DuPage forest board: Mind your own business state
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Politicians hailing from DuPage County sure seem to have an opinion about what should happen to the county's forest preserve commission and the people who serve on it.
Some will tell you commissioners should be appointed instead of elected. Talk to others, and they'll suggest commissioners should work for free. Consult with still others, and they'll say the commissioners' jobs simply should be eliminated.
But forest preserve commissioners themselves have a suggestion for their critics: Mind your own business, and leave us alone.
"I don't see why they want to try to change what's going on with the forest preserve when there are so many other problems in the state," forest preserve commission President Dewey Pierotti said.
Indeed, two state lawmakers didn't consult with forest preserve officials before filing legislation last month that targets the district as a way to save taxpayers money.
State Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, proposed dissolving the forest preserve commission and returning oversight of the district to the DuPage County Board — the way it was more than a decade ago.
And state Rep. Deb Conroy, an Elmhurst Democrat, wants DuPage voters to be given the opportunity to decide if the six forest preserve commissioners should continue to receive their $53,500 annual salaries.
County board Chairman Dan Cronin, meanwhile, says he isn't pushing either of the lawmakers' proposals, but agrees a discussion about ways to improve the oversight of the forest preserve district is warranted.
"Let's face it — there's been a few problems over there," said Cronin, referring to the two former forest preserve employees who were charged in September with stealing more than $100,000 from the district in a six-year span.
"Let's talk about how we could improve the forest preserve and make it more accountable and more effective in fulfilling its mission of protecting open space," Cronin said.
Forest preserve officials already have mounted a lobbying effort against the proposed state law changes. It seems to be paying off.
Reboletti said Friday he's decided not to pursue his proposal this year. Instead, he's planning to meet with Pierotti in the next two weeks while lawmakers are home from Springfield.
Reboletti said he'll work with Pierotti to find money-saving moves the commission can make without dissolving.
"I have all the faith in the world in Dennis," Pierotti said. "I feel deep down that he wants to do what's best for his constituents."
The forest preserve district was separated from the county board about 10 years ago over concerns county board members couldn't balance development and environmental concerns. Pierotti says those same conflicts would return if the two bodies are reunited.
But Cronin, who supported creating the separate forest preserve commission while he was a member of the General Assembly, said there might be better ways to achieve the district's goals.
For example, he said, members could be appointed — not elected — to the commission. That would make it possible for the panel to have a good mix of conservationists, environmentalists and other experts.
"We could make forests and open space more protected and better supported than ever," he said.
Cronin has been pushing for government consolidation in DuPage. Last week, state legislation that would let the county board shrink or dissolve 13 local agencies moved to the Senate.
Pierotti said appointing members to the forest preserve commission would be a bad idea because appointees wouldn't be accountable to voters.
"The people who are going to be on this so-called committee or commission would answer to the person who appointed them — not the people they represent," he said.
If there is a decision to eliminate commissioners' pay, Pierotti said it should be made by voters — not state lawmakers.
Thanks to a recent amendment to Conroy's proposal, that's what would happen if her suggested legislation is approved.
"We're going to allow the voters to make the decision," she said.
If DuPage voters decide to eliminate their salaries, forest preserve commissioners would get no money except for expense reimbursements.
"I have made a pledge to find areas where we can cut the fat and cut the waste," Conroy said. "I believe this is one area where we can do that."
Commissioners scoff at the notion that eliminating their salaries would save taxpayers money. According to the district, the owner of the $300,000 home pays about $140 a year in taxes to the forest preserve. Of that, $1.56 goes toward commissioner salaries.
Nevertheless, Pierotti said, he might propose that commissioners take another look at how much they're getting paid.
"If it's a sore point with the public," Pierotti said, "maybe we should readjust the salaries as soon as we can."
• Daily Herald State Government Writer Mike Riopell contributed to this report
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