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Some volunteers say Elgin going too far with drug tests

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

ELGIN — If you want to give your time to the city’s parks and recreation efforts, you’ll first have to fill a cup. At least for now.

In addition to a background check, anyone who volunteers time or serves an unpaid internship with a program run directly by the city’s parks and recreation department now is subject to submitting a urine sample to test for drugs.

However, after hearing about objections from some volunteers, Assistant City Manager Richard Kozal said there is a chance the drug-testing policy — which went into effect in January — could be modified.

“We don’t want to dissuade volunteers,” Kozal said. Until Courier-News inquiries this week, “we haven’t heard substantial push-back. We may have to refine the policy.”

According to Kozal, “The city has been conducting background checks for volunteers since about 1998. With the exception of receiving a paycheck, volunteers function no differently than any other city employee. Volunteers work on city premises, with city equipment, with city employees, and represent the city in an official capacity. Volunteers also often work with children. With the city’s increased reliance on volunteers, as evidenced by the parks and recreation department’s hiring of a volunteer coordinator, the human resources department determined it was good business practice to extend the city’s drug-free workplace policy to its volunteer work force.”

Everybody passed

Kozal said that more than 100 people have gone through the background checks and drug testing since the policy change was made. All have cleared the checks and passed the tests.

The police department, which uses unpaid interns, conducts its own background checks, Kozal said.

The cost, he said, runs “$10 for a name check, which checks state of Illinois records. There is no cost for the Illinois Sex Offender Database. A federal background check is $19.25.” Drug tests cost the city $35 each, according to Kozal.

While no one is questioning the value of a background check, some volunteers are wary of the need for the drug testing, some to the point of not yet taking the test.

“You don’t expect a 68-year-old woman to be doing drugs,” said Pat Schrul, who passed her drug test.

As a member of Art for All, Schrul volunteers to man the desk at Hawthorne Hill Nature Center on the city’s west side for a four-hour shift one morning a month. So does Sandy Kaptain, the wife of councilman and mayoral candidate Dave Kaptain.

Sandy Kaptain said she has yet to go for her drug test. She was glad to hear the test is not expensive for the city and appreciates the need to make sure everyone is safe. At the same time, she questioned the value of a drug test that is not a random spot check.

Losing volunteers?

Sandy Kaptain also speculates that the drug testing program might cause the city to lose volunteers, particularly older ones who feel insulted by the process. And she noted the inconvenience of having to get the paperwork at city hall downtown, then head to Provena Saint Joseph Hospital on Elgin’s west side to perform the test.

Her sentiments were seconded by Carl and Chris Missele, who also do volunteer work at Hawthorne Hill. The Misseles are involved with David Kaptain’s campaign for mayor, and Carl Missele also chairs the parks and rec advisory committee.

Carl Missele said he also volunteers at Hillcrest Elementary School, where he has not had to have his urine tested. And Chris Missele said the drug testing policy doesn’t seem to make sense, given that “groups come in all the time to do volunteer work at Hawthorne Hill. Football players, churches and others come in to help clear invasive species. What about them? Are they going to have to be tested, too?”

Like Sandy Kaptain, neither Missele has submitted a urine sample. They claimed that a good many volunteers have yet to do so. Further, Chris Missele’s objections are such that if pressed to provide a urine sample, she said she would seriously consider not volunteering anymore.

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