With an election two weeks away and political tensions bristling during a Morton Grove village board meeting, the board twice reached a stalemate on whether to contract with a social services provider, and Mayor Dan Staackmann twice broke a tie vote Monday.
After Trustee John Thill read a statement, Trustee Dan DiMaria, who is running against Staackmann in a primary election Feb. 26, made a retort, suggesting the village did not provide enough notice about the process of hiring a social services provider.
DiMaria also made a reference to Staackmann's wife working at a non-profit "company" the village would contract with. That provoked a clarification from Staackmann saying she works in a different location and department of the large agency and she did that before he met her. He also said he would be willing to let the state's attorney evaluate whether a conflict exists.
Trustee Larry Gomberg, who is also running for mayor in the April 9 election against whoever wins the Feb. 26 election, also weighed in.
Earlier: What North Shore would provide in social services
The issue in contention was whether the village should contract with the North Shore Senior Center for social services for people of all ages, and it played out in various ways throughout the board meeting, which saw many more people than usual in attendance.
In the early part of the meeting, long before a vote on whether to hire North Shore as a provider was called, four residents stepped to the podium during the comment period to offer personal testimonials about North Shore's excellence in providing services.
The first was Hope Hornstein, a 50-year-resident who said she worked in the mental health field, often with the elderly, and has for many years made referrals to North Shore Senior Center.
"They do a splendid job," she said. "They’re tops in what they do. I think we were blessed to have them come in."
Pat Donahoe, who said she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and participates in North Shore programs, and her caregiver, Ellie Davis, both also spoke in support of the non-profit, asking trustees to approve the contract with it.
Pat Kansoer also spoke, saying his late wife had been on the village's Commission on Aging, and though they both had had concerns about North Shore when it took over, they found the agency continued to provide services, including to him near the end of her life.
Later in the meeting, Trustee John Thill read a statement that apologized to Village Manager Ryan Horne and the other top village staff members who had worked on finding North Shore, which Horne earlier said was the only agency in the area equipped to, and capable of, providing the social services Morton Grove is looking for. Thill said the criticism of the staff's effort at the last meeting--primarily by DiMaria, though he did not name him--was politically motivated.
At that point, DiMaria spoke up and retorted that Thill's statement was in itself politically motivated.
"I vote my conscience," said DiMaria. "I vote what’s right for Morton Grove."
"I heard the term political suicide," (a comment had been made earlier that it would be political suicide to vote against North Shore), but it’s also political suicide for me to not do my job," he said.
"North Shore might be the best, but we have nothing to compare it to. I’m not ready to approve a $78,000 line item when I don’t know if that’s the right way to spend that $78,000... You can say who’s the best, but I want more details and more time to make sure we are making the right decision."
DiMaria then launched into a discussion of what he thought was a conflict of interest.
"The mayor's wife is a director at this company," he said, adding that while he didn't think there was any ill intent on the part of the Staackmanns, the code of ethics says that the appearance of impropriety shall be avoided.
"It’s not easy for me to say this but it is the facts," DiMaria concluded.
Trustee William Grear asked whether the village could keep North Shore Senior Center providing services for one more month on a month-to-month contract, saying he just would like more time to do his homework and find out if there were other services available. Horne responded that North Shore is dedicated to serving residents, and he thought they would do whatever it took to continue that.
Trustee Larry Gomberg said the village should have used a request-for-proposal process instead of sending top staff on a fact-finding mission to see which agencies existed in the area and which could provide the social services Morton Grove is looking to contract for.
Trustees Shel Marcus and Maria Toth said staff investigated and found no other agencies were equipped to offer Morton Grove social services.
Toth said that the former staff member who provided social services on a part-time basis cost the village $116,536 annually for her salary, benefits and other expenses the village was required to pay. The contract for North Shore cost $79,000 annually, she said, pointing out the cost savings to the village.
Addressing DiMaria, Staackmann said, "You need to correct something," and told DiMaria his (Staackmann's) wife is not a director of a company, but works with with North Shore, a 501(c)3 non-profit agency,in the capacity of planning their Lifelong Learning programs.
He said he would be willing to call the state's attorney to find out if there was any collusion, and added he didn't meet his wife until after the board voted to hire North Shore (for senior services, around 2010).
"I know what you’re up to. I know what you’re about, and it’s very sad," Staackmann said. He also reminded DiMaria that DiMaria had voted for a budget which contained the item.
The board's first vote was on whether to table the matter for a month. Trustees DiMaria, Gomberg and Grear voted yes. Trustees Marcus, Thill and Toth voted no. Mayor Staackmann broke the tie and voted no, meaning the issue would not be delayed.
Consequently, a vote on whether to contract with North Shore was held. DiMaria, Gomberg and Grear voted no. Marcus, Thill and Toth voted yes. The mayor broke the tie with a yes vote, thus approving the contract with North Shore.