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Thursday, July 18, 2013 04:03 pm

Park district needs new director

Board members trying to avoid mistakes of the past

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Five months after Mike Stratton resigned as executive director of the Springfield Park District, the park board is taking the first steps toward replacing him.

Board members say they don’t want a repeat of the Stratton reign, which ended after the former executive director resigned under pressure when the board discovered that he had paid himself and other top officials more than $160,000 for accrued vacation without the board’s knowledge.

“There’s certain places we want to go in the future,” said board member Ted Flickinger at a Monday meeting of the board called to discuss how to find Stratton’s replacement. “I don’t want to see a repeat of the last 10 years.”

“I agree,” board president Leslie Sgro said.

“We’re all in agreement,” concurred board member Gray Noll.

Asked afterward what she meant, Sgro, who has been president of the park board since 1991, said that she wants the next director to have strong financial skills and a managerial track record.

Under Stratton’s tenure, which began in 2006, the district was hit by several critical financial audits in which auditors raised questions about poor financial oversight that allowed public money to be spent on alcohol and operating funds to fall into negative balances without board knowledge. In the wake of Stratton’s resignation, the board hired a forensic auditor to determine if there are other financial problems, and the probe has not yet been completed.

Board members on Monday said the district doesn’t have enough money to hire a search firm, and so the search will consist of placing advertisements in newspapers and professional journals as well as putting notices on websites aimed at people who work for park districts.

During Monday’s discussion, board members said they also want someone who can be a fundraiser for the district.

The board expects to have a written job description ready in about two weeks and hopes to have someone hired by Thanksgiving who can start work on Jan. 1.

At least one person, Springfield Ward 4 Ald. Frank Lesko, a former park board member, has said he’s interested in the job. Interim executive director Derek Harms, who took over for Stratton after working as the district’s recreation director, would not say whether he’ll be an applicant.

Board member Robin Schmidt, elected last spring, said she’s heard lots of rumors about who wants the post, and she’s keeping an open mind. Like Sgro, Schmidt said that she wants a strong manager with financial skills. Politics, she said, should take a back seat.

“I think this is a real turning point for the district,” Schmidt said in an interview. “It’s too important to let politics play a part in it. It’s too important to let anyone’s personal preferences play a part in it. It’s got to be a straight-down-the-line business decision. … This position is tough. They’ve got to work with the board. They also have to answer to everyone in Springfield.”

Schmidt said she would prefer that the forensic audit be complete before the board hires someone, but that might not be possible. Thoroughness, she said, is more important that speed.

“We all wish it (the audit) would get done faster – no one wants to prolong this process,” Schmidt said. “So many rumors have flown around, we need to get to the bottom of it once and for all. … This person will have to be ready to lead, no matter what the circumstances are.”

The district is also looking to replace Talon Thornton, director of the Henson Robinson Zoo, who announced his resignation in April for “personal reasons.” Thornton is still on the job and will likely remain until the zoo’s accreditation process is complete this fall, Sgro said. Accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums was postponed last year after an accreditation team found problems ranging from a lack of maintenance and upkeep to a substandard quarantine building.

Sgro said she expects the district to hire Thornton’s replacement before deciding on a new executive director.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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