To perk up morale after voters, roused by calls of waste and redundancy, decided in November to do away with her office in 2020, Karen Yarbrough, Cook County’s elected recorder of deeds, deemed a field trip was in order.
So, at taxpayers’ expense, Yarbrough and 10 top staffers had a weekend retreat last month at a resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, with spouses and children.
Yarbrough and company spent two nights at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa for an “Executive Staff Leadership Retreat” that cost the county $12,303.09, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Yarbrough stayed in a “premier suite” — costing $627.13 for the weekend. Those suites include a fireplace, according to the Grand Geneva.
Her underlings’ digs were less expensive. Altogether, the 12 rooms that the $105,000-a-year elected official booked cost a total of $6,659.49, records show.
It cost $300 — $150 a day — for a conference room.
And Yarbrough brought in an outside speaker, paid $2,500, to talk about the weekend’s theme: “Finding Joy In Leading Despite Difficult Circumstances and Difficult People.”
Several staff members with kids stayed in the resort’s Timber Ridge Lodge — accommodations that came with passes to the Moose Mountain Falls indoor waterpark.
The food-and-beverage tab for the 12 attending the retreat totaled $2,843.60, none of that for alcoholic beverages.
Meals for kids and spouses totaled $2,688.28, but Yarbrough says she paid that herself — and expects to be paid back. “I love them, but they got to give me my money,” she says.
Asked whether the getaway was a good use of taxpayers’ money, Yarbrough says, “Oh, absolutely.”
She calls it a “small, strategic investment” to improving the efficiency of her office, whose duties — keeping track of property ownership and liens — are to be absorbed by the county clerk’s office.
Why go to an out-of-town resort rather than find a conference room in Cook County?
“I decided that we would be away,” says Yarbrough, whose agency has a budget of about $12 million and employs about 134 people. “I wanted to have some extended time to talk to staff and to get their inputs without telephone calls and, you know, all of those things. I wanted them to be focused.”
Besides, she says, “There’s been a lot of low morale because of the consolidation of the office.”
The taxpayer-funded getaway came to light when a Sun-Times reporter happened to walk past the conference room where the retreat was being held.
The itinerary called the Grand Geneva one of a handful of “AAA four-diamond resorts in Wisconsin.” Amenities include a golf course, spa and horseback riding.
“That’s not a luxury resort,” says Yarbrough, who was elected unopposed to a second term in November and is vice chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois headed by House Speaker Michael Madigan. “It’s a nice resort. I mean, there’s not a lot out there … It was like being in class for a couple of days.”
Why did she take a suite? “My staff person made my reservations, so I didn’t know what room I had until I got there,” she says.
Yarbrough says having spouses and kids there is “going to be the same price” for rooms, though the resort’s charges depend in part on the number of beds per room.
The itinerary included “coping with stress” yoga led by a spa staffer and a “team-building session” led by Erwin Acox Jr., Yarbrough’s human resources chief, focusing on meditation.
The outside speaker, Dan Perkins, was described as “an independent consultant specializing in the field of supplier diversity” who’s creating an online museum from his collection of old photos of boxer Joe Louis. He’s also an adviser to civic and business groups in Maywood, Yarbrough’s hometown.
“He probably could have charged more,” Yarbrough says of Perkins’ $2,500 fee. “I think he did an excellent job to help us focus on some things.”
Perkins’ topics included “How to Keep Joy Alive” and “Confronting Joy Killers.”
Yarbrough calls the sessions “very useful” and the weekend “a good investment.”
“It’s been a troubled office, certainly, before I got here,” she says. “Many of the employees . . . got clouted here . . . Consequently, I have to sort all those things out. My executive staff, in my view, they’ve got a lot on their plates. They’re dealing with a lot of people who don’t have the skill set to do any number of things.”
Among those at the retreat was Tim Curry, Yarbrough’s chief of security, formerly police chief in Maywood when Yarbrough’s husband, Henderson Yarbrough, was mayor.
Asked about the retreat, Patrick Blanchard, the Cook County inspector general, says he’s “aware of these issues, and an investigation is underway.”
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