January 26, 2011
In its recently released analysis of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s FY2011 proposed budget, the Civic Federation reiterated its position that the District must create a separate board of commissioners. The District is currently governed by double-duty Commissioners who also govern Cook County. This structure presents an inherent conflict of interest because of the competing interests of the two governments. Fitch Ratings has supported the creation of a separate board, saying the action would be a positive credit factor for the District. For more information about those conflicts, please visit this webpage devoted to the Federation’s call for the creation of a separate Forest Preserve District Board.
The Forest Preserve District of Cook County is a unit of government legally separate and distinct from Cook County. The District is managed by a separate staff, a General Superintendent oversees the District’s operations and eight departments handle issues including Finance and Administration, General Office, Resource Management, General Maintenance, Permit and Recreation Activities, Law Enforcement, Legal and Planning and Development. However, the District is governed by the same Commissioners and President as govern Cook County.
In 2008, the Civic Federation and the Friends of the Forest Preserves issued a report calling for the creation of a separate board to oversee the operations of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. The report noted the lack of time the Board had to address forest preserve issues. Commissioners are appropriately required to spend great amounts of time dealing with issues pertinent to their County oversight duties, including operating the nation’s second-largest unified trial court system and addressing the County’s huge structural deficit. These time-consuming County issues leave the Commissioners little time to focus on the needs of the District and inhibit their ability to properly manage the District.
A prime example of Commissioners’ lack of time for District matters is that three weeks into the District’s current fiscal year, they have not adopted a FY2011 budget and only just today scheduled long-overdue public hearings. Those hearings are on February 9 at 6:00 p.m. at 2199 S. 1st Avenue, Maywood, IL and February 16 at 2:00 p.m. in the Cook County Board Room (118 N. Clark St., 5th Floor Chamber). The original staff-recommended Forest Preserve budget was released on October 6, 2010; the revised version was released today, January 26, 2011.
The 2008 report also highlighted the conflict of interest that arises from asking the same commissioners to consider economic development issues in one capacity and land preservation issues in another. It cited specific actions taken by the Commissioners that illustrate the conflict of interest. These actions included the sale of District land to the Village of Rosemont in 1999, granting the Village of Morton Grove a permanent easement over District lands in 2000, consideration of a land swap proposal between the District and Mittal Steel in 2005 and the permanent transfer of funds from the District to the County in 2007. In October of 2009, the dual-structure Board of Commissioners voted to continue discussions to lease a 30 acre parcel of land to the Village of Hinsdale so it can be used as a recreational park. The village is continuing to seek permits at this time.
The Civic Federation and Friends of the Forest Preserves strongly recommend that a separate elected Board of Commissioners be created for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. This action does not create a new government entity and should not result in any additional costs for the District. The new board should be elected county-wide via a non-partisan election and have a board president selected among and by the members of the board. A separate board will allow voters to elect Commissioners on the basis of candidates’ positions, credentials, experience and interest in forest preserve governance. It will also provide the necessary governance and oversight required for operating one of the largest forest preserve districts in the nation.