Youth Interventionist funding narrowly approved

River Forest park board wants more transparency

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

After nearly an hour of debate last week, the River Forest Park District Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to continue taking part in and provide funding for Oak Park Township's youth interventionist program

The vote was originally supposed to happen in May, but some commissioners expressed reservations about whether the park district should be funding the program in the first place. The board held off on voting until June 11 meeting, when township officials would have an opportunity to come in and answer the commissioners' questions. 

During that meeting, River Forest Township Supervisor Carla Sloan argued that the program benefited River Forest and that taxing bodies could accomplish more by working together. In the end, the majority of commissioners agreed to continue participating in the program while asking for more transparency from Oak Park Township.

The Youth Interventionist Program was launched in 1995 in response to growing concerns about gang activity in Oak Park and River Forest. The villages themselves, as well as the townships, school districts, library districts and park districts signed an agreement to share the funding and be included in the program. 

According to Oak Park Township's website, the program seeks to help young people avoid becoming involved in gangs, violence and substance abuse. The youth interventionists work with teens and their families to try to address the issues early, before they can escalate. 

In the spring of 2018, the Oak Park Township proposed an intergovernmental agreement that would set rules for the program for the next two fiscal years. 

A couple of major changes included a requirement that the program engage a third party to "evaluate the program's impact and outcomes," requiring that the taxing bodies involved share data to help track the participation in the program and clarifying what the agreement means when it asks the taxing bodies to support the program.

"Support" includes "referrals, offering space to meet with youth and families, sharing information about high risk behaviors, participating in training events and planning meetings, and by providing outcome data."

The funding is based on each taxing body's population. Under the new agreement, the River Forest Park District will contribute 2 percent of the program's costs, which is amounts to $3,750 in fiscal year 2018-19 and $3,825 in fiscal year 2019-20. Oak Park Township's fiscal year begins July 1.

The Park District of Oak Park approved the agreement by a unanimous vote without discussion during its May 24 meeting. But, it's not the first time the River Forest Park District has questioned the program. The agency decided not to participate in 2010 before returning to the fold. 

During the June 11 River Forest Park District meeting, Sloan said many issues the program was designed to combat are still there in River Forest.

"I think the Youth Interventionist Program, over time, has taken long view of long-term problems," she said. "I think now is not time to take short-term views."

Park board Vice President Molly Hague made a motion to reject the agreement, arguing that Oak Park Township wasn't sharing enough information about what the program actually accomplishes and what it's doing to make the program more effective. 

"I feel like our township people aren't held accountable for any of this," she said. "And the only time we hear from them is when they come to us to sign [agreements]."

Hague said that she had no doubt that the program was helping area youth – but, if the park district was going to put money into it, it should do its due diligence.

Sloan said that one of the issues with tracking the program's effectiveness and it's hard to track outcomes that didn't happen. Michael Sletten, the park district's executive director, agreed.

"How to you measure kids who didn't commit the crime because he was caught ahead of time?" he said. 

For Commissioner Cheryl Cargie, the issue was that the park district was paying for a program run by an entity that wasn't in River Forest. The program has been around for over 20 years, she argued, and the township should be able to figure out how to fund it out of its own pocket.

Board President Ross Roloff said concerns about transparency weren't new.

"I feel like we've done this before. "We started getting things more regularly and [then] we didn't."

Commissioners asked Oak Park Township to provide more detailed information on a monthly basis and have somebody present a report directly to the park board on an annual basis.

Both Hague and Cargie voted against funding the program. Voting to fund it were Roloff and commissioners Lynn Libera and Peter Kuzmich.

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