Proposal to merge County, Forest District sparks debate
By Hank Beckman For The Sun February 27, 2013 9:10PM
Updated: April 2, 2013 6:20AM
A move by a Republican legislator to merge the DuPage Forest Preserve District with DuPage County government has sparked concerns among some County Board members and residents.
“I’d like to know where it’s all coming from,” DuPage County Board Legislative Committee Chairman J.R. McBride said at a meeting on Tuesday.
McBride specifically wanted to know why State Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Addison) introduced HB 2479, legislation that would fold the Forest Preserve District back in with the DuPage County government in 2016, without consulting anyone in county government.
The legislation was filed Feb. 20, when it had a first reading and was immediately sent to the state House Rules Committee.
The Forest Preserve District was part of county government until 2002, when it split off on its own, the final result of legislation passed in 1996 by the Illinois General Assembly.
“What we want them to do is to come to us and talk to us,” McBride said. “The Forest Preserve District is Triple-A rated and as far as I know, they’re doing a great job.”
The concern expressed by many in the room was that there existed a fundamental conflict between the mission of the County Board and the Forest Preserve District, with the County Board often focused on development and the Forest Preserve District focusing on maintaining open space and preserving the environment.
“There’s an inherent conflict,” DuPage County Board James Healy (R-District 5) of Naperville said.
Healy said that he was in favor of the two bodies sharing services, but didn’t see the potential for great savings, only possible conflict.
He also said that any action to consolidate the two bodies should be approved by the voters in a referendum.
Contacted by telephone Wednesday, Reboletti said that consolidation of governments is something that has been on his radar for some time.
“The question is, how can we provide services and at the same time save the taxpayers money,” he said.
Reboletti noted that his constituents often called his district office complaining that the value of their homes had decreased in recent years, only to see their property tax bills increase.
DuPage Board Chairman Dan Cronin said that he was open to the possibility of merging the two bodies, but denied that he had anything to do with HB 2479.
“That was Dennis Reboletti exercising leadership,” he said. “The last two years my focus has been the consolidation of various boards and commissions that come under the umbrella of county government. Are there other ways to fulfill the mission of the Forest Preserve District? I welcome the discussion.”
The debate could be heated.
“This is a legislative decision that was considered and voted on more than 10 years ago,” Sue Olafson, director of the Forest Preserve District Office of Public Affairs, said, saying that she didn’t think it needed to be revisited.
Forest Preserve District President D. “Dewey” Pierotti Jr. echoed Olafson’s comments and agreed with Healy about the nature of the two bodies.
“There is an inherent conflict of interest between a county’s development interest and a forest preserve commission’s environmental mission,” he said.
“The County Board is expected to vote on issues relating to infrastructure and development. The Forest Preserve Board is expected to vote on how to preserve open space and nature.”
Indeed, many of the speakers at the meeting saw the two bodies as having essentially different missions.
“Prior to the split, difficult decisions which benefited the county but disregarded the mission of the Forest Preserve District demonstrated why these two boards should be separate,” Connie Schmidt, chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s River Prairie Group, said. “Among these controversial decisions was the building of a school within Blackwell (Forest Preserve) and a road cutting through McDowell Woods.”
Brook McDonald, president of the Naperville-based Conservation Foundation, also stressed the inherent conflict of interest between the two bodies and said there were good reasons why the split was originally made.
“Those reasons still exist today,” he said.
McDonald said that decision-making away from the bureaucracy of county government made the Forest Preserve District’s job easier.
But Reboletti had an answer for the general criticism that the two missions couldn’t be fulfilled by one body, noting that DuPage County was the only county in the state with a separate Forest Preserve District.
“How do 100 other counties do it?” he asked.