Separate so they can be Equal: The Case for Creating a Separate Board of Commissioners for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County

January 27, 2010

On February 2, 2010 Illinois will hold its primary election. The position of Cook County Board President and all Cook County Commissioner seats are on the ballot. Many issues pertaining to Cook County government have been debated during this election cycle, including the repeal of the entire sales tax increase approved by the Board of Commissioners in 2008 and the future of the County’s health and hospital system.

Another issue that has been raised during debates is whether a separate board of commissioners should be created to oversee the operations of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Currently, the existing board of 17 Cook County Commissioners oversees operations at both Cook County and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.

In March of 2008 the Civic Federation released a report with the Friends of the Forest Preserves calling for the creation of a separate board of commissioners for the forest preserve district. The report noted that an inherent conflict of interest exists when the same board of commissioners is asked to choose between land preservation and economic development interests. Highlighted in the report are examples of how when faced with this decision, board members routinely chose economic development. This includes consideration of land swap proposals with steel mills and selling land to a municipality so a parking garage could be built for an adjacent convention center. More recently, the Commissioners wrestled with the decision of whether to lease land to the Village of Hinsdale for the purpose of increased recreational activities. These actions were proposed in violation of the District’s own land use policy and should have never been considered, highlighting the need for independent oversight for Cook County’s dwindling open space.

In order to create a separate board, enabling legislation must first be approved by the Illinois General Assembly and signed into law by the Governor. After Senate Bill 176, which creates a separate board, was introduced in the Spring of 2009, some opponents thought the bill created a separate unit of local government and noted that Illinois currently has the most units of local government of every state in the nation.

To the contrary, the separate board of commissioners would oversee an already separate unit of government. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County has its own General Superintendent, staff, taxing authority and headquarters. Furthermore, under the current proposal board members will not be paid for their services, making the new board virtually cost neutral. The proposal to create a separate board does not create a separate unit of government; it enhances an already established governing body, giving the forest preserve district an oversight body that is equal to its County counterpart. Our valuable open spaces deserve no less.

Other counties, facing identical conflicts, have created separate boards to govern their forest preserve districts. DuPage County Forest Preserve District elected its first separate board in 2002, an act that resulted in better land acquisition decisions, greater accountability for staff and board members and better attention paid to restoration and management of all of the District’s land holdings. In 2009 Governor Quinn signed into law a bill enabling Winnebago County Forest Preserve District to create a separate board of commissioners. The first election for this board will be held in November 2010.

The Friends of the Forest Preserves and the Civic Federation are working to inform the residents of Cook County about the need for a separate Forest Preserve Board and build a coalition to support of this important good governance reform. A Civic Federation webpage dedicated to this project will be available soon. In the meantime, for more information about ways you can help be a part of this movement, please visit the Friends of the Forest Preserves website for more information.