Resigned Park District President Considers Running Again
Highland Park hasn't seen the last of Lorry Werhane Jr.
Before Lorry Werhane Jr. joined the park district of Highland Park, he protested against it.
When he was a junior at Marquette University, Werhane returned home to Highland Park to find that the park district had closed off the Port Clinton baseball field where he'd played pickup games growing up. A house had gone up in left field and its owners weren't keen on fixing broken windows or waiting for the next one to break. They complained to the park district and a sign was put up: No Baseball in the Park.
So Werhane gathered as many people as he could and went to the field. The group played using a Wiffle Ball that wouldn't do any damage. When the police arrived telling them to leave, Werhane said, "No."
"My parents were appalled that I would go against the law, but at that time people were protesting the war at Marquette, like most other college students were," Werhane said, "And I thought I was going to make this right."
Eventually, the park district conceded. They took the sign down and put a fence in its place.
Twenty years later, Werhane has just made a concession of his own. After months of public outcry for his resignation, Werhane resigned Thursday night from his post as president of the park district.
He may not, however, be gone for long. Werhane said recently that he was thinking about running for one of three open park district seats in the April election.
"People are pushing me to consider it," he said. "We'll see."
Werhane, 59, first started following the park district when he moved back to Highland Park to work at the Green Bay Road. Mobil station that his family has owned and operated since 1941. He became involved with the restoration of Rosewood Beach, and soon found himself appointed to the park district when a commissioner stepped down. Werhane decided to run for election a few months later and won, beating out the three other candidates.
During the next two decades, Werhane worked with the board to open the Heller Nature Reserve, the Highland Park Recreation Center and Hidden Creek Aquapark. He and the board were working on a restoration plan for Rosewood Beach when the Chicago Tribune broke the park district pension scandal in August.
The article revealed that the board gave huge bonuses to park district employees that nearly doubled some of their salaries and spiked their pensions five years ago. Former Finance Director Ken Swan's salary, for example, jumped from $124,908 in 2005 to $218,372 in 2008. In 2008, former Executive Director Ralph Volpe made $435,000.
"The board at the time put our trust in a commissioner who had experience designing contracts," said Werhane, who said the employees were given bonuses to reward them for their work and to bring Highland Park's salaries up to those of other North Shore communities.
Swan, for example, helped the park district become the first in the country to receive a AAA bond rating from Moody's Investors Service.
"We wanted to make sure the people we were compensating were in the ballpark of other areas," Werhane said.
Beginning in 2006, the park district was paying Swan more than finance directors were paid in Deerfield, Glenview and Northbrook. In 2009 his base salary was approximately $16,000 more than Deerfield's finance director.
Werhane insists he didn't realize that the bonuses would spike pensions, something he considers an unfortunate consequence of trying to properly compensate park district employees.
"I didn't really comprehend how that goes into the pension system," he said. "It's almost as if you should start building someone's salary up before they perform."
Since August, Highland Park residents have flocked to park district meetings to demand that the three sitting members who were on the board when the contracts were drawn up resign. Stacy Weiss and Nancy Rosenbaum resigned six weeks ago, but Werhane waited until two appointments had been made so that the board would have a quorum. Those two appointments, David Fairman and Ben Kutscheid, were sworn in at tonight's meeting, which was Werhane's last as president.
"I think he did the right thing of resigning at this time," said Park District Commissioner Elaine Waxman.
"He's a good man and he made a mistake," said Highland Park Mayor Michael Belsky. "Unfortunately, it was a big mistake."
Demand for Werhane's resignation has seemed all but universal, with the number of voices growing each day he remained on the board.
"It's their business to be stewards of tax dollars and not let things slip through the cracks," said Henry Lowenthal, a Highland Park resident who printed signs that read "RESIGN" and brought them to the first park district meeting after the scandal broke.
Despite the public outcry and the threatening emails and malicious texts he's received, Werhane is still unsure that stepping down was his only option.
"The pressure is terrible," he said, "But I do believe it would have gone away."
Werhane explained that people continually come by his station to show support. "There are so many people that have come up to me and said, 'I hope you didn't resign.'"
Werhane has not picked up a petition packet to run for one of the park district seats. The packets are due Dec. 20. Shortly after last night's meeting he said that for now his involvement would be as a citizen and did not comment on whether or not he would run again.
"I will definitely be involved in the lakefront and any committees that are there," he said, "I'm not going away."