Park districts are about play, fitness, fun and relaxation — or at least they should be.

When politics, name-calling and finger-pointing enter the picture, one has to wonder if we are losing sight of what matters most. That’s what the Journal Star editorial board was thinking during our contentious and hot-tempered joint meeting with candidates for Peoria Park Board president, which is on the April 2 ballot. The two candidates during our discussion showed moments of unprofessionalism as each was trying to tout his merits for the job. Well-thought-out plans for the future took a back seat to one-upmanship.

This is a position that will lead a park district with the second-most park land in Illinois, next to Chicago. The park district faces significant concerns about staffing and finances, but there are also infinite opportunities to do good for the community.

This isn’t a race for governor or U.S. president. This is a position that could immediately make life just a little bit better for all constituents right here in Peoria. Each is a passionate person who has given much to his community and profession. Yet politics appears to bring out the worst in both men.

The candidates are 23-year park board member Robert Johnson, a financial auditor for Marriott Hotels, and Michael Van Cleve, a Peoria Realtor.

Johnson, who represents the south end of the district, has done much in his two-plus decades on the park board to spur park improvements, notably the John Gwynn Family Aquatic Center. He voted in favor of the successful public-private business project to move Cyd’s restaurant to Donovan Golf Course. He’s fostered relationships on behalf of the park district with community and state leaders. And he was instrumental in rejecting the park administration’s suggestion to end the Fourth of July fireworks show in Glen Oak Park as a matter of community pride.

Johnson wants to improve park offerings on the East Bluff as well as programming for senior citizens and grandparents caring for young children. While he “owns” the park district’s past financial problems, Johnson says he wants to lead the park board and move it into the future.

Van Cleve supports a community-wide discussion about park district programming, solidifying the district’s finances, improving and maintaining park facilities and empowering staff to explore innovative ways to expand programming and increase revenue.

A major focus for Van Cleve is to increase the number of public-private partnerships, similar to the Cyd’s move.

Both candidates have significant community involvement that have benefited many.

So, who would be the best candidate to lead the park board, build consensus, get finances on track and provide clear direction to the park district’s executive director? If Van Cleve can tone down his battle cry and promise compromise to build consensus, a new leader of the Peoria Park District might be warranted.

That said, if the position requires a leader to grow political connections and is community relations-oriented, Johnson appears to be a better fit.

Our endorsement, however, leans marginally toward Michael Van Cleve. But that’s a tough call, especially after our meeting with the candidates.

Long term, we recommend whoever wins the park president seat make it a priority to eliminate the position in favor of the board deciding who should lead the park board for a one-year appointment, similar to how the Peoria Public Schools board of education operates. This would give more park board members who represent districts throughout the city a chance to help determine policy and direction. After all, the park board president is still only one vote among seven.