Arena at odds with park council
by BRIAN NADIG
Alderman John Arena (45th) wants greater community participation in the meetings of the Jefferson Park Advisory Council.
"Don’t you think it would behoove this board to increase its membership?" Arena asked at a July 17 special meeting which the council called to amend its bylaws. "That is how you have ‘buy in’ in a city park."
Council chairman Lionel Rabb said that the council dedicated "a lot of time and money," including printing meeting announcements in three languages, to publicize its monthly meetings when it formed in 2012 but that attendance was routinely low, with a half-dozen people typically showing up. The council eventually switched to meeting every other month.
Rabb said that the council members felt that they could engage a larger segment of the community by inviting residents to free picnics, concerts, movies and festivals at the park, 4822 N. Long Ave. The council has relied on corporate sponsorships and private donations to pay for the events, which have featured free food, pony rides, inflatable houses, 25-foot-tall water slides, petting zoos, art projects and tribute rock bands.
"Get people out to the park. That is our mission now," Rabb said.
Council members have said that the park was being underutilized by families in the neighborhood, in part due to problems with rowdy behavior, drug dealing and litter at the park, and in the spring of 2013 the council held a free picnic at which it encouraged local families to use the park and help keep it clean.
"We don’t govern the park)," Rabb said after the meeting. "That is up to CPD (Chicago Park District). Our job is to get people out to the park and to provide help and assistance to CPD. If they ask for a resource, we try to get it, like a popcorn maker for movies at the park. We also worked with CPD on the Esdohr House."
The house, which once served as the park’s craft shop, recently was painted and repaired.
The advisory council has never had more than four voting members, which is one more than the minimum required in the recommended bylaws that the park district provides new councils. The Friends of the Parks organization oversees councils and often serves as their fiscal agent.
Friends of the Parks director of neighborhood parks Maria Dmyterko Stone said that while she is surprised that the council does not have more members given that it is an active park, low participation at advisory council meetings throughout the city is common. Stone said that councils typically are "hurting to get four people" at a meeting.
One of the council’s better attended meetings was in November, when 10 people showed up to discuss a proposed 5-year improvement plan for the park, Rabb said.
The July 17 meeting was not the first time the council has been at odds with Arena. The rims on the park’s outdoor basketball court had been missing for almost 15 years until Arena led a campaign to have them restored in 2011, but concerns about foul language and drug use at the court were frequently raised at the council’s early meetings, and the council has sought to have the rims removed.
Arena recently asked the Friends of the Parks to look into the council’s bylaws and has raised objections about the council’s June 6 election, which Arena says was not properly publicized. "This is not about this park," Arena told the council. "This is about this group."
Rabb, council vice president Frank Suerth and secretary Juan Aramburu were re-elected, but treasurer Cyd Smillie, who works as Arena’s art liaison for the ward, did not attend the election and was not nominated.
Rabb said that the election date was announced at the council’s May 14 meeting and that notice of the election was posted in the fieldhouse in accordance with the bylaws. He said that the Friends of the Parks found no irregularities with the election.
At the council’s July 9 meeting, Smillie reportedly charged that the election date was not announced at the May 14 meeting and said that the council had compromised its integrity. Smillie was at the May meeting.
Arena said at the July 17 meeting that there was no mention of the election at the May 14 meeting, but Rabb said that Arena arrived late to the meeting and missed the announcement.
Rabb said that although no longer an officer, Smillie is welcome to speak at council meetings and that she can become a member, which under the bylaws allows one to vote in council elections, which are held every 2 years. Although the council previously had four officers, the bylaws call for three officers, a president, a vice president and either a secretary or a treasurer.
It also was reported that Arena had informed a council member that he would ask the Friends of the Parks to look into possibly revoking the council’s charter, according to a draft of the July 9 meeting minutes. The council is expected to approve the minutes at its meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 10.
The council’s bylaws allow voting members who are not officers, as long as they meet participation requirements. The council’s recently revised bylaws state that those seeking membership on the council must submit an application and that to remain in good standing they must attend at least three council meetings a year and at least half of the council-sponsored activities.
Stone said that participation requirements for membership are not unusual in advisory council bylaws.
Arena told the council that he had petitions from some residents who wanted to become members of the council, but he did not give the forms to the council when Rabb asked for the information. Arena said that he wants to make sure the council has provided him all the information that he has requested before he shares the petitions with the council.
Also at its July 17 meeting, the council voted to remove a clause from its bylaws requiring members to live in the 45th Ward. Stone said that membership on the council should be open to any city resident given that those living outside the ward can use the park and that they should have the right to offer opinions on the governance of the council.
Stone said that no other irregularities were found in the bylaws and that she is recommending that the council work with Arena to have the dates of their meetings announced in the alderman’s weekly e-mail newsletter. The meeting dates have been regularly posted on the Chicago Park District’s Web site, and the council recently began posting the information on its Web site.
The council also voted to create a nonprofit corporation. The council currently uses a tax identification number belonging to the Friends of the Parks for fund-raising purposes, but it makes sense for the council to create its own corporation since it has demonstrated the ability to raise funds, Stone said.
To coordinate its events at the park, the council has worked with the nonprofit agency Odysseus, whose parks and greenspace director Eileen Sweeney has been assigned to the Jefferson Park council. The council also has purchased movie projector equipment for the park so that it can screen movies throughout the year.
The council meets on the second Wednesday of every other month at the park fieldhouse. Its Web site can be reached at www.jmpac.org.