22 Aug 2014
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Patch Instagram photo by plainfieldilpatch
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Patch Instagram photo by plainfieldilpatch
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Patch Instagram photo by plainfieldilpatch

Legislation an 'Attempt to Bring Sanity Back' to Plainfield Park District: Cross

Bill would allow mayors of Plainfield, Romeoville and possibly Joliet to have a say in who serves on the board.

Legislation an 'Attempt to Bring Sanity Back' to Plainfield Park District: Cross
Amid accusations of unethical behavior and nepotism on the Plainfield Park District Board of Commissioners, State Rep. Tom Cross, R-Oswego, and State Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood, are proposing a solution: Make the board bigger.

On Friday, Cross announced he is sponsoring legislation that would increase the board from five to nine members, while Bertino-Tarrant will sponsor a similar bill in the Senate.

The proposals come after months of controversy and calls for the resignations of board board majority members Peter Hurtado, Janet Silosky and Peter Steinys.

The four new members would be appointed by mayors of the towns served by the park district, and would serve an initial two-year term. After that, the four spots would be elected. 

"It still allows for the election process, but it allows the community's voice to be heard via appointments," Bertino-Tarrant said. Both Cross and Bertino-Tarrant said they hope to push the legislation through as quickly as possible, and that if it passes, the four new board members would have to be appointed within six months.

Since a new board was seated in May, community members have spoken up, expressing anger at the park board for decisions including ousting Cameron Bettin and hiring Plainfield village trustee Garrett Peck as park district executive director. Both Bettin and Peck have since resigned, but in recent weeks, residents and even elected officials have called upon the board majority to resign.

Cross, who is running for state treasurer, said constituents have been voicing concerns about the park board for months.

"The very first hire they made for the executive director was a political hire," Cross said. "[Peck] had absolutely no experience."

Voters also complained about the board's perceived hostility to residents, Cross said, adding the board majority "had an unwillingness, many times, to even let the public engage in asking questions. ... Jennifer and I had numerous people ask, 'What are you going to do about it?' At the end of the day, we felt like the best approach was to expand the board."

Under the proposal, the four new members would be appointed by municipal officials. As written, that would mean Plainfield Mayor Mike Collins and Romeoville Mayor John Noak, although Cross said he's working on a fix that could give Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante a say, too.

"It was an oversight on my part," Cross said, adding that changes could also be made to account for the fact that small portions of Bolingbrook and Crest Hill are served by the Plainfield Park District.

'An isolated case of extreme abuse'

"It's an attempt to bring some sanity back to the Plainfield Park District," Cross said of the bill, acknowledging that it's rare for legislation to so specifically target a governing body.

"This is an isolated case of extreme abuse," he said, "of people abusing their power. It's an aberration, I hope."

He said no other park districts fall under the parameters outlined in the bill, which states that the law would apply to a park district "if that park district serves a population within at least 2, but no more than 4, municipalities and serves within a county with a population greater than 100,000 but less than 200,000."   

Bertino-Tarrant — who ran against former park district executive director Peck in her Senate bid — agreed the legislation is out of the ordinary.

"This is a very unique situation and it's not something we take lightly," she said, adding the recent developments at the park district have "really saddened me."

"It has hurt a community," she said. "It has tainted the image of elected officials. I spoke to numerous employees and constituents and they basically felt their hands have been tied."

Board members, officials react

Plainfield mayor Collins said he spoke to Cross prior to legislation.

"I'm in agreement that we need to increase the number of board members," he said, but added, "We have to wait to see if the [bill] passes."

Asked about his feelings regarding the recent goings-on at the park district, Collins would only comment, "The board is going to have to work together." Referring to online comments criticizing him for not taking a stand on park district-related issues, he said the critiques were coming from "cloaked individuals."

"It's like getting a letter of complaint without a signature," Collins said. "You don't respond to it."

Commissioner Mary Ludemann said she's all in favor of adding new members to the mix.

"I'm very excited that hopefully this legislation will pass ... so this board majority can't continue to push everything through they way they have been for the past eight months," Ludemann said, noting that while Hurtado's term expires in 2017, Steinys and Silosky will serve until 2019.

"My fear is that the current board majority, they're not going to step down," she said. "That's a long time."

Commissioner Larry Newton said he also likes the legislation.

"I'm glad he's proposing a solution to the problem," Newton said. "I wish there was something that could effect a change quicker," he added, saying it's unclear how long it could take for the bill to pass.

Newton also said he's grateful to Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant (D-Shorewood), for sponsoring similar legislation in the Senate.

Board president Hurtado did not immediately respond to a message from Patch on Friday.

"I think there are probably a couple on the board that will like [the bill] and there are a couple that won't like it," Cross said when asked if he'd discussed the proposal with current park board members.

Mark Batinick, who is running for Cross' current state representative seat, also applauded the bill.

"As a Plainfield resident, father and soccer coach who uses our local parks regularly, I was appalled at the actions of certain members of our park board.  Certain members of the park board acted in irresponsible and callous ways that deteriorated trust and jeopardized taxpayer dollars," Batinick said in a statement Friday. " I am in complete support of Representative Cross' legislation to restore accountability and responsibility to our park board--it is a solution to the problem and I hope it can move quickly through the legislative process."

Click here to read the full text of the bill.


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