Winnetka residents voice support for censured Park District commissioner

A tense meeting of the Winnetka Park District Thursday night saw more than a dozen residents speak in support of recently censured Commissioner Colleen Root.

Vice President Eric Lussen began by thanking Winnetka Police Department Sergeant Mark Strzelec for attending the meeting as a precaution following comments made at the previous meeting.

Root was issued a one-year censure by a 5-2 vote at the April 25 meeting for refusing to accept the board’s decisions on the Elder Lane and Centennial Beach project and attempting to undermine the board by sharing her opposition with members of the Winnetka Village Council and other governing bodies.

Root told the board on May 9 she cannot accept its plans for Centennial Beach arguing it’s unsafe and serves to give billionaire Justin Ishbia further privacy for his $43.7 million mansion being constructed just south of Centennial.

“I will be more cautious in my comments but I still will ask questions and ask that you carefully consider what you’re doing,” Root said as those who support her applauded.

Winnetka resident Irene Smith called the censure bullying saying, “It was humiliating for Colleen and it was humiliating for me to observe.”

Kim Marsh, another resident, also spoke in favor of Root saying, “All the purported reasons for this censure do not fly and the method by which all of you colluded to come prepared with typewritten statements despite Commissioner Rapp not even knowing about it, lead those of us watching this unfold to surmise that the censure has been in the works for some time and is vindictive retribution for an independent voice.”

Commissioner Cynthia Rapp, who voted against the censure, claimed at the April 25 meeting she was not informed of the censure prior to the meeting and only learned of the issue when the meeting agenda was posted. Root also stated she had no prior knowledge of the censure but assumed it centered on her.

Smith submitted a report to the Illinois Office of the Attorney General suggesting the other five commissioners knew of the censure beforehand, giving them time to compile statements on the issue and requested the matter be looked into as a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Further action was deemed as necessary according to a letter sent May 9 to Board President Christina Codo from Public Access Bureau Chief Steve Silverman requesting all communications related to the censure be submitted.

Root went on to list potential ethical violations made by Lussen and Commissioner Warren James. She argued Lussen should have recused himself from voting on the project and land swap due to his supposed friendship with Peter Lee, a representative for Ishbia and the trustee for the Orchard 2020 trust which represented Ishbia in the controversial land swap deal. James has a conflict of interest, according to Root, because of his business relationship with the Lakota Group, an urban planner group who has worked on several Park District projects.

“Commissioner Codo, on April 25 you orchestrated a hatchet job, a hit job, on me without notice, without any opportunity for me to know this is happening and you failed to also advise a fellow board member,” Root said. “I believe you have multiple violations of our Commissioner Code of Ethics. I could list them all but I won’t because that won’t help us move forward.”

Codo said transparency goes both ways and the lack of notice by Root for her activities is what pushed her to move forward with the censure.

Lussen did not respond to the accusation while James pointed to Root’s refusal to turn over notes and texts to be included in closed meeting minutes in an effort to increase transparency despite all other commissioners doing so voluntarily.

Root stated she only refused to hand over personal communications.

David Seaman, a former Park District commissioner who worked alongside Root, stated he fully supports the “damning” censure.

“These actions in the resolution are not simply unconventional or needed, they’re unethical. Period, full stop,” Seaman said. “You have put self interest above all else … I sincerely hope you reflect on your behavior and this censure and move to do better.”

Another former Park District Commissioner Mickey Archambault told the board it needs to consider where it goes from here.

“One path is a negative path where nothing changes which will not result in any improved outcomes,” he said. “The other path is a positive approach which would have the following elements – learn from this experience what you can do better, abide by the process when making any decisions, support board decisions even though they may differ from your point of view, work to improve relationships with other governing bodies to better understand and appreciate one another’s issues and work to provide helpful assistance whenever possible (and) lastly, respect one another. Remember all of us here are tax payers.”

A permit for the project is currently making the rounds through the village and will eventually need final approval from council as well as several other agencies.