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A new day dawns
After a year on the job, forest preserve Supt. Steve Bylina cleaning up a system long-rumored to be riddled with goofing off political pals

Monday, August 23, 2004
Daily Southtown
by Kristen McQueary

When Cook County officials picked a new forest preserve superintendent, critics questioned whether he would have the independence — and the gumption — to reform a system known more for leisurely employees than leisurely walking paths.

One year into the new superintendent's tenure, Cook County Board members ought look no further than the oversized dry-erase board in Supt. Steve Bylina's office. A wide grid — color-coded and pasted with sticky notes — lists the name and the status of every forest preserve district employee he supervises. If someone calls in sick, it goes on the board. If someone takes a vacation day, it goes on the board.

When asked about the perception that the forest district serves as a dumping ground for do-nothing political pals, Bylina answered: "Trust but verify."

It's one of his mantras. He trusts his employees, but he also verifies they are doing a day's work for a day's pay. He makes a habit of unannounced visits.

"Do I think someone's staying at home and getting a paycheck? Absolutely, positively not," he said. "I have not run across that, but had it happened in the past? I don't know. You hear rumors, but that's why there are checks and balances now."

Cook County Board President John Stroger appointed him under pressure from freshmen board members who forced out the previous forest boss, a Stroger confidante. A perception of lazy workers, mismanagement and corruption, which Bylina says was largely exaggerated, created a haze over the Cook County Forest Preserve District that Bylina has tried to clear.

From trashy groves to stinky bathrooms to dirt-cheap housing for select forest preserve employees, Bylina addressed many of the problems. He called it "housekeeping."

He even keeps a schedule of the 5,000 garbage cans throughout the district's 60,000 acres to make sure they are checked and emptied. The district's largest swath of land, 14,000 acres, stretches throughout the Palos area in the Southland.

But even Bylina's supporters on the county board question his autonomy. He still answers to Stroger, a disciple of the patronage model who largely controls hiring and firing within Cook County government. Bylina and members of Stroger's staff gather before each Cook County Forest Preserve District meeting to review the agenda and cinch a unified front for the public .

Dissent is a closed-door affair, making it difficult for Cook County Board members to assess Bylina's independence.

Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman (R-Orland Park) who campaigned in 2002 on cleaning up the preserves, complimented Bylina's progress but questioned communication between the district and the county board.

The district's come-from-the-top strategy — a Stroger approach — frustrates some commissioners who often need quick answers but must follow "protocol" to get them.

"If there's a meeting at the forest preserve district about something in my district, I'd like to know about it before finding out from someone else that they're meeting," she said.

Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside) praised Bylina but said bloat remains a problem.

"The things within his purview and scope, he's done a remarkable job," Peraica said. "The day-to-day change is absolutely startling. He's not only revamped the entire administrative plant, he knows what his employees are doing minute by minute.

"The problem is with the second or third layer of management. That's where the white-collar patronage has not been addressed. Those things continue to drag down the district as a whole, and it's not fair to blame Steve Bylina. It's not his decision."

The district's maintenance department includes a maintenance superintendent, maintenance supervisors, regional superintendents, division superintendents and assistant division superintendents, all of whom oversee regular maintenance staff. Cook County commissioners also question the duplication between forest preserve and Cook County functions, such as separate legal departments and communications staffs.

But Bylina insists the district is lean.

In fact, the circumstances of his appointment — heightened public scrutiny, increased oversight from the county board and high expectations from both — give him more freedom to manage on his own. People are watching.

And he manages, his colleagues say, with a straight-forward style.

He doesn't use unannounced visits solely as a tool to catch employees goofing off; he uses the visits as an opportunity to stand in his employees' shoes.

"I think it's very important as a management style to go out and be among your workers, to stop in and recognize what the maintenance person is doing on a certain piece of machinery and to be inquisitive and walk away with a better understanding of what this individual puts up with on a daily basis," Bylina said.

His biggest challenge since taking the job is battling perception.

As a manager hired to improve a bureaucracy, he uses all his tools: discipline, understanding, compassion — even psychology. He talks of the "self-fulfilling prophecy" that developed when good, hard-working employees in the forest district became discouraged from constant criticism in the press and public.

Some of the criticism came from Friends of the Forest Preserves and Friends of the Parks, two environmental groups that issued a thorough, two-part report detailing the district's shortcomings two years ago.

Today, Friends of the Parks president Erma Tranter says the forest preserve district made unprecedented progress over the past year, but there is still work to be done. The most noticeable improvement, Tranter said, is Bylina's pace: When you bring something to his attention, he works on it immediately.

"Nobody in the previous administration would take initiative," she said. "There was a lack of real decision-making. They were so slow in acquiring land, they lost several opportunities to buy parcels, and now it will cost taxpayers more."

Bylina, 54, took the job of superintendent barely into retirement from his old job in Chicago's forestry division. He leapt at the opportunity to shape the future of the forest preserves, which he enjoyed as a kid growing up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

His father instilled in him a deep appreciation of nature, and his heart swelled when he pulled into the parking lot recently of the Little Red Schoolhouse, a nature center he visited as a child and now oversees as superintendent.

He is proud of the new "comfort stations" in the preserves that replaced rickety old outhouses. The facilities symbolize, in a tangible way, a new era for the forest preserve district.

"It's like a new car. You can kick the tires," he said.

Many of his management changes are so basic, the public probably assumed they were happening all along: requiring employees to wear vests, removing graffiti immediately, cleaning windows in district buildings, picking up the garbage and treating other employees with respect.

But the basics suffered under a previous administration. The district didn't even have equipment to remove graffiti until Bylina came on board.

The district's finance team resigned in 2001 after the county board became aware of a hidden, $16 million deficit. The superintendent, Joseph Nevius, retired a year later.

Still, Bylina dispels the perception that the district was mismanaged. He won't comment on something he didn't experience first hand.

"It's always easy to be the Monday morning quarterback," he said.

Perhaps the first major introduction to Bylina's management style came in early January when hundreds of Cook County residents lined up outside Oak Park headquarters to apply for summer picnic permits. Normally, they stand in the cold in a long line that weaves out to the tennis courts.

This year, they still stood in the cold — but managers in the forest preserve district stood nearby, serving hot chocolate and popcorn to keep them comfortable.

Serving the public, the taxpayer, is another mantra Bylina repeats to his staff.

"Pick up the garbage. Remove the graffiti. Wear the vest. Realize there are checks and balances going on," Bylina summarized.

"Trust but verify."

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