Controversy swirls around GPAC leadership change
June 7, 2019

With responsibility for advising the Chicago Park District concerning Grant Park issues, the Grant Park Advisory Council recently saw a shakeup in leadership.

By Marie Balice-Ward

Earlier this year, Bob O’Neill left the presidency of the Grant Park Advisory Council/Grant Park Conservancy amid Chicago Park District allegations about improper fundraising, sales of event permits, and installation of exercise equipment in the park.

O’Neill vehemently denies any and all wrongdoing, adding, “I was not raised that way and did not work for Grant Park for the money.”  He added that he is “incredibly upset” by the allegations, noting, “I have advocated for Grant Park for the past 36 years.” In fact, O’Neill stated, the Chicago Park District has received National Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies recognition for excellence during his tenure.

The Park District is taking the allegations seriously, reviewing all of them as presented in the Chicago Park District Office of the Inspector General’s report. A Park District spokesperson said it may or may not agree with all of the report’s assertions, but either way the Park District is committed to enact any recommendations to prevent misconduct by the Grant Park Advisory Council or its members.

In turn, O’Neill stated his attorney, Jim Ten Broeck, will present a report numbering 300-plus pages to the Chicago Park District to refute all allegations.

During this turmoil, the Park District selected Leslie Recht as president of the Grant Park Advisory Council (GPAC).  Recht, an attorney, was a longtime staff member for former 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fiorietti and is past-president of the Cliff Dwellers arts club.

Other officers are vice president Jim Wales, president of the South Loop Neighbors; treasurer Richard Ward of the New East Residents Association; and secretary John Talbot.

Transitory leadership

According to Recht, this new leadership is transitory until the group holds full elections. She explained that members of the Grant Park Advisory Council who most frequently attend meetings will be eligible to vote. “All meetings are open to the public and held at the Maggie Daley Park fieldhouse.”

Recht added that several committees—budget, programs, events, and activities—will meet between the GPAC public meetings. “We will work closely with the Park District, the City, the Chicago Police districts, and other authoritative entities for total transparency,” she noted. She added the group will not hold any “secret committee” meetings. 

O’Neill told Gazette Chicago the organization “never [had] any secret meetings” under his watch, adding that the “opposition,” however, has held several meetings privately in a condominium.

Recht stated the organization intends to create equilibrium between regional and local enjoyment of Grant Park—balancing the needs of neighborhood residents and those from outside the community using the park. Among future additions and improvements, she pointed to a new restaurant on Monroe Street between Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue. GPAC’s dog park committee is submitting proposals for improvements, she said, adding that the group has proposed new lights on the park’s south end to discourage potential crime.

Among the charges levied against O’Neill is that he purchased permits at discounted prices for Grant Park’s Windy City Wine Festival and Chicago Ale Fest and sold the permits to for-profit event promoters. The funds raised for these festivals allegedly amounted to $426,600 over five years, yet the Park District received only $169,864.

“This is simply not true,” said O’Neill. “We were asked by the Park District to act as intermediaries, and there was only one partner for both events, and all of the money went to the Park District.”

Counter charges

Some accuse the Park District of improper behavior. Omari Jinaki, a member of GPAC, cited a number of violations of the council’s by-laws by the Chicago Park District, including determining when elections should be held, the process of removing an officer, and the “separateness” of political action committees from the Chicago Park District, among other violations. He prepared a document that went to GPAC members, the Chicago Park District, and other entities.

Another current GPAC member, Bob Ziegler, who also serves on the Lincoln Park Advisory Council, is upset about the charges against O’Neill. Ziegler stated, “There has been nothing wrong with Bob O’Neill’s performance and long-term dedication to Grant Park.”  He claims the recent GPAC elections were not democratic and stressed that the Grant Park bylaws are separate from those of the Chicago Park District. In fact, Ziegler said, for GPAC, “the process was viciously violated” by the Park District.

Under O’Neill, GPAC installed exercise equipment at Grant Park’s south end, a move that raised controversy over whether the project received Chicago Park District approval. O’Neill emphatically stated the Park District gave its approval.

O’Neill and Ziegler have complained that certain statements by Park District personnel have ventured into the personal. Ziegler called those statements “a political ploy.”

The Grant Park Conservancy is a non-profit aligned with the Grant Park Advisory Council that raises money for landscaping, infrastructure, design, and cultural activities.  See https://www.grantparkconservancy.com/.