OPC lawsuit, petition drive pass key milestones

Staff Writer

Two developments affected the progress of the Obama Presidential Center last week, as a federal court judge set a conference date in Protect Our Parks lawsuit against the center while the Community Benefits Coalition officially launched its petition drive in Woodlawn.

Last Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge John R. Blakey set Dec. 5 for a conference meeting, at which time he would schedule the court date to start the lawsuit proceedings. Mark Roth, POP’s attorney, asked for a litigation schedule lasting until the end of May, citing the need for more discovery.

“The landscape has changed,” he said, but Blakey said in turn that there was “no reason for the case to linger.”

The plaintiffs filed a response to POP’s claims on Monday, arguing that the OPC will not violate state law, that its campus will be public parkland and that they have not “engaged in a scheme to evade or negate state law.”

The Obama Foundation — not taxpayers paying a real estate tax to the Park District, as the Park District will not own the OPC site, nor the city, because it lacks the power to tax under the Museum Act — will pay for the OPC’s upkeep, wrote the defendants, and neither will the Foundation receive money raised by the Park District through the state Museum Act because the Park District will not control or own the OPC. They denied there would be a “special Obama Center tax on the public.”

While POP charged that the OPC’s status as a non-presidential library — Barack Obama’s papers will be stored off-site at a federal National Archives and Records Administration-run location — the defendants said that records will be available at the OPC online, presidential artifacts will be on display at its museum, the OPC was never meant to be solely a presidential research library and that the OPC will maintain a relationship with NARA.

They said the plaintiffs were wrong to call the OPC campus “irreplaceable lake front public park land,” because it is located inland, along Stony Island Avenue. They also pointed out that the OPC site currently hosts a Park District development: the track and field used by Hyde Park Academy High School, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave.

The city argued that the OPC would be “consistent with [the public] trust, because, among other reasons, the people’s elected representatives in the Illinois General Assembly, through the Museum Act, have expressly authorized presidential centers on public parkland.”

Finally, the defendants argued that POP and the two plaintiffs funding the lawsuit, Herbert Caplan of Lakeview and Charlotte Adelman of Wilmette, are suffering no violation of their rights because of the OPC’s construction, denying their claims of a “fractional beneficial interest” in the OPC site in Jackson park as state taxpayers because their interest “is no different from that of the other 12 million residents of Illinois” or of municipal taxpayers, because no tax money “is spent on the allegedly unlawful activity.”

On Oct. 23, the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition officially launched its referendum campaign on its proposed ordinance covering the relationship between Obama Presidential Center (OPC) and other University of Chicago-related development south of the Midway Plaisance.

The alliance of community organizations is gathering signatures from voters in four precincts near the OPC: one in the Fifth Ward and three in the 20th Ward.

“Just looking at the capacity of the Coalition, we wanted to do a sample of the ward, choosing spots within the 20th that would convey that the entire 20th Ward is on board,” said Devondrick Jeffers, an organizer with Southside Together Organizing for Power. If passed, the referendum would be advisory upon City Council; it would not compel the establishment of a CBA itself.

The coalition set a Nov. 10 deadline to file petitions, and it must collect signatures from eight percent of the total ballots cast in the November midterm election for the proposed ordinance to be included on the February municipal ballot. The last day to file petitions in Chicago is Nov. 26.

Patricia Hightower, a 30-year Woodlawn–South Side resident and decade-long renter at the Park Shore East Elderly apartment complex, 6250 S. Harper Ave., said she was worried about displacement, increasing property taxes and whether neighborhood workers would be hired for construction jobs.

“We want it to be viable for the people in the community to live. We don’t want to be displaced.” she said. “If you really care about the citizens and what’s happening with the people — you don’t want them displaced, you want them to be treated fairly — why not put it in writing? Your word of mouth means nothing if it’s not in black and white.”