If there’s been one constant for Francis Podbielski during the past 34 years of his life, it’s been scouting. Since 1971, the Riverside resident has been affiliated with the Boy Scouts. But that relationship is now on the rocks.
It’s not that Podbielski has turned his back on the Boy Scouts, it’s just the opposite. The Boy Scouts, Podbielski said, has turned its back on him.
On Dec. 23, 2004, Podbielski was suspended by the Chicago Area Council after he allegedly intentionally bumped a council spokesman and obstructed his path during a meeting earlier in December.
For his part, Podbielski said that he simply “didn’t move fast enough for [the spokesman]. We briefly collided, and when he went around me, he brushed me again. That’s what got me suspended.”
According to the letter sent by the Boy Scouts, at least parts of which have turned up on the Internet, Podbielski’s “behavior has crossed the lines of acceptability for Scouting. Your intentional and repeated bumping, followed by blocking the pathway, of a fellow Scouter at the meeting on Dec. 1, 2004, is un-Scoutlike and inappropriate behavior.”
Ryan DiBernardo, a spokesman for the Chicago Area Council, refrained from discussing the matter in further detail.
“Unless it’s a matter of public safety, it’s a private matter from our perspective,” DiBernardo said. “It was un-Scoutlike behavior. There’s not much more I can say about it.”
But the story goes deeper than a couple of bumps at a meeting. The bumps were the final step in a long-running dispute between the Chicago Area Council and “front line” Scouts like Podbielski, who say that the council is ignoring their concerns.
“They’re just not listening to their constituency,” Podbielski said. “They’ve isolated themselves to the point where they’re answerable to no one but themselves.”
According to Podbielski, a medical doctor who is a thoracic surgeon, the problem started about two years ago, when the CAC decided that selling camping properties would help ease its tight financial situation.
In 2003, the council sold off its 408-acre Hoover Outdoor Education Center along the Fox River near Yorkville in Kendall County for $18 million. Meanwhile, the CAC also has an interest in selling its 5,000-acre Owasippe Scout Reservation near Whitehall, Mich.
The land sales have sparked protests from within the ranks, and the typically private squabbling has now become public. And Podbielski is at the center of the storm.
Since the plans to sell the two camps surfaced a little over two years ago, Podbielski has been an outspoken critic of the CAC board, saying that those actions prompted “the smoldering mistrust between the front-line Scouters and the corporate Scouters to come to a head.”
In 2003, when it came time for the CAC board to present its annual slate of officers, the front-line Scouters voted them down not once, but twice. After a bit of compromise, the slate passed on the third vote.
“But the board continued to charge right on to sell Yorkville,” Podbielski said. “And now they’re pressing ahead to sell Owasippe.”
That set the stage for another battle in 2004. In May of 2004, the CAC board’s slate of officers was again turned down. After two summit meetings between board members and front-line Scouters, the two sides were no closer to resolving their differences, according to Podbielski.
In December of 2004, the board’s slate was turned away again. After that meeting, a Chicago Tribune reporter tried to question one of the CAC board members.
“I wanted to stand next to him, because I know the board members are reluctant to talk to the press,” Podbielski said. “One of the spokespeople for the council came to get [the reporter] out of there and brushed me aside.”
Three weeks later, Podbielski received his suspension letter in the mail.
Although a Riverside resident, Podbielski represents two Boy Scout troops and one Cub Scout pack from Blue Island, serving as their charter representative to the Chicago Area Council. Since being suspended, Podbielski said that the CAC has threatened to revoke those groups’ charters if he remains involved as the charter rep.
“They say if I sign off on a charter, the charter will be revoked,” Podbielski said.
Further, Podbielski said, after his 90-day suspension, he’ll have to reapply for membership, which isn’t guaranteed.
The episode hasn’t dampened Podbielski’s support of scouting, although he said that money he donates to the scouts will no longer go to the CAC but directly to troops.
“I really believe in the program at the grass-roots level,” Podbielski said. “If they ever kick me out, I’ll continue to support the programs.”