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Responding to election season criticism that the Forest Park Park District spent $11,845 to send seven representatives to an October parks and rec conference in Reno, board leaders said this week that it was a good value in terms of continuing education classes for staff and exposure to park vendors for commissioners. And, they said, funds for the trip came not from property tax dollars but from a district education fund which receives its monies from the rental of park land to a billboard company.

Last October, all five park board commissioners, as well as Executive Director Dave Novak, and Assistant Director Larry Piekarz, attended the 39th Annual National Recreation and Park Association Congress and Exposition in Reno, Nev.

The registration fee totaled $2,240, at an individual cost of $320 per attendee.  In addition, the hotel tab was $3,465 at a rate of $99 per night for five nights, for seven people. 

Round trip airfare was $304 per person and rental cars for the group totaled $512.  Each person also received a per diem of $100 per day, for a total of $3,500.

The funds for the trip, said Joseph Byrnes, board president, came, not from taxpayer money but from a fund earmarked for education.  The fund, he said, comes from the sale of billboard space to the Windsor Sign Company.

The fund, which receives $20,000 per year from the company for the next 20 years, “was earmarked for education purposes only, so that there would be no taxpayer money used for education,” Commissioner Greg Kolinek said.

In addition, Byrnes said that any money left in the education fund at the end of the year is transferred over to the corporate fund, leaving a couple of thousand dollars as a cushion in the education fund.

Park staff, Kolinek said, derive many benefits from attendance at professional association meetings, and attendance is called for by the park district’s policy manual.

The manual states that these activities “are intended to provide a constructive forum for the exchange of ideas and the discussion of common problems; and often result in stimulating creative thought and fresh approaches to park district activities.”

The policy manual, however, does not mention commissioner attendance at the conferences.

“The decision to attend,” Byrnes said, “is up to the director, except for board members.”

Cathy McDermott, a one-time park board member now running for reelection, has questioned the expenditure. For Byrnes and Kolinek, however, the money was not only used wisely, but was a necessary investment.

In Novak and Piekarz’s case, the commissioners pointed out, the conference was necessary to obtain their Continuing Education Units (CEU), which all professionals in the park field need to maintain their Certified Park and Recreation Professionals (CPRP) status.

In order to keep their certifications, the director and assistant director must achieve at least two CEUs every two years, Byrnes said. 

At the conference, said Larry Piekarz in a memo to Byrnes,  Piekarz attended 10 classes worth 0.1 CEUs each; he also attended classes to maintain his Aquatic Facility Operator and Certified Pool Operator certifications.

“If they had to go to each class individually, they cost between $75 and $200 each and that doesn’t count transportation,” Byrnes said.  “They [the director and the assistant director] would only be able to attend one class and we would have to send them 10 times.”

Byrnes pointed out that local classes are held mostly in Carol Stream and Springfield, Ill.

For the commissioners, however, attendance is less clear cut.

According to a Feb. 11 memo from Larry Piekarz, Illinois Association of Park Districts Director Ted Flickinger defends attendance by commissioners.

“It is vital that board members become aware of the issues, trends and products of the park and recreation field to help make informed decisions at the local level.  Participation in state and national conferences is not only justifiable, it is mandatory for the effective park and forest preserve district leadership.  Even the law recognizes the need for park board members to educate themselves by making park board education a legitimate park district expense,” Flickinger said.

For Byrnes, it just makes sense to get everything out of the way in one shot.

“If there was a class in Carol Stream, my boss wouldn’t let me take time off to go; if each one of us attended classes in the state of Illinois, that would mean 30 workdays lost when they can get it done in five days [at the conference,]” Byrnes said.

In defending the trip, Byrnes and Kolinek said the park district is financially sound and commissioners work well together.

“We only went away once a year, we got the CEUs and it’s always during the slow season,” Kolinek said.  Board members “pay for their own family members and we are under average in our per diem; we try to stretch our dollars as far as we can.”

In addition to classes, however, Byrnes also said the networking and connections are an invaluable advantage of going to the conference, especially for equipment that is not made in Illinois.

“Where am I going to find all these people within a five block radius of Forest Park?” Byrnes said, pointing to the 14 pages of three columns each filled with the exhibitors and contractors who attended the conference.