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Rogue Gardener Told To Leave Park After Staff Accuses Her of Harassment

By Linze Rice | July 9, 2015 5:50am | Updated on July 9, 2015 6:05am
 Donna Conroy, who has been informally volunteering to help clean up Willye B. White Park for years, said she and at least one other person have worked on the park's landscaping because
Donna Conroy, who has been informally volunteering to help clean up Willye B. White Park for years, said she and at least one other person have worked on the park's landscaping because "no one else will."
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DNAinfo/Linze Rice

ROGERS PARK — Gardening at Willye B. White Park got ugly last week as an unofficial park volunteer traded barbs with police, district staff and landscapers amid an ongoing feud over landscaping issues.

Rogers Park resident Donna Conroy, a part-time director of communications for the 26th Ward, said around 11 a.m. July 2, as she was pruning trees and weeding in front of the park's field house, she was approached by police and told she'd either be arrested or "taken to the hospital" if she didn't cease her work in the park.

Conroy said the officers, who Park Supervisor Valerie Lyons said were flagged down by someone landscaping that day on the park's behalf, told her someone had complained she'd been "harassing" the crews working outside and did not have authority to be actively gardening the park's trees, flowers and bushes.

Conroy said she'd previously spoken with Lyons and other park officials about landscaping issues she felt were neglected at the park and had gotten informal, verbal permission to help spruce things up for the past three or four years. Around the neighborhood, she's known as "the cleaning lady," both Conroy and Lyons said.

Donna Conroy said after extensive weeding she discovered this Annabel Hydrangea bush along the field house's Marshfield side, noting that section of property had not been tended to in years. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

When Lyons came on as park supervisor in 2014, she walked the park at 1610 W. Howard St. with Conroy, who had several complaints about the area's landscaping. Conroy gave her an "inventory of problems," Lyons said.

When confronted by police on July 2, Conroy said the officers told her they would hospitalize her because "it's insane" that a resident would take it upon herself to prune and untangle weeds.

Police officials said they did not have an account of the interaction on record because no arrest or action was taken.

"I said, 'OK that's fine with me,' I mean I didn't get upset," Conroy said, laughing. "The cops didn't want to arrest me obviously. They said I had to get off the parkway saying it's the park's property — it's not. I was like, 'OK, I'm weeding right now, I'm not gonna stop.'"

But a park employee who was present July 2 but did not want to give her name because she is not authorized to talk with the media, said Conroy could be heard "cursing" and being combative with police from inside the field house.

Conroy said she wanted police to arrest or ticket her in the hopes that landscaping issues would be taken more seriously, but disputed the claim that she had yelled during the July 2 incident.

Linze Rice says park district officials felt Conroy was harassing staff:

After police became involved, Lyons said 49th Ward Parks Supt. Dan Murphy was dispatched to the scene to reiterate to Conroy that she was allowed to work on non-park-owned property, but not directly in the park.

Murphy was not available for comment.

A worker empties trash cans at the park earlier this week. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

The next day, July 3, Conroy said she returned and was met by police again, this time while she picked up trash along the side of the park facing Howard Street.

But Lyons and other staff said the police were flagged down because Conroy had a recent history of harassing and micromanaging landscaping crews, engaging with parts of the park limited to employees or contractors and "safety issues."

"You'll just look up and she's there," Lyons said. "It was fine until she started harassing the crew. What if they're mowing and she's standing right behind them on their heel and they don't see or hear her and she gets hurt? It's a safety issue, that's why the police were asked to talk with her."

Lyons also said Conroy hasn't gone through the formal volunteer vetting program the park district requires, including filling out a form and undergoing a background check.

Conroy said she never went through the registration process because "99.99 percent" of the work she's done has been picking up garbage.

Conroy denies harassing the crew, but said rather that she'd complimented them on the "great work they were doing" on the improvements she'd suggested to various park officials over the years.

She said she offered to pick up any debris landscapers may have needed to blow out of the fields or walkway before going to work cleaning an area facing Marshfield Avenue.

That's when she said police showed up.

Admittedly, Conroy said a few weeks prior, on June 16, she'd gone into the park's field house on Howard Street and "yelled" at the front desk employee after she said he spoke to her disrespectfully — a situation Lyons said was provoked by Conroy's dissatisfaction at the park's exterior maintenance. 

"She just came in and started yelling" at the attendant on duty, Lyons said. "She was mad because she'd pruned trees in front of the building and she didn't think we were doing anything with it, she thought we were neglecting to do anything with the trees. But we have a tree-trimming company that comes out and knows all the specifics of what to do."

Conroy said she became angry after she'd spent two days trimming rose bushes and had gone into the field house to ask its maintenance person to pick up the trimmings she'd left behind — causing the park employee to "pitch a fit" that eventually turned into a yelling match, she said.

Conroy said she believes the police involvement on July 2 was retribution for the June 16 blow-up.

"I could tell they were conspiring, I knew exactly that this was trumped up from the altercation that occurred on June 16," Conroy said. "It's also a misuse of police time, attacking one of the most well-known volunteers."

Some of the flowers visible this week along the field house's eastern edge. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

Lyons maintains it was not the June outburst that led to a warning from police, but the ongoing issue that Conroy is not a registered volunteer with the park district and is not allowed to be pruning, trimming, weeding, planting or otherwise gardening in the park.

But Conroy said she believes the issue with her activism in the park is not over who is allowed to landscape, but rather sees it as "a race issue" because the park is located in a "mostly black neighborhood" and is purposely being neglected — a claim Lyons, who is black, denied.

"The way we see racism nowadays is through service, and what we automatically do whether we're white or black, is we provide an inferior service level to blacks," Conroy said. "[Park staff] refuse to provide a standard where they maintain the park landscape. They don't want me to do the maintenance that they're refusing to do."

Conroy said she and another man had been volunteering at the park for the past several years, a hobby sparked after Conroy was interviewed in 2011 by "Dan Rather Reports" about her work nationally to ensure companies followed fair hiring practices.

Setting her sights on her own "front yard," Conroy said she felt a sense of accomplishment for herself and the neighborhood after she tidied up her building's courtyard for the segment.

Lyons said Conroy is allowed to utilize the park facilities like anyone else, but must keep her gardening skills outside the property premises.

But Conroy said the way she's been treated for volunteerism is unfair, and hopes that further action with the park's landscaping will be taken.

"This is a message that if you want to do good, we will crush you and we will use the police to do so," Conroy said. "That is not America. In America, if you volunteer, people are pleased and proud to know you. They think they can use race as an excuse to do an inadequate job."

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