PARK DISTRICT OF OAK PARK board (3 open seats)

James Gates | Kathleen Porreca | Christopher R. Wollmuth | 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?

I want to serve and to make a positive impact on my community. I am currently a Commissioner of the Park District of Oak Park and the Board Secretary, seeking re-election to my second term.

I bring four years of experience and understanding of how the Park District operates, our strategic initiatives, and the history of issues. Prior to being elected Commissioner, I served for four years as a member of the Park District Citizen Committee. I was recently awarded “Master Board Member” status by the Illinois Association of Park Districts, a distinction that fewer than 50 park district commissioners in Illinois have earned.

In my professional life, I’m currently a high school principal (of Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette), and I’ve been an educator for over thirty years. I was a high school and middle school teacher, a high school dean and Assistant Principal, and a middle school principal. I care deeply about having a positive impact on the lives of youth, and I understand their needs and behaviors.

As the mom of a grown son, and a grandmother to two young boys, early childhood programs, youth sports, family programs, natural spaces, educational programming, and opportunities for affordable fun are all areas of park district programming that I personally value.

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

The Illinois Association of Park Districts provides professional development for Board members about the most effective attributes of Board members. I strive to embody those attributes in my role as a Board member. They include: demonstrating good judgement, wisdom, motivation and interest in serving your agency and community, being an effective coach, mentor, and sounding board for fellow board members, courage, relevant life experience, having integrity, being engaged, being an effective communicator, discretion, attentiveness, being insightful, collegial, passionate, asking good questions, and being a good listener. Park District Commissioners in particular are responsible for protecting our parks, recreational facilities, and open spaces. In Oak Park, where we are exactly as population-dense as Chicago, and land-locked, it is imperative for us to provide a variety of recreational activities for our community and to be good stewards of our resources. I was never a one issue candidate or commissioner, and I think that’s a good way to be effective. Our Park District serves our entire community with a diverse array of programs, activities, and environments. They are all important, and as our community members move through various phases of life, they will interact with Park District in different ways. We have to value all our residents and interests and maintain a balance of opportunities.

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?

In the most elemental terms, the elected Board has the responsibility for setting the strategic direction of the Park District, for establishing and approving the budget, and for hiring, supervising, and evaluating the executive director. In actual practice, this involves being knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics that are important to our Oak Park community, such as sustainability, intergovernmental collaboration,compensation practices, quality programming, innovation, maximizing every tax dollar that is spent, and protecting and responsibly preserving, maintaining and improving our parks and historic sites, among others. The Board members have to be willing to learn about all these issues and more, in order to make educated decisions about how to govern our agency. Collaboration with the other governmental entities is important, and I’ve served for the past year as one of the Park District reps to Igov, the intergovernmental group. Getting to know the other elected officials and hearing first-hand from them on their priorities and challenges helps us all serve our community better.

Board members do not manage the day to day operations of the Park District, and do not interfere with staff. We are not parks and recreation professionals. We are there to volunteer, to be involved, to attend events, and to be champions for our parks and programs. All communication to staff should go through the executive director, who is the supervisor of all other staff.

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

Both in my professional life and as a board member, I constantly balance competing interests. Whenever you serve a variety of constituent groups or are responsible for a complex organization with many functions, there will be competing interests.

Both my school and the Park District are governed by a long-term strategic plan. No organization can be all things to all people at once, so it is crucial to carefully craft your long-range plan, and then measure all potential actions and decisions by how well they match the plan. Decisions about how to allocate resources are governed by the plan. The plan is developed with input from a variety of sources, so it reflects the priorities of the community as a whole. As a Park District, we engage in community surveys on a regular basis, we host regular master planning meetings to assess how our parks are meeting the needs of the residents, and when improvements are planned, they are always vetted by and added to with citizen input.

The more you listen, the more effective you will be. It’s also important to be willing to make a decision, even though no decision will meet with 100% approval. Being a leader means, in large part, that you are willing to do the work and research to learn about an issue and then to make the most informed decision that you can.

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

To me transparency is crucial, and by that I mean that all decisions are made in the open with no secrecy attached. Decisions that impact the public must be made with maximum public input. The Park District publishes all our metrics and plans on our website, we use the FYI , our program guide, and local press as means to get information in the hands of the public. Additionally, as every facility comes up for master planning review, a series of meetings is held in the community to solicit ideas, feedback, and input from residents and neighbors. Every idea is recorded and considered as the plan is developed and adapted for implementation.

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 keep up with the various local discussion groups on social media and in the local press, but I typically refrain from posting. It’s important to be aware of the concerns and issues that are out there. I am always cognizant that one board member is not entitled to speak for the Board as a whole, and that public statements can easily be misconstrued as the stance of the Park District instead of the personal opinion of one Commissioner. We have designated spokespeople in the Park District (the Board President and/or our Director of Communications) and I am not one of them. I also believe that it is all too easy for social media posts to spiral into negativity and argument. (Perhaps my experience as a principal working with adolescents and dealing with cyber-bullying fairly regularly has shaped me in this regard). I much prefer face to face contact, e-mail, true discussion and conversation. I always appreciate when citizens who have a concern reach out by e-mailing the board, or come to make public comment at a meeting. We at the Park District continue to be committed to meeting regularly with members of the public in a variety of ways, which are always expanding.

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)?

I love that you are asking this question, because all our institutions and elected officials need to work on dismantling the systemic privilege that often goes unseen. In many ways, my professional life has often revolved around these issues. I define myself as a practitioner of social justice school administration, which is rooted in the acknowledgement that power discrepancies exist between groups in our society, and that it is the job of a leader to advocate for those who may be vulnerable to marginalization for any reason, including race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, gender and gender expression, immigration status, and socioeconomic status. In my tenure at my previous school, where I was the principal for 10 years, we engaged in a project to reduce bias-based bullying and in three years, incidents dropped by 50%. We were so successful that I was asked to be part of a national task force on bullying, sponsored by Facebook and was invited to a summit on the Facebook campus in California to continue this work. I also led our staff in learning how to better serve students who live in poverty. I have always been committed to LGBT advocacy and my doctoral dissertation was a study of how high school principals have advocated for their LGBT students.

The Park District of Oak Park is the largest partner in the West Suburban Special Recreation Association, which provides recreational and athletic opportunities for children and adults with all types of special needs. For the past four years, I have served as the PDOP representative to WSSRA as a member of their Board of Directors.

Before I was elected to the Park District Board, as a member of the Park District Citizen Committee, I made some suggestions for changes in how we did outreach for our scholarship program so that economically needy families could have greater access to programming. I am very proud that in the time since then, our annual scholarship usage has steadily increased from below $10,000 at that time to over $67,000 last year, with many more families accessing those funds.

As a white woman, I work to be anti-racist. Last year, an anti-bias/anti-racism training was offered locally by Chicago Regional Organizing for AntiRacism and all elected officials in Oak Park were invited and encouraged to attend. Only two did; I was one of those two.

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

We offer a mix of free and fee-based programs. We believe that the current portfolio offers a healthy mix. Over the past few years, we have expanded our free offerings to include more movies in the parks, concerts in the parks, neighborhood nights, free “Walk with a Doc”, and free Telescope Nights as well as offering free pop-up parks and fitness classes in the summer. Additionally we expanded access to the skate board park and the basketball courts from 8am-8pm daily. In 2019, we will be launching our “Pop-Up Bike” where from Monday through Friday the bike will travel to one park in morning and one in the afternoon each day to offer free crafts and activities. We also made the dog parks free in 2019 as another way to increase access to our residents without additional costs.

We work to keep the fee-based programs reasonably priced, and the revenue generated by those programs helps balance our budget and allows us to offer the variety of free programs that we do, which is ever-expanding.

We keep expanding opportunities for scholarships so that access to all our programs is available to all residents, regardless of their income level.

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?

Equity essentially means being fair and just. In the context of public services, it is our responsibility to maintain a focus on equity, which means that we have to constantly work to ensure that all members of our community have access to our parks, programs, and services. We work to identify potential barriers to full participation and then work to eliminate them. The Park District is committed to equitable practices, and that commitment is called out in our strategic initiatives. Equity is one of the four pillars of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), of which we are a member and which awarded us the National Gold Medal for agency excellence in 2015, in part due to our adherence to equity practices. Our scholarship program is one example of this commitment. We also continue to expand equity through our program and facility offerings.

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 idea for a community recreation center has been noted for a number of years. In the community survey five years ago, it was highly recommended by the majority of those residents surveyed. As a result, the Park District held a series of community forums and focus groups, and also invited all the other the OP governmental entities to participate in a feasibility study in 2015 regarding the need for a Community Recreation Center. It is the Park District’s belief that without indoor gymnasiums we are missing a huge opportunity to support our youth immediately after school as well as provide space for our seniors for year-round fitness. The Park District has been setting aside money in our capital improvement plan, and currently has $5M set aside for a potential Community Recreation Center. The Board has no intention of going to referendum to fund the remaining portion of this project. Rather, the District plans to seek community support from private donors as well as potential partnerships. To me, this is an equity issue. If we are able to provide such a center, we would be better able to serve residents of all ages. Many of the functions of the center would be free. Some functions would be revenue-producing, to cover the costs of running the center. Not all members of our community can afford a high-priced fitness center, and a lower-cost community center would serve them, as well as providing inter-generational spaces, meeting spaces, an indoor walking track, and potential partnerships with other groups and agencies in our community.

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?

The Park District adopted the Cook County minimum wage increase in 2017 and is currently paying a minimum of $11 per hour and July of this year will be $12. While this was not a requirement, the Park Board felt it was the right thing to do for our community. That said, in 2019 the Park District froze program fees as we understand residents’ concerns for rising cost. Thus, the staff are challenged to grow revenue by offering more innovative programs to attract new users to help offset the growing part-time wages.

I’m very proud that the Park District is the largest employer of youth in our community. Many residents fondly note that the PDOP was their or their kids’ first job.

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

At this time, I have no donors. Last time I ran, my campaign expenses were under $500 total. I anticipate that my overall expenditures will be in the same range this time. I may have some donors later in the campaign as we host some small gatherings and people who attend those may donate money to help with the campaign. I am running with a running mate, Jake Worley-Hood, and we will share the expenses of the campaign, which helps.

• • • • •

[The above answers were supplied on 2/11/19. 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.]