West Park saga takes another dramatic turn as Park District calls police to board meeting
An ad hoc meeting of the Wilmette Park Board of Commissioners turned into a mess on Monday, August 22, despite its tidy 21-minute run time.
Following public comments, Council Chairman Mike Murdock and Commissioner Patrick Duffy each called community members, leading to a heated verbal exchange that prompted Murdock to ask for help.
“What can I do to take control of this meeting?” This is ridiculous,” Murdock asked.
Park District Executive Director Steve Wilson offered three options: initiate a suspension, incentivize greater compliance, or request police intervention. Wilson said in a follow-up conversation that after his suggestions, he believed a Park District employee called the Wilmette Police Department.
The police department said it responded at around 6:18 p.m. – which was during the special meeting period – at the Mallinckrodt Community Center to a call from a disruptive meeting attendee; however, upon arrival, responding officers observed no disturbance and made no contact with anyone at the scene for the half hour they were stationed in the hallway, according to a police report.
It was at least the second time in a year that a Park District employee had asked police to attend the scene of a contentious commissioners’ meeting. At a Lakefront Committee meeting Oct. 4, 2021, Wilmette Police responded to the Lakefront Center at 8:14 p.m. to a report of a heated discussion, Deputy Chief Patrick Collins said. He said an officer was on the scene for about 50 minutes and did not feel the need to intervene.
The Monday August 29 situation was the latest clash between park officials and West Park neighbors over an impending expansion of the park’s paddle tennis facilities, which were built with two courts in 2013 and currently consist six courts and a paddle tennis hut.
Citing overwhelming demand, the park district developed a two-year, $3.5 million proposal in 2021 to add four paddle tennis courts and eight pickleball courts and expand the facility’s paddle shack and surrounding terrace. Park neighbors began sharing their concerns with the park district after receiving a letter in December 2021 detailing the plans.
Resident criticism of the plan grew throughout the winter, and in the spring of 2022 Wilmette officials intervened. First, the Wilmette Zoning Appeal Board grilled park officials before voting unanimously to pass a negative recommendation to the village council.
In response, and before consideration by the village council, the park commissioners agreed to drastically reduce the plan to just two new paddle courts and the extension to the hut. In late April, village administrators approved the downsizing proposal under a list of conditions.
Since then, the Park District has struggled to meet these requirements, or seek extensions, and bid for the construction of the two new courts. The Monday, August 28 special meeting was called to consider an offer — the only offer received, according to park documents — of $422,440 from Total Platform Tennis, which built the other paddle courts at West Park.
The offer, which was approved by the commissioners, is about $90,000 over the project’s budget and work is expected to be complete by the end of 2022. The courts are expected to be playable in January, Wilson said.
Prior to the council discussion, residents addressed the commissioners, expressing concerns about a lack of communication regarding the special meeting, as well as public questions and comments to the district.
“It looks to me like we make a suggestion and it falls into the void – unanswered,” said resident Walter Keats, who sends out regular email reminders of park district activities as Friends of Wilmette Parks. .
Patrick O’Gara, a regular attendee, told the board he was disappointed with the behavior of park officials toward West Park neighbors, specifically referring to recent emails between neighbors and local public officials.
During the council discussion, council chairman Murdock said some neighbors in West Park “seemed to have an agenda” and were “dishonest” with their complaints. When O’Gara laughed and spoke about Murdock’s comments, Murdock called for the interruptions to stop. Commissioner Duffy then proceeds to engage O’Gara directly before the meeting is interrupted.
“Our residents are very passionate, but sometimes that passion gets to such a level that we can’t hold a meeting,” Murdock said in a follow-up interview. “That’s what happened in the special meeting.”
Murdock also said commissioners should generally avoid “dialogue exchanges” with residents in a public meeting.
Following the adjournment of the special meeting, Commissioners prepared for their regular session in Committee of the Whole. During the break, Murdock approached a group of seated residents, including O’Gara, to explain the future consequences of disrupting meetings, Murdock said. O’Gara maintains that he felt threatened, and he interrupted Murdock, asking him to stop and back off. He then testified at the Committee of the Whole meeting.
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