The Sterling Park District's nepotism policy is simple: An employee can't directly supervise a relative.
So that leaves the district with wide latitude in hiring.
Sauk Valley Media found a number of family relationships in the park district's listing of 2011 wages.
Two of the district's five board members had relatives working for the parks that year. Member Marvin Reyes' brother, Michael Reyes Sr., a full-time laborer, is with the district, making nearly $40,000. The member's son, Tyler Reyes, also worked for the parks, making $9,300. Ryan Stutzke, son of board member Dave Stutzke, pulled in nearly $13,000.
"No board member says we have to hire someone. We hire based on qualifications," said Larry Schuldt, the district's executive director. "I have never felt pressure to hire someone's relative."
He said the district's administration has to have "a little guts" to hire a board member's relative. Because if those relatives become upset with their superiors, he said, they would probably go to the board members to express their concerns.
"We're not afraid to hire a board member's kid," Schuldt said.
Other instances of family connections in the district:
• Elizabeth and Rolland Lindsay, who are married, run the district's gymnastics program. They also lease equipment to the district.
• Schuldt's half sister, Ember Schuldt, was listed as an employee in 2011. Ember Schuldt, who placed third in a state high school golf meet, worked at the Emerald Hill Golf Course.
• Former mechanic Robert Watts' son, Dustin Watts, was listed as a part-time worker in 2011.
• Risk Manager Steve Brenner's two children, Abigail and Aaron Brenner, worked for the district in 2011.
"We have some brothers and sisters who work for the district," Schuldt said. "What we find is that if a sister is a good employee, her brother or sister is often a good employee and has the same attributes. That's not always the case."
He said it's inevitable that some family connections exist in the district's staff because Sterling is a small community.
The Oregon and Coloma park districts also have examples of such relationships, but Sauk Valley Media couldn't find anything significant in the Dixon Park District.
'I'll mine for the best talent'
Oregon has its share of family connections. And it starts at the top.
Sean Coutts, the son of the district's executive director, Jim Coutts, is a part-time police officer for the parks, making $18,451 in 2012. The director's daughter, Marissa Coutts, also worked a part-time job, pulling in $1,700. Coutts, the director, pulled in nearly $120,000 in 2012, but that amount includes more than $10,000 for unused vacation.
Don Griffin, the superintendent of environmental services, who made $89,000 last year, has two sons who work for the district. Dan Griffin, the finance and technology administrator, made $74,190 last year, while Jamie Griffin, a laborer, received $48,844.
The father started working at the district first.
In another instance of family connections, the daughter of park board member Dave Bakener also worked part time for the district last year. Alicia Bakener made $1,608.
Coutts, the director, said the district has no nepotism policy, although it usually avoids direct supervisor relationships between full-time family members.
"We hire good employees. How is that a bad thing?" he asked. "I don't care what family someone comes from. I'll hire them if they're qualified. My job is to put people in the right spots.
"If someone has a college degree, that's something we want. I'll mine for the best talent. I need someone with qualifications to get things done."
Erin Folk, the assistant executive director who is set to take over as director in May, said the district finds that if it hires local people, they stick around.
"When we hire people from outside the area, they use this as a steppingstone in their career," she said.
'We pay based on job title'
Rock Falls' Coloma Township Park District has one major family connection: Executive Director Mike Sterba is married to the bookkeeper, Dawn Sterba.
He started as director in 1974. The bookkeeper left not long after. The district brought in Sterba's wife to do the job.
Over the years, the district has hired seasonal employees who are the children of board members and full-time employees, Mike Sterba said.
"We pay based on the job title," he said. "Most of the jobs are minimum wage."
Family connections usually work out, he said.
"You actually get very good workers," Sterba said. "Their parents make sure they do a good job. [The children] are motivated by their parents and family."
Asked about the district's financial controls, Sterba said he was comfortable with the district's financial controls. No staff, including the Sterbas, can sign a check of any amount, he said. Each check is signed by two park board members.
"My signature means nothing," he said. "Three sets of people look at everything we do."
A history of 'first-class' services
In many states, park systems are part of city governments. In Illinois, however, they are often separate taxing districts.
In this area, Sterling, Dixon, Rock Falls and Oregon have separate park districts. Many smaller towns, including Morrison and Amboy, have their own park systems.
One of the advantages of a park district is that it ensures a regular flow of money for parks and recreation.
When city budgets get tight, the budget ax usually strikes departments such as parks and libraries first, said Jason Anselment of the Illinois Association of Park Districts.
"The irony is that in tight fiscal times, like we experienced recently, there is greater demand for park and recreation services because people are taking staycations," he said.
Other states envy Illinois' park districts, Anselment said.
"Park districts have a proud history of first-class services," he said.
Illinois has about 350 park districts.