Highland Park News

Highland Park residents vent over sky-high park pensions

Friday, August 20, 2010

Dozens of Highland Park residents confronted their Park District commissioners Thursday night, demanding that they resign for approving a series of exorbitant bonuses, salary increases and pension boosting payouts to top district executives between 2005 and 2008.

Many of the furious attendees that packed the Highland Park Community House ballroom held signs that said "Resign!" and pointed their unyielding comments at Board President Lorry Werhane and commissioners Stacy Weiss and Nancy Rosenbaum, the three members that were on the Park Board during that time.

The Park District moved its regular scheduled Thursday meeting to the larger venue to accommodate the overflow crowd, which surpassed 200 residents.

"If they have any sense of loyalty to the oath they took, they should resign," Highland Park resident Henry Lowenthal said. "It's outrageous that a park employee was paid $40,000 more per year than the president of the United States."

Werhane, Weiss and Rosenbaum apologized for approving the payouts, but all said they would not resign.

"I feel that it is my place to apologize," Werhane responded. "I have apologized. I have committed to making this work going forward the right way. And I want to see it through."

"I will not resign."

Weiss also said she would not resign, while Rosenbaum added that she will not run for re-election when her term is up.

Werhane, Weiss and Rosenbaum served on the board when former executive director Ralph Volpe, finance director Kenneth Swan and facilities director David Harris were awarded bonuses that totaled $700,000 during a four-year span.

Additional salary increases during that time have or will provide the three executives with pensions that rival or surpass their total salaries to run the district in 2005. By 2008, Volpe's total compensation topped $435,000.

Swan's salary, which was $124,908 in 2005, spiked to $218,372 in 2008. Harris' pay jumped from $135,403 to $339,302 during that time.

Even though Harris resigned in 2008, Park District officials confirmed that he was paid the remaining $185,120 left on his three-year contract. The district also gave him a sport utility vehicle while his compensation without the SUV in 2008 still totaled $339,302 for eight months on the job, officials said.

"We sincerely apologize for the compensation decisions relative to the three individuals cited in media reports," Werhane said in a prepared statement before two hours of public comments ensued. "We understand many of you have lost confidence in this board, and we pledge to do what it takes to win it back."

The large crowd responded in jeers and chanted, "resign."
Highland Park resident Lori Flores Weiskopf, who announced plans to run for the Park Board, explained that she is most upset that the Park Board hasn't truly owned up to the problem. Instead, Flores Weiskopf said, district officials have continued to maintain that the decision to approve the exorbitant pay raises was appropriate at the time.

"I think (Werhane) is absolutely trying to justify it," she said. "It's ridiculous."

Werhane reiterated Thursday that the Park Board is now seeking outside consultants to ensure that the district's current benefit and salary structure is aligned with area norms. He also said the district's legal team is looking into whether some of the money could be recouped.

"Going forward, we intend to become a model for handling compensation in the right way," Werhane said. "We pledge to move forward as responsible and responsive stewards of this great district."

Werhane and the Park Board's explanations and apologizes were insufficient for many residents. Several expressed anger, doubting that the community would have ever found out about the executives' contracts if news reports didn't reveal the payouts to Volpe, Swan and Harris.

"This apologize is too little, too late," said resident Tony DeGrazia. "In this situation, I think 3 Rs apply: Rebate, refund and resignation."

Responding to Werhane's explanation that the bonuses were a once-accepted way to reward top-performing employees, resident Marvin Temple asked the board how that spending could benefit the community if those people intended to retire.

In many instances, park commissioners' answers were received with additional jeers.

Resident Bob Solomon reiterated the calls for resignations, saying the community "doesn't trust this board. The president and the board members who voted for (those payouts), would be doing the city a service by resigning and not digging in their heels," Solomon said.

Highland Park resident Elaine Sobel said the district will now be squandering more money to consult with an outside firm to know how to compensate current and future employees.

"I think the problem with this board and every entity in Highland Park, is you all just like to spend money," she said. "What you should be doing, in my opinion, to be responsible to the taxpayers is cutting every aspect of every budget."

After applause, Sobel continued, "You should be cutting, cutting, cutting."