Winnetka Park Board censures commissioner vocally opposed to Elder/Centennial project

A surprise motion to censure Winnetka Park District Commissioner Colleen Root passed Thursday night despite residents praising her work representing them amid the Elder/Centennial beach project controversy.

The 5-2 vote saw Commissioner Cynthia Rapp joining Root against the censure. The measure limits Root’s scope as a commissioner, only allowing her to attend meetings and vote on items presented at meetings. She will not be permitted to speak with Winnetka Park District staff outside of meetings and outgoing emails from her official account will be monitored.

Root will also not be permitted to speak on behalf of the board at public events.

The censure came with a list of nearly two dozen incidents other commissioners claimed violated the board member code of ethics clauses to respect and support board decisions and represent all who are served by the Park District, among others.

The most substantial violations in the censure resolution alleged Root violated the ethics code by not respecting and supporting majority decisions of the board. These violations include her push in June 2022 to have initial permits for the project withdrawn from consideration by state and federal agencies at a meeting which two commissioners were absent; her walkout with Rapp during the July 5, 2023 meeting that led to a lack of a quorum that prevented the board from doing its work; and letters she wrote to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and United States Army Corps of Engineers in June 2022 opposing the project. Those letters were not disclosed to the board, according to the resolution, and were only discovered through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Under the violation claiming Root doesn’t adequately represent all those served by the Park District, the resolution points to the fact that she lives within 1,500 feet of the beach project.

The resolution also contains reports that state four senior staff members named Root’s behavior as the top reason for quitting, saying “you repeatedly contacted them directly for revisions to minutes, wanted additional information, or requested personal education time or showed little respect for their existing workloads.”

Root was also admonished at the March 7 meeting by Park Board President Christina Codo for requesting historical information and documents from staff in her effort to write a book about the Park District.

Commissioner James Hemmings explained the most recent incident came when Root sent an email on April 16 from her official account to Winnetka Village Trustee Kirk Albinson referencing an earlier conversation had with Village Trustee Rob Apatoff on her opposition to the permit application for Centennial that is currently working its way through village committees.

“Commissioner Root is a spirited advocate. Her perspective has helped me clarify lots of issues that we’ve dealt with here,” Hemmings said. “Vigorous dissent and debate of matters is important but efforts to undermine board resolutions are contrary to both our code of ethics and a productive dialogue of important issues within our community.”

Root responded to the censure, saying she will abide by the board’s decision. She also noted she was uncertain, that an item on the agenda calling for a censure resolution pertained to her until the meeting was underway. She also stated she retains the right to have her attorneys assess the situation to see if any of her rights had been violated.

“As a Park Commissioner, my foremost duty is to our residents and not, most respectfully, to you fellow commissioners,” Root said in a statement prepared under her assumption the censure was directed at her due to her continued dissent on the project.

She continued saying she believes the work being done at Elder and Centennial strays beyond the initial desire for one contiguous beach and instead caters to Justin Ishbia, who owns property separating the two beaches along with 3.7 acres south of Centennial.

“Our Park Code of Ethics states that we must represent all our agency serves and not just a particular special interest. Whom do you represent?” she asked.

A land swap between Ishbia and the Park District has caused issue in the village for years. In its terms, the Park District would swap the land at 261 Sheridan Road, between the two beaches, with a similar sized chunk of land at Centennial’s southern edge. The swap and Ishbia’s resulting mansion construction have resulted in an ongoing lawsuit from resident Robert Schriesheim, multiple changes to village code regarding lakefront development and continued distrust by some residents in the Park District’s ability to represent the village as a whole.

Land has not been swapped despite the contract being signed in October 2020 and both parties have deemed it as dormant.

Commissioner and former Board President Warren James said during his time as president he reached out to several officials at the Illinois Association of Park Districts for advice on how to maintain civil discourse. He went on to call the censure a sad day for the Park District.

“There have been some very difficult votes taken,” James said. “This isn’t taken lightly.”

Rapp stated she was speechless and believes she and Root were kept in the dark about the censure, saying she saw the resolution for the first time as it was handed out at the meeting. She claimed this has happened with multiple issues on the board where it was evident to her that other board members had access to materials she did not.

“I feel like Commissioner Root has been a dissenting voice but she has through that dissent improved our transparency in a way that we as a community appreciate and should recognize,” Rapp said. “Sometime the approach has been a little bit unconventional but sometimes when there are things that are entrenched, it takes that.”

Residents called the vote “shameful,” “disgraceful” and “terrible” as they left the meeting following the vote.

Board members expressed hope to move forward in a positive and productive manner.

“For the remaining members of the board, most of you who voted in favor of this, I hope that this proves to be a big cathartic moment to have vented on all the issues you’ve had with Commissioner Root,” Rapp said.