Cash-strapped park district spends $35,000 on conferences

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Public officials with the Riverdale Park District may be using the agency for their own recreation, the Better Government Association and FOX 32 have learned. The south suburban agency spent more than $35,000 on travel and other costs associated with attending park and recreation conferences held both locally and out of state since 2012, according to credit card statements, receipts and other records obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and interviews.Among the findings:

  • Despite its close proximity to the City of Chicago, the park district spent $7,700 on hotel stays in downtown Chicago from 2012 to 2014 for the annual Illinois Association of Park Districts conference at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. During last year’s event, the park district also used taxpayer money for a $780 meal that included menu items such as rib-eye steak, seafood and $18 worth of alcohol. (One public official believes the agency was reimbursed for the alcohol.)
  • The park district, which manages seven parks and a recreation center, among other facilities, sent six board members to Texas in 2013 for the National Recreation and Park Association exposition, records show. On top of registration fees, airfare cost $2,300 and four nights at a hotel cost $3,800.
  • In 2012, four board members and two staff members attended the NRPA conference in California, according to the park district. The agency paid about $2,000 for four nights at the hotel and about $1,800 in airfare, in addition to registration costs.

Several commissioners said conferences provide valuable learning experiences that benefit the community, but some residents, including the mayor of Riverdale, questioned whether tax dollars are being handled appropriately.

The park board, comprised of seven elected, unpaid commissioners, recently approved a 2 percent tax hike for residents of the small, predominantly African-American community, which has nearly a quarter of its population below the poverty line. That means the owner of a $200,000 home, for example, would owe the agency about $308 a year, according to the Cook County clerk’s office.

Despite the tax increase, some people say – and park district budgets indicate – there’s been a decline in programming and activities. Critics told the BGA and FOX they’ve found broken glass, trash, standing water and inadequate lighting at some of the district’s parks. A few youngsters also said they have to supply their own basketball nets when they visit the public courts because the rims are bare.

The conditions are so bad that Riverdale Mayor Lawrence Jackson said he brings his 4-year-old daughter to parks outside of Riverdale.

“The social consequences are detrimental,” Jackson said. “We have kids hanging out on the street and on the corners when they should be at the parks.”

“The foundations of a good community are good schools, good churches and good parks,” he added. “If there are no parks and recreational services, you’re not going to want to be there.”

In light of these issues, many people are left wondering why thousands of dollars were spent on travel and other perks when few improvements have been detected in the parks.

“It makes you question what the purpose of the trip was,” said Rulenska Cunningham, a former park board secretary. “How are you going to take this information and apply it in places you can see? Was it just a vacation, or what way did it benefit the park district?”

Nathaniel Smiley Jr., who has been serving as the park district’s board president, defended the park district’s actions, saying the conferences make people better public officials.

“What do people think about elected officials that do not educate themselves? What do they think of them governing their tax dollars? I really would like to know the answer to that one,” he said.

He also said that prior to going to conferences, “it was pretty much a dead park.” But now they have “more programs than we’ve ever had before,” he said.

Yolanda Perry, a park district commissioner until recently, also said the agency implemented a wellness program for employees as another outgrowth of attending conferences, where “you have the opportunity to learn and network, and to create partnerships,” she said.

A spokesman for the NRPA said its exposition is “a good investment” for the thousands of people who attend each year and learn about best practices and leading information in the field. Peter Murphy, head of the IAPD, had a similar view for the state event, noting: “You’re there for conference experience. You’re not in the Bahamas on a beach somewhere.”

However, Latisha Franklin, a former executive director of the Riverdale Park District, said when she participated in the California exposition, “it became a field trip.”

“That’s how I saw it, in some cases. Like, ‘Hey, look, we’re all going to go to Disneyland,’” Franklin said. “We had more excitement and more conversation about going to see Mickey Mouse than what the classes were going to be.”

Earlier this year, the Riverdale park board voted against a policy that would have limited the number of people attending conferences. Currently the board decides on a case-by-case basis.

Commissioner Betty Ervin-Robinson, who made the motion for the new policy, said she believes conferences are beneficial, “but we can always save some money and maybe have just some commissioners go.”

Katie Drews from the BGA and Dane Placko from FOX 32 wrote and reported the story.

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