On Thursday, May 15, when the Chicago Plan Commission conducts a hearing on Mayor Daley’s proposal to stick the Chicago Children’s Museum in Grant Park, the media, drawn by the prospect of a contentious debate, will pour into the City Council chambers, shining a spotlight on a relatively obscure public body. And what will we see? Most likely an embarrassing display of servility to the mayor.

If they behave as they normally do, the board’s members won’t ask a question, much less speak out against the deal. The Plan Commission is charged with reviewing and making recommendations on all proposals for public land use to ensure they’re in keeping with the city’s long-term planning goals. It can vote to approve, disapprove, or defer an application, and while it doesn’t have the power to enforce its decisions—its role is advisory—on matters covered by the Lakefront Protection Ordinance a “no” vote officially kills the proposal.

But the commission is a collection of mayoral appointees, mayoral loyalists, city staffers, and city contractors. In deal after deal they roll over at the mayor’s command. “It’s a rubber stamp, and everybody knows it,” says Reuben Hedlund, a lawyer who chaired the commission from 1990 to ’97. “It’s as simple as that.”

To take just one example, back in 2001, commission members could have saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by killing Daley’s Soldier Field deal. But of course if there were any chance that they would vote no, Mayor Daley wouldn’t put them on the commission to begin with.

Founded almost 100 years ago at the recommendation of the Burnham Plan, the commission was always intended to be a board of mayoral appointees. According to city statute, its 22 members include the mayor, six aldermen, four city department heads, the chairman of the CTA board, the superintendent of the Park District, and nine citizens appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council. (The Plan Commission’s roster lists only 21 members, and repeated attempts to determine if parks superintendent Timothy Mitchell is on the board were unsuccessful.)

In an ideal world those nine citizen members would be a mix of urban planners, preservationists, park activists, developers, and real estate attorneys—people from a range of backgrounds who could check and balance not just the mayor but one another. But under Daley the main qualification for service on the commission is loyalty to Daley. “Commissioners are people the mayor trusts,” says one planning department insider. “They’re dependable.”

None of the current citizen representatives has a background in parks or preservation. The mix is heavy on well-connected developers, lobbyists, businessmen, and nonprofit heads. Four members are Daley campaign donors, four used to work for him, and five work for companies that have contracts with the city. (For more specifics, see our chart, compiled by Mick Dumke, and his blog post at blogs.chicagoreader.com/politics/2008/05/07/gee-how-will-they-vote/.) The only one with any backbone is longtime member Doris Holleb, a U. of C. urban planning professor who herself is a city consultant.

The commissioners are so spineless they don’t even raise a fuss when the Park District signs off on lakefront projects without seeking their approval. Last month north-side residents went to court to try to block the construction of the soccer field Latin School is building in Lincoln Park as the result of a sweetheart deal with the Park District. A lawyer for the city showed up in court to sheepishly argue that the commission didn’t demand a say on the Latin School project because it was only an excavation. Funny, but the municipal code seems pretty clear on the subject to me, specifying that the Plan Commission must be consulted regarding any lakefront “landfill, excavation, impoundment, mining, drilling, roadway building, or construction.”

The Plan Commission’s monthly meetings, generally held in the City Council’s chambers, are dog and pony shows. Held at the inconvenient time of 1 PM, when most citizens are at work, they’re like a judicial proceeding in which the ruling’s predetermined. They usually start with city planners gushing over whatever deals the mayor has already OK’d and end with the commissioners thanking the developer for his time.

Until a recent court ruling, the commission gave opponents of projects only two minutes each to address the members. I can recall hearings over the years where residents sat through hours of testimony by the developer, architects, traffic engineers, and lawyers only to be barred from speaking themselves.

In 1996 former independent alderman Leon Despres came before the commission representing a group of south-siders who opposed the expansion of the Museum of Science and Industry. Despres demanded the right to cross-examine museum and city officials. But Hedlund, then the commission chairman, turned him down. “On the advice of city attorneys, I denied it,” says Hedlund.

Despres and the residents sued, arguing that the hearing was “unfair” because the commission denied them their “due process rights.” Eventually they lost when a Cook County judge ruled that the commission’s role was to “conduct a fact-gathering proceeding” instead of “a fully adversarial hearing.” The translation? The Plan Commission was free to make its own rules regarding who’s entitled to testify, present evidence, and ask questions.

But in 2006 the Illinois Supreme Court, acting on a case originating in a Lisle zoning dispute, ruled that zoning hearings are “quasi-judicial and not legislative,” meaning that parties “cannot be prevented from presenting evidence and cross-examining witnesses.”

Ironically Hedlund was the lawyer who warned the city that it had better start enforcing the ruling, known as the Klaeren decision, at Plan Commission hearings. Having left the board himself, Hedlund was representing north-side residents opposed to Saint Joseph Hospital’s expansion plan. “I told them they had to allow me to cross-examine witnesses under Klaeren,” Hedlund says. “The law was clear.”

This has ushered in a new age of citizen input at the Plan Commission—one that activists intend to exploit in their mission to keep the Children’s Museum out of Grant Park. Streeterville residents, environmentalists, park activists, and lakefront lovers have promised to show up in force. Under what City Hall insiders snidely refer to as the “Hedlund ruling,” they now have the right to speak, ask questions, and introduce evidence.

This Thursday’s hearing promises to drag on for hours. Most of the opponents tell me they harbor no illusion that they can convince the Plan Commission to stand up to the mayor. Instead they hope to use the hearing to make their points to the public, give the mainstream media something to cover, and gather steam for the next phase, when the proposal, if approved, goes before the City Council zoning committee on May 20. Eventually the full City Council will vote on the proposal, perhaps as early as its first meeting in June.

If the opponents lose before the Plan Commission and the council, they’ll undoubtedly move on to the courts. “There’s a lot of lawyers in the area around Grant Park, and there’s a lot of people who can afford lawyers,” says another planning department insider. “Someone’s going to sue. The only question is who.”

And here the Plan Commission’s performance will be critical. “They’ll be looking for any evidence to get the commission’s ruling overturned,” says Hedlund.

Did the commissioners allow everyone an opportunity to speak, as Klaeren requires? Were they following the criteria of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance when they made their decision? Did commissioners with apparent conflicts of interest recuse themselves? (One commissioner, CTA board president Carole Brown, is on the board of the Children’s Museum; another, alderman Patrick O’Connor, is the brother-in-law of a publicist who’s helping coordinate the museum’s PR campaign.)

The sad reality of oversight boards like the Plan Commission is that no one—not even the mayor’s people—expects the city to effectively police itself. The only way this Plan Commission will end up protecting the lakefront is to screw things up so badly that a judge will overturn its decision.v

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.