Video: Arnold Randall appears on “Chicago Tonight: Black Voices” on Jan. 24, 2024. (Produced by Paul Caine)
Arnold Randall ended his tenure as general superintendent of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County the same way he started — attending a meeting of the district’s board of commissioners.
The only difference was his vantage point.
In December 2010, Randall observed the proceedings from the back of the room as his outgoing predecessor, Steven Bylina, was feted on his final day. Immediately following that meeting, newly elected Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle named Randall — a member of her transition team — as her pick for the new general superintendent.
“I think it was a surprise,” Randall said of the announcement, though not to him, he clarified. “There was a lot of wrangling at the time.”
On Tuesday, it was Randall’s turn to stand in front of commissioners and bid farewell. Eileen Figel was approved as interim general superintendent, with a search underway for a permanent replacement.
As commissioners made clear in their parting well-wishes, whoever takes the helm next will have big shoes to fill. But at the same time, that individual will also face less of an uphill battle and confront far fewer challenges than Randall inherited, in large part because of the reforms he enacted over the past decade.
“To say it is night and day is not sufficiently broad in the improvement, the interaction, the fairness. Every aspect of the forest preserve has been molded into, I think, one of the finest institutions in this country — not just in this county or this state — and that is a testament to leadership,” Commissioner Scott Britton said of the transformation Randall wrought within the district.
In his final days as general superintendent, Randall spoke with WTTW News about his legacy, how the forest preserves will maintain its positive trajectory and what lured him to move on from what he called “the best job I’ve ever had.”
‘If We Did Basic Management, We Would Look Like Geniuses’
From the outside looking in, as he evaluated the forest preserve district during Preckwinkle’s transition, Randall said his impression was that, “in general, the perception of county government was not very positive, and the forest preserves were under the radar. It was clearly seen as a place that was very political.”
His personal interaction with the district, like that of many Chicagoans, had been limited to the preserve he frequented the most — Green Lake Woods, where he swam as a kid.
But Randall was willing to make the leap largely due to the strength of his belief that Preckwinkle would usher in reforms. He credits her for giving him and his team a great amount of leeway to remake the preserves so long as they delivered results.
Perhaps the easiest change Randall brought about — “easiest” in terms of readily identifying the problem and devising a solution — was to create an organizational structure at the district.
“A lot of people didn’t know who they reported to, there weren’t job descriptions, no performance evaluations. There was no senior staff meeting of department heads,” he recalled. “I used to joke that if we just did basic management, we would look like geniuses.”
Prior to joining the forest preserves, Randall spent two years in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration as commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, experience that served him well as he attacked operational issues within the forest preserve district.
“I never felt more prepared,” Randall said, but pushing the district toward increased professionalism did occasionally meet with resistance from a skeptical and anxious workforce.
People were initially afraid, for example, to put department goals on paper out of fear that if they fell short, they’d lose their job, Randall said.
It took time for the message to sink in that goals were “a tool to improve, not a ‘gotcha,’” he said.
The fruits of those efforts could be seen during Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting, with forest preserve staff delivering the results of an annual (since 2018) feedback survey sent to people who applied for an event permit in the past year.
The survey asks people to rate their experience of everything from the reservation process to restroom cleanliness on the day of the event to their interactions (if any) with forest preserve police.
The responses are viewed as a “report card,” Randall said, providing a snapshot of what the forest preserves is doing well (thumbs up for cleaning portable toilets on Sundays, for example) and where it could do better, such as enhancing the accessibility between picnic groves and trails for people with mobility issues.
Randall said he’s confident this emphasis on efficiency, transparency and accountability now permeates the district’s culture and will carry on even in his absence.
“It shouldn’t depend on any one person,” he said.
Britton affirmed that sentiment, stating: “I know that this board, and this president, and our acting superintendent will pick up the mantle. We will continue to function at the level Arnold would expect us to.”
‘We Needed to Be Coming From the Same Playbook’
In Preckwinkle, Randall had a boss who’s not only interested in the X’s and O’s of the forest preserves’ org chart, but cares deeply about the district’s greater mission as well.
“She’s a nature lover, she’s a person who goes hiking in the woods,” he said.
As Preckwinkle campaigned for the board presidency in 2010, she heard rumblings that the district was doing a poor job managing its 70,000 acres of land. So reviving the district’s credibility within the conservation community became part of Randall’s mandate, too.
It should have worked in Randall’s favor that his resume included management positions at the Chicago Park District, but instead it set off alarm bells, sparking concerns that he was just another cog in the political patronage wheel and that he would bring a “parks and recreation” mindset — emphasis on recreation — to natural areas.
It took a couple of years to dispel that notion, he said, and to prove himself to leaders at organizations such as Openlands and Friends of the Forest Preserves.
Among the ways he earned their trust was to push for the rollback of a moratorium on prescribed burns and restoration work, which had been put in place by a previous administration.
Such a moratorium is inconceivable today, Randall said, but 20 years ago, “there was a very active group on the Northwest Side that was against restoration, they didn’t believe in it.”
This small group of people convinced county leadership to take a “let it grow as is” approach to land management and in particular to put a stop to prescribed burns, a practice widely used to maintain healthy prairie ecosystems.
“That was a really dark time if you talk to people involved in restoration,” said Randall.
Under Randall’s leadership, restoration work not only resumed, it increased exponentially. In 2013, just 1,500 acres were under active management; today 15,000 acres are in various phases of restoration, with a goal of 30,000.
It’s work that’s been accomplished by a diverse mix of staff, volunteers and participants in programs like the district’s Conservation Corps, and by forging partnerships with organizations such as Friends of the Forest Preserves and Friends of the Chicago River, as well as institutions including the Shedd Aquarium.
The district also tapped into the knowledge base at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Brookfield Zoo — both of which the district supports financially but had formerly scarcely engaged with other than to cut checks, Randall said.
Marshalling all of these forces was no small feat.
“One of the big fights, we were fighting with our volunteers,” Randall said. “There was constant back and forth.”
Volunteers had lost faith in the district and felt it was too conservative in its approach to restoration, and preserve staff felt volunteers were overstepping and lacked expertise, he said.
Eventually, Randall enlisted the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois to help develop a Natural Resources Master Plan, which, among other things, identified priority sites for restoration and guides the district’s conservation work.
“We needed to be coming from the same playbook,” Randall said. “That was great, and I wish we’d done it sooner.”
The fact that a number of volunteers turned out for one of Randall’s farewell parties is “a sign we’re in a much better place,” he said.
The district also developed a forward-thinking Next Century Conservation Plan and created a Conservation and Policy Council in 2014 to advise on implementation of that plan, which lays out ambitious goals for land acquisition among other elements.
Henrietta Saunders, a member of the council, attended Randall’s final board of commissioners meeting and thanked him for his follow-through, the groundwork he laid and the culture he built.
“We feel confident that Eileen (Figel) and the excellent staff will continue to work productively with us and with all of the forest preserve partners to advance our mutual vision and goals,” Saunders said.
‘I Have One More Big Job in Me’
In 2022, Cook County voters overwhelmingly approved a tax hike for the forest preserves, an infusion of funds that puts the district on a path to long-term financial sustainability, Randall said.
Many in the conservation community viewed the ballot referendum as a referendum on Randall’s leadership, as well, and they threw their support behind the levy in a way that several people said they wouldn’t have a decade ago, citing “sound management” as the difference maker.
Conservationists will also say that Preckwinkle and Randall “get” the forest preserves as more than a job but a passion.
Randall counts his time spent in the field as some of the most rewarding of the past decade, reflecting on “wow” moments hiking in the Palos Preserves — where a person can walk for miles without coming across a road — and paddling the Skokie lagoons. Actually, paddling anywhere, he said, where the perspective at canoe level is one of total immersion in nature.
“I had an experience once where I started my day with our fisheries crew catching walleye as part of our propagation program, squeezing out eggs and growing new fish. I went home, changed into a suit and headed downtown for a meeting with President Preckwinkle and Mayor Daley,” he said. “Where else can you start your day in a boat catching walleye and mid-day, you’re in meetings with heads of government?”
So why leave?
While he hasn’t necessarily checked every box on his forest preserve to-do list, Randall said his major accomplishments — expanding programming and restoration work, the passage of the tax levy, restructuring the organization — have the district “in a good place.”
At 57, “I have one more big job in me,” Randall said, and he’s ready for a new challenge.
When the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation approached him during its search for a new executive director, the more he learned about their mission — which supports conservation and arts organizations in Chicago and South Carolina — the more he was intrigued.
“This appeals to me as an opportunity to learn a lot of new things,” Randall said. “And it’s an opportunity to do some cool things and be impactful.”
The new gig notably keeps him with one foot in the conservation world, where he’s come to feel at home.
Though Randall joked at his final meeting that he could “feel my general superintendent superpowers draining from my body as we speak,” the last 13 years have left an imprint.
“I’m going to go back to being a regular citizen ... who loves the forest preserves,” he said.