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Article updated: 11/11/2012 5:44 AM

Election causes major shifts in DuPage forest district

By Elisabeth Mistretta

Major changes are coming to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, in large part due to a 50 percent turnover on the six-member board in the recent election.

That includes the election of Shannon Burns, the first Democrat to win a seat.

Forest Preserve President D. "Dewey" Pierotti Jr. said he's confident Burns will be an asset, especially because she faithfully attends commission meetings and speaks out with reasoned arguments.

"Her heart and soul is in the best interest of the forest preserve and the quality of life in DuPage County," Pierotti said. "This election season got ugly sometimes, but she distanced herself from the negative rhetoric. And when she had suggestions for improvement, they were not without merit."

Two other new faces will join the board when election winners are sworn in Dec. 3. Mary Lou Wehrli of Naperville and Tim Whelan of Wheaton will replace District 5 Commissioner Carl Schultz and District 4 Commissioner Mike Formento, respectively.

Like Burns, both said there will be challenges in the transition, but they look forward to working with incumbents Marsha Murphy, Joseph Cantore and Linda Painter. They were re-elected last week in Districts 1, 2 and 3, respectively.

But other new faces are part of the forest preserve administration: A new public affairs director, Susan Olafson, was announced last week. The district also is searching for a new executive director.

Painter said she hopes Olafson will foster better communication between the forest preserve and the public, especially by using social media.

"We have many, many different activities, events and programs and I just think we need to improve on getting that word out," Painter said. "You can't always depend on print, because people depend on online communication. We need to keep up with the future of media."

Pierotti said the district does not plan to renew its contract with public affairs firm Reverse Spin. Commissioners voted to sign a one-year, $40,000 contract with the firm last year, saying it would supplement the public affairs staff.

Some residents spoke against the contract because the firm is co-owned by Dan Curry, a former political consultant for Republicans, including former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan and former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

Opponents also said in public meetings they feared Curry would help coach incumbent candidates running in the spring primary, or that he might "spin" the media regarding two former information technology employees charged with bilking the district out of approximately $150,000.

Reverse Spin did develop a transparency portal on the forest preserve's website that will now be taken over and expanded by internal staff, Pierotti said.

Wehrli may also quickly see one of her top communication issues addressed even before she is sworn in: live broadcasts of board meetings.

Pierotti said commissioners will hear a presentation on costs for live broadcasting this month, and acknowledged the push from candidates such as Wehrli, who said the district needs a "culture change."

"I had to address some of the things that were raised during the election process," Pierotti said.

Choosing an executive director may be further off, however, and will certainly fall to the new board.

Cincinnati-based Management Partners is conducting an evaluation of the forest preserve's operation, which will include whether the district "needs to hire an executive director or create a different title, and outline the qualifications," Pierotti said.

He said their report will outline whether the district's new leader should have a stronger background in conservation or business.

But Cantore said the candidate needs to be well-rounded.

"I want the executive director to have a wide range of experience in business and conservation," Cantore said. "He or she is going to have to know about how we do restorations ... and how to delegate authority to make sure our policies are carried out."

Ultimately, the executive director must also be the liaison between staff and new board members who have specific ideas about the long-term future of the district.

"The mission," Commissioner-elect Whelan said, "is changing from so much land acquisition to greater emphasis on preservation, restoration, education and how we use the preserves."

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