Riverside trustees this month appointed five residents to the new Parks and Recreation Commission, which will serve as an advisory body to the recreation department. The commission replaces the Parks and Recreation board, which was dissolved in September by a divided village board after a heated debate.

Susan Casey, a former member of the recreation board, is the commission’s chairwoman. Joining her on the commission are James Brand, Katherine Leander, Michael Murphy and Tracy Sloan.

All five were appointed by unanimous consent of the four village board members at their Feb. 7 meeting – Village President Michael Gorman and trustees James Reynolds, John Scully and Mark Shevitz.

“Throughout that whole process, sometimes I felt the message of parks and recreation got lost,” said Casey of the battle over the rec board. “I thought I made it pretty clear that the department was much more important than the board. It’s been an emotional experience, but I’m not ready to sever ties with the Parks and Recreation Department.

“Some of the best times of my life have been seeing kids grow up in the Parks and Rec Department. I can help with the transition.”

Casey’s term runs only one year, and the rest of the commissioners’ terms are staggered, with the longest being Sloan’s at five years.

The commission will hold its first meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. in the rec department offices at 10 Pine Ave. The commission’s March meeting will be on March 21 before settling in to its regular monthly meeting date – the fourth Monday of each month.

“I think Susan coming back is great,” said Ron Malchiodi, Riverside’s director of parks and recreation. “She will provide the direction a new board would need. And the infusion of new commissioners is exciting. The energy level and interest is very high.”

While Village President Michael Gorman asked all the former board members to return as commission members, Casey is the only former member to take him up on the offer.

Gorman said he’s looking forward to working with the new commission.

“These are people who are excited to be involved,” Gorman said. “I’m looking for them to be a sounding board for Ron, and I’m looking for each of those folks to bring others into the process. I’m excited about the direction of the whole thing.”

Former recreation board Chairman Frank Gangware decided to take a pass on taking up a role on the advisory commission.

“I just felt with as vocal as I had been, and the reasons were important enough, and I probably ruffled enough feathers on the board that it wouldn’t be a good fit for me,” Gangware said. “I thought it would be hypocritical of me to take the position.”

But Gangware said he supports Casey’s decision and thinks she’ll do a good job leading the new commission.

“I support her; she didn’t want to leave the village in a lurch,” Gangware said. “I hope she’ll have a big impact on offering advice and giving direction to parks and recreation programming areas as well as the village board as to what parks and recreation needs will be.”

Ben Sells, the village board’s liaison to the recreation commission, praised the new commissioners.

They’re wonderful,” said Sells, who met with all of the new commissioners prior to being sworn in. “They’re the right demographic for the recreation department and are very dedicated. It’ll just be a matter of them determining what their role is going to be.”

Sells, however, did raise an eyebrow at the timing of the appointments. The village board is expected to vote on a measure Sells brought forward that would reinstate the recreation board. In November, voters overwhelmingly supported retaining the recreation board in an advisory referendum. The village board is expected to vote on the matter in March

“I thought the timing was odd since the ordinance is coming up in March,” Sells said. “I guess I know what the vote’s going to be.”

Rec director seeks higher profile for department

While a lot of negative energy resulted from the battle over the Riverside Parks and Recreation Board last year, one good thing happened – and Parks and Recreation Director Ron Malchiodi is hoping to exploit it.

“In the wake of everything that happened, awareness of the department increased, and I want to act on it in a positive way,” Malchiodi said.

The strategy is for the department to do more outreach to community groups and create a higher profile for itself.

“We’re going to provide the services we always have, but we want to increase visibility and awareness of the department,” he said.

Parts of the higher profile are two new initiatives aimed at gaining more participation from senior citizens and teenagers.

“Notoriously, those are the two hardest groups to program for,” Malchiodi said. “There’s so much more we can offer.”

Key to the new initiatives is the department’s program coordinator, Teresa Mrozik. The department will now be able to offer more trips, which traditionally have been a drawing card for seniors. In the past, it’s been tough for Riverside to organize trips on their own due to minimum participation requirements, but Mrozik has contacts with agencies that offer trips as part of a cooperative venture, Malchiodi said.

For example, this spring the department is offering a Tours and Tasting Series of excursions to a regional winery, breweries and a chocolate factory.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to build a following and do more trips in-house,” Malchiodi said.

The department has also launched a proTEEN program for teenagers, which had it first session on Feb. 22. The eight-week program is geared toward 13- to 16-year-olds and includes such topics as life skills development and mentoring. The opening session dealt with time management. March topics include peer pressure, financial independence, and completing job applications and resumes.

“We want to offer a relaxed atmosphere where teens can come and hang out, and we provide them with information on things they’ll run into,” Malchiodi said. “Once you appeal to that group, there are so many things you can build on.”