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  Last year more people used the County's forest preserves than visited Yellowstone National Park.

Cook County to overhaul forest preserve’s Watchmen program

Sunday, October 30, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County Forest Preserve staffers who want to live in the deeply discounted government housing dotting the region’s woodlands and wetlands will now have to prove they can work a chain saw and put out a fire.

The controversial Resident Watchmen Program — which puts forest preserve staff on the front lines of any after-hours emergency in exchange for below-market-rate government residences — is undergoing an overhaul because of complaints it was a perk for the politically connected and, most recently, allegedly a pot farm for one worker.

“We want to make sure employees have the ability as well as the willingness to have the job,” said forest preserve Supt. Arnold Randall.

The new minimum requirements for resident staffers include: a valid driver’s license, a supervisor’s reference and training and certification in chain-saw use and fire safety.

The revamp plans, which had been in the pipeline for months, come a month after Cynthia Wojtanowski, 45, was charged with growing marijuana near a Tampier South Woods preserve rental home in suburban Orland Park.

Wojtanowski was fired from her $56,468 job as an administrative assistant for the forest preserve district and evicted from her forest preserve home.

Randall said Wojtanowski had some of the first-responder skills now being required. “But she wasn’t doing all the things she was supposed to do, because she wasn’t reporting illegal things happening on the land, apparently because she was part of that,” he said.

The plan calls for increasing rent payment, but keeping them below the market rate. Some of the 41 residences in close proximity to others will be used for other purposes.

Forest preserve Commissioner Jeff Tobolski is sponsoring an ordinance to kill the Resident Watchman Program.

“Trying to say these folks provide some extra benefits and that’s why they deserve a discount doesn’t hold water,” Tobolski said. “What about my employees, they put in extra hours, and they don’t get a housing perk?”

Regional forest preserves and the national parks have similar programs, Randall said.

At Wednesday’s forest preserve district meeting, he’ll discuss how the watchmen pay for themselves and eliminate the costly overtime of summoning off-site staff to work in the middle of the night.

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