The give-away of public park land to the Obama Center is illegal

The laws are clear: Control of this public land in Jackson Park cannot be transferred to a private entity. Period.

That's exactly what the Obama Foundation and the supporters of the Obama Center want. The city and Chicago Park District have worked out a deal to transfer control of 19.3 acres of publicly owned Jackson Park for a token payment of $1 to a private entity, the Obama Foundation, for whatever use it--i.e. former President Barack Obama--decides.

Obama's Menhir

Obama's Menhir

The project has been challenged in federal court by Protect Our Parks for exactly that reason. Sadly, the reporting on its lawsuit has been superficial, focusing on the "bait and switch" aspect of the project in which Obama first declared that it would be a "library" to house all his documents, then in midstream dropped the idea in favor of it becoming  a "center" designed to advance his agenda.

That aspect drew ridicule from Emanuel and others, including Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell who proclaimed, "Seriously. Who really cares?" Well, the law should care.  As the lawsuit notes:

Former President Obama has made it known that he intends to use his Center as a “bully pulpit” to continue his political activities by raising money for the Democrat Party, endorsing individual candidates for election, speaking out on controversial partisan political issues, and being outspoken in critiquing the actions of succeeding presidents and elected members of Congress with whom he disagrees.

In other words, instead of using the center for a public purpose--a repository of public records available for all to research--it now becomes a private entity to advance its causes. That's just count VI of the six counts detailing the illegality of the project.

Let's go through the other counts.

Count I: Violation of due process.

The Park District Act does not authorize the Park District to sell park land that is held in public trust to a third party, and does not authorize the Park District to sell park land held in the public trust to the City of Chicago for transfer to a nongovernmental private entity, as the Park District Act does not authorize the Park District itself to transfer valuable public trust land for virtually no compensatory return.

Scott Stantis Chicago Tribune

Scott Stantis Chicago Tribune

Count II: Breach of the public trust. The park district owns the site for "public use," especially one that is meant to preserve the lakefront as a refuge that is to remain "forever open, free and clear" and "free to all persons forever."  Further, the transfer of the land to private use is an "unconstitutional taking" because other non-government, non-public land is available, just waiting to be developed.

Count III; An action beyond the city's legal authority. 

The Park District’s contemplated action of transferring the Jackson Park site to the City of Chicago for $1.00, so that the City will then enter into a long term lease with the Foundation has not been authorized by the State of Illinois. The Park District therefore lacks authority for the transaction.

Count IV: The Illinois Museum Act doesn't apply. The project's promoters contend that a 2016 Amendment to the act that they pushed through the Legislature authorizes a private center to be built on the site. But for technical legal reasons, the suit argues that the amendment is invalid because it ignores existing law at that time that forbids the gifting of public land and other prohibitions.

Court V: Special legislation. The 2016 amendment expressly allows a "president center" to be built, an action that constitutes "special legislation" and there is unconstitutional.

Not being a lawyer, I can't predict the outcome of the suit--a risky practice in any case. Will the federal court even accept the case, or will it have to be transferred to a local court, one that is in the grip of the the Democrat machine?

Whether or not this is an illegal land grab, it's lousy public policy. Just as giving George Lucas lakefront land for his "Star Wars" museum would have been. Just as was the private Latin School's attempt in 2008 to grab part of Lincoln Park for a  private soccer field--an action that the Protect Our Parks successfully fought.

As the lawsuit argues and I've noted before, plenty of vacant non-public land is available on the South Side that would be a perfect site for the library, center or whatever is its most recent incarnation. Every single argument that Obama, Emanuel, civic leaders, editorial boards, organized labor and everyone else makes for siting the project in Jackson Park, apply equally if not more to a non-public site. Obama, who likes to tout his work in Chicago as a community organizer, would demonstrate that by locating it in the community that the center is truly a work of gratitude and compassion than a tribute to his ego.

Years ago as a reporter, I can think of many reporters and editors who would have jumped all over the idea of turning over public land to wealthy private interests. Perhaps that is no longer the state of the art, reminding me of how the media swallowed whole the spending of billions to expand O'Hare Airport with, now it is clear, inconsequential results. Have the media been cowed by the fear of appearing to attack America's first black president? Are the media now suffering from an edifice complex, willing to accept any extravagant big project, public or private, like the humongous 400 Lake Shore Dr. that will further clog the city's lakefront?

Update: Another reason why the Jackson Park give-away is illegal and corrupt.

My historical novel: Madness: The War of 1812


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    I remember in the 60's when a group of liberals tied themselves to trees in Jackson Park to protest the CPD cutting them down. But today since it's Obama that will do the cutting and the land grab the left doesn't mind a bit. I wonder how they would be reacting if it was Donald Trump doing exactly what Obama is doing in Jackson Park.

  • This is Chicago, the city that does what it wants and does not care about legal or ethics. Lets be honest, Obama wants as much as possible without having to pay, and he knows he can get it in Chicago. And now we know that the library won't even contain his personal papers, that will go some where else, probably Hawaii, He has learned from the best, the Clinton's, and the students wants to beat the Master.

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