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Broke After Legal Fight, Belmont Harbor Neighbors Group Ends After 40 Years

By Serena Dai | February 24, 2014 8:59am | Updated on February 24, 2014 9:29am
 Belmont Harbor Neighbors is a neighborhood association promoting the wellness of residents and businesses in the community.
Belmont Harbor Neighbors is a neighborhood association promoting the wellness of residents and businesses in the community.
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LAKEVIEW — Money woes due to dwindling membership and legal threats have led a more than 40-year-old Lakeview neighborhood organization to dissolve.

The volunteer board of Belmont Harbor Neighbors, a non-profit formed in 1973, voted to dissolve the civic engagement group last week after president Doug Ochab noted that the group's bank account, made of membership fees, had largely been emptied.

Ochab partially blamed legal fees linked to a controversial vote on a proposed LGBT-hotel last summer for the money woes. Other group members said the dissolution is about finances, period.

"It became clear that BHN would not be able to pay future expense[s]," Ochab said in an email.

The attorney general still needs to approve the official dissolving of the 501(c)3 organization.

Rifts in the organization appeared to begin last summer, when the BHN board clashed with Lakeview business owners and employees over plans for the Out Hotel Chicago. The group ultimately rejected Parkview Developers’ proposal to build an LGBT-focused boutique hotel at 3343 N. Halsted St., and Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) followed suit.

Robert Brumbaugh, owner of Progress Bar, 3359 N. Halsted St., threatened to bring legal issues to the Illinois attorney general if Ochab and his wife did not step down from the board, claiming the way they handled the Out Hotel vote violated state non-profit laws.

He said BHN only allowed those living near the proposed hotel to vote, allegedly ignoring Lakeview business owners and employees who thought the hotel would be good for the area. BHN's bylaws say people who work or live in the neighborhood are eligible to vote.

Brumbaugh also said his aim is to create a better-functioning organization. 

"As long as the alderman's office [considers] votes taken by the Belmont Harbor Neighbors association, everyone has a stake in that it represents the community — and not just a handful of people," he said. "It's not about the Out Hotel. It's about moving forward."

BHN's fees came from hiring legal counsel to investigate Brumbaugh's allegations.

But to some board members, Brumbaugh was determined to take down anybody who opposed the hotel project.

"He might be the nicest guy in the world, but I know when people are being bullies,” BHN board member George Eastman said. "I also know what a tantrum looks like."

Eastman said the dissolution of the group has a lot more to do with membership than it does any legal threat.

Each member pays $10 a year, and the group has somewhere between 30 and 40 members, Eastman said. The cost of filing future 501(c)3 documents and paying for post office fees would wipe funds out eventually, said Eastman.

"There didn’t seem to be any funding mechanism going forward, independent of the legal issue," he said.

The group's dissolution affects civic engagement in the community.

While neighborhood groups don't legally hold decision-making power in the ward, Tunney has long looked to them when decisions on everything from liquor licenses to planned developments, including the Out Hotel in Belmont Harbor's borders.

All other areas of the ward have neighborhood groups, and with the end of Belmont Harbor Neighbors, those residents now no longer have an aldermanic advisory group.

Erin Duffy, Tunney's director of community outreach, said she'd not been officially notified about Belmont Harbor board's decision but would work with parent organization Lake View Citizens' Council to help residents join an existing organization or to create a new one.

Robin Cook, a six-year Lakeview resident, joined the board in July because he wanted to help address crime issues.

Like other members of the board, he opposed the Out Hotel project and wanted bylaws changed to limit how many employees of local businesses could be members. 

But the whole situation ended up being "stressful" and "disheartening," he said.

Though the board spent months dealing with drama both with Brumbaugh and internally, non-board members were largely kept in the dark, Cook said.

Doug Ochab also sent an email to the board asking them not to notify members about the dissolution until it was official, a move that made other board members feel like the organization had become secretive and suspicious, they said.

Cook has neighbors who are members that had no idea votes on dissolution were happening or that member fees were being used to pay for legal counsel, he said. He is now trying to rally residents and raise money to revive the organization.

"I never thought we would get this off track," he said.