When faced with questions about potentially wild spending, Streamwood Park District officials engaged in a concerted effort to keep government information out of the public’s eye, the Better Government Association has learned.
The northwest suburban agency repeatedly ordered board members and staff not to talk to a reporter or “any other person requesting information” and circulated a link with a photo of a reporter so they knew who to avoid at a recent public meeting, according to emails obtained by the BGA under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, the state law that guarantees access to certain government records.
The emails also contained a script of what the park district’s board president should say if a reporter asks questions at the meeting and instructions on how park district employees should respond if they are contacted.
“The key is we do not fuel the fire and go to the press and try to reason or explain things,” Jennifer Hermonson, the district’s superintendent of business services and FOIA officer, wrote in one of the emails, which also included redacted material.
Hermonson additionally emailed dozens of other local park districts asking if they, too, were similarly contacted by the BGA, which, earlier this summer, submitted a FOIA request to Streamwood for credit card statements and travel-related expenses.
The BGA, however, was just looking at the Streamwood park system, acting on a tip.
Typically, copying fees for FOIA requests are waived for the media because the information sought is in the public’s interest. That’s an exemption allowed under the law. Streamwood, however, refused to waive the charges, which would have been more than $500.
To avoid the fees, a reporter had to visually inspect the records in person at the park district’s headquarters.
A review of those records found a number of questionable purchases that warranted a more detailed explanation.
- The district appears to have spent nearly $85,000 on travel and conferences over the last five years in places such as California, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, as well as downtown Chicago – although the true cost is unknown as many of the records are incomplete. Receipts show district representatives at times enjoyed steak dinners as well as other pricey meals and, on at least one occasion, alcohol. It also appears Executive Director Dennis Stein’s spouse or another family member attended at least two conferences out of state with expenses paid for by the district.
- Rather than get reimbursed for purchases after their travel, it looks like members of the park district are given a stipend ahead of time, and then after the event they’re supposed to turn in any leftover money. Whether or not they actually do is unclear since many of the forms are not fully filled out, signatures are missing and receipts are not always attached.
- The district has more than 20 credit cards, a relatively high number given its size. (It serves about 30,000 residents.) Several questionable purchases were charged to the director’s card, including more than $4,500 at fast food restaurants from 2010 through 2014, plus a number of golf-related expenses. By contrast, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel slimmed down his city’s credit cards to about 30 from 500 after the BGA and FOX Chicago reported on alleged credit card abuse in 2011.
Stein refused to talk to a reporter at a recent Streamwood park board meeting and said questions needed to be emailed to the district’s FOIA officer. The park district then treated the emailed questions as a FOIA request, responding only with documents to select questions and providing no explanation to others.
For example, when asked to explain the food and golf-related purchases on Stein’s credit card, whether they were personal expenses and if they were reimbursed to the district, Hermonson replied: “The District has no documents which match your request.”
At the end of the same board meeting on Aug. 25, commissioners went into “closed session” – the portion of the meeting that the public is not allowed to attend so that board members can discuss certain sensitive topics. Once finished, state law requires that they reconvene back into “open session” to either take action or adjourn the meeting.
Though park officials were told that a reporter would be waiting outside and wanted to return after the board reconvened, the reporter was never notified when the meeting was again open to the public.
Rob Bush, a private attorney who represents the district, said that was not a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, the state law guaranteeing public access to public meetings.
Bush also said park officials will respond to FOIA requests but not to questions seeking “value judgments.”
“You’re asking, ‘Is this right? Is this fair? Is this appropriate?’” Bush said. “They are not going to write your article for you.”
He said all the expenditures highlighted by the BGA were “legal and appropriate” because they were approved by the board. He also said he advised the district not to talk to the media.
“That was my advice to them,” said Bush, who declined to say how much he is paid by the park district. “I’ve got nothing else to add.”
When reached by phone, park district Commissioner Rick Brogan defended the conferences, saying they provided valuable educational opportunities for staff as well as board members.
“If the general public didn’t think it was something that was beneficial to us, I would revisit it,” he said. “I just think it’s a benefit to us for what we’re doing as a park district.”
Brogan, as well as the other four commissioners who are elected to govern the agency, did not respond to follow-up messages.
The park district oversees more than 50 park sites, according to the agency’s web site. The park district employs 173 people, according to financial records from the Illinois comptroller’s office.
A Streamwood resident with a home worth $200,000 pays $365.80 in annual property taxes to the park district, according to the Cook County clerk’s office.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews, who can be reached at (312) 821-9027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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