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State's attorney warns Waukegan Park District commissioners about free rounds of golf

Chicago Tribune — Jim Newton Chicago Tribune

Jan. 12--Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim has informed the Waukegan Park District that the park board is in violation of a state law that makes it illegal for volunteer board members to receive compensation, such as free rounds of golf at popular times of the day and week.

In a Jan. 4 letter sent to Board President George Bridges Jr., Nerheim addressed concerns about the free use of district golf courses during peak hours by commissioners.

The state's attorney wrote in the letter that his office believes the violations to have been "unintentional," but added, "Please allow this letter to serve as notice to the Waukegan Park District, the Waukegan Park District Board, and its individual members, that any policy allowing for board members to receive free use of facilities beyond non-peak hours or the allowed 20 percent discount is in violation of state law and should be discontinued immediately."

Bridges said Wednesday the issue involves only one commissioner, and he declined to reveal that person. But Bridges added his intention is that a transparent and clear policy on the issue will be reviewed before the park board by its attorney to make sure the district is in full compliance with state law.

Bridges also said that the issue was discussed by the board at length early last year under the leadership of former longtime Executive Director Greg Petry, and will now be addressed with the guidance of the board's attorney and new Executive Director Jay Lerner.

Nerheim said Wednesday the issue was brought to his attention by someone affiliated with the Waukegan Park District, but declined to elaborate.

"It has recently come to the attention of this office that the members of the Waukegan Park District Board are in violation of the state law making it illegal for volunteer board members to receive compensation," Nerheim wrote in the letter.

He went on to explain in the letter that, "Waukegan Park District policy currently allows Park District Board members to receive free rounds of golf at any time (during peak and non-peak hours of operation) at all Waukegan Park District facilities."

Nerheim said state law only allows perks such as free golf for commissioners during non-peak hours, when it will not compete with revenue-generating operations.

"It is the position of this office that any additional benefit beyond those mentioned, including the free use of Park District facilities during peak hours resulting in the displacement of Park District revenue by Park District board members, is, for purposes of the Illinois Park District Code, properly considered compensation," Nerheim wrote.

Nerheim said the Illinois Park District Code specifically prohibits park board members from receiving any compensation for their services, "and the knowing receipt of such compensation violates state law and provides a basis for potential criminal charges against any public officer acting in violation of this law."

Lerner reiterated Wednesday that the district's attorney will address the board on the issue soon, and that the explanation will include the clear indication that golf is not complimentary for commissioners during peak hours.

jrnewton@tribpub.com

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