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Article updated: 4/30/2012 12:07 PM

Dispute over Gurnee memorial to fallen soldiers headed to trial this summer

By Bob Susnjara

Gurnee Trustee Kirk Morris' long-running lawsuit against the village is expected to go to trial this summer, but its focus has changed.

No longer will it center on the claim his private foundation had the right to develop on public land a memorial for soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead, the foundation is seeking reimbursement for improvements it made in preparations for a memorial on a one-acre site along Old Grand Avenue where Gurnee's police station once stood.

"I'm absolutely looking forward to (the trial)," Morris said.

Morris' 2010 suit originally was dismissed by a Lake County circuit court judge. However, a mixed appellate court decision last year sent the case back to Lake County court.

Under the appellate ruling, Morris' foundation cannot argue at trial that it has the right to build on the one-acre village site. It will, however, seek payment for work done on the land.

Mayor Kristina Kovarik said she hopes the jury trial recently set for July 16 will be the end of the case, and she still wants a memorial to those troops on the Old Grand Avenue site.

The village hasn't been able to pursue anything on the land because the lawsuit remains active, she said.

"I would like to have it wrapped up so (the property) can be returned to the taxpayers," Kovarik added.

Kovarik and the village were named in the complaint by Morris and his Pfc. Geoffrey Morris Foundation. The foundation is named for Morris' son, a Marine who died in Iraq in 2004.

Morris and Kovarik began publicly feuding in October 2009 when she said the foundation accomplished little in the five years it was unofficially in charge of Heroes of Freedom Memorial Park.

Nine flags representing every military branch and lights were the most visible work done on the memorial from March 2005 until the dispute arose five years later. Gov. Pat Quinn, when he was lieutenant governor, and military officials were among those who attended a dedication ceremony in April 2005.

Morris' attorney, Robert O'Donnell, labeled as "deplorable" the current appearance of the site, where there were bare flagpoles and weeds last week. Kovarik said the village is only responsible for cutting the grass.

As for the lawsuit, he said the main issue will be whether the village received "unjust enrichment" from work performed for the foundation to improve the public land. Morris' suit contends time, labor, materials and services provided to the site totaled at least $200,000.

That figure is disputed in court papers filed on behalf of the village.

"Plaintiffs are barred from the relief they seek because the amount plaintiffs claim to have expended on the alleged improvements on the village's property has been overstated and misrepresented," Julie Tappendorf, an attorney for the village, wrote in a court filing.

She added the foundation is trying to gain money from the village for expenses that went toward "improvements or activities unrelated to the memorial or property."

O'Donnell disputes Gurnee's claim.

"Not a nickel went into somebody else's pocket," he said.

Gurnee Village Board members agreed in March 2005 to establish a memorial park in remembrance of U.S. military personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Morris' foundation was not named in the resolution at that time and no construction timeline was set.

Morris, who was not a trustee then, later assumed fundraising responsibility. He said he had intended to build the memorial on property he owned until village officials approached him about placing it on the former police station property.

Controversy over Heroes of Freedom boiled over in January 2010 when village trustees voted 3-2 against overriding Kovarik's veto of an agreement that officially named the foundation to raise private cash and develop the project.

Morris, who was elected to the village board in 2009, recused himself from discussing or voting on the memorial.

If he prevails at trial, the money gained from the village "would go a long way" toward helping fund the memorial at three other potential sites in Gurnee, Morris said. He declined to identify those locations, but added he's willing to work with Kovarik to place the memorial at the Old Grand Avenue location as planned.

Under Morris' plan, money was being raised through the foundation to pay an estimated $200,000 for life-size bronze statues depicting his son, Warren Township resident Sean Maher and Libertyville's Wesley Wells. All three servicemen died in battle in 2004 or 2005.

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