Wilmette, News

How misconduct accusations and internal investigations have the Wilmette Park District facing a $5-million lawsuit and a management exodus

A recent lawsuit against the Wilmette Park District and its executive director, Steve Wilson, has revealed conflict within the district’s ranks; however, the strife extends much deeper and wider than one family’s allegations, according to an investigation from The Record.

Over a six-month span, The Record has spoken with several current and former park district employees and examined hundreds of public documents to learn more about allegations made on behalf of Elizabeth “Liz” Cox, the district’s former superintendent of human resources who left the organization in May 2023 and died in December 2023.

Liz Cox’s husband, Kevin Cox, filed a lawsuit with the Circuit Court of Cook County on her behalf on May 1, claiming that Wilson and the park district forced Liz Cox to resign while she was investigating an inappropriate relationship between Wilson and a subordinate. The suit, which seeks at least $5 million, also alleges that Wilson and district staff failed their duty of care to Liz Cox, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time, by denying her unused paid-time off and mishandling health insurance and life insurance information.

The ongoing saga negatively impacted Cox’s health, according to the suit, leading her to seek treatment for stress and anxiety and playing a role in her hospitalization in December 2023. Kevin Cox told The Record that Wilson and the district called Liz Cox’s integrity into question and purposefully treated her poorly as she left, “impact(ing) her emotionally like I had not seen her my entire life.”

“I am not going to back off of them. They need to take responsibility,” Kevin Cox said. “If they want to double down and say they did nothing wrong and didn’t impact her quality of life, I will fight them to the end. It is just a disgrace how they handled it.”

Liz and Kevin Cox, the latter of whom filed a lawsuit against the park district after Liz’s death in 2023.

After the lawsuit was filed in May, Wilson and the Wilmette Park Board declined to answer questions from The Record, even those unrelated to the lawsuit. On June 19, the district released a public statement acknowledging the lawsuit.

“The park district, and Steve Wilson, vehemently deny the allegations in the complaint and look forward to providing facts in the appropriate venue for such disputes,” the park district statement reads.

Liz Cox began working for the Wilmette Park District in 2012. She ascended to the position of human resources and risk manager by 2018 and then to superintendent of human resources and risk management four years later.

Within her first months in her superintendent role, according to the lawsuit, Cox received employee complaints about an inappropriate relationship between Wilson and another management-level employee. (The Record is choosing not to publish the identity of the employee, who is not a party in the lawsuit.) Cox allegedly met with Wilson twice in the spring of 2022 to discuss the relationship and complaints related to it.

Later that year, in August, Cox was diagnosed with breast cancer and took leave for just over a month.

In a meeting upon Cox’s return, the suit alleges, Wilson told Cox that the employee involved in the alleged inappropriate relationship assisted with Cox’s duties in Cox’s absence and wanted a leadership role in human resources — Cox’s department.

It was mind-blowing to me how anyone could do that to someone who was going through cancer treatment. … The stress of everything that went on ate at her. This poor woman just went downhill.”  
Lora Dubin, longtime friend of Liz Cox and park district employee

In December 2022, the lawsuit says a park district supervisor came to Cox expressing frustration with Wilson’s responsiveness to his staff, which the supervisor claimed was impacting her workload and made it difficult to complete a required training program. To reportedly buy the individual time, Cox noted in an online system that the supervisor completed the training, an action the lawsuit claims Cox had done previously, including for Wilson in 2021.

According to the lawsuit, “(Cox) was understandably concerned because she was in the process of actively investigating the personal relationship between Wilson and (the employee) while courageously battling cancer and fulfilling her employment responsibilities to Wilmette. … This caused (Cox) severe distress and fear for her position at Wilmette.”

The next month, January 2023, Cox endured a mastectomy and learned her cancer had spread, the suit says. At the same time, Wilson reportedly began investigating Cox and her fellow supervisor for misrepresenting the training.

According to the lawsuit, Cox met with Wilson and an attorney in February and March. During the February meeting, she allegedly was threatened with a felony charge for fraud, and in March, she was given a choice: to face termination or to resign effective in May. Cox’s resignation was official May 3.

Her colleague also involved in the training faced an identical path to departure.

In the wake of Cox’s resignation, the lawsuit claims Wilson and the park district denied her unused paid-time off. The “distress” during that time — based on the park district’s behavior, including threatening criminal charges — and the district’s lack of communication contributed to Cox missing a renewal date for her life-insurance policy, the lawsuit alleges, causing it to lapse.

Additionally, on May 1, 2023, a few days before Cox was to leave the district, Wilson announced a restructuring of Cox’s department, giving the top position to the manager with whom he reportedly was in an inappropriate relationship — the relationship Cox reportedly began investigating in 2022.

Yet another investigation began that summer.

The Park Board of Commissioners contracted Michelle Marks, an attorney at Marks Employment Law, in July 2023, to conduct a “third-party, fact-finding review,” according to Kara Kosloskus, president of the Park Board.

Steve Wilson has been the district’s executive director since 2011.

Kosloskus declined to provide details of the investigation, but according to documents obtained by The Record and individuals who participated in the process, Marks was looking into Wilson and specifically hiring and promotional practices.

Documents show at least eight park district employees were interviewed as part of the investigation, which concluded in August 2023. Marks’ findings from the investigation reportedly are not accessible. According to Kosloskus, Marks verbally delivered her findings during a closed session of the Park Board and submitted no documentation of them.

In response to the findings, Kosloskus said the Park Board “took action” in an effort to improve the district’s “culture.” The Record obtained an emailed statement from the Park Board to district employees who participated in Marks’ investigation. It reads, in part:

“We have taken our discussions with you seriously, and after considerable deliberation, the board has discussed and directed changes that we believe will positively impact the culture of the District.

“These changes are being made in a variety of areas and some will take effect immediately, while others will take longer to implement. We are hopeful that the district will experience positive changes over time as a result of these efforts – and we appreciate your patience as we continue through this process.”

Several park district employees, including one who participated in the investigation, told The Record one result of the investigation was to place Wilson on a performance improvement plan.

The participant, who was a park district supervisor at the time but wished to remain anonymous, told The Record that many department leaders felt unsupported by Wilson and the district was a “rudderless ship for a while.”

Two other park district employees, both of whom wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said staff morale has gotten worse since the Park Board’s investigation, and after a short time of improvement, Wilson’s behavior — from negligence of staff needs to favoritism and unequal treatment — has returned.

“The feeling is as staff we’re being let down by the board,” one of them said.

A former employee who worked in the administrative offices with Wilson said the favoritism toward one manager was “very obvious” and contributed to a “toxic” environment.

The decline in employee morale has correlated with the departure of several park district managers in a short period of time. In a year’s time, since May 2023, the district has turned over at least nine of its manager-level and above staff members: Cox, Emily Guynn (superintendent of recreation), Sarah Sekki (gymnastics supervisor), Mary Liz Jayne (recreation programs manager), Ann Marie Shipstad-Schwartz (center for the arts supervisor), Andrew Valett (sports recreation supervisor), Ben Wozney (lakefront general manager), Niki Koclanes (lakefront program supervisor) and Catherine Meeth (preschool supervisor).

The changes become more dramatic when zoomed out further. Of the nine members of the district’s administrative staff in February 2020, only three remain with the park district. Two of them are Wilson and the employee involved in the inappropriate relationship with him.

Neither Wilson nor the Park Board responded to questions about management departures and employee morale.

Wilson began with the Wilmette Park District in 2007 and took over as its executive director in 2011. The Park Board renewed Wilson’s contract in December 2022 for three years at a base salary of $171,848 per year, nearly 300 hours of paid-time off, and a district vehicle for work and personal use, among other benefits. According to OpentheBooks.com, which pulls data from the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, Wilson’s total compensation in 2023 was $201,486 and in 2022 was $192,292.

Wilson’s contract expires in early 2025, and a renewal will be considered before the end of the year.

Even after the Park Board investigation, Cox stayed at it, likely at the expense of her health, Kevin Cox said.

Liz Cox left the park district in 2022.

According to emails viewed by The Record, the Cox family connected with an attorney, A. Thomas Skallas, in the fall of 2023 and began to pursue a lawsuit against the park district.

In November 2023, Liz Cox filed a complaint — a copy of which The Record was provided — with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that by denying her accumulated sick leave, the park district discriminated against her because she was a cancer patient. The commission declined to pursue the complaint; however, Kevin Cox said, the filing was a prerequisite to the type of lawsuit the Coxes were pursuing.

Not a month later, Cox learned that her cancer had advanced. It was Stage 4. Cox was hospitalized. She died on Dec. 18.

Lora Dubin, a part-time park district employee and Cox’s longtime friend, told The Record she saw firsthand the toll that the interactions with the Wilmette Park District took on Cox.

“It was a very bad work environment for a while, then when this whole thing came up, and they made her resign, it was mindblowing to me how anyone could do that to someone who was going through cancer treatment,” Dubin said, adding later, “The stress of everything that went on ate at her. This poor woman just went downhill.”  

Dubin appeared in front of the Park Board on June 24, reading and cosigning a statement from the Cox family. The statement admonishes the board for failing to meaningfully respond to Cox’s allegations against Wilson.

The Cox family statement is an answer to the park district’s denial of the lawsuit allegations. It reads, in part:

“It’s unconscionable to think that, while Liz battled cancer, Steve Wilson engaged in a campaign of harassment that not only cost Liz her job, but directly impacted her health and her ability to fight her cancer. … Even more shocking than Steve’s conduct is that of the Wilmette Park District Board, who have covered for and protected Steve at every turn and continue to do so to this day.”

The statement continues, “Liz fought for her family, her fellow employees at the park district, and even cancer. Now we continue fighting for the residents and park district employees that Liz so cherished and hope others will, too.” 

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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