They spent $7,558. And that was only on hotel rooms.

Over the last 16 months, employees of the Park District of Forest Park charged nearly $13,000 for luxury hotel rooms, gourmet meals, airline tickets and a holiday party. The costs were put on debit and credit cards that were paid for with local tax dollars. The information was obtained from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that the Forest Park Review recently filed with the park district. Larry Piekarz, the park’s executive director, provided credit card and debit card statements dating back to January 2010.

The statements indicate park employees and commissioners attended at least four conferences since January 2010, and that they used the cards to pay for hotel rooms and fine dining. Two of those conferences were in downtown Chicago. The cards also paid for lodging and meals for persons who did not work for the park district, Piekarz and Commissioner Cathy McDermott said.

Several park employees attended the joint Illinois Park and Recreation Association’s (IPRA) and Illinois Association of Park Districts (IAPD) annual conference in downtown Chicago for at least the last two years. The conference’s website said the event’s aim is “networking” and “education” for park district representatives and distributors statewide. Furthermore, many of the state’s park districts nominate employees and community members for a multitude of awards that IPRA/IAPD gives out during the three-day event.

Piekarz, McDermott and Commissioner Eric Entler described the event in similar fashion; and at this year’s conference in January, Entler’s wife, Rachel Entler, received the Illinois Park and Recreation Community Service Award for her work as a co-chairperson of the Friends of the Park committee. Kelly Crawford, another co-chairperson, received the same award.

“We said, ‘It would be nice if we took our award-winners out to dinner,'” said Piekarz, when asked why a park district credit card was used to pay a $1,389 tab at Tavern on Rush, a Chicago steakhouse. “It was a matter of convenience.”

Thirteen persons’ meals were paid for with the card: several park employees, and all of the commissioners, and some of their spouses and one fiance. Two of the spouses and one fiance do not work for the park.

“It was for educational improvement,” said Entler, when the Review asked him about the dinner.

He gave the same response when queried about another charge to the credit card: $2,033 for seven hotel rooms at the Hilton in downtown Chicago. The most inexpensive room fee charged to the card was $267. He told the Review to “set up an appointment” to discuss the matter further. Entler could not be reached for comment when the Review tried to contact him again.

“I make no excuses for it…did they bring their spouses? Yeah,” said Piekarz, in reference to the meal at Tavern on Rush, and the hotel rooms.

“It is an age-old debate: Is it necessary to stay downtown?” said McDermott, rhetorically, in reference to the hotel tab. “We [park board] made a decision that it was a justified expense.”

McDermott added the charges were administrative expenses, and that there is a line item in the budget for such costs. For fiscal years 2009 and 2010 the park budgeted $15,000 for administrative expenses, and each year they went over budget by about $2,000. In FY’09 they spent $16,999 and in FY’10 the actual expenses were $16,956.

“Administrative expenses generally include expenses related to meetings, expenses related to employees and employee benefits, expenses related to bereavement acknowledgement, expenses related to or in support of volunteer services provided to the park district or the community national holiday celebrations through sponsorship,” Piekarz wrote in an email.

McDermott said scrutinizing the matter was akin to “splitting hairs.”

Piekarz told the Review that the park does not regularly use the cards for such expenses; what’s more, he said the credit card was recently cancelled because the park feared it could lead to “abuse.”

When some board members attended the 2010 IPRA/IAPD conference, the credit card was used to pay a $1,193 hotel bill at the Hilton, and to pick up a meal at Lawry’s The Prime Rib restaurant that cost $809.

In an email, Piekarz stated that several of the commissioners went to dinner after the conference and invited state Sen. Kim Lightford (D-4) after she received the Illinois Association of Park District’s Legislator of the Year Award – an award the park nominated her for.

“Senator Lightford was invited for the…dinner, but was unable to attend due to a prior commitment,” Piekarz wrote in an email.

“I don’t think it’s an issue,” said Commissioner Sam Alonzo, newly elected park board president, when asked about the IPRA/IAPD expenditures in 2010 and 2011.

During a later phone conversation, Alonzo criticized the Review for reporting on the issue and expressed frustration that he other board members were asked about the spending after a recent park meeting where he was elected board president. That post was previously held by McDermott.

Alonzo said when board members attend conferences, oftentimes they stay for reduced rates, rather than the regular per diem cost. What’s more, McDermott said that not all of the commissioners and employees attend the conferences.

“We discuss each event,” McDermott said.

“It was a hectic year and we decided to treat ourselves,” she added, in reference to this year’s IPRA expenses.

Alonzo said he felt it was important for commissioners to attend the conferences because they are “educational.” He also said that, usually only two representatives attend, noting that the events are not a “free-for-all.”

“Are we the most business-like place?” Piekarz said. “No, we’re a park district.”

The statements reveal other hotel charges over the same time period: $1,593 at the Hilton in Minneapolis for the 2010 National Park and Recreation Association (NPRA) conference; and $2,738 at the Grand Hyatt in Washington D.C., where Piekarz and Alonzo said they traveled to attend the NPRA’s National Legislative Forum on Parks and Recreation and to lobby for federal dollars for the reconstruction of the Roos building, which the park is still working to acquire from its owner.

Their airlines tickets were also charged to the debit card and cost $317.

While Piekarz and Alonzo were in D.C. they used the debit card for meals at several high-end restaurants. They spent $134 at McCormick and Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant; $194 at Bobby Vann’s Grill, a steakhouse; and $90 at the District Chop House.

Alonzo said they took legislators including U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3) out to dinner in an effort to secure federal money for the Roos when it becomes available.

“Now they’ll [elected officials] know that, hey, these people [park district] are desperate or they’re interested in trying to get funding,” Alonzo said.

But Nathaniel Zimmer, a Lipinski spokesperson, denied that the congressman was at any dinner with Piekarz and Alonzo, and also stated that Lipinski never met either of them. Zimmer said the Piekarz and Alonzo only spoke with a D.C. staffer.

The Review tried to call Alonzo for clarity, but calls before deadline went unreturned. An additional call was placed to Piekarz who stated that there was no dinner with Lipinski. Piekarz affirmed that he and Alonzo met Lipinski, but said the meeting was brief and not “substantive.” He added that almost the entirety of their conversation was with a Lipinski staffer, not the congressman.

“No one from the office had dinner with anyone from the park district,” Zimmer said.

The credit and debit cards were also used to pay for a holiday party in December for park district staff and commissioners that cost a total of $2,803. The event was held at The Grotto, an Italian restaurant in Oak Brook.

“It was definitely an extravagant expense,” McDermott said. “Will we be offsite next year? Absolutely not.”

Holiday party an ‘extravagant expense’

The park district usually holds its annual holiday party on the third floor of the park building on Harrison Street, but 2010 was “hectic,” according to Commissioner Cathy McDermott, so the board decided to celebrate the holiday’s offsite.

In December they threw a party for all of the park’s employees at The Grotto, an Italian restaurant in Oak Brook. In all, the festivities cost $2,803, and were charged to a credit paid for with local tax dollars.

McDermott said the board carefully discussed the matter before deciding to approve the expenditures, noting that the park district has not held offsite holiday parties in the past.

She added that the board members are all volunteers who had “gone through some trying things” last year.

“It was definitely an extravagant expense,” McDermott said. “Will we be offsite next year? Absolutely not.”