The Chicago Park District often cries poor, unable to find money to fix up recreation sites.
But the agency was able to scrape together nearly $65,000 for a generous severance package for the since-departed general counsel, Maria Guadalupe Garcia – an arrangement both sides wanted kept secret from taxpayers footing the bill, the Better Government Association has learned.
Chicago Parks Supt. Mike Kelly and the park board signed off on Garcia’s exit package in June 2013, around the time Garcia left the agency after nearly 15 years of employment, according to records and interviews.
Garcia did not return messages from the BGA, while Kelly and board president Bryan Traubert released a joint written statement saying, “The Chicago Park District negotiated an appropriate employee settlement package for the purposes of avoiding litigation. This was a management decision that was supported by the Board.”
What was at the root of any potential litigation is unclear.
The park district initially refused to turn over a copy of Garcia’s exit package when the BGA requested it under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, a law that guarantees public access to most types of public documents.
The BGA pressed, and the park district ultimately reversed course and provided the document.
Under the terms of Garcia’s exit, she was paid $64,300 – basically half of her $153,000-a-year annual salary, minus taxes – and allowed to remain on the park district’s insurance plan through the end of 2013, records show.
The agreement between Garcia – a long-time friend of Victor Reyes, a one-time close aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley – and the park district also contained a “Mutual Confidentiality” section that stated, “In further consideration of benefits to be provided under this Agreement, Attorney Garcia agrees and promises not to make known the existence or the contents of this Agreement or the circumstances leading up to the negotiations that culminated in the drafting of the Agreement . . .”
Tim Mitchell, who preceded Kelly as Chicago parks superintendent, leaving the job in 2011 after about eight years, couldn’t recall any such severance deals when he was running things. “I didn’t get one when I left and I would have liked it,” Mitchell said.
As for confidentiality agreements, they are unusual but not unheard of in local government.
The BGA has found a handful of public agencies that have enlisted them in recent years, mostly for personnel reasons. Government transparency advocates frown on such clauses, reasoning that taxpayers footing the bill should know how their money is being used.
Parks officials said Garcia’s severance payout was money well spent.
But $65,000 could go a long way at park sites.
That money could have fixed leaks or provided new exercise equipment at Ogden Park’s field house in the Englewood neighborhood, said Nicole Vaughn, president of the park’s advisory council.
There’s “standing water in the basement,” Vaughn said. “I have kids and I have to take my kids to another park.”