Cook County pool workers face reforms

April 4, 2011 3:04:27 PM PDT
Reform is coming to the Cook County Forest Preserve. County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced a series of changes Monday after some forest preserve employees were caught drinking, having sex, and sleeping on the job.

In recent days, two forest preserve bosses have been fired, three others have been suspended and a group of seasonal employees who worked at the Cermak Aquatic Center -- and were terminated last summer -- have also been put on a do-not-hire list. One staffer could face additional charges by the state's attorney for providing alcohol to minors. This comes as Cook County officials say those measures, along with planned in-person spot checks of facilities, are important first steps to accountability.

"Business as usual is no longer being tolerated at the Forest Preserve District of Cook County," said Cook County Forest Preserve District Superintendent Arnold Randall.

Randall's promise to the public is delivered as Cook County officials announce sweeping reforms at the district's aquatic facilities because of staffers at one facility caught behaving badly.

"My position now as a commissioneris to work with the office of the president to make sure that this does not happen again," said Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey R. Tobolski, 16th District-(R).

The changes are being implemented at all three aquatics facilities after employees at the Cermak Family Aquatic Center in southwest suburban Lyons were recorded by undercover cameras placed in the pool's office last summer by investigators who received a tip about workplace abuses. The video shows workers drinking, serving alcohol to minors, and having sex on the job.

An audit also found workers had been pocketing fees paid by pool goers.

It happened while Todd Stroger was Cook County Board president.

The new administration's reforms include a new hiring program with ethics training, plus:

"New cash management practices and a new credit card system, additional security cameras, wireless access for management to supervise swimming pool activity," said Preckwinkle.

The inspector general's report also found mismanagement at Whealan and Green Lake pools where investigators found "widespread timesheet fraud" to the tune of over $166,000 for just the summer of 2010.

"I'm confident we will do better," said Randall. "There's no reason we can't run three aquatic facilities."

But critics say the incident proves otherwise.

While some say privatization is the only way to better management, Friends of the Forest Preserves Executive Director Benjamin Cox says the best solution is to create a separate forest preserve board independent of the county board.

"We say separate them, just like they did in DuPage County and Winnebago County, and that way it's almost the same thing as privatizing, because you're getting much more attention on that board," Cox said.

The inspector general also noted that all three pools were operating at a nearly $210,000 loss, in part because of timesheet fraud. The forest preserve plans to hire more life guards to decrease those costs.

It is not clear how much the cameras, which will be installed at all three forest preserve pools or the other reforms, will cost.

Visitors to the forest preserve's pools will see changes in June when the districts aquatics facilities open.