Update: The February meeting of the Jackson Park Advisory Council has been canceled. Read more here.
An unusual battle over voting rights is brewing on Chicago’s South Side. At stake is who’s allowed to have a voice in the stewardship of Jackson Park.
The crux of the conflict is this: The Jackson Park Advisory Council — which advocates for park programs, improvements and resources as part of its mission — is proposing an amendment to its bylaws that would change the definition of a “voting member in good standing.”
Currently, people can vote on measures as long as they’ve filled out the council’s membership form and have attended at least two meetings within a 12-month period.
An amendment to the bylaws, presented in December and expected to come up for approval in February, would increase the meeting attendance requirement to four in 12 months and would add a stipulation calling for participation in three volunteer activities or events. A person would only be eligible to vote after meeting both conditions.
Critics said the changes are discriminatory and designed to be purposefully exclusionary. Twenty residents of Woodlawn, Hyde Park and South Shore signed onto a letter sent to Chicago Park District leadership, asking the district to step in and minimally put the brakes on a vote on the bylaw proposal. The letter also asks the district to send a representative to oversee the next council meeting.
Among the assertions leveled against the council is that the volunteer requirement creates a barrier for disabled people, who might find physical labor difficult or impossible, and also for people who work nights, weekends or multiple jobs.
“Given the socio-economic make-up of the communities surrounding Jackson Park, working-class neighbors are the majority users of the park and should be encouraged to join the group, not excluded,” the letter stated.
“Similarly, this proposal also creates significant barriers to entry for park users who are solely responsible for children or the elderly and can’t attend monthly dinnertime meetings in addition to multiple volunteer commitments where no childcare is provided,” the letter continued.
Several neighbors called into Wednesday’s monthly meeting of the Park District Board of Commissioners to reiterate their complaints.
The council has made it clear it’s taking measures to discourage the input of newcomers, and is circumventing the democratic process, said Susannah Ribstein, a South Shore resident.
“We’re asking the Chicago Park District to intervene,” Ribstein said. “I believe we can get JPAC (the advisory council) back on track as a group that's welcoming to our community.”
Louise McCurry, president of the council, also called into the board meeting and addressed some of the issues raised.
The council, which formed in 1983, has had an active group of 15 to 20 volunteers over the years, she said. With the announcement of Jackson Park as the chosen site for the Obama Presidential Center, attendance at council meetings has ballooned, and the organization is attempting to adjust to that new dynamic, McCurry said.
She expanded on those comments in a response to WTTW News, stating that the bylaw proposal is consistent with the best practices of many other advisory councils.
Regarding the assertion that the volunteer requirement is exclusionary, McCurry said: "Entire multigenerational families from children in strollers to grandparents with walkers happily participate in our activities and attend meetings. Volunteers themselves choose the activities they feel able to and want to participate in."
Those activities, she added, aren't limited to physical labor but can include making phone calls, sitting at welcoming tables at events or observing and reporting park issues.
Regarding meeting attendance, McCurry said voting on issues related to programming and finances requires knowledge of the advisory council's activities. "Consistent attendance is critical to understanding and making informed decisions that benefit the (advisory council), the park and the park community," she said.
Park advisory councils are independent, self-governing organizations, Irene Tostado, Chicago Park District spokeswoman, told WTTW News. While the Park District has established a general code of conduct and guidelines for councils, each council is free to create and amend its own bylaws, she said.
A Park District representative will attend the next Jackson Park Advisory Council meeting, scheduled for Feb. 14 at 7 p.m., to ensure the integrity of the bylaw vote. "However, we must remain neutral and allow (council) members to work collectively to resolve issues, as long as the nature of those issues do not violate the PAC code and PAC guidelines," Tostado said.