Did forest preserve commission jump gun in dumping director?
DuPage County Forest Preserve officials may have jumped the gun when they ousted former Executive Director Arnie Biondo.
At least two commissioners said this week that Biondo was given a letter in early August effectively ending his brief tenure with the forest preserve district without waiting for the entire commission to authorize it.
"The letter was given to Arnie without the commission having any opinion one way or the other about the letter," Commissioner Mary Lou Wehrli said. "It should not have been delivered."
Wehrli said she is speaking out now because the letter's contents recently were made public.
Commissioners, who wanted to keep the letter secret, released the document last week after the Illinois attorney general's office issued a nonbinding opinion that it should be made public.
Biondo retired Sept. 2 after leading the district for less than eight months. He told the Daily Herald he stepped down after receiving the Aug. 4 letter, which informed him he could either retire early or be terminated without cause.
The beginning of the end for Biondo's tenure apparently started July 30 when commissioners expressed unhappiness with his performance during a closed-door meeting when he was on vacation. Commissioners would later say Biondo's ouster came because he wasn't a good fit and failed to move quickly enough on several proposed structural changes to the district.
The board directed its attorney to prepare a draft of the termination letter at the July 30 meeting, Commissioner Tim Whelan said, but made no decision about if and when Biondo was to receive the ultimatum.
"When the letter was going to get delivered was never discussed," he said.
Wehrli said the point of drafting the letter was to have it in case that was the direction the board decided to go.
Whelan and Wehrli said they were under the impression commissioners weren't going to make a decision until after they had shared their concerns directly with Biondo.
The board was supposed to meet privately with Biondo on Aug. 5. Instead, Whelan learned that morning that Biondo had been given the letter on Aug. 4 and already was on paid leave.
"I'm not sure who delivered the letter," Whelan said. "I was just kind of flabbergasted to find out that it had been done."
Forest preserve President D. "Dewey" Pierotti, who signed the letter, said he wasn't the one who decided to deliver it.
Pierotti said incoming President Joe Cantore and the district's attorney, Jim Knippen, asked him to sign the letter on the morning of Aug. 4.
"I was told the board directed me to sign it, so I signed it," Pierotti said.
Like Wehrli and Whelan, Pierotti said he thought commissioners were going to meet with Biondo before taking action.
"The first notification I got that they were going to terminate Arnie was when they presented me with the letter," he said.
Cantore didn't return telephone and email messages on Wednesday and Thursday. Commissioners Linda Painter and Marsha Murphy also did not return calls.
But Commissioner Shannon Burns said her recollection of the July 30 meeting is that it ended with the board informally agreeing to part ways with Biondo. She said the delivery of the letter was part of that decision.
"We all had a concern that Arnie would come back to work (from vacation) and hear gossip," Burns said. "We wanted to make sure he was the first to hear of it."
Regardless of when the letter was delivered, Whelan said the outcome was almost certain to be the same.
"The fait accompli from my standpoint wasn't going to be reversed in any way," he said.
The letter opened with the assertion the commission, "by unanimous consensus," had determined Biondo's "services with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County are no longer required. ... The Commission has determined that your management style has not and will not function adequately within those specific needs and workings."
It gave Biondo two weeks to let commissioners know how he wanted to leave. Biondo sent an Aug. 19 email saying he would retire.
In addition to announcing Biondo's departure, commissioners on Aug. 19 named John Lapinski executive director. But Lapinski, who is the trial court administrator for DuPage's chief judge, since has decided not to take the forest preserve job because of a longer-than-expected recovery from a medical issue.
Commissioners now must develop a plan to search for another executive director. Going forward, Wehrli said she hopes the board does a better job of being transparent about the process.
"We have to be more open with each other," Wehrli said. "We have to be open in our meetings. We have to be open with the public."