Winnetka, News

Park Board surprises Commissioner Root — a regular critic of beachfront plans — with censure

Board says Root violated code of ethics

The Winnetka Park District Board of Commissioners has censured one of its own members, Colleen Root, in a rebuke of actions that they say has undermined their work and caused tension within the park district.

Root was censured by a 5-2 vote near the end of the Park Board’s regular meeting on Thursday, April 25. Root and Cynthia Rapp were in dissent.

The censure alleges 21 instances where Root violated the board’s code of ethics, according to a statement read by Park Board President Christina Codo.

The censure

Root’s punishment lasts for one year from the date of the vote and will expire on April 25, 2025.

Most of the violations for which Root was censured are related to the Elder and Centennial beach projects. Planning for the projects has been ongoing for several years, and the plans and process have — and continue to be — a point of contention for many in the community. At one point, the plans included a land exchange agreement between the park district and the Ishbia family, who own lakefront property bordering Centennial and Elder parks.

That agreement is now considered “dormant” by both parties and is not included in the most recent plans, which are currently making their way through the permitting process.

Root, along with Rapp, has consistently voted against many iterations of the plans and has been a vocal critic of the property exchange agreement and other district activity related to Ishbia and the beach project.

It was that vocal criticism that was central to many of the allegations leveled against Root, which according to Codo, was a violation of the board member code of ethics.

Among the violations listed in the censure are:

• Failing to respect and support majority decisions of the board;

• Failing to ensure that the agency is well-managed, not to manage the agency;

• Discussing confidential proceedings of the board outside the board room; and

• Interfering with the duties of the executive director or staff to undermine the administrator’s authority with staff members

While not listed in the censure, board members — specifically former President Warren James — showed animosity toward Root after a shorthanded Park Board killed an early iteration of the Elder-Centennial plan and after Root and Rapp walked out prior to the Park Board voting on whether to protest the Village of Winnetka’s lakefront protections.

Commissioners react

One by one, commissioners shared how they felt about the censure motion.

James — who squared off with Root numerous times in public sessions over the past three years — called the censure vote “a sad day,” and said the board has attempted multiple times to “help board civility and to foster better relations amongst board members.” This reportedly has included seeking guidance from the Illinois Association of Park Districts.

He specifically said two of Root’s recent actions prompted the decision to censure.

One was when Root spoke to the Winnetka Village Council on Dec. 19, 2023, “and openly advocated for a plan that was different than the one that was approved by this board,” and the other was an email she sent to Winnetka Trustees Rob Apatoff and Kirk Albinson on April 16, “which was in furtherance of undermining, and frankly, putting forth abundant misinformation regarding the plan that had been approved by this board.”

James also said that, “There are many other transgressions, but I want you to understand that this isn’t taken lightly. This is about trying to maintain civil discourse and get everyone to adhere by the board code of ethics.”

Codo, speaking to Root directly, said many of the violations listed in the censure were “actions that you took without notifying the rest of the board.”

Commissioner Jeff Tyson said he was concerned that Root’s constant requests for information from park district staff was driving them to leave, saying “I continue to worry about retention of existing staff,” specifically mentioning new Executive Director Shannon Nazzal; though, Tyson said he does not believe Nazzal is an immediate departure concern.

Rapp, who has been a frequent Root ally on Elder-Centennial votes, said that she was seeing the censure documents for the first time on Thursday evening, and she said she was “speechless that this was not shared ahead of time with specifics for further consideration.”

Rapp said Root’s dissenting voice has helped improve transparency for the park district.

“I would say that sometimes, the approach has been a little unconventional, but sometimes when there’s things that are entrenched, it takes that,” Rapp said.

Later on, she added that she hoped the vote was “a big cathartic moment” for those who have issues with Root.

“I hope that you’ve put everything out on the table and we can move forward … but I think it’s a very sad day to see a commissioner who has shown dedication that some of you may not have agreed with be censured in this way,” Rapp said.

Root responds

Root said that she was not informed that she was going to be censured, but when she saw that a censure was on the agenda, she suspected that she was the subject of it. Though she promised to abide by the censure, she criticized her fellow commissioners and the process they followed.

“I am so astounded by what you have presented to me tonight without any ability of prior communication or notice. I really am,” she said. “I will tell you that, in sitting here, I am reserving all legal rights and remedies. I think you truly have stepped over the line here.”

Root defended herself against some of the allegations in the censure, calling them “misconceptions” and stating that she did not oppose the park district’s plan during the Dec. 19 Winnetka Village Council meeting.

“What I was doing was showing the Village Council the rendering of a beach plan that was in the 2030 waterfront plan, a plan that showed this beautiful united beach, a plan that had a much less invasive ADA pathway,” she said. “And I asked a question as to how we had come so far astray from that, as I recall.”

Root also read a prepared statement in which she continued to criticize the Elder-Centennial project. In her statement, she said all of her opposition was representation of what residents want.

“Multiple residents have appeared before us over three years. They’ve asked us to take the issue of beach design and significant taxpayer cost for that design to referendum, much like the Village of Kenilworth has successfully done,” she said.

She questioned if the other Park Board members were representing all Winnetka residents.

“Our park code of ethics also states that we must represent … all those who the agency serves and not just a particular special interest,” Root said. “I’ll conclude by saying, who do you all represent when it comes to this project?”

What does the censure mean?

Under Root’s censure, she can and cannot do several things.

She is still allowed to attend Park Board meetings and can still vote on any item that comes up, and Codo encouraged her to continue to be a dissenting voice; however, during the next year, Root’s outgoing emails from her official commissioner address will be monitored by park district staff; she can’t meet with park district officials without first asking the entire Park Board; and she can’t represent the park district at public events such as the Winnetka Farmers Market.

Additionally, she lost her role as the board’s representative to the Winnetka Village Council and cannot attend conferences until the censure lapses.

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Peter Kaspari

Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.

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