Winnetka, News

Dueling multi-million-dollar donation offers stymie Winnetka Park Board

Anonymous donor pledges to match Ishbia’s $3M proposal, leading commissioners to push discussion to Jan. 18

Recent Winnetka Park Board discussions have featured as many twists and turns as a primetime drama, so it’s only appropriate that the year end on a cliffhanger.

A surprising statement on Thursday, Dec. 14, during the public comment portion of the board’s final session of 2023 gave commissioners plenty of unexpected consideration to close out the year. 

Elizabeth O’Brien, an attorney with the firm Levenfeld Pearlstein, announced an offer from a client that she described as an “unrestricted and anonymous gift of $3 million to the Winnetka Park District,” an organization already considering a $3 million donation from a separate property owner.

According to O’Brien, who said she was speaking on behalf of her firm’s partner, Robert Romanoff, the proposed gift would be “made in lieu of the current conditions that have been attached to a proposed donation for the improvement of Elder Park and Centennial Park and the use of the parks generally.” 

“Our client’s hope for this gift is that it will grant the Winnetka Park District greater flexibility and autonomy of planning the future of these unique public spaces,” O’Brien said. 

The potential donor, per O’Brien, has “no interest in receiving any public recognition for this gift and prefers to remain completely anonymous.” 

Winnetka Park Board meeting on Dec. 14.

The proposal comes as park commissioners are deep in deliberations regarding a possible $3-million donation from Justin Ishbia, who owns land south of Centennial Park Beach and in between Centennial and Elder Park beaches and offered the donation in September following a pitch from the park district

In the months since the offer, representatives from the Ishbia Family Foundation and the Winnetka Park District have at length discussed and debated proposed conditions attached to the donation. 

As previously reported by The Record, park commissioners reviewed the first publicly presented donation agreement from the foundation in late November during a four-hour special meeting. The preliminary document outlined a lengthy list of terms that the foundation wanted attached to its seven-figure offering — but some commissioners took issue with several of the proposed provisions during the review.  

Although the new anonymous offer made no direct reference to Ishbia or the foundation, the language included in the public statement read at the meeting was clear in its criticism of the donation agreement. 

“Our client’s gift would help the park district start to move on from a controversy that has unnecessarily divided the Winnetka community,” O’Brien said. “The gift would unite the community and facilitate the park district’s waterfront plans without being obligated to a private individual for a century or even any decade.” 

No information about the party behind the new offer was presented publicly at the meeting but O’Brien did say the client “intentionally maintains a low profile and a charitable and civic engagement.” She added that the client has “longstanding ties to Winnetka, and as a community member, his reputation is unquestioned.” 

At the Dec. 14 meeting, commissioners were slated to review and potentially vote on an updated proposed donation agreement for the initial $3 million offering from the Ishbia Family Foundation. But when the item came up for discussion, Commissioner Colleen Root made a motion to table the board’s vote on the matter.

Root’s motion narrowly passed by a 4-3 vote, with Commissioners James Hemmings, Cynthia Rapp and Jeff Tyson in support, and Commissioner Warren James, Board President Christina Codo and Board Vice President Eric Lussen in opposition. 

“I find it to be something that we have a duty to our public to investigate whether the $3 million that has just been raised is something that would provide a better service to our community and in listening to the public this evening, would be more palatable to our constituents,” Root said after making the motion. “If what is offered is true, it provides us with the money that is needed to move forward with Phases 1 and 2 of Centennial (renovations).” 

Root later added that she believes the board would be “acting in an arbitrary and capricious fashion if we ran through a vote this evening accepting a contribution without at least stepping back and listening to our community tonight.” 

A donation would support beach improvements (rendered here) primarily at Centennial Park Beach. | IMAGE FROM WINNETKA PARK DISTRICT

Updates to initial donation agreement

The tabled motion, however, did not prevent further discussion regarding proposed updates to Ishbia’s offer. 

Park Board attorney Adam Simon walked commissioners through the key changes to the agreement in the weeks since it was last discussed.

Among the discussed changes were alterations to the proposed payment schedule, which now would be in two installments versus the original three, and provisions related to term length. The first agreement proposed a term length of 100 years, as reported by The Record. The new deal offered a term of 50 years, according to Simon. 

Another noteworthy alteration came in the agreement’s previously contentious naming of an arbiter. The first proposal named Gregg Seiler, of Seiler Consulting, as the arbiter. Some board members took issue with both the inclusion of an arbiter in general and the naming of Seiler in the role. 

The updated agreement proposed John Peterson, retiring executive director of the Winnetka Park District as the arbiter. Peterson is slated to leave the park district in his role as executive director next month.

The board showcased mixed opinions on the premise of Peterson as the arbiter with some arguing that he is not an objective party.

Codo expressed her support for Peterson as the arbiter, noting that in her view, he would be a strong option for the park district. 

“Having John as the arbiter is probably the best person that we could have in favor of the park district because he has worked on this project, he has volunteered in this organization, he has volunteered in this community, he has a lengthy reputation and he knows this project inside and out,” she said. 

“Consequently, from my stance, he is not objective, he is biased towards us, in our favor, to protect us,” she added. 

James shared similar sentiments, saying that he has the “utmost confidence in Peterson.” 

“I think he is an outstanding member of our community and one that has earned the board’s trust and respect. I think he would make an outstanding arbiter and a fair-minded one representing the interests of the public,” James said. 

Root argued to the contrary, expressing an opinion that because of his prior involvement, Peterson has lost the ability to be objective regarding this project. 

Hemmings, who was one of the commissioners who noted concerns with the original agreement at the Nov. 30 meeting, thanked all involved parties in the process “for continuing to negotiate the agreement and moving the ball forward.” 

But he did add that from his perspective, “there are still some significant hurdles to overcome.”

The hurdles that he noted were the role of arbiter, the existence of liquidated damages, the terms, the proposed restricted covenant.

“I am not reflexively against working with Mr. Ishbia,” Hemmings said. “I think having someone with his philanthropic track record in our community is wonderful and I think his discussion along these lines in connection with this agreement has been in furtherance of that.

“There are issues that I have with the way the agreement is constructed and some of the requirements that are in the agreement and perhaps we can get over that hurdle and perhaps we can’t.” 

Codo said that she believed the foundation carefully listened to the concerns that were expressed Nov. 30 and attempted to reflect those comments into the updated agreement. 

“I do believe that the adjustments and the movements represent a willingness to come to an agreement,” she said. “I feel like I have enough information, I feel like I have enough off ramps, I feel like I understand this project well enough.

“I am in no way shape or form an expert but I have extreme faith in John Peterson. He and I do not always agree, however, I do trust him completely to look out for our best interests in this process,” Codo added as she later noted “those are my reasons for supporting it.” 

Future discussion on the books

Before the meeting’s end, the board approved a motion to remove the discussion from the table and instead place it on the agenda for its Jan. 18 meeting for an item to reconsider. That motion passed via a 5-2 vote, with Root and Rapp dissenting. 

The board held some discussion regarding the new anonymous donation and ultimately opted to tentatively appoint Hemmings and Codo to further explore future negotiation. 

Hemmings explained at the meeting that on Monday he received a phone call from Romanoff indicating that the firm had an anonymous donor who would like to give the park district $3 million. 

According to Hemmings, during the initial phone conversation, Romanoff explained that there were three conditions: that the park district drop its discussion of the donation agreement with Ishbia, that the land swap agreement be dropped and that Ishbia have no naming rights over anything. 

Those conditions were not stated during O’Brien’s public comment or listed in a letter detailing the donation that was presented to the board. Hemmings noted that he was unsure if those conditions are still present moving forward. 

Coda expressed some hesitation regarding the condition of dropping the land swap, noting that consideration of the swap is still valuable to the Park Board 

“This is a very welcome donation offer but I am concerned that it may turn out to be as thorny for us; that’s my concern,” she said.

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martin carlino
Martin Carlino

Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.

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