Wilmette, News

Residents continue to pummel park district over Gillson fencing, while officials tout improved behavior and high attendance

Park District officials remained staunch in their defense of the new operating procedures at Gillson Park’s South Beach that have continually faced fierce contention from locals and were once again the subject of heavy criticism Monday night.

Following a nearly hour-long public comment session during the Wilmette Park Board’s Monday, July 8 meeting, Executive Director Steve Wilson told commissioners the recently enacted changes for this season have resulted in significantly less conflict between patrons and staff. 

As previously reported by The Record, the Wilmette Park District earlier this year opted to transition South Beach to a fee-based beach with a designated swim area. As part of the park’s changes, the district also in mid-May installed a slatted dune fence that surrounds the beach and limits access and entry points. 

Park district officials have faced a wave of criticism for months over that decision, but representatives continue to publicly state the new procedures at South Beach are going according to plan. 

According to Wilson, establishing entrance points has allowed park district staff to interact with beachgoers and inform them of the beach’s rules before they are on the beach and set up for the day. Wilson told commissioners that “this has definitely resulted in more positive interaction with our patrons before it becomes a conflict.” 

When announcing plans for South Beach, park officials continually cited years of ongoing and growing safety concerns, for both guests of the beach and park staffers, as the primary reasoning for the shift. 

At prior board meetings, park officials have also stated the idea to implement a swim beach with lifeguards at South Beach “was to try and figure out how to address the consistent issue of patrons swimming, despite the signage and staff asking them to not swim, along with other rule violations, mainly the no swimming as well as alcohol consumption.”

Wilson has also previously said that park staffers often experienced challenges when enforcing the rules, and patrons reportedly became abusive and verbally aggressive toward them, he said. Staff would often have to involve Wilmette police to de-escalate situations, per Wilson. 

To this point in the season, lakefront staff have made two non-emergency calls and one emergency call to Wilmette police, Wilson said on July 8, adding that none of the calls have come from South Beach. 

Per Wilson, beach and security staff have “at times” noticed patrons on the beach without a wristband this season. These interactions, Wilson said, “have been without significant conflict.” He later added that beachgoers have responded in a proper manner when staff have had to address people swimming outside of the designated swim area. 

Wilson prefaced his comments offering updates on how South Beach is functioning this season by first walking the board through updates the park district has made since its last meeting. 

Park staff widened the middle entrance to South Beach “to enhance the views from the benches that are directly outside of the fence along the sidewalk,” Wilson said. There are currently three entrance access points to South Beach. 

“We have seen people sitting on the benches enjoying the views as well as sitting in parked cars just outside of the opening,” Wilson said. 

According to Wilson, park staff has also added a temporary bench near the southern entrance “to see if we can have more seating areas with better views.” 

The most notable addition is ADA-accessible beach access matting that was recently installed at the middle entrance to South Beach. The matting, which is also in place at the main beach in Gillson, takes patrons down to the water. 

According to park district reports, the new operating procedures at South Beach have not impacted attendance at Gillson. 

Per Dave Merrill, superintendent of Recreation for the Wilmette Park District, there have already been more than 33,000 visits to the lakefront this season. That number does not include sailing visits. 

Attendance totals as of July 7 have already surpassed seasonal attendance totals from last year, Merrill told commissioners. 

“We’ve blown out our numbers since July of 2023,” he said, later adding, “people are coming out. It’s great.”  

Specifically at South Beach, the park district has seen 1,173 seasonal pass scans and just over 12,200 daily passes. 

Board’s decision-making ‘has not been remarkable

Although attendance figures reportedly have soared past last season’s, a strong contingent of Wilmette residents continues to express their adamant opposition toward the changes at South Beach. 

Several aspects of the park’s plans have drawn ire from locals, with the fence being a sticking point for many. 

Residents have argued that the fence restricts access to the beach for mobility-impaired patrons, limits attendance from out-of-town visitors, impacts safe passageways for wildlife, and restricts lakefront views from several locations along the beach.   

Thirteen locals addressed the Park Board during the public comment portion of the meeting, many of whom shared unfavorable feedback related to the new conditions at South Beach. 

“You guys really blew it,” Wilmette resident Beverly Pinaire said of the board’s decisions at South Beach. 

Pinaire also questioned the board about what other solutions besides the fence it explored, how much the work cost at South Beach and why there was there limited opportunity for residential feedback. 

“I really think you guys are missing the forest for the trees,” she said. “You had two big problems and I understand those, and you’ve solved those. But you’ve created tremendous ill will and tremendous hardship for our senior citizens and our handicap and people who just need a mental break.” 

Resident Robert Kirsch told the board that it “needs to examine its decision-making,” adding that, “it’s not working.”

“This board, for me, has not been a remarkable board in any area, especially decision-making,” he said. 

Some commenters argued that the board has not listened to residents throughout the process. Board President Kara Kosloskus responded to those concerns from residents after public comment concluded. 

“We have been listening,” Kosloskus said. “It does not mean that we’re going to reverse course in the middle of this season. But staff is making as many adjustments as they find possible and reasonable to accommodate the things that have been pointed out.” 

In her response, Kosloskus also noted the several updates the park district has made since the fence was put up. 

Executive session 

The park board’s meeting concluded with an executive session that lasted nearly two hours. 

According to the meeting’s agenda, the session was “for the discussion of the appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance or dismissal of a specific employee of the district, including hearing testimony on a complaint lodged against an employee of the district or against legal counsel to determine its validity.”  

In a statement sent via email, Wilson told The Record “there were no action items as a result of closed session.” The session lasted approximately 110 minutes, according to the statement. 

Park district officials made no mention during the meeting of the $5-million lawsuit or the misconduct allegations the district is facing. 

Read The Record’s in-depth reporting on the lawsuit HERE.

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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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