The departing executive director of the DuPage County Forest Preserve District says it wasn't his decision to leave.
Arnie Biondo says he was enjoying "every minute" of his tenure with the district until he received an Aug. 4 letter informing him he could either retire early or be terminated without cause.
"It wasn't mean or nasty," Biondo said Wednesday. "It just said the board wanted to go in a different direction."
Biondo's comments came a day after it was announced he's going to take early retirement and step down Sept. 2 after less than eight months on the job. He has been on paid leave since early in the month.
In a search that took less than two weeks, the forest preserve commission selected John Lapinski to replace Biondo. Lapinski, who officially was offered the job Tuesday, is scheduled to start Oct. 1.
Biondo said he knew before he accepted the job in December that the district's elected commissioners could let him go at any time. He said he's grateful they gave him the option to either retire early or accept a severance package.
He picked retirement.
"I will be grateful for that until my dying day," Biondo said. "It leaves me in a pretty good position, and I'm old enough that it works out for me."
The 61-year-old Carol Stream resident said his only regret is that he had to leave a job unfinished.
"We were making really great strides," he said. "I would have liked to have seen it through."
Some officials said Biondo's ouster came because he wasn't moving fast enough on several proposed structural changes to the district, including reducing the size of the administrative staff. Part of the plan was to have the district participate in IMRF's early retirement program.
But when a resolution was presented to the board for a vote, it addressed only the retirement program and didn't include any other steps to revamp the district staff.
Commissioner Tim Whelan said that didn't set well with him and, eventually, other commissioners.
"I wanted to implement everything at one point," Whelan said. "I wanted to have a comprehensive structural program change. But we were spending a lot of time on that (the early retirement program) and not really addressing the other things we needed to change structurally."
Biondo said the early retirement plan had to be implemented first. He also said the schedule for the proposed restructuring got pushed back by five weeks.
He said the only reason for the delay was the district brought in outside legal counsel to work on the reorganization.
"On the day they told me they wanted to move in another direction and I should consider retirement, I had the meeting with that attorney," Biondo said.
In fact, Biondo said he generally got praise from board members. The only feedback that wasn't positive dealt with the speed of his reorganization plan.
"It was pretty clear no one on the board had ever been involved in a reorganization and didn't understand all the steps it takes to do that," he said.
Whelan acknowledges he and other commissioners failed to give Biondo specific direction when he came on board in January.
"When he came in, we said, 'Do what you want to do,'" Whelan said, "instead of saying what we wanted to get done."
Whelan says one of the commission's first tasks in working with Lapinski will be to avoid the "lack of communication" that contributed to the problems with Biondo's brief tenure.
Whelan said he believes Lapinski is the type of administrator the board was looking for before it hired Biondo.
As the trial court administrator for DuPage County's chief judge, Lapinski supervises more than 280 employees as he oversees the 18th Judicial Circuit court.
"From my standpoint, he is an excellent administrator," said Whelan, adding that Lapinski will work well with the district's senior staffers and directors.
Lapinski said Wednesday he's looking forward to the opportunity.
"I'm just really excited about it," the 53-year old Oak Brook resident said. "I think it's going to be a real interesting experience."
Commissioners could have hired a search firm and spent months trying to find executive director candidates as they did when they hired Biondo to replace Brent Manning, who had stepped down citing health and family concerns. But they weren't satisfied with how that process went, Whelan said, and didn't want to go through another long search.
"We as a board knew we had to do something," Whelan said. "We all want to get an executive director in there."
So when Commissioner Joseph Cantore -- who is running unopposed in November to become president of the forest preserve district -- suggested Lapinski to other board members, they agreed to have one-on-one interviews.
Lapinski said Cantore called him and asked if he would be interested in the job.
While he's an attorney who has spent much of his career as an administrator and manager, Lapinski said he was attracted to the forest preserve post because he likes the idea of working with the district's staff and forwarding its mission.
"I'm a lifelong resident of the county and a lifelong user of its forest preserves," Lapinski said. "I'm very familiar with our forest preserves, and they mean a lot to me personally. I plan to work so future generations will be able to enjoy them as I have and so many others have."
Lapinski also looks forward to working with Cantore, whom he has known for years.
Cantore will become the next president of the forest preserve commission after longtime commission President D. "Dewey" Pierotti Jr. retires after the November election.
Whelan said the executive director should be someone Cantore is comfortable working with. Meanwhile, Lapinski impressed other commissioners enough during interviews to be offered a three-year contract that will pay him $160,000 annually.
"It was the coming together of a perfect storm, where we had a top-flight candidate as far as we're concerned," Whelan said. "I don't think we could get anybody better."
Even Biondo has only good things to say about Lapinski. "I think this new guy is going to be great," he said.