People worried about the future management of Wilmette Harbor – and whether that future might include participation by the Wilmette Park District – should belay their worries for the time being, district officials said Monday.
The district is indeed looking at the possibility of becoming involved with the harbor, park commissioners told a room full of Wilmette residents and area boat owners during the board’s rescheduled regular meeting.
That consideration has involved talks with both the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which owns the harbor, and with the Wilmette Harbor Association, which manages it for the sewer board, they acknowledged.
But the Park District simply doesn’t yet have enough information on harbor operations, needs and costs to consider making any decision, board president James Brault said. And once it gets the information, it will still need to seek more public input before making any move, he assured them.
“We’re in the process of investigating this, and doing the necessary due diligence,” Brault said. “My expectation is that this will be on our agenda for some time to come … at some point we’ll be asking the public for more input.”
The harbor association, a private group, has managed the harbor for 75 years through longstanding lease agreements with the MWRD. The current 50-year lease ends in 2012. The association learned last year that state law now requires such leases to go to a public bidding process unless they can work out a management agreement with another public body such as the park district.
Monday night, Park District Director Steve Wilson said association officials contacted the district last September; a series of meetings, both with the association and MWRD officials, followed, but the district has yet to receive information it needs from the association, he said.
The issue became a matter of public debate earlier this summer, when a group of village residents published a letter in local news outlets, stating that they opposed the park district becoming involved in management.
The group believes the harbor’s management cost, currently paid by Harbor Association members, should not be shouldered by Wilmette taxpayers, spokesman Dave Keenan said Monday, repeating the message of his group’s initial publication.
Opponents also believe the district shouldn’t risk taking on potential harbor liabilities, and should stay out of harbor management, for which it lacks experience, he said.
Keenan was grilled and scolded by commissioners for publishing the letter.
“This letter is scare-mongering,” Brault said.
“It’s one thing to worry about an issue, and another thing to put a letter in the press chastising the Park District,” Commissioner Darrell Graham said. “The harbor is not a private entity, it’s a public entity … The real question is what would the financial impact (to the district) be? I don’t know whether it would be positive or negative, but it would be irresponsible not to check.”
Harbor management might ultimately present benefits to the Park District and Wilmette residents, including revenue possibilities, he said, and the district had a responsibility to investigate that.
Despite the knuckle rapping, Keenan agreed to meet with district officials to talk further about concerns, and to share information on the issue. After the meeting, he said he was pleased with the board’s apparent willingness to accept input.
The association wasn’t invited to Monday’s meeting, but it does want to continue operating the harbor, and is still interested in talking with the board, association Executive Director Sabine Herber said Tuesday.
The association’s board has formed a committee for that purpose. Herber said, and a committee member did get a letter from the Park District in June, requesting more information; he is currently working on a response, she added.
“Our board is a volunteer board and life sometimes slows things down, so the response has been a little slow, but it’s a little unfair to suggest we’ve been digging in our heels about information. They’ve been slow to respond to us, we’ve been slow to respond, because it’s life.”
A July 15 letter the association board wrote to Harbor Association members stated that the Park Board had “declined to enter into a management agreement.”
Wilson said Tuesday that the statement was accurate, based on the first round of discussions, held before Wilson became director.
“But with the latest round of discussions and with what the Park Board has indicated, including the discussion last night, everything is back on the table,” he said.