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It’s not as though the Chicago Park District needs more problems, what with trees dying in Lincoln Park and so many inner-city parks a shambles. Yet once again it’s the target of accusations by outraged activists who feel the bureaucracy is trying to take control of policies and practices beyond its domain.

At issue is the future of about 200 park advisory councils, locally elected boards of residents who are supposed to shape the future of their neighborhood parks. After allowing the councils to exist for almost a dozen years as a loose and unregulated confederation, a consortium of Park District employees, local park council members, and other experts and interested parties is proposing to establish mandatory rules and regulations governing, among other things, how the councils elect officers and run meetings.

“All we are doing is trying to set some citywide standards so people will be better prepared to run their parks,” says Doris Jernigan, chairperson of the consortium and an employee of a social-service organization called the Chicago Area Project. “Is there anything wrong with that?”

Plenty, many park activists respond, contending that the consortium is being used by Park District officials to control the independent-minded councils.

“We don’t need the Park District with its mandatory guidelines coming in to tell us how to run our business, thank you,” says Cecilia Butler, chairperson of the Washington Park advisory council and a member of the consortium. “But that’s just what’s been happening since the Park District stacked the consortium with paid staff.”

The enterprise began innocently enough, with a $1 million grant last year from the Kellogg Foundation–the cereal conglomerate’s not-for-profit philanthropic wing. The purpose of the grant was for the Park District to train and assist local residents so they could better manage their neighborhood parks.

It was a well-intended gesture, not unlike those corporate grants meant to help community groups organize parents and residents to vote in local school council elections. “We want to give people technical assistance so they will be better qualified to deal with all the problems of running a park,” says Jernigan.

But longtime park activists had their doubts. For one thing, the Park District had commissioned two costly consultant reports on the very same topic in the last four years.

“Does anyone ever read these things? I have to wonder,” says Debra Nelson, an organizer for Friends of the Park, a citywide watchdog group. “And you have to wonder about spending $1 million on this. There has to be a better use for that money in the city; as it now stands there’s so much waste at the Park District. I can’t understand throwing even more money at the district, particularly when we have so many other needs.”

Besides, most councils seemed to be operating without major problems, Nelson says. “Oh sure, there are times when an advisory council will only get a handful of people to a meeting, but that’s the nature of a voluntary organization,” says Nelson. “They have their ups and downs; when an issue gets hot a lot of people show up. But generally speaking the day-to-day oversight work attracts only a few dedicated, civic-minded types.”

The activists also were wary of the fact that 8 of the 26 members of the Kellogg consortium are Park District employees. Traditionally, the local park councils have kept their distance from the central staff. These are advisory groups; they make recommendations, they don’t approve budgets or hire staff. For the most part their time is consumed with fund-raising and clean-up-the park efforts; when they have to, they protest or petition the board for better services.

The Park District was indifferent, even hostile to the councils in the early 1980s, when Friends of the Park urged residents to organize them. It was only after allies of Mayor Washington took control of the Park District board that it began to officially recognize the councils.

“The local advisory councils were supposed to be independent groups, with independent being the key word,” says Nelson. “They’re supposed to be watchdogs. They can’t be afraid to stand up to the Park District. Otherwise what’s the point of having them?”

Nonetheless most activists kept their initial doubts to themselves when the consortium began meeting in the fall of 1990, figuring they might as well give it a chance.

After a few meetings, a dispute emerged over the issue of creating bylaws. “There are no set rules or regulations governing these councils,” says Jernigan. “For instance, there is no rule prohibiting someone from joining a dozen park councils all over the city and having a vote in every one. That violates the concept of one person, one vote. Is it unreasonable to say that you can be a member of as many parks as you want but only vote in one?”

Opponents say establishing and monitoring citywide voting procedures would be a waste of time and money. “If a council is not acting in what residents think are their best interests, they can have their own election and settle their differences among themselves,” says Butler. “But that’s for residents to deal with–not the Park District.”

There was also the matter of minimum requirements for meeting attendance and membership. “You have some councils where you’re lucky to have three people come to a meeting,” says Jernigan. “How can these people be representative of an entire community? I think there should be a rule that for a council to be officially recognized it can’t go for more than two months without a meeting and it has to have at least six people attend in order for the meeting to be official. If you can’t get six people to your meeting, I’m sorry, you shouldn’t call yourself a representative of the community.”

Butler and other activists balk at this proposal too.

“I originally supported the consortium, but when they started talking about instituting bylaws, that was too much,” says Butler. “Who are we to say how many members a park advisory council should have? Who are we to set limits? In some parks you’re lucky to have three people show up–be thankful for that.”

The two sides came head to head earlier this summer, when a handful of advisory members from parks across the city showed up to testify at a meeting of the consortium. Jernigan said she would gladly hear their concerns, but that they would have to leave once the official consortium meeting began. “It’s not that our meetings are private or that we have anything to hide,” she says. “But we had a lot of work to do and a lot of the things we were discussing were not public. At one point they will be public, when we make our recommendations to the full Park District board.”

The advisory council members demanded to be allowed to witness the consortium meeting. Soon loud, angry words were exchanged. “It was embarrassing,” says Nelson. “Doris [Jernigan] got very nasty and slammed her fist down and said, ‘I’m tired of this bullshit.'”

Eventually the council members left the meeting, but bad feelings lingered. “The Park District has too many paid employees on the consortium,” says Nelson. “They’ve turned the consortium into a puppet for the Park District, which is using it to take control of local councils.”

Park District officials would not respond for comment, but Jernigan dismissed the accusations as nonsense. “I’m independent of the Park District,” she says. “Park board members or Park District staff people do not tell me what to do. They have never tried to tell me what to do, either.”

In several weeks the consortium will start holding public meetings throughout the city; after that they will turn their final recommendations in to the Park District board.

“The consortium is turning into a joke,” says Butler. “Most of the advisory council members who are on the consortium don’t even show up for the meetings. They are volunteers. If there’s something nasty they stop going. No one docks them, no one reprimands them. We end up with a consortium dominated by paid Park District employees. So much for independence.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.