PARK DISTRICT OF OAK PARK board (3 open seats)

James Gates | Kathleen Porreca | Christopher R. Wollmuth | Jake Worley-Hood


Jake Worley-Hood


1. What motivates you to seek this office? What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the Board, and why would those contributions be valuable to the Park District?

As a lifelong Oak Park resident, I have long felt an obligation to public service. When I moved back to the community to raise a family about 6 years ago, I immediately began to look for ways to get involved and give back. In recent years I have volunteered with Pilgrim Nursery School, D200’s IMAGINE Committee, and most recently as President of the Parks Foundation of Oak Park.

As President of the Parks Foundation, I have come to respect the thoughtful, stable, and fiscally responsible way in which the Park District is run. This solid and forward thinking management makes the Park District one of our community’s most important assets. I have 2 preschool age children and together we have come to fully appreciate the value that our park district adds to the community.

Lastly, I strongly believe that student achievement is driven as much by what happens in school as what happens out of school. Extracurricular activities and community enrichment are as important as math instruction is in closing the equity gap in our community. We must make this community feel like home for all of our citizens and the Park District plays a crucial role in that conversation.

2. What do you think makes an effective Park District Commissioner?

Issues brought before the board rarely have a simple “soundbite” answer. An effective commissioner understands community values and applies those to the decision making process regardless of the noise caused by soundbites. He or she will be able to compartmentalize loud voices that may not be in line with community values while listening to all voices in order to maintain a sense of the overall community sentiment. The most effective commissioners understand when their role is to listen and when their role is to lead.

An effective park district commissioner is familiar with the Park District and its offerings and will take the time to understand a significant amount of detail when necessary. In order to effectively serve, they must be in tune with community values and able to understand how strategic decisions relate to those community values.

3. What is your understanding of the purpose of the Park District Board? What do you see as the appropriate relationship between the Park District Board and Park District staff?

The board approves a budget and sets the overall strategic direction of the park district. The staff often presents to the board for informational purposes but ultimately only the executive director reports to the board. A good board has little reason to interact with staff on a regular basis, and in doing so have to be cautious to not undermine the executive director. Only the executive director is responsible for implementing the strategic directions of the board and seeing that the board’s vision is carried out through the staff.

With that said, the staff will often ask the board to weigh in on issues facing them. This is done so that the staff can operate with confidence that they have the support of the board and that their decisions are in line with the strategic direction of the organization.

The board should also serve as ambassadors for the Park District to other organizations. The board plays an important role in leading collaborations and partnerships between governmental and partner organizations. A good board member will maintain an understanding of current activities and initiatives in other governmental bodies and will work to ensure that the Park District is the best community partner that it can be.

4. When in your experience have you had to balance competing interests? What process did you use? What did you learn?

I learned a lot about competing interests as a member of OPRF’s controversial IMAGINE committee. The committee was formed from members of opposing sides of a pool referendum plus representatives from widely varied demographic groups and representatives from the local taxing bodies. From the beginning, each person in the room had a different agenda. I learned an incredible amount from the process and the group was very successful in identifying and prioritizing facilities issues at OPRF. The group uncovered an incredible amount of useful data by just thoroughly listening to teachers, students, and the community with as few preconceived notions as possible.

I believe that the most important task and skill in a setting like this is to listen. The more that I listen to people, the more that I find similarities between what people are saying, even on opposing sides of issues. As a commissioner, the most important promise that I will make is to have a willingness to listen and change my mind on any issue. Competing interest can only be balanced when there is an open, thoughtful communication free from preconceived ideas or decisions.

5. What does transparency in government mean to you? How would you put it into practice?

Transparency is a foundation of our democracy and is both necessary and equally difficult to truly obtain in government. The most important role of a board member is to serve as a conduit between the community as a whole and the park district management. Any secrecy is counterproductive to that role. On the other hand, the board only communicates as a whole so individual board member motivations are not always recorded or communicated. As a board member I will commit to responding to emails and questions from citizens and to making my individual voice heard when appropriate.

6. As more of our local discourse happens in social media, what is your view on how local elected officials should communicate with and respond to constituents? How will you engage with the breadth of the community, and not just the voices that are loudest or easiest to find?

I am a member of the relevant local social media groups and monitor the current online discourse. I am also keenly aware of the power of social media in spreading information as well as misinformation. I believe that leaders are just beginning to understand the effects of social media on good governance and I look forward to learning as much about the field as possible and working to harness social media as a positive rather than negative tool in public discourse.

I do not see myself engaging with the public on social media regarding issues before board, but I do think that it’s important for the board to be aware of the community’s feelings as a whole and social media can be a excellent tool in gauging those feelings.

I also think that the Park District Citizen Advisory Committee is an extremely valuable tool to the board in gauging public needs, motivations, and perspectives. This committee regularly assesses each park and determines whether it continues to properly serve the community. The committee then advises the board on its findings.

7. In what ways have you sought to better know and understand the concerns and needs of residents outside your demographic group (specifically the demographic groups of race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status)?

Equity is a cornerstone of this community’s and my values and I enjoy engaging people of varying perspectives. One of the most beautiful things about having very young kids is their obliviousness to demographic identities. Whether at a playground, soccer game, or concert, my kids regularly connect me with people out of my normal demographic circles. It is incredible how easily a child can break the ice and allow a meaningful conversation between two people that are otherwise from different worlds. I genuinely enjoy gaining insight into other perspectives and I think that this will be a great asset as a Park Commissioner.

Along these lines, I strongly believe that the Park District needs an Equity Advisory Committee in order to sharpen its equity focus and advise the board on issues related to equity. The Park District suffers from a lack of minority leadership and lacks consistent advocates for minority viewpoints.

8. Much of the Park District’s programming is fee-based. Is the current balance between fee-based and free services appropriate?

I support the current initiative by the board to limit tax revenue to 50% of the Park District budget and rely heavily on fees and other sources of revenue. The reliance on multiple revenue sources creates a stable and trusted park district that is capable of leveraging that trust to tackle some of the community’s most difficult problems.

On the other hand, I believe that this policy in itself is not equitable. In order to be truly equitable, a fee based budget must be accompanied by a robust scholarship program and equity policy. The scholarship program must ensure that fees are never a burden on a family seeking the programs that the park district offers. An equity policy is necessary to ensure that the correct programs are designated as sources of revenue and that other necessary programs remain free or low cost in order to best support the needs of our citizens. Equity cannot be built on taxpayer dollars alone and this combination of market based pricing and private/external funding for scholarships provides a unique opportunity for the Park District to be a community leader in equity.

9. How do you define equity? Do you favor implementing a formal equity lens/framework at the Park District, and if so, what specifics should that policy include?

I define equity as providing what is necessary for each unique member of the community to be successful. Unlike equality, true equity is unattainable but it is the process of trying to attain it with every action we take that makes a better place to live. Equity is the unifying goal of our community yet it is clear that we have made limited progress along these lines in recent decades and the effort needs to increase substantially.

I have seen the incredible work that the park district advisory committees do and I strongly support the creation of an Equity Advisory Committee. This committee should advise the board to ensure that the fee-based policy is equitably applied. I also hope that this committee can cultivate minority leadership within the park district to ensure that every member of the community feels that the park district is their park district. Ultimately this committee would introduce any formal equity framework that it finds necessary.

10. Informal proposals for a community center in Oak Park, from the Park District and others, have sparked public discussion recently. What resources do you believe the Park District can/should bring to such a project? How do you see a community center leveraging existing local facilities?

The Park District has identified many community problems that could be addressed through the construction of a community recreation center. The first and most prominent issue is the lack of after school activity space for teenagers and particularly minority teenagers in Oak Park. A community center would seek to create an after school gathering space for teenagers where resources can be made available for the students who need it the most. A community center would also provide badly needed resources for seniors and other groups in the community.

I believe that any community center project needs to be truly from and for the community. I would like to see as many government agencies partner on the space as possible. I would also like for the burden on taxpayers to be a little as possible. Under my leadership, the Parks Foundation has been exploring ways to lessen the burden on taxpayers through private funding and grants. Ultimately, as a board member, I will evaluate any proposal brought before the board by examining its benefits to the community as opposed to the costs to the taxpayer in construction and operating the facility.

The Park District has already set aside $5 million to a future community center project and I support that amount as long as the project will address significant demonstrated needs in the community and will generate enough revenue to pay for its own operation into the foreseeable future.

11. The Park District is largely staffed by part-time employees. How will you balance the need for fiscal stewardship with the responsibility to pay employees a living wage?

Part of the park district mandate is to be the largest local employer of youth. In fact I worked for the Park District for several years through high school and college. This temporary gainful employment of local youth is a valuable asset to the community and a tool in the equity conversation. On the other hand, long term professional staff are the backbone of the organization. In other words, the Park District and community benefit greatly from the utilization of a young inexpensive summer staff, but must consider the most beneficial positions for seasoned professional and higher paid staff members. Some positions are suitable for inexperienced staff and others are not. I am committed to paying professional adult employees as much as possible. This is best for the community at large. On the other hand I recognize that the park district and the community benefit from employing large numbers of young people at the low end of market rates.

12. Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.

At this point in time I have received no outside donations. I have partnered with candidate Kathleen Porreca and we will be sharing campaign costs between us. We do anticipate holding a few small fundraisers and potentially raising a small amount of money before the election to offset some of the costs that we have incurred.

• • • • •

[The above answers were supplied on 2/13/19. It may be possible to find more current financial information at the Illinois Sunshine website. Illinois Sunshine is also a useful resource for identifying past contributions by individuals to political candidates and committees in Illinois.]