The biggest selling point of breaking the DuPage County Forest Preserve Commission away from the county board more than a decade ago was to help prevent conflicts of interest.
So now that a state lawmaker is proposing legislation to reverse the historic split, forest preserve commissioners are warning that the inherent conflict between the county's development interests and the forest preserve's environmental mission would return if the boards are reunified.
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Control over the forest district's significant cash reserves also are at stake, they say.
"I think the forest preserve (commission) is very well served being independent," Commissioner Mary Lou Wehrli said. "Because when it wasn't, we were finding roads run though our forest preserves and other things that were not very sensitive to the environment.
"I am very committed to the focus of the forest preserve," she said. "That is something that needs to continue to be independent from county government and a commingling of funds."
Wehrli and several of her counterparts on the six-person commission raised questions Monday about why state Rep. Dennis Reboletti is proposing to return oversight of the forest preserve to the county board by 2016.
"I don't get it," Commissioner Marsha Murphy said. "We've already split. Why do all this legislation to take us back? Why?"
Last week, Reboletti said he wants to save taxpayers money by pursuing consolidation of local governments. While the forest preserve commission has done a lot of good work, the Elmhurst Republican argues the county board can handle the job once again.
County board Chairman Dan Cronin repeatedly has said he isn't pursuing any kind of merger or consolidation with the forest preserve.
And county board member JR McBride, who announced a Tuesday hearing to talk about the issue, insists he was "blindsided" by Reboletti's proposal.
"Every county board member that I've talked to had no idea," McBride said Monday. "I think we are a little flabbergasted that we weren't told."
In fact, McBride says he's concerned because no study was conducted before the legislation was drafted.
Still, forest preserve commissioners say reunification would give the county board control over the district's estimated $230 million in reserves, although roughly $220 million of that is earmarked for potential environmental remediation at two now-closed landfills, Greene Valley near Naperville and Mallard Lake near Bloomingdale and Hanover Park.
"I would sure hate to see the county get hold of the forest preserve and then use that money or borrow against it and then have a landfill problem," Commissioner Shannon Burns said.
Before the two government entities split in 2002, those elected to the county board served simultaneously on the forest preserve commission.
The transition was the fulfillment of legislation approved by the Illinois General Assembly in 1996 that cut the county board's size from 24 members to 18 and created the six-member forest preserve commission.
Forest preserve President D. Dewey Pierotti said the push to separate the two boards began because of concerns county board members couldn't "serve two masters."
"Sometimes there were inherent conflicts of interest," Pierotti said. "If a municipality wants to extend a road and went through a forest preserve, what way are you going to act? Are you going to vote as a county board member or a forest preserve commissioner?"
One example of such conflict commonly cited involved Diehl Road, which was built through McDowell Grove Forest Preserve near Naperville.
Another controversy flared when the combined county board and forest district voted to extend the life of the two now-closed landfills, Greene Valley and Mallard Lake.
"The decision to separate the forest preserve from the county was made after many years of study and consideration and discussion," Burns said. "And it was made for a good reason."
Even if the forest preserve commission keeps its independence, there's a possibility its members could lose their pay.
State Rep. Deborah Conroy, an Elmhurst Democrat, is sponsoring legislation that would eliminate the commissioners' roughly $53,000-a-year salaries.
"The state representative that proposed the salary reductions mentioned in (the Daily Herald) that we have to address waste wherever it could be," Commissioner Tim Whelan said. "I think she ought to pay attention to the waste that's going on in the state instead of looking at the forest preserve."
If there is a decision to eliminate commissioners' pay or the commission itself, Pierotti says it should be made by voters -- not state lawmakers. He suggested both ideas be put on a future ballot as advisory questions.
"Let the people of DuPage County have the opportunity to say what they want to have happen with their forest preserve," he said.
In the meantime, several commissioners said they aren't expecting county board members to lobby against the proposed merger. "I think," Murphy said, "they might like to go back to the old way."