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posted: 6/28/2012 5:11 PM

Lake County Forest Preserve District to work with civil rights hall of fame

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The Lake County Forest Preserve District will work with a local group that has established a civil rights hall of fame to make information available to the public but not provide a permanent home at the Greenbelt Cultural Center in North Chicago.

While commissioners agree with the educational value of the materials and message of the Lake County Civil Rights Hall of Fame, potential legal issues involving the use of public property by a private group means other options will be considered.

"It's our responsibility to make sure we're protecting ourselves as a forest preserve," said Commissioner Linda Pedersen, chairman of the forest board's finance and administrative committee, which considered the request Thursday.

"If we do say yes, there's a possibility other people will approach us with exhibits we want no part of and how do we turn them down? It has nothing to do with the message you're trying to convey," she told Hall of Fame officers.

The Lake County Civil Rights Hall of Fame was established in 2006 and meets weekly at the offices of the New Way of Life Church of God and Christ in Waukegan.

Each year, the group inducts five members. There currently are 35 members of various races and cultures. The group's information consists of photos of inductees, with a brief description of their contributions.

Wadell Brooks, a leader of the group, made a similar request for Greenbelt a few years ago but the matter was not be considered because of a lack of space. The center since has been expanded and the request has been renewed.

"He wants a public venue that's not tied to a specific town," said Katherine Hamilton-Smith, the district's director of cultural resources.

Allowing that at Greenbelt would open the door to other potential users and, could be challenged as a private use of public property, according to Matt Norton, the district's legal counsel.

While the forest district routinely hosts exhibits, it is a public message being relayed, he said. He equated it to a bulletin board at a district facility used to advertise events. Making a portion of such a board available to outside groups shifts the focus.

"Once you open it up for the public to say, `This is my message`, ... you can't discriminate," he said.

Committee members and staff agreed the information is valuable and should be shared.

"We think this is a wonderful thing, a great educational opportunity for all the people of Lake County," said Tom Hahn, the district's executive director.

Staff was directed to work with the group to find an acceptable alternative, such as the district creating a general temporary exhibit to include some hall of fame materials, for example, and making it available to other entities.

"We'll look at some of the options and lay that out," Hamilton-Smith said.

After the discussion, Robert Richards, executive director of the Lake County Civil Rights Hall of Fame, said he was encouraged.

"To me, it was very fruitful and productive," Richards said. "I believe we can make this work."

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