When Highland Park City Council members agreed in late 2008 to spend $2.1 million buying a financially troubled downtown theater, they didn't know it was riddled with safety hazards and other problems that would cost another $2.6 million to fix.
A report that thoroughly outlined the problems was never shown to the council, according to current and former members. Only recently has the long-buried document, dated July 2008, come to light. Some officials say they might never have sunk so much of the taxpayers' money into the theater if they had seen the report before it was too late.
After the city purchased the theater, it remained open until May. That's when an independent inspection finally revealed significant safety issues to elected officials. The City Council had little choice but to shut it down.
Now, officials are considering millions of dollars worth of subsidies that would attract a developer to fix the theater's many problems.
As the debate about that plan continues, an investigation commissioned by the City Council poses deeper questions about transparency and oversight of local government in Highland Park — and recommends ways to avoid problems like the one that plagues the city's involvement with the theater and other projects.
The same inspection that closed the theater also temporarily shuttered the city-owned Port Clinton garage. The sprinkler system would not work in an emergency, it said.
The theater and the garage highlight what Highland Park Fire Chief Pat Tanner called a double standard that has long allowed the city to defer the kind of maintenance on its own property that private owners would have been ordered to undertake.
"The city facilities were treated different," the chief said in an interview. "I would say all of them. It comes down to the funding that was allotted for city facilities was not adequate."
Mayor Nancy Rotering said action is underway to ensure the city follows its own building code, and to ensure critical pieces of information are provided to the City Council.
An overhaul of top administrative staff at City Hall over the last 13 months has seen the departure of longtime City Manager Dave Limardi, as well as the city's deputy city manager, public works director, finance director and facilities superintendent.
"We're moving the City of Highland Park in a new direction," Rotering said, hinting that more changes could be on the horizon. But she declined to elaborate, citing personnel concerns.
Rotering said comments from current and former city employees about municipal management of its facilities prompted the council last spring to hire Sidley Austin LLP, a law firm that includes former Chicago inspector general David Hoffman as a partner.
The recommendations produced by the Sidley Austin investigation will serve as a blueprint for change, Rotering said.
Highland Park Theater
The firm analyzed city documents and interviewed city employees, uncovering the mysterious 2008 report from UGL-Equis Corp. that detailed more than $2.6 million in immediate, necessary repairs to the aging theater.
Former City Councilman Steve Mandel, now a Lake County Commissioner, was part of the unanimous council that approved the Highland Park Theater's purchase in December 2008.
Now, he feels duped.
Mandel, then a strong proponent of acquiring the historic building, said he never saw the Equis report at the time. Neither did anyone else on the City Council, he believes.
"The council was told by staff that the building was going to meet codes with minimal cost," Mandel said. "That's not what that report says. So we were misled."
Jim Kirsch was also on the council when it purchased the theater, and said he did not see the Equis report, either.