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Forest preserve resident staff will have to fight fires, use chainsaws

Updated: April 4, 2012 3:45PM

Cook County Forest Preserve District staffers who live in deeply discounted government housing in the preserves in exchange for cleaning up and snow-plowing the grounds will also have to report any illegal activity, know how to work a chainsaw and even put out a fire under plans approved Wednesday.

In addition, their rent is going to go up, though it will still be below market rate. And their leases — rather than be open-ended —will now be for two-year terms.

The overhaul comes after a “resident watchman” was fired last fall for allegedly using the backyard of her government-leased home to farm marijuana.

Cook County Forest Preserve Supt. Arnold Randall had announced last October most of his plans to revamp the forest preserve’s resident watchmen program — open to existing forest preserve staff who wants to take on added duties in the preserves in exchange for the discounted housing — but the Cook County Forest Preserve board approved them during a Wednesday meeting.

Rental prices for the 40 residences — 26 of which are currently occupied — will go from as low as $240 a month to as high as $702.

The approved measure now spells out that workers must “report any prohibited or illegal activity.” Before, they only had to report so-called “encroachments.”

The measure also allows Randall to cement minimum requirements for resident staffers that he’s been talking about: a valid driver’s license, a supervisor’s reference and training and certification in chainsaw use and fire safety.

That isn’t to say the the watchmen don’t have these skills, Randall pointed out after the county forest preserve meeting. Last month, resident watchmen responded along with Palatine-area fire crews to a brush fire in the Deer Grove Forest Preserve, Randall said. In the end, watchmen assisted in dousing a blaze that stretched across 10 acres of the preserve. The fire was caused by someone disposing of a cigarette or some other smoking material in the area, fire officials said.

Plans for overhauling the watchmen program had been in the pipeline before last fall’s arrest of Cynthia Wojtanowski, 45, who was charged with growing marijuana near a Tampier South Woods preserve rental home in suburban Orland Park.

Wojtanowski was fired from her $56,468 job as an administrative assistant for the forest preserve district and evicted from her forest preserve home.

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