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County success story: forest preserves
'GREAT COMEBACK' | Even critics say they're cleaner, safer, well-run

Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON

There's a change happening at the Cook County Forest Preserve District.
And it has nothing to do with the falling leaves.
For years, the agency was held up as the poster child for all that is wrong with local government.
Reports of litter-strewn woods, do-nothing patronage jobs and millions of dollars in unchecked spending were the norm.
All that environmental stuff seemed secondary.
Month after month, reform-minded county commissioners, environmentalists and the media heaped criticism on the Cook County Board that runs the district. And they pounded the administrators in charge.
But along the way, something started to change.
Politicians lifted their heavy hand and allowed administrators to administrate.
An infusion of $100 million in capital improvement funds allowed for sprucing up of facilities and construction of new buildings, followed by a carefully timed, unprecedented media campaign.
More importantly, longtime critics say, district leaders finally began listening -- even reaching out to those same longtime critics and addressing things that had long been neglected.
While it would still be easy enough to find a patronage worker, litter in the woods and even some shady activity, those things aren't nearly as pronounced as before.
Critics who slammed the district just a few years ago say the changes there have been noticeable and dramatic.
Forest Preserve Supt. Steve Bylina "used the analogy of fixing up a house," said Benjamin Cox, executive director of the Friends of the Forest Preserves.
"You start with the outside, the most public side, getting graffiti off the house, mowing the grass and generally improving the place," Cox said. "Now, it's time to focus on the interior. We've found that as we push for things, they happen. Instead of getting resistance, they're willing to work with us."
Board President Todd Stroger's recent proposal to raise property taxes to pay for district operations might have been the least challenged of any recent tax hike plan.
The tax increase means about $1.17 more on the tax bill of a $200,000 house. Yet one by one, commissioners -- even those voting against it -- spoke glowingly of district staff.
The budget has money for more land acquisition, more laborers and expanded volunteer programs. It was easily passed last week.
Commissioners Tony Peraica and Tim Schneider voted against new taxes, but sang the praises of the district.
Commissioner Peter Silvestri said just a few years ago the district "was a great disappointment" and the preserves "were dirtier, less safe and not an appealing place for people to go."
"It's much better than it was," he said.
Commissioner Roberto Maldonado talked about "the deterioration of management of the forest preserves," countered by "a great comeback" that "many people can be proud of."
Commissioner Forrest Claypool, perhaps the district's loudest critic, declined comment for this story and said nothing as he joined Peraica and Schneider in voting against the tax hike.
Stroger conceded that when he took office a year ago, Bylina knew far more than he did about environmental issues, so he let Bylina run the district as he saw fit.
Bylina's a political guy, but he's also an avid outdoorsman and, underlings say, a stickler for accountability.
"The result is what we have today," Stroger said.
Erma Tranter, president of Friends of the Parks, said after years of criticizing district operations, "things have changed."
"There is an openness to involving the community that just wasn't there before," she said.
Someone in charge, Commissioner Mike Quigley said, realized "perceptions matter."
"They've dramatically improved communication, changed perceptions and, for the first time, incorporated groups into the planning process which before had been shut out," he said. "That's made a world of difference."
There are still problems, to be sure. A decision last year to transfer $13 million from district coffers to help county government was roundly blasted, and there's lingering resentment over forest preserve housing that can be rented by select employees for well-below-market rate. And there continues to be a big push to get a separate, environmentally focused board put in charge of district operations.
Until that happens, though, a district Cox said was once "very sick" appears to be on a healing path.
"They've got a ways to go," he said, "but you can tell they're trying."



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