The cash-strapped Cook County Forest Preserve District maintains a fleet of five plastic-laminated outhouses it uses just once a year, for County Board President John Stroger's 8th Ward picnic.
County workers call them the "Emperor's Thrones."
The older wooden models are the bane of hundreds of thousands of picnickers and hikers who use the forest preserves every year. They complain about the smell and general disrepair to County Board members, who beg forest preserve officials to upgrade the preserves' restrooms.
The district, facing a $12 million deficit and laying off workers, has said it can't afford to upgrade.
But for at least five years, the district has kept five of the higher-class outhouses dedicated exclusively to Stroger's picnic.
Stroger said Friday he never knew about the practice.
"He's very upset," spokeswoman Caryn Stancik said. "He has never asked anybody for any special treatment, and he will direct the superintendent to investigate the matter further."
Like the good china that spends most of the year behind glass waiting for Christmas dinner, the special plastic-covered outhouses spend most of their lives stored between buildings at a regional forest preserve headquarters in Thornton, inaccessible to anyone.
But once a year, a day or two before Stroger's picnic, workers load the special outhouses on a flatbed truck and drive them to Green Lake Forest Preserve at 159th and Torrence in Calumet City.
On Thursday, July 17, workers removed the wooden outhouses that populate the grove the rest of the year and put them at the other end of the preserves, next to the Green Lake Pool, which is closed because district officials say they can't afford to rehabilitate it.
In their place, the workers put the better outhouses, scrubbed lemony fresh.
That night, fierce thunderstorms hit the south suburbs, especially Calumet City. They spared the nice outhouses but felled at least five trees and many major limbs in the grove.
Starting the next morning and continuing until Saturday night, an army of forest preserve workers descended on the grove, earning "comp time" cutting up the tree trunks and limbs, feeding them into a chipper and creating new wood-chip paths in the grove.
Forest preserve officials say workers cleaned up other nearby groves, as well, though some workers say 90 percent of the efforts were directed to Stroger's grove.
On Sunday, July 20, thousands of well-wishers, 8th Ward residents and major and minor Democratic officials from around Cook County descended on the grove.
One long-scheduled picnic at a nearby grove had to be canceled because of fallen trees. Another was relocated.
At Green Lake, Stroger stayed in an air-conditioned RV parked on the grass. Well-wishers formed a line outside the RV to pay respects. Stroger's ward organization paid for the affair, Stancik said.
An even larger gathering at the same grove the previous month for "The Committee," an organization of African-American professionals, was never offered the option of the nicer outhouses, they said.
In past years, a few days after Stroger's picnic, crews removed the nice outhouses and put the old wooden ones back in their places, then drove the nice ones back to the regional headquarters, said Carl Lewis, a recently laid-off forest preserve worker whose job included moving the outhouses.
"This was a known fact that these were for Stroger and Stroger only," Lewis said. Other current and former workers backed Lewis up.
Because half of the staff was laid off this year as the district wrestled with its deficit, and the other half had so much comp time from cleaning up Stroger's grove, crews did not get around to replacing the nice outhouses with the old wooden ones until last Thursday, seven weeks after they were put there.
"Normally it's done in the first week, no later than the second week," Lewis said. "This was only because of the lack of manpower it took so long."
A forest preserve official confirmed that.
Commissioners were outraged to hear about the special "privies."
"As long as the president understands that not all privies are like these, maybe we can get some better privies," said Commissioner Peter Silvestri (R-Elmwood Park).
"If we don't have money to buy usable toilets for the public, how is it that taxpayers can afford special toilets just for President Stroger's picnic?" said Commis-sioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago). "This is just typical of the way the president views the forest preserves as an extension of his political machine and not as an asset to be managed for the benefit of the taxpayers and families and kids who depend on them for recreation."
New forest preserve Supt. Steve Bylina, who took over in July, reportedly admonished the district officials responsible for the arrangement Friday after the Sun-Times began making inquiries.
In an interview Friday afternoon, Bylina said as many as 10,000 people may have attended picnics in that Green Lake grove during the seven weeks the nicer outhouses were deployed there. As to what happened in past years, he said he could not say because he was not here.
He said the forest preserves obtained a total of about 40 of the nicer outhouses six years ago. One is stationed permanently at Green Lake. Five move back and forth for Stroger's picnic. And the other 34 or so are scattered throughout the district's 309 other groves.
By next season, those five nicer outhouses will be deployed in other groves for the public's use, Bylina said Friday.
The very first question Bylina got from a board member at his first meeting last week was what he planned to do about the awful restroom facilities in the forest preserves. He said he was exploring whether to privatize portable restrooms, buy new units, lease them or take other steps.
But one way or another, he promised commissioners, the situation will improve by the spring.
Stroger had a member of his ward organization, Mezell Williams, running the district's finance department when it ran up a $20 million deficit, raiding the land acquisition and maintenance funds to cover operating expenses. Williams quit the week he was supposed to face questions from board members about the district's finances. Stroger says tax caps caused the district's financial woes.