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Frozen Out

Why won't the Park District open up to the people who pay to use its skating rinks?


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By Ben Joravsky

For the last few months a war over ice-skating rinks has raged between Park District officials and north-side residents.

The ostensible issue is district finances, though as in most such squabbles the main point of contention long ago evolved into something far more personal.

To Park District officials, the neighborhood critics are an annoying band of busybodies with too much time on their hands and not enough understanding of how the system works. The residents think of the officials as control freaks who run the parks as a private domain. In short, this is a fight that won't be settled soon.

"I know they think we're annoying. I know that they think anyone who wants to get involved is weird," says Nancy Maksomowicz, who has a child in the ice-hockey program at the McFetridge skating rink. "But the real issue is information. The Park District's a dinosaur in terms of accountability. They have to realize this is an age of accountability--it's time the Park District opens up."

A particularly hot issue is the operation of the McFetridge Sports Complex at 3845 N. California, a prized facility that features the system's only indoor tennis courts and skating rink.

For the most part, neighbors effusively praise McFetridge's facility and staff (particularly Mark Finley, who built the hockey program). It's a different story with general superintendent Forrest Claypool and his battery of budget and legal advisers. To his north-side critics, Claypool, a former chief aide to Mayor Daley, has become a baby boomer rendition of Ed Kelly, an earlier Park District autocrat intoxicated by power.

They cite last summer's ill-advised proposal or plan (depending on who's telling the story) to build a truck storage building behind McFetridge along a relatively scenic stretch of the Chicago River. According to its critics, the district botched every aspect of the matter, conceiving it in secrecy and presenting it as a done deal. Only after opposition developed from 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell did Claypool back off, leading some critics to conclude that the Park District is run by bullies who kick around the public and kowtow to powerful politicians.

"I first heard about the truck facility from a Park District employee who will remain nameless," says Peter Donoghue, president of the Lake View Citizens Council. "He called me up and said, 'You're not going to believe this, but they're going to put two 40-by-80-foot trade buildings behind McFetridge.' It had to be one of the stupidest ideas in years--they would totally destroy a scenic river park. It would mean dragging a hundred trucks through a parking lot where children pass.

"We met with the north-side region head and he told us, 'Forget it, it's a done deal.' They even had a design plan for it. He said it had to happen because the Wrightwood garage, where they store a lot of their trucks, was falling down. And they had demolished another garage they had on the lakefront. We went to Mell and he said no way. And that was the end of that."

The truck facility added fuel to the ice-skating fight that had been brewing for months. "A year ago the Park District put a temporary rink up at Waveland Avenue in Lincoln Park," says Donoghue. "But there were some people who thought it was too close to the bird sanctuary and that it should be moved off of green space and put on the parking lot. So what does the Park District do? In their infinite wisdom, they move the rink all the way out to Caldwell Woods [on the far northwest side]. We weren't saying get rid of it, we were just saying move it to a better place within the same location. I started asking questions, and one official tells me they moved the rink because it didn't make any money at Waveland--the head count was down. Another official told me it was because an environmental group complained. A third said it's 'cause the ground at Waveland sloped so it wasn't good for ice. Well, what is it? I'm the president of the Lake View Citizens Council--people are going to ask me why they don't have the ice there. I want to have the information at my fingertips."

By early fall Donoghue was bombarding officials with phone calls and dropping by headquarters unannounced to confront them.

"All we want is the information to understand the basis of their decisions, but no matter what I ask they try to make me look like a jerk for asking for it. When I complained about the McFetridge truck building, one of their guys told me that I was putting their work crews in danger by forcing them to remain in a building that could fall down. I said, 'Please, you misplanned this, not me. You tore down the other garage, not me. It's not my fault you got yourself in this mess.' They make you out to be a weirdo if you ask questions. Are we crazy because we want to know how our parks work? Or should government just be a closed deal for the people running it?"

In September, Donoghue and his allies began filing Freedom of Information requests with Park District officials. They were looking to find, among other things, how much the district's rinks each cost to operate and how many skaters each rink draws.

In particular, they wanted a copy of a report on McFetridge's finances and operations supposedly prepared for Claypool by Unico, a private company that oversees several district ice-skating rinks. (Unico does not oversee McFetridge, which is run by district employees.)

"The Unico people were at McFetridge. They had a guy sitting in the office watching operations and taking notes," says Nancy Maksomowicz. "We wanted to see their report."

This report is no trifle, she contends. The McFetridge ice-skating community is a large and vibrant collection of volunteers who work closely with the staff and enthusiastically devote their time to a cause they consider very important.

"Between the hockey and figure skating programs there are hundreds of kids who skate at McFetridge--the ice is always in use," says Maksomowicz. "It's a great facility, we love it. And it's because we love it that we want this information. We want to write grants to supplement the program with whatever money we can raise. But how can we raise money if we don't know what they're spending? Not long ago they spent $9,000 to buy new uniforms for the staff at McFetridge. I asked the director why, and he said, 'If people come in they need to know who to talk to.' Well, duh, how about asking the person behind the desk? This is my point--there's no accountability. Money's spent and we find out later. As a parent of a kid who plays hockey there I want to know where my annual $280 fee goes. How much is for the trophies, the ice time, the insurance, the jerseys? The Park District has people who want to help them raise money, yet they won't work with us."

For their part, central office Park District officials contend that almost each and every one of these criticisms is misfounded, inaccurate, or just off the wall.

According to Nora Moreno, the district's chief spokeswoman, Claypool never "planned" to put the trade buildings at McFetridge--"It was only a proposal." He moved the rink from Waveland at the insistence of the public--"First they say move it, then when we move it they complain. What's their beef?" There is no McFetridge report--"We don't know what in the world they're talking about. Unico made a series of recommendations orally to Claypool, but no matter how many times we tell them that they keep asking for the 'report.'" And if Donoghue feels some Park District officials think he's a little weird, it's probably because most of them do--"The guy's a big pain in the neck. It's a full-time job answering his questions."

Moreno says, "We're doing a great job. We have rinks and frozen skating ponds throughout the city, over 40 sites. We have 11 ice-skating rinks, including permanent ones in McKinley Park, West Lawn Park, Rowan Park, and we're thinking of making the Garfield Park one permanent. They can be used in the spring and summer for in-line skating and roller blading. We're really trying to be responsive to what communities want. We're bringing skating to communities that never had it before.

"They say they want the information for McFetridge? Well, here it is. Our projected revenues for next year are about $730,000. Our budget is about the same. I don't know what else we can do to satisfy them. It's OK to care about the parks, it's best to use them. But there's a fine line between caring and obsession."

That budget information is only a fraction of what the critics say they want, leaving them with the same old unanswered questions. "I know they want us to go away," says Maksomowicz. "I know they say we're crazy. But I don't think it's crazy to want to help run the parks your children play in." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nancy Maksomowicz photo by Jon Randolph.

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