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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 03:29 pm

Park district head on indefinite leave

Board members mum

Michael Stratton is out as executive director of the Springfield Park District.

After an executive session that lasted nearly four hours, the park board on Wednesday unanimously approved a request by Stratton to go on unpaid leave effective immediately until further action of the board. Stratton was under scrutiny for payments made to him without prior board knowledge and charges to his district-issued credit card.

Asked when he expected to return from leave, Stratton said “I think we all agreed to wrap things up rather quickly and move ahead with our lives.”

Would it be fair to say that Stratton’s time as executive director of the park district is over?

“That might be a fair way of looking at it – on my terms,” Stratton said.

The board acted after learning that Stratton had recently taken two checks from park district funds, one for $500, the other for $2,100. In an interview, he characterized the $500 check as an advance on pay and said that he paid the money back within a week. Park board member Mark Beagles has said that Stratton told board members that he took the larger check as a vacation buy-out. Beagles, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting, told Illinois Times on Tuesday that he planned to resign due to the board’s lack of decisiveness during a Monday executive session on the payments to Stratton.

While the board met behind closed doors on Wednesday, Stratton said he hadn’t done anything wrong and that he offered to re-pay the $2,100 rather than keeping the money in lieu of vacation. He said that the district has given pay advances to other employees, but he acknowledged that there is no written policy allowing such payments.

“It’s something that we’ve grown into as an organization over the last several years,” Stratton said. “It is a practice that has been adopted.”

Stratton said that he has taken other advances on pay without prior board approval, but he could not recall the dates or amounts. He said that the advances were approved after the fact by the board, åwhich routinely votes to approve checks written on district accounts.

“Obviously, the board was not familiar with the practice of the organization,” Stratton said while the board mulled his future in executive session.

Stratton said that two other district employees signed the checks written to him as pay advances, but he could not recall their names.

The board is also concerned about Stratton’s use of a district-issued credit card. Stratton confirmed that the board questioned about $200 in credit-card purchases for two dinners that included “staff” and “colleagues” during a recent conference in Chicago. He said that he will pay for the dinners himself, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong.

Would he do anything differently if he had the chance?

“That’s a good question,” Stratton responded while the board met behind closed doors on Wednesday. “I guess I’m a little unclear as to what direction the board wants me to go from time to time.”

Board members were tight-lipped after the meeting.

Board member Tina Jannozzo said an investigation is ongoing, but she declined to provide any details, including who is conducting the investigation. She would not say whether she favors an audit

“I cannot comment at this time,” Jannozzo said. “We’re under personnel issues.”

Asked whether Stratton jumped or was pushed, board member Gray Noll declined to answer the question, saying it was a personnel matter. He said he didn’t know who signed the checks written to Stratton but that the checks are public documents. He would not say whether he was aware of previous payments made to Stratton as salary advances without prior knowledge of the board, saying that he considered the subject a confidential personnel matter. He also wouldn’t say whether he favored an audit of district financial records.

“I have no comment to that question at this time,” Noll said when asked whether he favored an audit. “As a board member, I feel that answering that question may get into confidential personnel matters.”

Board member Sara Wojcicki Jimenez said that an audit is a possibility, but she refused to say whether she favors one. Jimenez, a former television journalist who works as a spokesperson for state House Republican Leader Tom Cross, wouldn’t say whether she favors an audit just hours after giving a television interview outlining a proposal by her boss to provide more information to taxpayers aimed at showing how public money is spent.

Records in Sangamon County Circuit Court show that Stratton has had significant debt in recent years. A judge last year held Stratton in contempt of court for failure to pay his ex-wife more than $12,000 for house payments, legal fees and credit card debt he had been required to pay in his divorce that became final in 2009. The divorce files show that the Strattons in 2009 had more than $60,000 in consumer debt.

Stratton was paid more than $95,000 a year. Asked whether he is in financial difficulty, Stratton said that he is obligated to pay a large amount in child support.

“There’s been some challenges,” he said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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