First reported 5/12/2010 1:54 p.m.

It was made public at last week’s village council meeting that the Village of Forest Park is again in talks to sell the vacant land behind Altenheim retirement home.

Mayor Anthony Calderone announced that, in recent closed sessions, he and village commissioners have been discussing interest by Fenwick High School and Dominican University in village-owned land behind Altenheim German Home, at 7824 Madison.

That nearly 8-acre parcel was to have been to the new location of the West Cook YMCA. That sale fell apart last fall when the Y’s board rescinded the contract to buy it.

Though all parties describe the talks as preliminary, the mere introduction of such discussion spotlighted the deep and often angry rift between Forest Park’s mayor and Commissioner Marty Tellalian. As the village commissioner who oversees public property, Tellalian cast the no vote in the council’s 4-1 decision that Calderone be the sole village representative to negotiate any sale of the Altenheim parcel.

According to the mayor, both Fenwick, a Catholic prep school in Oak Park, and Dominican, a Catholic university in River Forest, are interested in buying the property to use it as athletic fields.

Calderone told the Review after the meeting that he’s had one meeting each with representatives of Fenwick and of Dominican. He described talks as preliminary.

The Fenwick and Dominican officials who met with Calderone agreed.

“We have not talked price or terms or anything like that at this stage of the game,” said R.J. McMahon, Fenwick’s director of development.

Amy McCormack, Dominican’s senior vice president of administration, characterized her conversation with Calderone the same way.

“The conversations have been very preliminary,” McCormack told the Review.

The village council discussed the possibility of selling the land to Fenwick and-or Dominican in closed session on March 8. Tellalian, who has long favored the park district either buying the land or partnering with the village and perhaps other groups in owning the land, felt that the discussions about what to do with the land should have been conducted in open session.

“This is public property that the village owns,” Tellalian said. “If we are considering things that we want to do with that, and getting input with what we want to do with that property, that’s not a topic for closed session.”

The Illinois Open Meetings Act allows public bodies to meet in closed session to discuss the setting of a price for the sale or lease of property owned by a public body.

Because the discussion on March 8 didn’t involve setting a price for the parcel, it shouldn’t have been held in closed session, Tellalian said.

On May 7, Tellalian sent a letter to the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor asking whether the discussions in closed session on March 8 were proper. Tellalian sent a copy of the letter to Village Administrator Tim Gillian.

On that same day – the Friday before the Monday village council meeting – the agenda for the May 10 council meeting was released. It included the Altenheim property as an item for discussion.

Tellalian believes his letter to the attorney general’s office prompted the first public discussion of the topic.

“Not one mention that we were going to discuss it in public session in any verbal form, written form at all until it showed up on the agenda on the Friday before the meeting when the agenda is made public to everybody,” Tellalian said.

But both Calderone and Gillian say that Tellalian’s letter had nothing to do with putting the item on the agenda.

“That was on the agenda before Marty informed anybody that he had sent the letter to the attorney general’s office,” Gillian said. “The two are not related. It’s on the agenda because the mayor has had conversations with Fenwick and Dominican and we have received basically their OK that they’ve talked with their boards of directors and it’s OK with them if this information is public.”

Calderone said he wanted the item on the agenda.

“This is not coincidental at all,” Calderone told the Review. “I made a conscious decision to get out in front on this because I sensed some political shenanigans taking place. I’m not interested in political shenanigans. I decided to put this right out there.”

After the public discussion at the village council meeting, Tellalian contacted the attorney general’s office and withdrew his complaint.

Calderone says that he and the rest of the village council have acted properly.

“They made an inquiry,” Calderone said. “I took it to the village council to see if they’re interested in responding and that’s where we’re at right now. There is no telling what direction this may go. At this point, this is merely exploratory.”

Before the village council meeting, Tellalian made phone calls to people at Fenwick trying to get them to explore some type of joint-use agreement with the park district.

Tellalian’s actions seem to have spurred the move to make the mayor the sole negotiator for the village.

“The council’s given specific directions to the mayor, and Commissioner Tellalian continues to make contact with potential buyers and with the park district,” said Commissioner Mark Hosty. “He sent a letter making representations that weren’t consistent with the majority will of the council and, unfortunately, he continues to do that. Commissioner Tellalian feels that one particular thing should happen to the property and he continues to fight for his position and, I think, inappropriately contact the people that the village is negotiating with.”

Tellalian says that while he favors some kind of joint-use agreement with the park district, he wants to make sure that discussions about what to do with the property are out in the open.

“All I want the public to do is to know what kinds of options there are and then, if it’s not a good idea and nobody wants to do it, it won’t be done,” Tellalian said. “Mayor Calderone’s approach is to limit information, only show people what he wants to show them and, therefore, avoid any kind of criticism or disagreement. When you do disagree with him, you get the kind of reaction I get from him. And that’s very dismissive,” Tellalian said.

As Commissioner of Public Property, Tellalian believes that he should play a role in determining what happens with village-owned land. He’s disappointed that his colleagues are willing to give the mayor the power to represent the village solely in negotiations.

“They’re so used to essentially being a rubberstamp that they really don’t understand the commission form of government and what their responsibilities are,” Tellalian said. “They’re happy to give their responsibilities to the mayor.

“I’m not.”

Calderone says that he is only following the wishes of the majority of the council. He says he was authorized in March to explore the potential sale to Fenwick, Dominican or to possibly both institutions in a joint offer. He also notes that, after all, he is the mayor.

“The mayor is the chief executive officer and elected to be the leader of the community,” Calderone said.

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Double-checking the park district interest

The village has owned the Altenheim property since 2001, when it bought the land from the Altenheim German Home for about $3.2 million. The land was going to be sold to the West Cook YMCA, but that deal fell apart last year when the YMCA couldn’t raise the money for the purchase.

Village Administrator Tim Gillian says that the park distinct has never shown any interest in the property.

“The property has been there for almost 10 years probably,” Gillian said. “The park distinct certainly knows that it’s there. They certainly know that it’s available. They’ve shown, thus far in eight to 10 years of it being there, no inclination, by any stretch, to buy it, to lease it, to partner with us, to partner with anybody. Marty will tell you that he may be the only one in town that thinks the park should buy it and I tell him every time he says that I think you’re right.”

But just to be sure and, apparently in deference to Tellalian, Mayor Anthony Calderone has sent a letter to the park district asking about interest in the property.

“I’ve told the mayor and commissioner Tellalian that we’ll be discussing it at the May 20 meeting in executive session,” said park board president Cathleen McDermott.