Park Board Sought Transparency With Rosewood
With the vote on the Rosewood Beach redesign a day away, Patch talks to residents, board commissioners and Mayor Nancy Rotering about how the proposal process unfolded and what it says about Highland Park politics.
On Thursday, the Park Board members will sit down in West Ridge Center and cast their up or down vote for the Rosewood Beach redesign proposal.
The vote comes at the end of a yearlong process that has involved outreach meetings, online resources, FOIA requests and countless public comment from members of two community organizations.
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For Park Board President Scott Meyers, the participation and input from the community has been a welcome and deliberately sought after part of this process, beginning with the assembly of a Rosewood Beach Task Force to put the plan together. The small group of residents, led by Dave Fairman, began meeting a year ago with architects to figure out how their proposal would take shape.
"We really tried to collect a group of interested professionals from all four corners of Highland Park," Meyers said. The group met regularly, toured the beach and, when pressed on more controversial elements of their developing proposal from residents, discussed those elements with each other and park district staff. "The way they conducted themselves was exactly the way we wanted them to."
After the task force presented its proposal to the board in June, board members began hearing reactions to the design from residents. The park district encouraged this feedback by posting renderings of the plan online along with an FAQ and cost information.
"The emails we received were very helpful, not so much from a headcount standpoint but more from trying to understand the more substantive comments," Meyers said. "They give us an idea of what people thought and cared about."
The plan involves a guard house, restrooms, concessions and a multi-purpose education building often referred to as the interpretive center. The total estimated cost for the project is $4,661,372.
A push for transparency
It's the proposed interpretive center that has frequently been the center of questions and attacks from residents opposed to the proposal. Ravinia Neighbors Association (RNA), one of two community organizations that has been actively following this plan's development, has come out against the interpretive center at park board meetings, City Council meetings and online. The group has also filed FOIA requests for additional information from the park district.
RNA Publicity Director Doug Purington believes that the board would not have been as transparent throughout this process if not for the RNA's persistence.
"Without us having to push for it it may not have been as transparent," he said.
RNA members have handed out flyers to residents explaining their opposition to the proposal and have sought signatures for petitions against the plan to deliver to the park board.
"We feel we did a better job reaching out the public than the park district did," Purington said. "It's amazing how many people had no clue at that point what was going on."
Friends of Rosewood, another community group, has come out in favor of the Rosewood Beach redesign proposal. Michelle Holleman, a member of that group, has been "extremely pleased" by the process in which the plan has unfolded.
"The park district has bent over backwards to give us information," Holleman said. "There's no guarantee how they're voting, but I feel like we've been heard. We've been taken seriously."
A sea change in government
According to Meyers, the past two election cycles in Highland Park have brought new faces into office, as well as a strong public desire for voters to know what those new faces are up to.
"The last two election cycles at Park Board and City Council and School Board have really been a sea change in terms of the people who are now governing," Meyers said. "There was a perception that under previous administrations there was not sufficient transparency."
One Highland Park politician who has often spoken of the importance of transparency is Mayor Nancy Rotering. She commended the park board for how they've proceeded with the Rosewood Beach project.
"I think the Park Board has done a terrific job of having these conversations in a format that promoted public participation," Rotering said.
Purington, however, believes the board could have done more to make the process more open. He said the community meetings should have started earlier and that the park district should have sent surveys to residents about the beach right when the task force formed last year.
Yet even he acknowledges the park district has made a genuine effort to get the community engaged in the process.
"They have, to their credit, encouraged people to attend and voice their opinions," Purington said. "It's not perfect by any means, but I have to say its better than it was."