Humboldt Park on a sunny, December afternoon on Dec. 2, 2020. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

HUMBOLDT PARK — In the latest turmoil to hit the embattled Humboldt Park Advisory Council, the Park District is investigating claims ex-board members mismanaged funds meant for local kids programs.

The volunteer-run group is responsible for organizing family-friendly events and programming at the park. But for years, park business gave way to bitter battles, causing many members to leave and the Park District to shut down the group for more than a year.

A new board was selected in May. Now, after months of scrutinizing old financial records, the current members found what they believe to be improper withdrawals from the park bank account under the old board.

The Park District inspector general is investigating those claims, along with other matters of alleged misconduct, Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons said. Lemons declined to provide details or answer specific questions about the investigation.

“It’s incredibly awful that members were taking away money from a tiny, local community group that faces many challenges to raise funds and keep up with the year’s events,” board president Jacqueline Baez claimed at a Park District special board meeting Tuesday.

Asked about the allegations, Maggie Martinez, the group’s former treasurer, said, “What they’re saying is garbage. If you need more information, call the parks,” before hanging up.

Several other former board members declined comment or did not respond to requests for comment about the allegations of mismanagement. After Baez’s comments to the park district board, a group of 18 advisory council members sent the district a signed statement listing several complaints about her leadership.

“Ms. Baez continues to invoke her (advisory council) position to make what appear to be personal disputes and false accusations against park district staff members and previous board members,” the group’s statement read.

Humboldt Park on April 7, 2020. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Controversy has swirled around the Humboldt Park Advisory Council for years. Disagreements over gentrification and other personal matters led to fighting and chaos, including a physical attack and a threat of a lawsuit. 

The issues came to a head during last year’s election. Neighbors argued over who was allowed to run for a board seat, which devolved in shouting matches. After receiving “numerous complaints from the community regarding the integrity of the election,” the Park District threw out the election results and deactivated the group.

The residents who won board seats fought to be certified as the new leaders of the group, fueling a new election months later.

Baez, who had won the previous election that was thrown out, was voted president. Hector Villafuerte was chosen as vice president, Tracey Bartels as secretary, Julie Sawicki as treasurer and Glenn Brettner as sergeant at arms.

With the election in the rearview mirror, Baez said now they’re looking to right the wrongs of the former board, who they believe squandered away money intended for neighborhood kids. She said the investigation will help the current board move forward, but other members accuse her of using her position to bring down those she feels wronged her in some way.

Park users routinely complain of loud music, intoxication and broken infrastructure, Baez said. Many of the park’s lights aren’t working; the garbage cans are routinely full; there are no designated areas for barbecuers; and the bathrooms are almost always either closed or “filthy,” she said.

Baez and her group want to work toward fixing the park’s crumbling infrastructure and put on more events for kids and their families, like the Battle of the Badges game they hosted in September. Currently, there are no park events for teenagers, and Baez said they’d like to change that.

“The park should be for everyone to enjoy. It should be a really beautiful place where people can feel at home. For me, it hits home. It reminds me of Puerto Rico,” she said.

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Logan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale reporterrnrnmina@blockclubchi.orgnnLogan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale Twitter @mina_bloom_