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Reforms pushed after county worker charged with growing pot in woods

Monday, September 26, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times

Days after a Cook County Forest Preserve worker was charged with growing marijuana — not far from the forest preserve quarters she calls home — officials at the agency are calling for sweeping reforms.

In what is known as the “resident watchmen” program, 40-plus homes and apartments are available at steeply discounted rates for forest preserve staffers who, in addition to their regular duties, agree to help plow snow, remove downed trees and report criminal activity in the area where they’re living.

The program has long been seen as a home for some patronage workers whose skills are honed climbing the political ladder rather than fighting a forest fire — but that’s all changing, said Forest Preserve Supt. Arnold Randall.

“We want to be clear that anyone who is in a resident watchman home, that they’re trained properly and they’re able to fulfill the duties of the job,” Randall said. “That hasn’t been happening in every case.”

In addition, “before anyone gets in the door” a criminal background check of adults will be conducted, Randall said. Forest preserve managers and police will regularly inspect the residences.

Cynthia Wojtanowski, 45, a resident watchman at Tampier South Woods forest preserve in Orland Park, and her live-in boyfriend are accused of growing marijuana near her “watchman” home.

Cook County criminal records show Wojtanowski has a clean record, while boyfriend Mark Osmolski had several arrests, including attempted possession of cannabis, but was not convicted.

Under the proposed reforms, felons wouldn’t be allowed to live in the residences, and those with arrest records may be excluded, too, Randall said.

Wojtanowski, an employee since 1996, is awaiting a disciplinary hearing now scheduled for Thursday and was given an eviction notice.

The $56,468-a-year administrative assistant paid $545.16 monthly to live in the house.

A spokesman for the Forest Preserve said the overhaul will likely see rental prices go up, too.

In 2009, Wojtanowski contributed $500 to the 47th Ward Democratic Party on the city’s Northwest Side. Former Chicago Ald. Eugene Schulter is the committeeman.

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