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Illinois Parks & Recreation
November / December 1995 Volume 26, Number 6

Administration Focus
Citizens Advisory Committees
Do You Want Them (To Work)?

by Robin R. Hall, CLP

In May of 1996, the Urbana Park District's Citizens Advisory Committee (UPDAC) will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. The emphasis is on celebrate. UPDAC has been a fundamental part of any success the district has enjoyed during the past twenty-five years. It has been reported that commissioners and staff in some park districts have strong reservation concerning citizens advisory committees. There are no reservations in Urbana. In 1971, the Urbana Park District had just lost a two-part election--a bond referendum and a tax rate increase referendum. The district suffered from image and credibility problems and was not visible in the community. In the post-mortem public discussion held by the board, it was decided that more citizen involvement was needed.

In May of 1971, the Urbana Park District's Citizens Advisory Committee was officially formed by the board of commissioners. In June of that year, UPDAC held its first meeting. During the following months, subcommittees began to study many aspects of the district--parks, land needs, programs, facilities, and finance. After thorough study, UPDAC recommended the acquisition of an old school building to be used by the park district as a recreation center. They also endorsed and supported a general fund tax rate increase that was held in March of 1972. It passed. After further study and support, the district passed a recreation tax increase referendum in November of 1972. The Urbana Park District was on its way to one of the most active periods of growth in its history.

What's UPDAC?
The Urbana Park District Citizens Advisory Committee is a fifteen member body whose members are nominated by UPDAC with five members appointed each year to serve a three-year term. They are approved for membership and appointed by the board. The committee has its own by-laws and suggested operating procedures. UPDAC organizes itself, appoints its nominating committee, makes its rules, selects its officers, com-

Illinois Parks & Recreation November/December 1995 ¦ 25

ittees, and committee chairs, formulates its programs, determines its meeting times, and plans its agenda.

Recruitment of New Members
Recruitment of new members, although done on an annual basis, is really a year-round activity. Suggestions for new members are solicited from current and former UPDAC members, current and former board members, church groups, and civic organizations. The district also solicits names through media publicity.

What Is UPDAC's Purpose?
What Does It Do?
The Urbana Park District's Advisory Committee was formed:

- To promote citizen awareness of the desirability of good, adequately financed parks and recreation.

-To encourage community understanding of park district problems and needs.

- To interpret to the board the public's needs and interests concerning parks and recreation.

- To interpret to the public the goals and needs of the park district.

-To identify, study, and evaluate citizen and district needs, concerns, and problems. After such study and evaluation, present suitable recommendations to the commissioners for their consideration.

-To accept policy study assignments from the board.

It is also stated in the bylaws that UPDAC "shall take no action recommending or supporting candidates for membership on the board, or regarding the employment, dismissal, promotion or transfer of an individual park district employee, or encroaching upon the professional prerogatives of the staff."

UPDAC's activities are extremely varied as demonstrated by the following examples. In the early and mid-1970s, the Urbana Park District more than doubled the number of its parks and tripled its acreage. These acquisitions were all studied and recommended by the citizens committee.

UPDAC evaluates programs. A subcommittee recommended the permanent cancellation of the old supervised playground program. They felt the district could no longer justify the expense given the reduction in participation. After detailed study, they recommended the expansion of environmental programs and the development of a joint special recreation program.

UPDAC makes recommendations concerning major facilities. It recommended the construction of a new nature center (1978), the construction of a new outdoor swimming pool (1980), the renovation and rehabilitation of Crystal Lake (1984), the construction of the Lake House (1986), the renovation and expansion of the nature center, and many other smaller projects.

In 1993, twenty-one years after the district's last tax rate increase referendum. UPDAC again studied the financial condition of the Urbana Park District. They recommended the need for a tax rate increase for operating funds. With the active support of UPDAC and the board, a 10 cents tax rate general fund increase was approved in November of 1993 with a 62% yes- vote.

Reasons for UPDAC's Long Tenure
Why has Urbana's citizens committee worked successfully for so long? There are many reasons. UPDAC is exposed to the "big picture." They are not advocates for the senior golf program, or the youth sports program or the maintenance program. They understand they must balance the district's operations in a fiscally responsible manner.

The board gives UPDAC important and responsible assignments and the board listens to their recommendations. The board does not use UPDAC as a rubber stamp or a buffer. There is also the opportunity for continual interaction between UPDAC members, commissioners, and staff. One or two commissioners are appointed as liaisons to UPDAC. They are in attendance at almost every UPDAC meeting. A staff person is assigned to every UPDAC committee as a resource person. There is also a staff person in attendance at UPDAC meetings.

In addition to developing their own program of work and having a varied agenda from year to year, UPDAC has been given increased responsibility. A few years ago it was felt UPDAC might be getting stale. The board gave UPDAC the responsibility of reviewing, developing, and recommending the district's annual capital improvement program. In case the point was missed the first time, the board listens to UPDAC recommendations.

Pros and Cons
As you can tell by now, Urbana Park District commissioners and staff members believe the pros of a citizens advisory committee far outweigh the cons. There are some cons, however. First, an advisory committee takes a commitment of board and staff time. There is also a small commitment of financial resources. UPDAC is taken on an annual tour of the parks and provided refreshments, a luncheon, and a T-shirt. Small compensation for what the district receives back.

The pros are many. UPDAC conducts valuable studies at little or no cost. These are studies that could not be done in as timely or as cost-effective a manner if left for the staff or consultants to do. UPDAC provides additional resource people in the community to answer questions about the district. It provides a pool of informed citizens, nearly all of whom become ardent supporters of the parks and recreation programs. These people spread their enthusiasm into their neighborhoods.

Former UPDAC members are invited to a "homecoming" luncheon every 18-24 months. At the luncheon, attendees are given a review and preview of district activities. UPDAC also provides a pool of potential board candidates. Currently, three of Urbana's five commissioners are former advisory committee members.

Commitment to Success
For citizens advisory committees to be successful, there must be a commitment to their success by board and staff. They must be viewed as the valuable resource they really can be. After all, they do represent a park district's reason for being.

Robin R. Hall, CLP, is the executive director of the Urbana Park District.

26 Illinois Parks & Recreation November/December 1995

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