VP council deflects “hot potato” lobbed by law enforcement panel

AUGUST 2016.

By Tina Richards

The Villa Park City Council rejected an unwelcome ordinance that would make vehicles “stopped or standing” anywhere along Featherhill or Dodson Street subject to a citation unless the driver has a resident or guest permit allowing them to be there. Proposed by the city’s Law Enforcement Advisory Committee (LEAC), the ordinance was aimed at parents picking up and dropping off children at Serrano Elementary and Cerro Villa Middle School.  It was roundly criticized during the July 26 city council  meeting by officers of those schools’ parent/faculty organizations, other Serrano parents and two Featherhill residents who collectively called it “ridiculous,” “embarrassing” and a “waste of the council’s time.”

Critics also lashed out at LEAC for “not checking its facts,” and Councilman Bob Collacott for his role in the proposed ordinance as a LEAC member and as a Featherhill homeowner.  “You shouldn’t be voting on this,” Serrano’s Michelle Norman told him. “You should check your facts or step down,” constituent Karen Goldberg asserted.

Last year, with encouragement from LEAC, the city council approved “permit parking only” for residents of Featherhill and Dodson to discourage Serrano and Cerro Villa parents from us-ing them.  In addition, Serrano Avenue was restriped to improve traffic flow in front of the schools.  Some homeowners report that the permit parking and restriping worked; others say it isn’t enough.

Summertime blues

LEAC reported that it heard complaints that parents park on Featherhill and Dodson despite signs that indicate parking is by permit only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The alleged complaints included verbal abuse and harassment, unruly children walking and lingering on lawns, and property damage.  In response, the advisory committee unanimously voted to ask the city council to adopt a "no stopping, no standing" ordinance for those two streets.  The LEAC vote was taken July 5, and the proposed ordinance was placed on the agenda for the July 26 council meeting.  A letter advising affected residents of the impending council action was sent out July 6.  “I’ve never seen a letter sent out so fast,” Councilwoman Diana Fascenelli marveled. “And it came during the summer, when school is out and people are on vacation.”

A few diligent leaders from the Serrano Parent Faculty Organization (PFO) and Cerro Villa Parent Faculty Student Organization (PFSO) got wind of the letter and queried Councilwoman Diana Fascenelli about it. They admit that parents do stop on those streets and wait in their cars for their children. The side streets, they say, are safer than the busier Serrano Avenue.  Fascenelli, who is also chairman of the Villa Park Schools Committee convened a meeting July 18. The first question the Serrano/Cerro Villa parents asked at that meeting was about LEAC.  “What is it?  Who is it? Why is it so concerned about parents picking up kids on two streets in Villa Park?”

Law and disorder

The Law Enforcement Advisory Committee is composed of citizens, retired law enforcement, Bob Collacott and Mayor Greg Mills, Fascenelli explained. It was created to identify safety issues and recommend appropriate action to the city council. It meets monthly and the public is invited to attend.

The second question the parents asked was about the complaints. "What happened to initiate them? Has anyone been hurt? Has property been damaged?  Do residents on other streets near schools have similar issues?" City Manager Jarad Hildenbrand said that the city had received two complaints in May, and that he had never heard similar grievances from other neighborhoods.  Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Benzie noted that his department had received no reports of injury, no reports of property damage.

LEAC, however, had been told of property damage to a planter and palm tree caused by a parent backing into a driveway to turn around. Featherhill resident Susan Simpson advised meeting attendees that the residence in question was hers. “But I didn’t make the complaint,” she said.  “Someone else did.  And I want to tell you that it never happened. My palm was not damaged by a parent using my driveway. The report that a driver tore up my yard is not based in fact.”

Looking for trouble?

Testimony from PFO parents indicated that the “harassment” complaints went both ways.  One Featherhill resident was reportedly seen taking close-up pictures of children standing on lawns.  She was asked to stop because the children were scared, and a verbal scuffle ensued.  After hearing from a LEAC representative, the sheriff, PFO members and Susan Simpson, it became apparent that the complaints behind LEAC’s recommendation for the ordinance came from just two individuals, and that no property damage had occurred.

“Look,” Dodson homeowner Donna Buxton said, “We’re just tired of parents and students treat-ing us with disrespect. They don’t respect our property. They don’t respect the residents.  That’s what this is about.”

“We get that,” Cerro Villa’s Nicol Jones replied.  “So let’s work together on a solution that’s good or all of us.”

“This ordinance is like killing an ant with a nuclear bomb,” Susan Simpson added. “We’re losing our sense of community.  Making it illegal to stop on our street – even for a minute – is not neighborly.”

LEAC on the line

The city council heard much of the same school committee discussion, and subsequently voted 5-0 to deny the ordinance. But not until after the Law Enforcement Advisory Committee was challenged by both Diana Fascenelli and Councilman Rick Barnett. “LEAC acted without one shred of evidence,” Fascenelli recounted. “And no one from the committee is here tonight to explain itself. It’s taken the ‘community’ out of Villa Park and created a division in the city.”

“I thought LEAC was formed to focus on crime and public safety issues,” Barnett said.  “But it’s spreading out.  It shouldn’t be designing streets or suggesting the city file lawsuits against OUSD [a previous solution to the Featherhill/Dodson problem] and we certainly don’t need any more tickets. We need to get LEAC out of community issues.  It should stick to crime.”

Mayor Greg Mills apologized for his vote as a LEAC member to recommend the ordinance. “I was duped,” he said.  “But that’s why we have public meetings like this, to correct misinformation.”

The council intends to revisit LEAC’s function at a future meeting