Kadner: Whistle-blower still helping Posen
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org May 7, 2013 10:00PM
T.J. “Terrence” Whitcomb is pictured Tuesday at Memorial Park in Posen. The new playground equipment was provided by KaBOOM, a national nonprofit. | Phil Kadner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 9, 2013 6:19AM
It has been three years since T.J. “Terrence” Whitcomb, 20 years old at the time, uncovered the theft of nearly $300,000 from the tiny Posen Park District.
The college student, a newly elected member of the park board, wondered why recreational programs available to him as a youth were no longer being offered. His questions were often evaded or the answers didn’t make sense.
And while older, more experienced public officials often shrug their shoulders and turn their backs at such moments, Eagle Scout Whitcomb called the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
As a result, Donald Jacobs, 62, the longtime treasurer of the Posen Park District, became one of several suburban officials convicted in Operation Cookie Jar, a criminal investigation launched by State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
Jacobs was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of theft and official misconduct. He was paroled on May 1.
“He’s out of prison, but I hold nothing against him,” Whitcomb said as we stood together in Memorial Park, 143rd Street and Campbell Avenue. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s done his time.”
Whitcomb, who continues to serve on the park board, has graduated from Lewis University and is a substitute teacher in Bremen High School District 228. As he said the day Jacobs was sentenced, he’s focused on the future and not the past.
An insurance bond made the park district financially whole, repaying $290,000 of the stolen money.
KaBOOM!, a non-profit organization that builds children’s playgrounds for communities in need, constructed a play lot at Memorial Park, including various types of equipment.
The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, which is building ramps connecting interstates 294 and 57 nearby, helped equip another children’s park, and the Midlothian Park District assisted in a third.
The Posen Park District has only four parks, although Whitcomb wants to construct a fifth. But he realizes that his vision of a brighter day for the district is far from complete.
As we stood in Memorial Park, we were surrounded by baseball diamonds overgrown with weeds.
“There’s no Little League program in Posen any more, so manicuring the baseball fields is simply not a priority,” Whitcomb said. “We have a lot of other priorities that have been neglected over time.”
The park district has no full-time employees and offers no recreational programs for children.
“The park district director recently left because the job wasn’t what he thought it would be,” Whitcomb said.
His stepfather, Al Chmielak, helped him expose the corruption in the park district and is now the park board president.
“The park district director here has to be a guy who is going to be willing to get on a lawn mower and cut the grass when the maintenance people call in sick,” said Chmielak, who along with Whitcomb has pitched in to do such work without pay.
“The only (full-time) guy we had quit, and we’re probably going to use seasonal help from now on to keep costs down. There’s not a whole lot to do here in the winter,” Chmielak said.
The park district operates on a budget of under $200,000 a year in property tax revenue, although it now has a little extra cash in the bank thanks to that insurance settlement.
“We painted some fences, moved an electrical pole that was hazardous, put in some football goalposts (at Memorial Park) that can also serve as soccer goals and down the road we want to manicure the field so we can have a soccer program,” Whitcomb said. “The last few years have been spent repairing damage that occurred due to neglect.
“I want to put in a skate park for skateboarders at one of our parks and build a new park so that children don’t have to cross a really busy 147th Street once the I-294/I-57 connection is completed,” he said. “We’ve actually gotten a lot done, but there’s still a lot to do.”
A sign near the new KaBOOM! play lot at Memorial Park reads., “Kids Rule! Have Fun. Play Safely. Watch Out for Each Other. Laugh a Lot!”
“We do have more children using the parks these days,” Whitcomb said, “but we really need some recreational programs, the sort of thing I had when I was a kid growing up here. That’s been my goal since the day I ran for the park board (when he was only 19).”
Chmielak recently tried to persuade ComEd to pave an easement it owns near Memorial Park that serves as a parking lot and entrance road.
“I couldn’t budge them,” he said. “They (said they) may have to dig in the easement, it’s their property, they let us use it and there’s a floodplain nearby. They had lots of reasons.”
“We appreciate the fact they let us use the access road,” Whitcomb said of ComEd. “You don’t want to tick them off.”
But the gravel road is full of potholes and crumbling in places. It would seem like a nice gesture for ComEd to help a struggling park district,
“I’m still looking at ways to get grants to help us out, and I want to bring the University of Illinois Extension Service in here to offer some programs,” Whitcomb, a former 4-Her, said.
As we talk, the leader of a local Boy Scout troop comes by to ask about an Eagle Scout project one of his members is planning in time for a Memorial Day flag ceremony at the park.
“That’s the sort of thing that brings a smile to my face,” Whitcomb said. “You want the community to claim ownership of these parks.
“This is all theirs, after all.”
Thanks to Whitcomb, it is.