Cronin, Pierotti quietly huddle, then scuttle county-forest merger
A topic of discussion during a recent secret, top-level meeting was the possible undoing of a decade-old split between the DuPage County Board and forest preserve commission.
Yet the leaders of both independent governmental entities -- county board Chairman Dan Cronin and forest preserve district President D. Dewey Pierotti -- are in dispute over who suggested the consolidation idea. And both now say they're not in favor of re-creating a combined county and forest preserve agency.
Word of the meeting, which happened last month, comes as the forest preserve is under scrutiny on several fronts, including a county and federal investigation of contract steering.
Pierotti and Cronin both acknowledge the meeting occurred and that a variety of issues were discussed, including consolidation. While they disagree on who brought up the subject of consolidation, the fact that it was mentioned at all is a possible sign the forest preserve's ongoing troubles could result in a change to the way it has operated for a decade.
"To be clear and unequivocal about this, I am not proposing that," Cronin said of folding the forest preserve commission back into the county board. "I am not pursuing it."
"They are a separate unit of government," he said. "I can't propose they consolidate unless the idea comes from them."
Pierotti, meanwhile, insists the historic split the commission made from the county board in 2002 has been a success, despite allegations being probed by the FBI and DuPage County state's attorney's office that two former employees steered computer work to a firm that benefited them.
"We're a well-run government agency," he says. "We have a balanced budget and provide the services that DuPage taxpayers want."
The state legislature approved the separation in 1996 because of concerns county board members couldn't "serve two masters," says state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who co-sponsored the bill.
Before the change took effect in 2002, the county board members served simultaneously as forest preserve commissioners, roles that some said carried an inherent conflict between the county's development interests and the forest commission's environmental mission.
One example of such conflict commonly cited involved Diehl Road, which was allowed to be built through McDowell Grove Forest Preserve near Naperville. Controversy also flared when the combined county board and forest district voted to extend the life of the two now-closed landfills, Greene Valley near Naperville and Mallard Lake near Bloomingdale and Hanover Park.
The legislation cut the county board's size from 24 members to 18 and created the six-member forest preserve commission.
But since the split, development in DuPage has slowed and available land is scarce. What's more, the forest preserve has run into trouble during the past year, making it politically vulnerable.
Opponents, including local Democratic candidates, criticize the district for spending tax dollars on a public relations firm and hoarding cash; its reserves now stand at $243.6 million, although more than half that is earmarked for potential environmental remediation at the landfills.
Also, the state's attorney's office has been looking into allegations that the two former district employees steered more than $488,000 worth of contracts to a Chicago technology firm. Earlier this month, the Daily Herald and BGA reported the FBI had joined the probe. No charges have been filed.
Pierotti says he understands why Cronin could want to bring the forest preserve back under county control as the chairman looks for ways to streamline government. He said Cronin "has the political connections in Springfield" to ask state lawmakers to undo the split.
But Cronin insists he's not pursuing any kind of merger or consolidation with the forest preserve. In fact, he said, it would be "extremely difficult" to do.
"The only way you could even approach that subject matter is (if there was) some very compelling reason," said Cronin, adding others "would have to lead the charge."
Dillard said county leaders haven't approached him about a possible reunification. He wouldn't be opposed to the measure but said, "I do think it makes sense to have a separate forest preserve from an environmental standpoint."
If the agencies did merge, Dillard said the county board should not increase in size by adding the six forest preserve board seats to the dais.
The county board already has 18 members who are paid more than $50,000 a year and qualify for taxpayer-subsidized pensions if they meet certain criteria. Adding the forest preserve's six commissioners would be unruly, Dillard said.
Cronin said he has no intention of getting involved with the forest preserve, especially before the results of the criminal investigation are released.
"If a bunch of problems are discovered and there's some compelling reason to have a discussion about reforming the governing structure of the forest preserve, I would be happy to participate in that discussion," Cronin said. "But I am not going to get involved with the forest preserve at this stage because they've got some issues and problems that they need to be held accountable for."
• Andrew Schroedter is a reporter for the Better Government Association. Robert Sanchez is a Daily Herald staff writer.