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Thursday, March 28, 2013 11:04 am

Park board campaigns short on substance

Candidates refrain from taking positions on issues


Robin Schmidt and Grant Hammer

Candidates for public office are prone to saying lots of things.

“The park district needs to be run like a business, not a political organization.”

That’s what Leslie Sgro said way back in 1991 when she first ran for president of the Springfield Park District board. Twenty-three years later, no one is accusing her or the board of running the park district like a business.

Sgro’s position isn’t up for election this year, but three seats are and, once again, the field is not a crowded one for seats traditionally seen as stepping stones to higher office. Just one of the four candidates won’t win, which might explain the paucity of punch in their campaigns. Better to stay silent on issues, perhaps, than say something that could result in finishing fourth instead of third, which is the definition of victory in this campaign.

There is no shortage of issues. District finances are a mess, according to annual audits conducted over the past five years. The executive director resigned in February when the board discovered that he had been receiving checks, either pay advances or in lieu of vacation, without board knowledge. Then the board found out that more than $165,000 since 2010 had been paid out for unused vacation without board approval or knowledge. Spending was frozen on Feb. 25 in preparation for the end of the fiscal year that comes on April 30.

No wonder why auditors for years had been telling the board to pay closer attention to financial records. Now, a forensic audit is on the way in the wake of former executive Michael Stratton’s forced resignation. And if all that weren’t enough, the cash-strapped zoo is in such bad shape that accreditation renewal was tabled last year by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Yes, there is plenty for candidates to talk about, but they don’t say much about the issues on campaign websites that are filled with talk about fundraisers and yard signs. Robin Schmidt, one of three candidates endorsed by the county Republican Party for the nonpartisan board, says on her campaign website that she’s fired up, but doesn’t say why or about what. She has posted links to newspaper articles and asked for opinions about issues facing the park district, but does not offer opinions of her own.

“For those of you who know me personally, you know I try not to get too ‘excited’ about things until I know all the facts,” Schmidt writes under a link to an article about six-figure vacation payouts.

Schmidt, an attorney who is married to Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Schmidt, is more forthcoming in an interview.

“I think we need some more leadership in the park district – we need better oversight of the financial aspects,” she says. “I don’t want to point fingers. It’s really easy to criticize when it’s not your responsibility.”

Like the other two non-incumbents, Schmidt is hardly a regular at park board meetings, having attended just one. She did not come away impressed after witnessing a March 20 gathering during which members of the audience spoke up whenever the urge struck and the board struggled to choose a forensic auditor, ultimately deciding to get more information from two competing firms before making a choice. Schmidt says that she was surprised that the park board doesn’t make audio recordings of board meetings.

“My general observation is there needs to be more order in the room,” Schmidt says. “I intend to speak up when I believe that something is wrong. … Nobody wants to sit around and talk about money all day, but that’s where we’re at right now. We’re going to have to take care of this house. It’s been neglected.”

Grant Hammer, a logistics specialist for state treasurer Dan Rutherford, says that he wants to be on the park board because he uses park district facilities, particularly Nelson Center where he plays hockey, and he has a young family that uses parks.

“I just think that I could do some things better, just small things,” Hammer says. “Obviously, there’s some very large issues looming over the park district right now.”

And what would Hammer do about those issues?

“I’m exploring ideas,” Hammer says. “I’m open to ideas at this point. At this point, I can’t tell you, specifically, until I’m a sitting board member. … I’m exploring ideas right now, gathering information as I go. I think that’s a fair response.”

Sandra Douglas and Gray Noll

Hammer said that he has attended two park board meetings, then corrected himself. One was actually a committee meeting, he says. Another was a full board meeting, but he showed up late.

“Apparently, the meeting was only a half-hour long or so,” Hammer says. “I just missed it. As I was pulling in, people were filing out.”

Sandra Douglas, who finished fourth in another race for three seats on the park board in 2009, says that she has never attended a park board meeting.

“My schedule wouldn’t allow it,” said Douglas, who works in the HIV/AIDS unit of the state Department of Public Health and is the sister of county Democratic Party chairwoman Doris Turner.

Douglas says she is running for the park board because she is honest, she’s a leader in her church and community and she has a passion for parks.

“I’m a hard worker,” Douglas said. “I’m a creative person. I think I bring diversity. I believe I’m a good leader because I’ve been a good follower.”

But Douglas doesn’t have much to say about Stratton’s resignation or the six-figure vacation payouts.

“I think, because I’m not on the board, I’m not in a position to speak on that,” Douglas said. “It’s a very unfortunate incident. … It looks like the board is moving in the right direction with a (forensic) auditor.”

Gray Noll, a Sangamon County assistant state’s attorney who is running for a second term on the board, said that he’s seeking reelection because “it’s a position where, just about every meeting, you can do some good for the community around you.”

The park board took heat last month for considering a proposal to put a cell tower at Pasfield Golf Course, but Noll defends the proposal, which park officials say is now dead because a grant used to purchase the land in the 1960s requires recreational use only.

“Since the public hearing (on the tower), I have received a ton of emails in support of it,” Noll says. “A lot of the research that went into Pasfield Park could be applicable for another park. … I can’t speak for the rest of the park board. I certainly don’t want to shut the door on any kind of new revenue.”

Noll says that vacation payouts were difficult for board members to spot because they were wrapped up in payroll expenses.

“I can’t tell you why I didn’t catch it,” Noll said. “Obviously, it was a mistake. It was my mistake for not requesting that payroll information every month.”

Noll is blunt about Henson Robinson Zoo, which has long been problematic from a revenue standpoint.

“We definitely need to find corporate sponsorships,” Noll said. “The park district can’t support the zoo just on the attendance revenue. … Without revenue, the zoo is not going to improve, and there needs to be some improvement made out there. If we can’t do that, then the future of the zoo could very easily be in jeopardy.”

Noll says he’s accessible and gives out his email address and cell phone number as often as possible to anyone with an interest in the district. Even as he runs for reelection, however, Noll, who lost a bid for the state Senate last year, won’t rule out running for a different office.

“I basically want to serve my community in the best way that I can,” Noll said. “If I feel an opportunity comes in the next four years that allows me to serve in a different capacity or a capacity that I would be suited at as well, then I may take a look at that.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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