Chesterton Tribune



Porter Town Council majority consiers disbanding Park Board

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In October, 2005 the Porter Town Council gave the Park Board until year’s end to get its act together and make council-requested changes or risk being disbanded.

In December, 2010 another Porter Town Council asked the Park Board to transfer jurisdiction for all park employees to the council for more continuity, reminding members the board can be disbanded if it didn’t comply.

This time, is it more than just a threat?

The current Porter Town Council on Tuesday authorized preparation of an ordinance to disband the sitting Park Board citing the need for consolidation of town resources and manpower to save money. The ordinance will be considered Oct. 8.

It was stressed that if the ordinance is adopted, park operations and facilities rentals including those at the Hawthorne Park community building will continue without interruption.

Council president Elka Nelson explained that two years ago she would have laid down in front of a train rather than change the parks but now she’s a strong proponent of doing so. She noted Lowell and Cedar Lake, both larger than Porter, have disbanded their respective Park Boards.

Nelson proposed bringing the Porter Park Department under the council’s direct jurisdiction and making it answerable to it like the Police, Public Works, Fire and Building departments. The statutory Park Board with independent powers would be replaced with a park advisory board to develop suggestions and goals.

The park shake-up in no way disrespects the four current Park Board members, Nelson added, and they would be asked to join the new advisory board.

Resident Nancy Bailey endorsed reorganization. With a Park Board, “(It’s) almost like too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” she said. Resident Jennifer Klug supported reorganization as well.

Council members Jeannine Virtue, Rob Pomeroy, David Wodrich and Nelson voted to have the reorganization ordinance prepared; Greg Stinson voted no, defending the need for a Park Board and at times listening to the discussion with his lowered head in his hands.

He said when plans for an open drainage swale through Hawthorne Park first were proposed, the Park Board defended Hawthorne’s interests and negotiated a better solution. Stinson noted that while the Park Board didn’t budge, the wishes of a park advisory committee could be ignored.

Stinson also said streamlining the Park Department to save money sounds good, but he’s not convinced it outweighs the other risks.

Council proponents of reorganization said park director Brian Bugajski, hired six months ago, would be an effective department head not subject to unnecessary Park Board oversight, described by Virtue as an extra layer of bureaucracy.

Current Park Board member Ross LeBleu sent a message read by Virtue as park liaison expressing his support for reorganization, calling it a positive step in the right direction.

But former and current Park Board members speaking Tuesday did not share LeBleu’s opinion.

“I really question the wisdom of it,” said former member Al Raffin. He felt the current council’s election in 2010 was a referendum on the Park Board after threats to disband it. He also called for a forum to discuss the reorganization plan. “We have very nice parks in this town and I’d hate to lose it.”

Nine-year member and current Park Board president Rondi Wightman said Nelson last year forced the Park Board to retain former park superintendent Jim Miller, who had resigned but was brought back as maintenance specialist in a wave of public support resulting in two full-time park positions.

Wightman said it’s disingenuous to complain that having done so costs more money. Nelson said she did support Miller’s continued park employment, but it’s not about Miller now; her concern is how to save money in the Park Department and eliminating an estimated $6,000 in duplicate administrative costs is a start. She stopped further comments from Wightman.

After the meeting Wightman said, “I hope (Nelson) doesn’t take us down another rabbit hole.”

Former Park Board member Nikki Crist said there are a lot of unknowns at this point and asked whether a comprehensive park reorganization plan should be developed first.

She also questioned whether Bugajski would require a raise for his expanded responsibilities, negating other anticipated savings. Nelson said it’s likely too early to discuss a raise.

Nelson said the goal is merger and consolidation of town services using shared resources and manpower between departments. “Everybody would be on one team working together.”

Pomeroy said the Park Department has had cash-flow problems for years that won’t go away until expenses are less than revenue. “I don’t think the park will really be hurt. It will be fine.”

Virtue explained the only way to trim the budget was to cut out the popular children’s summer park program but that’s out of the question so dissolving the Park Board is being considered instead. So far she’s had a lot of positive responses to doing that, said Virtue, but she’s still trying to determine if there would be a downside to it.

Wodrich asked about the legal ramifications if the Park Board is disbanded. Nelson said the Town of Porter Park Department has title to the parks, and there will still be a Park Department.



Posted 9/25/2013