A little more than halfway through their 21-month timeline, consultants for the village of Forest Park’s comprehensive plan closed their online community survey, Feb. 23. 

While results are not yet available, participation was poor. Two-hundred and forty-two residents, or about 1.6 percent of the village population of 15,000, submitted surveys. Twelve business owners filled out the survey out of around 1,200 businesses registered in Forest Park.

Village Commissioner Chris Harris, who had asked for a community survey for more than two years, was disappointed. 

“I am very happy 242 people took time out of their busy schedules to participate, but that number isn’t good enough,” Harris said. “Professionals would suggest more than triple that amount to get a true reading statistically.” 

The survey seems to be the last activity that requests public input in the comprehensive plan process.

Naperville-based Images Inc., the village’s consultants, held four public events over a one-year period. They also conducted interviews with 16 “Key Persons” representing institutions such as the community center, school districts and various churches. 

Plan Commission Chair Paul Barbahen predicted it would be difficult to round up residents to participate in the planning process. 

“That’s simply a reality,” Barbahen warned when Images Inc. was hired in September of 2012. “How do you bring other people into the process besides the normal people who appear at village council meetings?” he asked.  

But even without lackluster citizen participation, Images has encountered problems with the comprehensive plan. 

The “steering committee” of 33 volunteers, convened in July 2013, was told they would meet again, but a second meeting was never planned or scheduled. 

The company’s website, www.pictureforestpark.net, experienced glitches, including a several-week period when all photos were depopulated from the site’s “comprehensive plan visioning survey.” Only 26 persons registered for the online visioning survey. 

Reports from the “Visioning Workshops” held on Nov. 20, 2013 are not yet posted on the site. When FOIA requests were submitted by Forest Park Review, the paper was told the reports, now five months overdue, had not been submitted. Also unavailable by FOIA were reports from interviews of high school students, which Images said would take place in December. 

Images Inc., has been paid $43,140.79, so far, said Forest Park Village Administrator Tim Gillian.

Part of the rocky patch in the fall was possibly due to the resignation of Images Project Manager Carrie Hansen, who left in November to work for a competitor. 

Harris blamed the leadership change for some of the delays.

“I guess there are a couple of people heading the project, now that the person steering the ship is gone,” Harris said in January. He also blamed the regime change for the fact that the survey was “basically a draft we saw two months before.” 

Village Administrator Gillian said Monday the details of the survey had not yet been assembled and reviewed.

The next step is a “draft plan,” followed by public hearings to accept the plan. The project should be complete in October 2014, according to the website. 

 

This story was updated to correct the date the steering committe was convened. They met in July, 2013.

Outreach falls short?

     Forest Park's $100,000 comprehensive plan is being financed by a Sustainable Communities Challenge Grant, offered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The plan is administered by the village of Oak Park as part of a collaboration called the West Cook County Housing Collaborative. Five municipalities share the grant: Berwyn, Maywood, Forest Park, Oak Park and Bellwood. Each town had funds earmarked for an update of their comprehensive plan.

     But the grant spelled out how much community outreach is required by companies crafting a plan.  

     "The firms hired to complete the comprehensive plans will be required to spend a minimum of 20 percent of their budgets on public participation efforts," say Request for Proposal documents issued by the village of Forest Park in June 2012. 

     Images Inc. invoices, obtained by the Forest Park Review, did not itemize work product. The village has been billed only for hourly labor by various Images employees. The company has not spelled out in documents on their website or billing what percentage of their work has gone to outreach.  

     According to the HUD requirements, consultants are encouraged to achieve "meaningful public participation." Consultants are asked to "increase participation by people of color, non-English speakers, working parents, and other groups typically underrepresented in planning processes." The HUD requirements asked for outreach "tactics" that included  inserting announcements in utility bills, school lunch menus and faith communities' newsletters; providing announcements in multiple languages; and working with community-based organizations to reach people through their networks." 

     Although these requirements were spelled out in the RFP, Images Inc. has yet to employ any of these strategies. 

     "There just wasn't enough done to reach more people," Harris said Monday in an email about the low participation in the community survey. 

     "Images Inc. promised creative avenues of distribution and I just didn't see that," Harris said.

      HUD spokesman George Gonzales in Washington D.C. said municipalities have autonomy to work with their consultants and that every grantee is allowed leeway to manage their plan. 

      "The consortium asks that they stick to the timeline," Gonzales said. "If there were other issues with the comprehensive plan, those would be evaluated at the end of the timeline when the work was submitted."

      When asked about the struggles of Images Inc. to fill the requirements of the grant, Village Administrator Gillian did not elaborate.

      "We are within the timeline approved by HUD," Gillian emailed Monday.  

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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