In Response to an Anonymous Rant in The Southtown Star

Gary Kopycinski

Commentary
By Gary Kopycinski
Editor and Publisher

Recently, the Southtown Star ran an anonymous "Speak Out" piece that claimed that officials in the Village of Park Forest are treated to a meal before every meeting at taxpayer expense. Specifically, the writer claimed, "They pay over $600 before every meeting for a lavish catered meal for themselves."

This is completely false. Residents are welcome and encouraged to attend meetings of the Board of Trustees. Citizens who attend know that the statement is false.

The Village Board does from time to time have a catered meal. Typically, this occurs for periodic Saturday meetings that last all day. These meetings include some, but certainly not all, of the following: goal setting sessions, budget or audit reviews. We begin early in the morning, generally around 8 a.m., and our meetings generally last until 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. We also begin evening meetings early from time to time, particularly when we are reviewing the budget each spring. These meetings generally begin at 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. I can tell you that when we do order breakfast or dinner, we order in-town, most often from Southland Caterers, located at 319 Main Street, Park Forest.

In this fiscal year, so far, I can recall two Village Board meetings where food was served: one was the intergovernmental meeting we had with School District 163, the other was our goal setting session with Dr. Paul Craig. Both were Saturday morning meetings.

The Southtown Star has been running "Speak Out" for a while. While the editors sometimes put names under comments, more often than not, they put the equivalent of a user name or login name, or even nicknames, without town or village, as opposed to the Letters to the Editor section, which always include verified name and town. "Speak Out" comments are not verified with a phone call like the letters are. They’re fluff pieces. I could make any outrageous claims I wanted to, and the Southtown Star would no doubt print them verbatim.

Here are some from Sunday’s Star: http://www.southtownstar.com

None of these are signed with full names and towns.

Citizens can view all budgeted expenses in our budget, which is live online, available on the Village’s website, 24/7. The money for those meals is in the budget.

Click here to read the 2009/2010 Park Forest budget: http://www.villageofparkforest.com (PDF)

A search for "events/meetings" in that document will take you to the following line item near the bottom of page 3-65:

OPERATING SUPPLIES

540400 Special Events/Meetings at Village Hall
(for Intergovernmental meetings, special Board meetings
and strategic planning)
6,500
Total Operating Supplies 6,500

That $6,500 includes money budgeted for these meals. It also includes money for special events at Freedom Hall, like the 60th Anniversary celebration where the Village provided cake and coffee. Also included are events at Dining on the Green for citizens, like the annual gathering honoring Commissioners, gatherings for new residents, etc.

The anonymous comment in the Star was wrong and irresponsible. The intention was not to be accurate, but inflammatory. No one researched this information with the village. A simple Freedom of Information request would have yielded the desired information.

I count 45 scheduled Village Board meetings during a typical calendar year. These include all Monday meetings and Saturday Rules meetings. These do not include the numerous spring budget meetings, strategic planning sessions, intergovernmental meetings, the numerous workshops, legislative breakfasts, or Board committee meetings we attend. If we were to count only these 45 meetings at $600 a pop for food (the ridiculous amount asserted in the anonymous rant), that would add up to $27,000.

That’s just absurd and a clear, outright lie.

Are Village Officials in Park Forest aware of the recession? You bet we are. We’ve done a fair amount of "belt tightening" this past year. One position in the Village’s Building Department was eliminated, the person holding that position was let go, for budgetary reasons; the Director of Health is retiring, and her position will be staffed by members of the Finance and Health Department for the coming months; the Village Manager took a 0% pay raise last year, and Department Heads took a 1% pay raise, next level administrators took a 2% pay raise. Over all, the Village is in a hiring freeze.

We are very cogent of the economic situation in Park Forest and beyond. The recession has not been easy on me personally, and I know many who have been hit hard. We can certainly consider not ordering food for the few board meetings we do order food. I’ll talk to the Board about it.

However, regardless of what we do, what I fear will survive, unfortunately, is the lie. That’s all that comes of these anonymous rants, and the Star gives them a platform.

A couple of years ago, some people distributed fliers to residents in along Sauk Trail telling them the Village was going to take their homes through eminent domain so we could rezone the property for commercial activity. The group who distributed these had senior citizens terrified that they would lose their homes.

And there were no such plans at all. Never were.

Anonymity can have its place in journalism. There were anonymous journalist who helped shape this country. Today, there are anonymous journalists laboring in oppressive countries.

This is the Village of Park Forest, not the West Azerbaijan Province of Iran. We answer questions here. Our budget process is open and transparent, meetings are open and broadcast live on television and from the Village’s website, complete meeting agenda’s are available on the Village’s website, as are video archives of past meetings.

If you hear a rumor, ask a member of the Village Board or staff about it. If you read a rumor in the Southtown Star, toss the paper in the recycle bin.

The writer is a trustee in the Village of Park Forest.