DIXON – Steve Cecchetti remembers being handed a check for $100 in March 2004, looking at it, and asking, “What’s this for?”
The check was for inspecting playgrounds, Dixon Park District Executive Director Deb Carey told him.
Although Cecchetti inspected the park district’s playgrounds on a regular basis, he had never before been paid anything extra for it.
No longer employed by the park district, Cecchetti now questions the “willy-nilly” nature of the bonuses he and others received from Carey.
The president of the park board, however, said he trusts Carey’s judgment.
As executive director, Carey has broad discretion over what, and how, employees are paid.
Budgets approved by the park board include a couple of line items for personnel pay. Carey determines how that money is spent and on whom, with minimal oversight.
Extra pay is given to employees, Carey said, “When I think they deserve it.”
While some employees have received bonuses, others have received pink slips. The district has made budget cuts that include eliminating the full-time positions of soccer director and recreation director and shaving the maintenance crew from six full-timers to two.
“I will certainly say the park district is not afraid to pay somebody if they’re doing a good job,” Carey said. “I think it’s the best use of tax dollars that you can do to have a good employee who’s reliable and responsible and doesn’t steal money. Those are things that are really important.”
Carey doesn’t like to call the extra checks “bonuses.”
So, what would she call them?
“I don’t know,” Carey said. “Extra pay for going above and beyond the call of duty.”
Yet Carey doesn’t dispute that some employees have received money in addition to their normal pay for work that is part of their regular duties and done during working hours.
Carey also decides whether employees get raises and whether part-time workers get sick days or holidays, she said.
The park district, which is a separate taxing unit from the city, lays out its own codes and ordinances. The park board is the top authority, although it gives the executive director much discretion.
For example, although the park district’s ordinances reference a pay schedule for employees, the board never has implemented one, Carey said.
That broad authority, Cecchetti said, always has rubbed him the wrong way.
“Somebody made the conclusion ... that they’re not [being paid] what they should be making or whatever, so we’re going to throw a bone at them now and then,” he said.
“That’s what it looked like to me, because it just doesn’t make sense. ... It was willy-nilly. They’d just throw out a check every once in a while. I don’t get it. I know I didn’t get a lot of checks.”
Sauk Valley Media reviewed all park district financial reports between March 2011 and August 2012, as well as a random sampling of reports from 2003 to 2008.
In the reports, board members and the public are informed about who received the check, from which account they were paid, a description of what it was paid for, the amount, and the check number.
Cecchetti received a handful of checks during his tenure:
n In September 2003, $100 for “corp. seasonal maint.”
n In March 2004, $100 for “playground audit.”
n In June 2004, $50 for “playground inspections.”
n In July 2004, $127.20 for “projects.”
n In September 2004, $50 for “playground project.”
n In October 2004, $50 for “supv.”
(The extra checks stopped after he raised concerns over whether they were appropriate.)
All of those checks, Cecchetti said, were for work that he did on park time and which he considered a normal part of his job.
Carey doesn’t disagree, and said she didn’t know why he received the extra pay some times and not others.
Some paid more often than others
Cecchetti received very few checks in comparison to some other employees. In the records reviewed by SVM, the most frequent recipients were Carey, maintenance director Duane Long, and maintenance foreman Terry Hambley – the only remaining full-time employees.
In March, all three received checks for $175. Carey’s was labeled “reimbursement,” Long and Hambley’s did not have descriptions. Recreation supervisor Terry Shroyer also received a check, labeled “reimbursement,” for $75.
All but Shroyer are salaried employees.
Carey said she could not recall what the checks were for.
Some of the checks that went out, she said, were for things that were done during off-hours, that were not a part of job descriptions, or that would have required the park district to hire someone else. Some employees also were reimbursed for personal phone costs.
Employees receive checks “when I think they deserve it,” Carey said.
“That’s the simplest, honest answer,” she said. “If I feel they deserve it, if I think they’ve gone beyond what they would have to do, if they have been unfailingly polite and kind and responsible.”
For example, she said, she’s thinking about paying Long and Hambley extra for the 1,500 feet of curb they poured this summer.
“That’s sure not in his [Long’s] job description,” Carey said. “Most park district maintenance people mow and paint picnic tables. I bet you wouldn’t find one other park district maintenance crew that pours concrete, repairs equipment, does all the things that those guys do, so Duane [Long] and Terry [Hambley] are certainly worth every penny and a lot more than what they get paid.”
Carey reports all disbursements in monthly financial reports to the board. Park Board President Bill Ost said he knew about the extra payments from conversations with Carey.
“The board is not meant to manage the park district,” he said. “They’re to set policies and to review what’s going on, budgets and so on.”
Other board members, though, said they didn’t know about the extra checks.
This isn’t the only area where some board members are in the dark, member John Weitzel said.
Until Carey received a raise in September, Weitzel said he was unaware that other park district employees, including Long and Hambley, had received raises. He didn’t even know that Carey’s raise was going to come up at that meeting. He also didn’t know some park employees were reimbursed for their cellphones.
Weitzel has been on the board since April 2009, and doesn’t plan to run for another term.
“I just don’t like the way it’s being run, personally,” he said. “I think it’s a good old boys club. You’ve got a couple members on there who have assumed ownership, in addition to Deb, and the three of them [Carey, Long and Ost], they make all the calls.”
When Weitzel has tried to raise issues or ask questions, he said, he has met resistance and been treated like he’s wasting time.
“I personally feel she has too much authority to act,” Weitzel said.
Ost, though, said he trusts Carey’s judgment.
As board president, he conducts her annual review.
While Ost has been on the board since December 1999, he knew Carey before that, when he worked for the Illinois Department of Transportation and worked on projects such as the Riverfront.
Carey has been executive director since 1996.
Even though Carey and Ost butted heads in those situations as they represented their different entities, Carey approached Ost about filling a vacany on the park board.
“I’ve had a good working relationship with her for years,” Ost said. “There are times she calls me and says, ‘I don’t agree with this,’ and gives me a good argument. And sometimes she convinces me, and other times I just say, ‘No, Deb, you cannot continue to do these things. ... We don’t have the funds or the staff.’”
As for Carey, she doesn’t regret any of her decisions.
“I can look myself in the mirror every morning and say, ‘I’m as fair and honest as I could possibly be,’ and I don’t have any ... I think I’ve done what I could do good for the park district and the employees.
“So your story should say, ‘She’s the queen. She can do what she wants,’” Carey said with a laugh.