Winnetka, News

Winnetka residents speak up for censured parks commissioner, criticize Park Board

Winnetka residents came to the defense of Park District Commissioner Colleen Root Thursday evening, speaking out two weeks after a split board voted to censure her for alleged violations of the park district’s code of ethics.

Root received near-unanimous support from audience members during the public comment portion of the board’s committee of the whole meeting on May 9 with their words taking up most of the meeting’s nearly two-hour runtime.

On April 25, commissioners voted 5-2 to censure Root, an outspoken critic of the park district’s plans to refurbish Elder and Centennial beaches and its dealings with lakefront property owner Justin Ishbia. Root and her frequent ally, Cynthia Rapp, were the only dissenting votes. Both say they were not informed of the censure vote prior to that meeting, while other commissioners read from prepared statements.

The censure, which lasts for one year, alleges 21 violations of the board’s code of ethics, including not respecting decisions of the board’s majority by speaking out against the lakefront plans at public meetings.

A public show of support

Of the 15 people who spoke up during public comment, 12 of them were in support of Root, with one speaker also reading a letter from a supporter who could not attend the meeting.

Many of Root’s supporters have also been critical of the park district’s lakefront plans, including Mary Garrison, who called the censure “ill-conceived.”

“Unfortunately, the censure has brought shame to an elected official, the Winnetka Park District community and the Village of Winnetka,” Garrison said. “The Winnetka Park District has always been recognized as the best of the best. The Winnetka Park District’s reputation is now tarnished.”

Angie Dahl called out the behavior of other commissioners over the past few years, something other speakers brought up as well.

“I have been appalled by many instances of personal attacks, the lack of civility, the use of profanity and general rudeness among current board members … specifically directed to a fellow commissioner,” Dahl said. “No effort was made by the board’s leadership to address and discourage this behavior. Indeed, the board’s leadership in many instances was an active participant in this behavior.”

Irene Smith also criticized the board’s tone.

“Commissioners, what I saw on the 25th of April was flat-out bullying,” she said. “Isn’t that exactly what we teach our children not to do? You were bullying one of your own. It was humiliating for Colleen and it was humiliating for me to observe.”

Multiple speakers accused the board of violating the Open Meetings Act by not providing Root and Rapp with censure documents, and Smith said she had filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office. The Record received a copy of the complaint and a letter from the attorney general’s office accepting the allegation and opening an inquiry.

Susie Schrieber, a one-time Winnetka Park Board vice president, said it was “despicable that the majority of the present Winnetka Park District commissioners voted to censure a fellow commissioner,” and said disagreement should be allowed.

“Board policy was not intended to limit discussions to only one view and votes to only one conclusion,” she said. “We are still a democracy in Winnetka. Past boards respected all viewpoints.”

Former Commissioner David Seaman was the only person who spoke in support of the censure. While he said he and Root agreed on issues in the past — including voting with her and Rapp to pull the original permit applications for the beach project — he called the allegations in the censure “unethical.”

“And you have put self-interest above all else. It’s terrible. I’m sorry,” he said to Root. “So I fully support the resolution to censure.”

Root thanks supporters, criticizes peers

Just prior to the end of the meeting, Root thanked those who showed up and spoke in support of her.

“It means a great deal to me that you take your personal time to do that,” she said. “And I thank you sincerely.”

Root also expressed a desire to move forward from the censure vote, but said before doing that she accused her fellow board members, including President Christina Codo of the code of ethics violations throughout the lakefront-project discussion.

Root said she hopes the board can move forward, but said commissioners need to be more transparent.

“Again, part of the ability to move forward is to see all of our flaws, and I cannot accept what you’ve done with Centennial Beach,” she said.

Root concluded by saying, “I will be more cautious in my comments, but I still will ask questions” about the beaches and process.

Codo’s only response was to state that “transparency works both ways” and that the “precipitating event” to the censure was when she learned “a minority position inaccurately had been sent to (village) trustees” and that the commissioners were not notified of it.

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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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