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Cook Co. commissioner in bind over land deal

Friday, September 05, 2008
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

A Cook County Commissioner who has thrown stones at the Stroger administration in the past for ethical lapses found himself in a potential glass house Thursday as the Forest Preserve District on which he serves voted to begin negotiating to buy some of his land.

Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider, a Bartlett Republican, recused himself from the vote, but good-government experts question if he really can remain at arm's length on the potential multimillion dollar deal.

Schneider and six other family members own the Rolling Knolls Country Club in unincorporated Cook County between Bode and Irving Park roads near Elgin. County Forest Preserve planners are interested in buying the golf course and linking its land to the nearby Poplar Creek Forest Preserve. An environmentally valuable patch of wetland between the two, known as a fen, would also have to be purchased to link the swaths.

Schneider acknowledges the appearance of a conflict of interest, but says as soon as he became aware the county was interested in the land, he removed himself from the process.

"I'm so aware here of what I can and can't do because I want to be the guy who exposes (potential conflict of interests in county government)," Schneider said Thursday.

According to Schneider, the family decided to try to develop the land itself, planning for homes surrounded by a pared-down nine-hole golf course.

Schneider said the project received approval from Elgin city staff members, but failed to get the recommendation of the planning commission about three weeks ago.

He remains hopeful the city council will adopt the plan nonetheless when it comes up at the end of October.

The county only came into the mix, he said, because he wanted to be able to tell potential opponents of the project that neither the Elgin park system nor the county was interested in buying the land and keeping it as open space. He approached the forest preserve a year ago to ask it for an "exclusion letter" stating it wasn't interested in the property.

To his surprise, he said, they came back and said they were interested in the land.

According to Dave Kircher, chief landscape architect for the preserves, the land was first identified as being of interest in 1994 because it abuts Poplar Creek.

At that point, Schneider said, he removed himself from any dealings with the forest preserve, having his twin brother Tom handle all the negotiations.

Tom Schneider said he and family members are evaluating all choices.

"The idea was, in my mind, to go down two parallel roads so the family can make (a decision) where they want to go," Tom Schneider said.

While that removal from the process is laudable, said Jay Stewart of the Better Government Association, it still falls far short of Schneider being a disinterested party.

"I think everyone (at the forest preserves are) pretty sure who they are and who the other brother is," said Stewart. "If we were talking about Todd Stroger (doing this), people would be ripping hair off their heads and yelling, 'outrage, outrage.' If it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander."

While no laws have been violated, there's still a conflict with Schneider sitting on a board and being colleagues with commissioners who will decide whether to pay him and his family multimillions. Schneider said one estimate of the land, with development, put it at $8 million to $10 million. Undeveloped, it would be far less, but still sizable.

Additionally, Stewart said Schneider never should have approached the forest preserve staff to ask them for a letter of exclusion.

"It's the old, your-boss-comes-in-and-says, 'can you do this for me?' He's (Schneider's) not the boss, but he votes on the budget. - I don't think that was exactly the best (judgment)."

Cindi Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform wasn't quite as tough on Schneider, understanding that to avoid a complete lack of conflict, Schneider would have to tell six family members they can't make money from Cook County government because he's a public official.

The situation is typical, she said, of what Illinoisans get when they don't have clear ethics laws and concise statements saying elected officials or board members can in no way profit from any activity of the board on which they sit.

"On the one hand, you would say he brings a good skill set to the board. You want people who know about development. On the other hand, if he owns property - that he's then selling to the county, whether real conflicts exist or perceived conflicts exist, it looks bad," said Canary.

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