A Chicago Park District employee who asked not to be named wrote to us about pay equity issues at the agency during the pandemic. 

In December, the Chicago Tribune reported the Park District ‘lost $100 million in revenue during the pandemic due to special events and program fees disappearing,’ according to the agency’s superintendent Michael Kelly.

The park district manages more than 8,000 acres of green space across Chicago, which were still maintained to some extent during the height of the pandemic.

I took the reader’s question to my colleague, data coordinator and investigative reporter Jared Rutecki. In addition to his reporting, Rutecki is the BGA’s go-to database expert. We recently updated our Illinois Public Salaries Database, which now showcases the 2018 earnings of public employees from around the state. Putting the database together takes a ton of time. So while it is the best and most exhaustive salary database in Illinois, it isn’t up-to-the-minute. To answer the reader’s question about recent salaries and raises, the salary database gives you a baseline but not the immediate answers you are looking for. “I always LOVE to recommend the salary database to solve these problems, but that won’t get them much besides an employee count and salaries by position,” said Rutecki.

So, how do you go about digging? And is this even something you can do? 

Short answer: Yes! There are a lot of tools available to the public to continue to hold public officials and agencies accountable. In this case, two could help do the trick — the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR). 

Let’s go through the different resources Rutecki suggests this reader can start with to seek the answers they’re looking for.

First things first: Is it even possible to look into the workings of the Chicago Park District?

Yes. The Chicago Park District is a “public body.” And as a public body, the Chicago Park District is required by law to give the public access to many of its records.

What do those public records include? According to Illinois law that means all of the following:

Excerpt of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act statute.

A good example is the Chicago Park District budget. That’s a clear public document available to you to download and examine. Monies allocated for salaries are shared in the budget. In their 2021 Budget Appropriations, they are allocating 31.23% of expenditures to salaries.

Comprehensive Annual Financial Report

In addition to the Illinois Salaries Database, comprehensive annual financial reports can also be a source for checking expenditures.

What is a CAFR? A comprehensive annual financial report is a collection of financial statements compiled by a government agency. It has to follow special standards, specifically those of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board.

“The CAFR from 2018 shows a higher salary expenditure than in 2019, but the overall cash on hand (assets minus liabilities) is about the same year-to-year,” said Rutecki.

You won’t find individual staff earnings in a CAFR — that’s what our salary database does — but it gives you the overall salary picture of a government body.

You can find all of the available statements through the Chicago Park District’s Comptroller page.

You would also find the 2020 statements, but we didn’t find them on the page. Rutecki said these documents are usually published every June. They’ve been delayed but we’re keeping an eye out.

FOIA is your friend

You can also make Freedom of Information Act requests to the Chicago Park District to retrieve information. 

What is FOIA? FOIA is an open-government law grounded in the principle that the public should be able to access public records and information about the workings of their government.

The Chicago Park District is very unique: Positions deeply vary. “You go from the superintendent to folks that cut the grass,” said Rutecki. With more than 2,000 employees, the pay ranges from less than $40K to nearly a quarter of a million dollars. There are also 25 unions that represent workers of the district, but non-union members also make up the agency.

A suggestion Rutecki has is to make a FOIA request to the Park District for its union contracts and compare them over time.

Click here to check out the current agreement between the Park District and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73.

Our investigations director John Chase also suggests to “FOIA the PD’s most recent budget and then focus on the positions and compare them to the previous year.” This is another method of seeing the most recent pay earned and the percentage increase in pay for each staff member.

Next steps

So now you have these tools. You know a bit about them and want to get started. The best way is to dive right in — if you know what you’re looking for. 

We have resources and databases you can use. We also have plans to bring back our Watchdog Training! Are you interested in participating? Let us know if you are and what you’d be interested in learning that can build your knowledge on how to keep accountable the public officials and agencies that serve you.