It's All About the Olympics | Politics | Chicago Reader

It's All About the Olympics 

Why is the Park District clamping down on its volunteer advisers?

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The last time a Park District advisory council weighed in on the Olympics, it didn't come down on the side Mayor Daley wanted. That was back in July, when the Jackson Park Advisory Council passed a resolution against the city's proposal to build a temporary 20,000-seat field hockey arena in the south lakefront park, part of its bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Well, this oughta teach 'em a lesson: In February Park District superintendent Tim Mitchell introduced a draft of revised guidelines that would impose stiff new conditions for membership in local park advisory councils, including criminal background checks. They've been sent to several advisory councils for review, but the Park District itself has the final decision.

Tim King, the Park District's officer who drafted the guidelines, told Crain's Chicago Business that the background checks are intended to keep pedophiles out of the field houses (except of course for the ones who can just walk in off the street) and embezzlers away from the councils' books (though the Park District doesn't fund the councils). Park District spokesman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner adds that the measure wasn't prompted by specific incidents but is meant to be preventive.

I think there's a more likely explanation.

The Park District is essentially an extension of City Hall. The mayor appoints its whole board, and Mitchell was once his deputy chief of staff. Winning and hosting the games is contingent on Park District support. The events will be held on Park District property and be will be paid for in part by Park District funds. Mitchell and other Park District leaders are the ones who'll take the heat for interrupting regular park activities—softball, soccer, football, tennis leagues—to get the facilities ready. As one former board member recently told me, "It's all about the Olympics, my friend."

Historically the park advisory councils have had little clout. They were started in the 80s by Friends of the Parks to provide community oversight, but though the district touts their involvement it also limits it to recommendations and suggestions. There are close to 100 in the city currently (for more than 550 parks), and how active they are varies, with some vigorously raising funds for park improvements and others meeting erratically. All you have to do to join one is show up and fill out an application expressing interest. Still, once you're in, you can yell, scream, and turn blue in the face without ever stopping Mitchell from doing whatever the mayor has ordered.

But the advisory councils have a window of influence right now—and it closes next year, when the International Olympic Committee announces the host of the 2016 summer games. While the councils can't single-handedly upset Chicago's bid, they can undercut Daley's carefully orchestrated appearance of public support, and the mayor takes that threat seriously. When members of the U.S. Olympic Committee visited Washington Park last year, for instance, Daley deviated from plans and kept them on a bus rather than let them mingle with anti-police-brutality activists who'd come out to get their attention. (The official line was that the USOC folks stayed on the bus because there was snow on the ground.)

Currently the Park District park advisory council guidelines, last revised in 2000, are loose. There are no restrictions on membership and no term limits. The councils are encouraged to form their own bylaws, and they're free to impose dues or not. The new guidelines would change all of that. The revised membership application would require not only a criminal background check but three references. "The decision of the Park District to accept or reject" applications is final, it notes, and volunteers "may be terminated at any time with or without cause." The terms and conditions go on to prohibit volunteers from media contact concerning the Park District and to bar them from passing on any information concerning the district without written authorization.

Dues are also prohibited, but fund-raising is strongly encouraged—though the Park District would reserve control over how any money is spent. It has also drafted universal bylaws that include term limits of two years for all officers. Members would be required to live within a certain distance (yet to be determined) of the park or have an "interest in or use of" it, such as participating in a Park District program or having a child who does.

Jill Niland, president of the Lincoln Park Advisory Council, calls the proposed conditions "preemptive strikes" designed to make advisory groups less likely to rebel against its policies. Ross Petersen, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, agrees: "They're trying to create an atmosphere to discourage any type of whistle-blowing," he says. "I have to think that our opposition to the Olympics has something to do with this."

When they passed their resolution in July, Petersen and other Jackson Park Advisory Council members were concerned about rumors that construction of the temporary field hockey arena could tie up the park for several years. The resolution made them the only park advisory council to go on record against bringing the Olympics to town.

The city responded by sending a slew of top officials to the council's September meeting. Chicago 2016 vice chair Valerie Jarrett acknowledged to the group that the games would have a local impact but emphasized the possibility of lasting improvements to the park. Planning commissioner Arnold Randall went so far as to promise that the park would be affected for no more than ten months. Since the Olympic games take place in August and the Paralympics in September, that means construction would start in January and the arena would be down by October—a preposterous promise given the cost overruns and delays associated with most major projects in Chicago. It's not even likely that Olympic officials would allow Chicago to begin building so close to the start of the games, when a harsh winter could prevent the project from being finished in time. But the city will say whatever it has to say to maintain the appearance of widespread public support.

The next big fight looks to be in Lincoln Park, where residents are already up in arms over a sweetheart deal in which the Park District gave Latin School exclusive prime-time use of a new soccer field the private school built on public land near the zoo. Just wait till they learn what the city has in store for the field west of the bird sanctuary near the Waveland Clock Tower: a 10,000-seat tennis arena. In January Olympic committee officials gave a presentation to the Lincoln Park Advisory Council, drawing a chorus of critical questions and concerns. The committee promised to return with more specifics. But it's one thing to ask for a council's advice; it's another thing to follow it.

Maxey-Faulkner says the Olympics has nothing to do with the proposed guidelines. In fact, she says, advocates like Friends of the Parks got the ball rolling four years ago by asking that the advisory council guidelines be rewritten. Furthermore, she emphasizes, the proposed guidelines are not by any means final. "This is a draft," she says. "We're listening to what people have to say."

On Friday, April 4, Park District officials will meet with select park advisory councils to discuss the new proposed guidelines; we'll see how their input is heeded.

Erma Tranter, president of Friends of the Parks, says that two years ago the Park District came to her asking for help in reworking the guidelines. The issue at the time was advisory councils that were failing to meet regularly. She says the new draft was a surprise to her, and that Friends of the Parks does not endorse the revised version: "The guidelines from 2000 say everything that needs to be said," she says. "Why wouldn't you just stick with those?"v

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

Ryan Dickey 2024 W. Eastwood, March 29, from the Reader's Flickr Group

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