As the Park District Turns

“It’s certainly no secret Nancy Kaszak would have an intensely personal motive to do this,” Colette Holt was saying. “The whole thing is frankly too transparent for words–Nancy sending her lawyers in to rifle through my office a few days before the election.” She told us, “It’s just a very ugly time at the Park District.”

We’re talking serious melodrama here, if not a matter yet deemed newsworthy by the other media (save Sneed). Meet the players: Nancy Kaszak, the Chicago Park District’s chief attorney, elected last month to the Illinois House from the north side’s 34th District. Colette Holt, the Park District’s assistant superintendent for external affairs. David Eldridge, a College of DuPage geography professor who ran against Kaszak for the General Assembly and lost.

Eldridge is also president of the Margate Park Advisory Council and secretary of the Lincoln Park Advisory Council. He also lives with Colette Holt.

Other players: the Kellogg Foundation; the Park District’s general superintendent, Robert Penn; former Illinois Supreme Court justice Seymour Simon.

Two years ago the Kellogg Foundation awarded nearly a million dollars to the Chicago Park District to establish a “model for citizen participation through the effective operation of Local Advisory Councils for the District’s parks and play lots.” In May of 1991 Holt took over this project. So scant was the progress made, and so savagely was Holt being pilloried by community groups, that last December 31, the foundation’s grant half spent, Superintendent Penn decided to stop throwing good money after bad and suspended the operation.

Penn brought in two consultants to examine what went wrong and to suggest ways to salvage the half million in Kellogg dollars that remained. The consultants, Holly Delany Cole and Kenneth O’Hare, were blunt: their report last July described the Kellogg project as a botch from start to finish, a poorly conceived and administered fiasco that “has failed to meet any of its stated objectives.” A major stated goal was to train advisory-council members to participate in park affairs. Halfway through the project, just $2,518.31 had been spent on training, 2 percent of the training budget. Although 3,892 advisory-council members were supposed to be trained, only 157 had been–and all they’d received was a three-hour introductory course on roles and responsibilities.

Yet $134,727.50 had already been spent on consultants, 139 percent of the total budget for consultants.

Cole and O’Hare found fault everywhere, especially in the original design of the Kellogg project, which Holt had had nothing to do with. Nonetheless, nothing in the report contradicted complaints that had been reaching Holt for months that she was seriously out of synch with the public, that–in the words of someone who’s observed her closely–“her disdain for the community was transparent. She didn’t feel the community should be involved in district decisions.”

The community groups assailing Holt without effect decided Robert Penn was protecting her. This fall that protection apparently ceased after Holt fired a staff assistant who then made major waves. The former aide wrote a letter that made its way to Penn, the district’s board of commissioners, and Nancy Kaszak alleging that Holt had made the aide perform political work for four candidates.

Eldridge insists he was not one of the candidates. He did not deny something we’ve heard, which is that Bobby Rush was. But he said Holt did no work for two of the four candidates and helped the other two strictly on her own time. He argued that the former assistant didn’t allege that anyone but herself had been made by Holt to do political work, and that because she did the work, there’s no evidence that Holt would have punished her for refusing to.

He told us the Park District’s original investigation “did not sustain any item of coercion. Now, Nancy didn’t accept that. She started her own investigation,” which Eldridge called a “witch-hunt.” He said, “To the extent Nancy was doing this to hurt us before the election, that’s one thing. But to continue this after the election is grotesque, probably illegal, and unethical.”

Holt complained to us that she hadn’t been shown depositions taken by Park District and city investigators. Nevertheless, she said, “the documents were shown around town by the law department,” conduct she warned was “placing the Park District at extraordinary risk. Obviously if people are violating the Constitution, federal statutes, and the Park District code and doing things that any high school student can see what the violations are–that’s a problem. The only two things a lawyer [which Holt is] has are her license and her reputation.

“I’m not about to let Nancy Kaszak trump up a bunch of stuff . . . when everybody knows what her motivations are,” Holt went on. “That’s one of the reasons I went to Justice Simon. He’s representing me. He’s one of the senior statesmen in town. He was outraged.”

However outraged Simon (who would not discuss the matter) might have been, it was widely believed inside the Park District that after reviewing the evidence against Colette Holt he negotiated her departure. Word had it she’d be gone by New Year’s Day.

No way, Holt told us. “I’m not leaving the Park District at the end of the month. That’s certainly been what some people would like to have happen. What Justice Simon is talking to the Park District about is a vicious campaign of vicious charges. . . . There’s been no discussion of my leaving. To the contrary, we expect to clean this matter up. I’m surely hoping we can do this on an amicable basis.”

Which would be? we asked. Her words sounded ominous.

“If Colette finds something she’d rather be doing than be at the Park District, she might do this,” Holt replied with studied vagueness.

Nancy Kaszak has been out of town on vacation and could not be reached. Robert Penn didn’t want to discuss an “ongoing” inquiry. Is Nancy Kaszak behind this? we asked him. “No she isn’t,” Penn said. “By design she has not at all been involved in any way.”

In last week’s Reader Erma Tranter of the Friends of the Parks complained to Ben Joravsky that in a preliminary budget released last month the Park District had called for a $23 million boost in property taxes, something the press barely noticed. We called Tranter, and she said that’s just how it is: she goes to important Park District board meetings where issues like union contracts, minority participation in construction projects, even the renovation of Soldier Field are on the agenda, and there isn’t a reporter in the house.

Oddly, the day we spoke was different. Mayor Daley had just held a press conference, and the Tribune’s John Kass had popped a question about the parks. The mayor said he wasn’t satisfied with the way the parks were being run, and it sounded as if Penn’s job was on the line. Now Tranter’s phones were ringing off the hook as every news shop in town pursued her obligatory comment.

“I said to John Kass, ‘You’re not going to pay attention to the Park District?'” Tranter told us. “He said, ‘They don’t assign anyone.'” Neither does the Sun-Times. Metro editor Steve Huntley told us, “It is an important beat, and we’re taking a look at it. But at the moment we don’t have somebody assigned.”

The situation isn’t quite as bad as it sounds, and a Sunday Tribune piece on Penn’s travails is evidence of that. But the coverage is driven more by personalities than by the issues that a beat reporter presumably would get a grip on–issues like community involvement. And as we’ve tried to show, the papers sometimes miss even the odd personality-laced yarn that isn’t bad.

On the Braun Beat

Congratulations to the Sun-Times’s Maureen O’Donnell for sticking with a story she began working on weeks before the November elections: on the intra-campaign-office conduct of Carol Moseley Braun’s campaign manager/consort, Kgosie Matthews. O’Donnell reported last Sunday that a couple of women involved with the campaign accused Matthews of trying to date them, then giving them a hard time after they said no.

Braun said that she’d ordered an investigation late in the campaign, after receiving an anonymous letter accusing Matthews of sexual harassment, that cleared Matthews. Braun called the letter “character assassination.” O’Donnell’s interviews with the two unnamed women might make you think otherwise.

Braun was unavailable for follow-up questions; as O’Donnell reported Monday, the senator-elect and Matthews are traveling through Matthews’s native South Africa together (to get married? Kup wondered). Braun has always defended Matthews as her political savior–her campaign was near collapse when he took it over, and even other campaign officials who soon detested him were initially impressed–and her romantic interest in him is no secret. If the allegations in O’Donnell’s piece hold water, it appears Matthews was hitting on the help as the candidate fell in love with him. An invigorating position to be in, we suppose.

The Tribune countered Monday with an unbylined “pastiche”–to quote one reporter–to which many hands contributed. It stressed Braun’s denial. The Tribune also was a day late getting to a major Sun-Times Monday story. The new recorder of deeds, Jesse White, discovered Braun had hired ten new staffers in her last two weeks in that office. “I have to get rid of them,” White told the Sun-Times. As reported in the Tribune Tuesday, he did.