HUMBOLDT PARK — The Humboldt Park Advisory Council — shut down by the Park District eight months ago after years of controversy including bitter infighting, a nullified election and an inspector general investigation — will be reinstated next year.
In what officials hope will be a fresh start for the embattled park group, the Park District will start “engaging with the community” in January to ultimately launch a new Humboldt Park Advisory Council — one “with a demonstrated willingness to be in full compliance with all rules governing” park advisory councils, Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons said. An election will be held for its leaders.
The Humboldt Park Advisory Council is a volunteer group that organizes events in the park for neighborhood families and advocates for park improvements, essentially acting as an intermediary between the Park District and the community.
The Park District sidelined the group in January for “disorderly conduct at [park advisory council] meetings, failure to meet record-keeping requirements and failure to comply with reasonable requests from Park District staff,” the city agency wrote in a bulletin posted online. All meetings were suspended.
It was the group’s second shutdown during the pandemic. The Park District put the group on hiatus in 2020 after some members complained its election was unfair and residents battled to have their positions certified.
During the most recent shutdown, the Park District said it planned to work with the community to resurrect the Humboldt Park Advisory Council in “the coming weeks and month[s],” but group members said they’ve been left in the dark about its future.
Meanwhile, members are still contending with the issues that led to the group’s suspensions. Many feel alienated and have accused the residents who won the most recent elections of trying to shut them out to stay in power and using the group for personal gain. Two of the residents who won Humboldt Park Advisory Council board seats last year ran for elected office this summer.
The group’s meetings “were pretty much constant chaos,” group member Jamey Makowski said.
“It was totally unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was surreal. It was saddening. It was frustrating,” Makowski said.
But the council’s newly elected leaders said they’ve been “sabotaged” by others in the group for trying to bring transparency and accountability to a community group that has long needed more oversight.
All the while, one of the city’s largest public parks has for months gone without neighborhood oversight, which some said has hurt the broader community.
Humboldt Park ‘Deserves Better’
The shutdown of the Humboldt Park Advisory Council in January coincided with a Park District inspector general investigation into the financial dealings of the park group after new leaders found what they believed to be an improper withdrawal from the park bank account under the old board.
The group received a donation of $15,355 for kids programs from a private person in 2019, according to the inspector general’s report.
The donor wanted the funds transferred in a way “that the money could be immediately used for this purpose instead of sitting in a dormant account,” according to the report. The group’s former treasurer sent the funds to the Park District in 2020 during the group’s shutdown.
The inspector general found the former board didn’t violate any rules by sending the money to the Park District and the funds were “transferred in accordance with Park District rules,” according to the report.
Still, the inspector general said there should be more clearly defined rules around park advisory council bank accounts for disbanded or suspended groups.
Group members accused of misappropriating funds said the allegations and subsequent investigation were just one attempt by the new board to stir up drama and maintain control at the expense of the community. Members of the new board have also posted disparaging comments on social media about others in the group, some said.
“They created a space that was exclusionary; they did not allow people to have their attendance counted if they were even 15 minutes late. … That leadership is very negative because it excluded people, it created this negative environment,” group member Jennie Jiang said.
The group’s treasurer, Julie Sawicki, said they still believe the ex-board members mismanaged funds and don’t accept the inspector general’s findings.
As for the group’s meetings and how they were run, Sawicki said they were only trying to bring more “order” to a group that had been run poorly for years.
“We are, in good faith, trying to get this [park advisory council] on the right path, on a path of transparency,” Sawicki said. “There was an underlying effort from the former board and their supporters who were trying to sabotage us. That sabotage was evident in them not approving the minutes.”
Jackie Baez, who served alongside Sawicki as group president, agreed, saying, “These people never offered us a chance. They were the ones who shut us down from the very first meeting.”
Baez resigned from the park group in April to pursue other opportunities. Most recently, Baez ran for the 2nd District Illinois Senate seat. Hector Villafuerte, the group’s former vice president, also was a candidate in the 4th District Illinois House of Representatives race.
Humboldt Park has been neglected during the upheaval of the past few years, said Robyn Detterline, a neighbor who visits the park weekly to go birding.
The fencing that protects the park’s natural areas is in bad shape, and the “litter problem is tremendous” and has gone unaddressed, Detterline said.
Local leaders have thrown successful events in the park despite the council’s long hiatus, but the group’s absence has meant residents haven’t had a venue to air their concerns about the park and much-needed improvements haven’t been made, some said.
“It seems like a simple thing to do. Can we just get more garbage cans? Who’s the advocate for the community right now? It doesn’t seem like there is anyone,” Detterline said.
All of the current and former group members interviewed by Block Club said Humboldt Park is a community gem that needs good stewards.
“The park is in dire straits,” Sawicki said. “You look at other parks, and they’re run well. This one deserves better.”
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