An old game of inside baseball

Park district 'governance' may be an insider issue, but every play matters

Opinion

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

In the weekly newspaper business, the stories we write are often a few days old by the time the paper lands on your doorstep.

But sometimes the news is even older than we think.

In 1983, Jim Talley, a former director of village government's recreation department wrote: "I suspect competition between the two agencies existed from the very beginning." Those two agencies were the village's now-defunct "Recreation Board" and the Park District of Oak Park, and it all began in 1921.

More than 70 years before there was tension between the village and parks over the environmental cleanup project at Barrie Park, or a battle over building a skate park at Stevenson, "governance" of parks and recreation services in Oak Park was as messy as making sausage.

Even when the parks were winning national recognition, subtle conflicts brewed between the village board and its own appointed recreation board; the recreation board, and the park board. And so on.

The "governance" issue still facing park district and village governments may be critical, but even now, it's really just inside baseball. Nobody's much interested in figuring it all out except elected officials and newspaper reporters. And that's just one reason, I suspect, it's not mentioned in the park district's "top 10 reasons" to vote for the April referendum.

What referendum advocate wants to have this conversation with voters?: We'll fix up parks with money from the referendum, but we can fix more parks if the village keeps giving us money for a few more years. No, we don't know if they're going to do that, or if they're going to give us those rec centers you probably didn't know they actually owned. And yes, some of that $1.6 million they give us every year comes from your tax dollars, but we don't know if they'll stop taxing you for that; they may just use it to fix up more alleys. No, we don't know if they'll fix your alley. You could always ask those village board candidates....

It's much easier just to say: Vote for the referendum, and we'll repair those parks and recreation facilities you may have noticed are looking a little shabby.

They're not trying to deceive you, but voting for the referendum is about more than "renewing our parks." Having more money will mean more clout for the park district as it negotiates with the village for more independence.

And on that subject, here are the highlights of some "old news" on an issue that most communities resolved more than 40 years ago, but still lingers on (and on) in Oak Park:

? At least twice over the years a park plan has concluded, as the most recent plan has, that all control over parks and recreation be consolidated under the park district?#34;first in 1955 as part of a study conducted by the National Recreation Association, and again in 1964 in a report by then parks director Webbs Norman.

And the result?

In 1971, a proposal to dissolve the village's recreation department, which involved the village turning over its related assets to the park district was passed unanimously by the park board, and failed by one vote on the village board.

In 1974, a second proposal that would have called for the dissolution of the park board and the district turning over its assets to the village board was unanimously rejected by the parks, and unanimously supported by trustees.

? The inability of the two bodies to resolve their differences led to this happy situation, as described by Talley:

The years of 1975-1979 were not a "productive period for the park district." "They were in a predicament in that they could not attract an experienced administrative team for lack of funds, and because of the existence of what appeared to be a competing agency (the recreation department)." This led to a decline in appearance and quality of parks.

"The village found themselves in the same predicament in that it was difficult to recruit quality staff to the head the recreation department given the duplication of a separate park district."

? Conflict was also apparently not limited to relations between the park district and the village. Throughout the 1960s, the village board also engaged in an internal struggle with its appointed recreation board.

The recreation board had greater powers than today's appointed commissions. It could, for instance, hire the recreation director and purchase property, without approval by the village board.

At the time, the village levied a recreation tax, which was eventually insufficient to "meet recreation demand," according to Talley. The village board then began subsidizing recreation with its own funds, and subsequently trustees began closely monitoring the recreation board's expenditures. Ultimately trustees convinced the board to relinquish its broad powers.

In 1974, the recreation fund was dissolved, and "recreation" was run just like any other village department.

? A consolidation of sorts came about in 1980, after Talley left his post as recreation director. The recreation department was dissolved, and the village soon began subsidizing the park district for recreation services.

Talley described this situation enthusiastically: duplication in services was eliminated, communication with the public on recreation programs became less confusing, the appearance of parks improved. Rehm and Ridgeland met expenses through fees. "The park board was able to implement a systematic park development program financed through the acquisition of grant monies and the sale of park improvement bonds to renovate and upgrade the parks and rec facilities."

After that pleasant wrap-up, however, Talley's ending statement may leave the reader a little miffed: "From an administrative standpoint, the consolidation has worked well. There has, however, been an increase in the amount of conflict at the elected officials' level."

That tension apparently spurred the village and park district to hold a series of meetings "to resolve this conflict."

How those meetings went, I don't know. My copy of the report stops there.

But I do know that, in 1983, Barrie Park wasn't even a blip on Oak Park's radar, and governance issues between the parks and village government haven't been resolved. Further, each time the relationship between the two bodies changed direction, the movement affected the quality of parks and recreation in Oak Park.

The referendum campaign is focused on fixing parks, which is, of course important, and more likely to keep the attention of the average voter.

But settling on one "governance" model or another is also deeply important, even if it's just inside baseball.

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