Sue to stop Obama Center

Herald Staff Report

A Chicago Group with a history of preventing a transfer of public parkland to private use has gone to federal court to oppose the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park.

Protect Our Parks, Inc., which 11 years ago worked to stop an agreement between the Park District and the private Latin School over the construction of a soccer field in Lincoln Park, filed suit Monday afternoon in the federal district court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The organization, which describes itself in the lawsuit as a “non profit park advocacy organization dedicated to preserving, protecting and improving Chicago’s parks and forest preserves,” was organized over a decade ago. Herbert Caplan, president, told the Herald that the administrative group consists of around five people and that its recent activities have been mostly letters and press release commentaries on public land issues. Caplan said that Protect Our Parks (POP) does conduct regular meetings. He said the group had been mostly inactive until the “Jackson Park deal got us riled up again and ready to do something.”

The only member of the POP administrative group listed as a plaintiff on the lawsuit is Charlotte Adelman of Wilmette. Caplan, formerly of Hyde Park and presently of Lakeview, said a number of POP supporters live in Hyde Park but did not wish to be named plaintiffs, he said, “because of the politics of the situation and the racial implications. People were afraid of being identified as having some racial bias against the Obama project, regardless of the legalities of the situation.”

The lawsuit says, “This is an action to enjoin a contrived collaboration involving the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District in which the Park District deceptively transfers unique historic Jackson Park public park land to the City of Chicago for token payment $1.00. The sole purpose of transfer so that the City may then convey the land to a private entity, the Obama Foundation (the ‘Foundation’), a not for profit Washington, DC corporation, for the Foundation’s independently determined use. The attempted ‘sale’ of this much used, enjoyed, and locally needed open, clear and free recreational public land is in violation of the relevant controlling statutes; and upon objective examination is openly exposed to be by design, a conscious scheme to negate these existing protective laws.”

Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges that “the private Foundation contended that the public purpose of the Obama Presidential Library would be to provide all former President Obama’s administration’s documents, records and artifacts conveniently available locally for close public examination. The Foundation also proposed that the former President’s records would ne available to facilitate professional research, analysis and study by historians, academics, and professional journalists. The City of Chicago accordingly passed an Ordinance reciting these exact reasons for approving the construction of a desired national ‘Presidential Library’ on what was known to all to be irreplaceable lake front public park land.”

The suit goes on to say that after the land was conveyed, the Foundation announced that it would not be a Presidential Library and there would not be a government-managed Presidential Library facility.

Instead, the suit says that the facility would become “Presidential Center” and be privately owned, managed and operated.

Among the lawsuit’s major arguments is that the City and the Foundation recognized that what they were doing was not legal and sought to correct a part of the problem with an amendment to the state Illinois Aquarium and Museum Act, which governs those institutions on public lands. The Park District conveyed the land to the city in 2015. Then, according to the suit, the parties in 2016 promoted a change in the Museum Act adding to the list: “presidential libraries, centers and museums” to the law. The suit argues that this is an illegal ex post facto act.

“The lawsuit is about stopping the Obama Presidential Center on 20 acres of prime, open Jackson Park land,” said Protect our Parks’ attorney Mark Roth in a statement to the Herald. “Under the law, the Park District may not convey the land to the private Obama Foundation. So, in an effort to get around that law, the Park District first conveys the property to the City, and the City then conveys to the Obama Foundation.”

Roth said that the Park District cannot convey parkland to the City for any reason other than the City’s use. That the municipal government conveys control of the land to the Obama Foundation is against existing statutes, he said. Far from the Obama Foundation paying just compensation for the land, Roth estimated that the cost to taxpayers would be in excess of $500,000,000.

The Herald has just asked the Obama Foundation for comment.

View PDF of Complete.Complaint

hpherald@hpherald.com