listed the issue as a “community hosting agreement.” No resident could have had any idea that this was for a power plant; the wording was ambiguous. Despite the lack of information to the public, the board unanimously approved the item.
It’s important for government entities to be specific on their agendas about issues on which they plan to vote. And they should include on their websites the very agenda packets they give their elected board members. The Round Lake Area Schools district does this, but many other agencies, including the Grayslake and Round Lake Beach village boards, do not.
In so doing, they often keep their constituents – the folks paying the bills – out of the loop.
David Giuliani is news editor of Lake County Suburban Life. He may be reached at 847-231-7524 or firstname.lastname@example.org.