West Chicago parks' finances called into question
Don Voelz is one of seven West Chicago Park District commissioners controlling the agency's purse strings.
He's also one of three commissioners with family members who have made money from the park district.
Following up on tips from residents of the district, the Daily Herald found relatives of commissioners and full-time staff members working part-time jobs at the district, a commissioner's relative getting business from the district, commissioners spending hundreds of dollars on weekend conferences out of state or in Chicago, and the district's executive director living rent-free at a house owned by taxpayers.
Meanwhile, district officials were blindsided by the complaints, saying they have not heard from anyone in the community questioning the district's operations. Commissioners and district leaders believe any complaints are attempts to sabotage a March 20 vote on whether to raise property taxes to build a $19.5 million community center.
Supporters of the community center project say the proposed 60,000-square-foot facility is long overdue and would allow the district to consolidate programs it houses in a hodgepodge of buildings throughout the city, including its headquarters in a former bank and a fitness center in a former hardware store.
Voelz called the timing of the complaints so close to the vote "strange."
"Do we have some warts? I'm sure we do, but I would hold our operations up against scrutiny," Executive Director Gary Major said.
Voelz, the board's vice president, has two daughters who have worked as part-time employees for the district, he said. Board President Frank Lenertz has a relative who is also listed as a part-time employee, and Commissioner William Spelman's son has a deal with the district to take portraits of all the district's youth sports teams and was paid $260 for team sponsors' plaques. Voelz said his daughters went through the same hiring process as the nearly 200 other part-time employees. They received a combined $12,132 last year for their part-time work at summer camp, groundskeeping, concessions and youth sports programs.
"There is no preferential treatment," he said. "They're no different than anybody else."
A number of the district's 14 full-time staff members, including Major, also have relatives working there part time, according to payroll records provided by the park district. Major's daughter, a former collegiate softball catcher, was hired to conduct a clinic for young girls interested in the sport, he said.
"In this particular case, there wasn't anybody else to do it," Major said.
Laurence Msall, president of the Chicago-based public policy and finance watchdog group Civic Federation, said the district's hiring policy needs to openly address when nepotism is allowed.
"The best practice is to have a transparent policy that indicates under what circumstances the government allows nepotism in its hiring," he said. "For example, it's always viewed as a bad idea to have a relative supervising another relative, even if it's only a part-time position, and elected officials shouldn't be exempt from the policy."
Major acknowledged the need to address the district's hiring policies, saying 'it's probably something we should raise to the board, but the kids working here aren't taking anyone else's job."
But Major defended the district's operational practices.
"Are we trying to find something the park district is screwing up on? Nothing is being done wrong," he said. "Anyone can sit there and throw darts. Should some things be reassessed? I guess, technically speaking."
One of the things Major said the board could reassess is its travel policy. In the last year, three commissioners have cost taxpayers more than $2,000 on weekend conferences in Georgia, Indiana and Chicago. Major said the conferences benefit taxpayers.
"They're not waste if you invest your time and do your due diligence," he said. "We bought a $100,000 playground unit for $35,000 down in Georgia."
Lenertz, who as president of the board spent three nights at the Chicago Hyatt Regency Hotel in January for a state parks conference at a cost of roughly $600, did not respond to requests for an interview.
However, Spelman did respond to inquiries about his son's photography business ties to the district. While the board approved Geneva-based Spelman Studios providing portrait services for youth sports teams, that was done before Spelman joined the board last year. There is also no contract with the district to provide those services, Major said, despite the fact that the services were bid by the board. That means anyone could provide the portraits for the teams, Spelman contends.
"The board just wanted to make sure parents are getting a deal," Spelman said of the board action. "If another photographer wanted to go in, they could."
Spelman Studios was also paid $260 by the district in October for providing plaques to team sponsors. Spelman added that his son's studio also provides many services to the district for free.
Spelman noted that he is often the voice of dissent on the board and was the lone commissioner to oppose Major's housing arrangement with the district.
Major has been with the district for nearly five years. In recent years, he's been living rent-free in a house the district owns at Kress Creek Farm, a park on the city's far south side. The previous director also resided in the house.
Major, whose salary is $105,000 this year, acknowledged he doesn't pay to live there but does have to claim the perk as income. He said that amounts roughly to $12,000 of additional income he claims on his tax returns each year. The perk is not included in Major's contract.
Voelz defended the director's housing situation, claiming Major provides security for the expansive park surrounding the home. "What's to keep kids from driving through there and ripping up the fields?" Voelz said. "It's more of a deterrent if they know someone is there than just having a camera. They can take a rock and break the camera."
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