Why some park districts want to dump lobby group
When Glen Ellyn Park District commissioner Jay Kinzler learned the head of the state parks association was making $360,000 to lead the private lobbying group largely funded with tax dollars, he wanted to know why.
"And I still don't understand," he said of Illinois Association of Park Districts President and CEO Peter Murphy's salary in 2014. "We're going to bring it up and look at all the money we've spent that we've paid them in dues and have a full board discussion, but to me personally, I don't believe it's worth it."
Glen Ellyn is one of several suburban park districts considering dropping out of the state association, which received more than half its $2.17 million revenue from dues and spent nearly $1 million of that on its nine-member staff, according to its annual report. Those dues largely come from tax money collected by the park districts.
Along with that, some taxpayers pay more to have local park district commissioners serving on the board of the association, an analysis of park district expense reports shows. That's because at conferences for parks commissioners, association board members often stay a day or two longer for meetings and preparations.
Ten suburban park districts have commissioners serving on the association's board.
At close to $7,000 a year, the Glen Ellyn Park District's dues to the IAPD are on the high end of the more than 300 park, conservation and forest preserve districts that belong to the statewide lobbying group. Dues are based on the amount of a district's overall budget and were capped a few years ago, parks officials said.
Several suburban park districts are paying the maximum amount and elected officials in some of those park districts are also questioning the expense.
Association officials said none of their members have dropped out within the past six months.
"I do believe there's a benefit to the organization, but I don't know how we can justify financial support of an organization we don't believe is being fiscally responsible," said Frank Scarpelli, Dundee Township Park District board president and a former two-term IAPD board trustee. "There will be some type of vote as to whether we continue on."
Park district officials were alarmed by the growth of Murphy's salary and pension costs since he took over the organization in 2010, Scarpelli said.
Since 2005, Murphy has averaged an annual raise of 9 percent. He never received less than a 4.2 percent pay hike during that time, according to Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund records.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are attempting to remove the association from eligibility for public pension programs in the future. State Rep. Marty Moylan, a Des Plaines Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would ban future IAPD employees from participating in the municipal retirement fund.
"I've got a lot of bipartisan support, but the bill is jammed behind the budget battle," Moylan said.
Wheaton Park District commissioners also discussed ending the relationship with the lobbying group, according to meeting minutes from the past two months.
"We wanted to put the IAPD board on notice that they should be a little more careful about spending and do a little more due diligence," commissioner Ray Morrill said.
Scarpelli said trustees don't have much say in the day-to-day operations of the lobbying group. The executive committee made up of a handful of officers votes on most expenditures. Because the group is not subject to the state's transparency laws, its meetings are not open to the public and minutes from those meetings aren't public, either.
"Peter's salary came up at my very first meeting," he said. "I remember saying it was a bit excessive for someone who's essentially in charge of just nine people and was told that the board was just here to rubber-stamp it and that didn't sit well with me. I wasn't asked to join the executive committee."
He suggested the association board just enter into a contract with a lobbyist rather than keep the post that Murphy holds.
Bobbie Jo Hill, a spokeswoman for the IAPD, said the board of up to 19 members is "elected by the membership of the Illinois Association of Park Districts" and members can serve two consecutive 2-year terms.
Suburban board members on the association are from Bloomingdale, Buffalo Grove, Forest Park, Mundelein, New Lenox, Kane County Forest Preserve, Oak Lawn, Schaumburg, Westmont and Winnetka, and another is a former Grayslake park board member, Hill said.
Taxpayers in the Bloomingdale Park District routinely spent more for IAPD trustee and park district commissioner Mike Vogl than for other park district commissioners when they attended the same conferences. During the past two years, Vogl's IAPD service cost taxpayers in Bloomingdale at least $417 more in additional lodging costs alone, according to the district's financial records.
Vogl acknowledged he wouldn't have incurred those additional costs if he wasn't participating on the association's board, but he argued there was value to his constituents.
"Because my education is greatly enhanced by my involvement, there are benefits to my district," he said.
Vogl also added there were occasions when his lodging costs at association events were not paid by the park district.
Hill said the association doesn't cover additional costs incurred by trustees for their association work.
"The reason they participate in continuing education and networking opportunities is to acquire cost-saving ideas and measures that positively impact their local agencies and communities they serve," she said. "IAPD board member involvement is secondary to that greater mission."
Scarpelli said he's surprised more park districts aren't questioning the relationship with the association.
"If what they were doing were to only reflect on the IAPD that would be one thing," he said, "but this seems to reverberate on any park agency throughout the entire state."
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