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UPDATED: Winnebago Forest Preserve District Board could vote to demote president tonight

August 21, 2012 at 04:21 PM

Rockford Register Star

ROCKFORD — Randy Olson plotted for months to give Roscoe cop Theresa Rawaillot a well-paid forest preserve police job, a trail of emails shows.

And when his plans hit roadblocks along the way, he ultimately decided to change the way forest preserves are policed.

Olson, the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District Board president, couldn’t get Sheriff Dick Meyers to agree to hire Rawaillot as a deputy assigned to the forest preserve. Nor could he convince the majority of commissioners that hiring her as a forest preserve employee was the right move.

So he made the hire himself. Or rather, he directed forest preserve staff to make the hire for him, the emails obtained by the Register Star through the Freedom of Information Act request show.

That action lands him in the hot seat at Wednesday night’s board meeting: Four of the seven commissioners have vowed to vote to remove him as president. But they need the support of a fifth member — either Gloria Lind or Cheryl Maggio — to oust Olson from the president’s chair.

“We are not in the business of doing favors and collecting paybacks on this Board. We are in the business of preservation, conservation and recreation,” Commissioners Judy Barnard, Lee Johnson, Audrey Johnson and Mary McNamara Bernsten wrote to Olson in a July memo.

Commissioners say police costs need to be cut and are willing to study possibilities, but object to Olson authorizing the hire without their permission.

Olson said he went forward because someone needed to close the budget gap.

“I tried emailing them, I tried calling them, they didn’t want to talk about it. They were so entrenched with the Sheriff,” Olson said. ”The bottom line is that we have a four hundred and some thousand dollar budget to reduce. I sent the board a plan that can reduce that.”

A targeted candidate

Olson told the Register Star in July that he had recommended people for the job because he was in the police business and knew qualified candidates.

In an interview on Friday, after the Register Star obtained the emails that show Rawaillot was his focus since at least May, Olson said he wanted Rawaillot employed in the forest preserve because he felt she was the right person for the job all along.

He said her reputation in Roscoe was as someone who went above the call of duty and was one of the department’s best officers for public relations.

“That’s the kind of people we’re looking for in the preserves, somebody that can go out there and present a good picture for us, care about our citizens, try to respond to our needs and she fit the bill on that,” Olson said.

Rawaillot, a 13-year veteran of the Roscoe Police Department and Olson’s fellow Law Enforcement Aviation Coalition pilot, landed the newly created job of director of public safety coordinator and risk management on July 18.

But Olson had attempted to have Rawaillot hired as a Winnebago County sheriff’s deputy months before the forest preserve job existed. That plan was halted when Meyers couldn’t play ball — at least not at the pay level Olson wanted for Rawaillot.

Olson outlined the scenario in a string of emails to Executive Director Tom Kalousek.

“The original plan was the Sheriff was going to hire this officer for the position, but ran into a few union issues,” Olson wrote May 24.

Salary a deal-breaker

When forest preserve staff, at Olson’s direction, began to craft the description of a new job, Olson said the position did not pay enough for Rawaillot. Her annual salary in Roscoe, without overtime, was $63,161, according to Roscoe records.

“The lower pay is basically what the Sheriff offered to do and it wouldn’t work,” Olson wrote June 4. “She’s now currently making $74,500.00, and thats to (sic) big of pay difference. Please figure out a way to start her around $68,000.”

Rawaillot was hired at $65,000, which increases to $68,000 when her three-month probation period ends. She also gets a vehicle, cellphone use and health benefits.

Kalousek, the executive director for 13 years, has been neutral on the issue. However, his emails to Olson show his frustration with the plan. On June 5, Kalousek writes that a lunch meeting with Rawaillot should be canceled and offered his resignation in June after he told Olson he was uncomfortable with the hire he was being asked to make.

“Creating this position and requesting a salary of between $68,000-$75,000, compromises all that I have worked for over the 13 years, and undermines my professional and personal values,” Kalousek wrote.

He added that he was prepared to submit his official notice of termination of employment if Olson wanted.

Olson’s reply to Kalousek shows that he didn’t want the executive director’s opinion to influence other board members.

“I understand your position, but to meet my obligation I plan on presenting it to the board in the June meeting. I would appreciate you keeping your opinions to yourself,” Olson wrote June 5.

Olson sent a second e-mail that day after giving more thought to Kalousek’s offer to resign.

“In no way would I ever accept your resignation for you giving your honest opinion,” he wrote. “My only issue with this whole deal is that I believe in loyalty and I was there for you and was hoping you could be for me. I guess in a nut shell, I believe there was more to it than your sharing. However, thanks for your effort!!!”

State vs. local laws

On June 7, Olson emailed to board members the job description for the then-proposed public safety coordinator. Rawaillot was blind-carbon-copied on the email, records turned over to the Register Star show.

On July 13, Kalousek wrote that he wants to take Olson up on his offer to put in writing Olson’s direction to hire Rawaillot. Olson complies.

In a June 22 email, Olson instructed Kalousek to post the job for one week. Twelve people applied; only Rawaillot was interviewed.

Olson authorized the hire based on the Downstate Forest Preserve District Act, which says, in part, “The president of (the forest preserve board) shall have power to appoint ... such employees as may be necessary.”

That appears to conflict with the Winnebago County Forest Preserve’s code, which says the president can make appointments “subject to confirmation by the board.” But the board’s attorney advised commissioners that state laws trump local rules, Kalousek said previously.

Olson recognizes the controversy the hire has created but says the state laws clearly give him the ability to do so.

“There’s a reason they put these abilities in the Downstate Forest Preserve Act,” he said. “They’ve seen situations where things weren’t moving forward, things weren’t getting done and something had to be done.”

Olson has said that commissioners have focused too much on the process to bring Rawaillot on board, which distracts from the goal: to save the district money and improve police presence in the preserves.

Rawaillot’s job sets in motion a plan to partner with surrounding municipalities — some more willing than others — to patrol preserves rather than the current practice of contracting with the Sheriff’s Department. Olson believes it will save money because it ends the $308,000 sheriff’s contract.

Kevin Haas: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address); 815-987-1410; @KevinMHaas

What’s next
The Winnebago County Forest Preserve District Board meets at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at its headquarters, 5500 Northrock Drive, Rockford. The agenda includes a vote on whether Randy Olson should remain president and a request to defund a newly created public safety job.

From Aug. 21
Attorney General Investigating

The Illinois Attorney General’s office will investigate an alleged violation of the Open Meetings Act by the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District board.

The public access counselor was contacted July 24 by a resident whose name, per the Attorney General’s policy, was redacted from the complaint. Read the complaint here, which references this July article. The office confirmed today that it would investigate the alleged violation.

Four commissioners wrote in a July memo to President Randy Olson that they believe he put the district in jeopardy by inappropriately discussing the new public safety and risk management job in a June 20 closed session meeting.

Here is what the official minutes of the June 20 meeting say about the closed session:

“At 6:09 p.m. President Randy Olson moved to go into close session. Audrey Johnson objected to closing the meeting to discuss the police contract and the Public Safety position. Randy replied that they would talk about the position of Executive Director.”

Four commissioners say Olson put the district in jeopardy of an Open Meetings Act violation when he discussed the public safety job, rather than the hiring of an executive director.

The Attorney General’s office did not give a timeline for when an investigation would conclude. Come back to for more.

Related stories

Randy Olson asked to step down as Winnebago Forest Preserve District president

Four commissioners irked by Randy Olson’s recent power move have asked the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District board president to relinquish his title.

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