Civic Federation and Friends of the Forest Preserves Call for the Creation of a Separate Board for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County
The Civic Federation and Friends of the Forest Preserves support the creation of a separate elected Board of Commissioners to govern the Forest Preserve District of Cook County as detailed in this 2008 report. Due to an organizational structure that creates an inherent conflict of interest and inhibits proper oversight, the District suffers from numerous problems that would be improved by creating a separate governing body to oversee the Forest Preserve system.
This governing body would not burden taxpayers with another layer of paid government officials. The District is already a separate unit of government with its own existing staff and leadership which would support the new independent board. A separate board as recommended by the Federation and the Friends of the Forest Preserves would be cost neutral.
The Civic Federation and Friends of the Forest Preserves recommend that a separate elected Board of Commissioners be created for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. This action does not create a new government entity and its creation should not result in any additional costs for the District. The new board should be elected county-wide via a non-partisan election and have a board president selected among and by the members of the board. A separate board will allow voters to elect Commissioners on the basis of candidates’ positions, credentials, experience and interest in forest preserve governance.
Why Create a Separate Board?
- The Cook County and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County share a Board of Commissioners which creates an inherent conflict of interest because they cannot separate the competing interests of the two governments. Recent examples include:
- Conflicts between land preservation and economic development interests.
- Consideration of land swap proposals by steel mills, municipalities, and other economic interests is contrary to the mission of the District.
- The County permanently transferred $13 million in funds from the District to the County to help solve the County’s budget deficit in 2007
- Commissioners spend the great majority of their time working on County issues, leaving little time for the Forest Preserves they also govern. This inhibits proper oversight of the Preserves.
- Commissioners have failed to address the District’s financial difficulties, including a deficit in 2001 that had been concealed by District employees.
How Has the Current Structure Harmed the Citizens of Cook County?
- The District suffers from a historical lack of financial transparency, including inadequate time for the public to examine the District’s budgets.
- The District issued $100 million in capital bonds funded with taxpayer dollars without public input or a capital improvement plan.
- Fitch Ratings in its recent upgrade of the District’s bond rating supported a separate board for the District. A press release stated that the District “remains vulnerable to the decisions of the shared Board of Commissioners” and added that a separation of the Board would be a “positive credit factor.” A good credit rating is essential to keep the cost of District government down and reduce its burden on taxpayers.
Separating the Board Would Not Create a New Government
- Forest Preserve District of Cook County is already a separate unit of government.
- The District already has its own:
- General Superintendent
- Taxing authority
Creating a Separate Board Would be Cost-Neutral
- Commissioners would be unpaid like members of local school boards and park districts.
- Taxpayers will not be burdened with paying for another layer of government.
Other Counties Have Created Separate Boards
- Dupage County in 2002 and Winnebago County in 2009 sought separate Forest Preserve Boards for similar conflict of interest problems.
- Results in DuPage County include better land acquisition decisions and more attention being paid to restoration and land management.
Fitch Ratings supports Board separation
In September 2009, Fitch Ratings announced an upgrade of the Forest Preserve District’s $115 in outstanding unlimited tax general obligation bonds from to ‘AA-‘ from A+.’ Fitch noted that the District’s vulnerability to decisions made by its Board. Fitch expressed support for Senate Bill 176, which would establish a separate Board of Commissioners for the District, and stated that the greater autonomy created by such a board would be a positive credit factor for the District. A positive credit factor is essential to keep District government costs down and helps reduce the burden on taxpayers.
Who is involved in this project?
The Civic Federation
The Civic Federation is a non-partisan government research organization working to maximize the quality and cost-effectiveness of government services in the Chicago region and State of Illinois.
The Federation’s membership includes business and professional leaders from a wide range of Chicago-area companies and institutions. Click here to download the Federation's press kit, including information about the organization’s mission, history and work to improve government efficiency at the state and local level in Illinois.
The Friends of the Forest Preserves
The Friends of the Forest Preserves is a non-profit organization that works to ensure the Forest Preserve District of Cook County adheres to its mission of "protecting and preserving the flora, fauna, and scenic beauties" within the District and "to restore, restock, protect and preserve the natural forests and such lands together with their flora and fauna, as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition, for the purpose of the education, pleasure, and recreation of the public."
Since its formation in 1998, the Friends has guided such projects as blocking the 2005 Mittal Steel District land swap, helping lift moratoriums on ecological management by volunteers in 2006, and creating a high school internship program with The Student Conservation Association in 2009. One of its major current projects is the Board Separation project with the Civic Federation.
The Joyce Foundation
The Joyce Foundation provided a generous grant to the Civic Federation to conduct a public information campaign to garner support for a separate board of commissioners for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
Based in Chicago, the Joyce Foundation supports efforts to protect the Great Lakes, to reduce poverty and violence in the region, and to ensure its residents good schools, decent jobs, a strong democracy, and a diverse and thriving culture. Learn more at www.joycefdn.org.