Gurnee Heroes of Freedom Memorial Park controversy may be near end
Gurnee village trustees may end a nearly three-year controversy Monday when they address whether to accept a tentative lawsuit settlement that would require construction of a memorial to troops who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Trustee Kirk Morris' foundation and the village struck the proposed deal in July in Lake County circuit court.
The agreement came before a scheduled jury trial for the case that pitted village government against the Pfc. Geoffrey Morris Memorial Foundation, named for the trustee's son, a Marine who died in Iraq in 2004.
Heroes of Freedom Memorial Park would be constructed on public land at Gurnee's "sole cost" on or before Aug. 1, 2013, according to court documents. It could cost up to $630,000 for landscaping, engineering, bronze monuments and other work, according to an estimate from Joseph J. Henderson & Son Inc. in Gurnee.
Private donations could be used with public money to pay for the memorial on an acre site on Old Grand Avenue where Gurnee's police headquarters previously stood, as conceived by Morris' foundation. Henderson would donate its services as construction manager and didn't include that work in the $630,000 estimate.
Trustees are to vote on whether to accept the tentative lawsuit settlement at a meeting starting at 7:30 p.m. at Gurnee village hall, 325 N. O'Plaine Road.
Morris has refrained from voting on issues involving his foundation that have come before the six-member village board.
"When voting to approve or reject the proposed settlement, each trustee will have to decide if the settlement proposal is in the best interest of the village," Village Attorney Bryan Winter said in a memo.
However, Morris' lawyer disputes the idea the village board has the power to reject the deal.
Robert O'Donnell represented Morris' foundation and crafted the settlement with lawyers Julie Tappendorf and Ellen Emery, who handled the case for Gurnee. Documents show Lake County Circuit Judge Wallace Dunn has signed the deal.
O'Donnell contends what Dunn signed is an "agreed order" that can't be approved or rejected by the Gurnee village board. He said that means trustees will cast meaningless votes.
"My position is this case is settled," O'Donnell said. "There is no need for the board to do anything."
Winter responded that the Heroes of Freedom Memorial settlement listed on Monday's agenda for a village board vote is proper. Mayor Kristina Kovarik has declined to address the proposed deal, but said the board needs to vote on it in public.
Controversy over the memorial erupted in October 2009, when Morris and Kovarik began publicly feuding. Kovarik contended the foundation accomplished little in the five years it was unofficially in charge of the memorial plan and trying to raise private money for the construction.
In 2010, Morris sued the village over Kovarik's decision to remove his private foundation as developer of Heroes of Freedom Memorial Park on the publicly owned land. Morris claimed the foundation had a right to finish the project.
Morris' suit originally was dismissed by a Lake County circuit court judge in 2010. However, a mixed appellate court decision sent the case back to Lake County, with a limited focus on whether Morris' foundation was entitled to at least $200,000 in compensation for having improved the village's land for the stalled memorial.
Documents show the village would be required to do the following under the settlement proposal:
• Install life-size bronze statues of Geoffrey Morris, Lance Cpl. Sean Maher of Warren Township and Army Spc. Wesley Wells of Libertyville. All three died in battle in 2004-05.
Morris' foundation had been seeking private donations to pay an estimated $200,000 for the statues.
• Construct a retaining wall with a waterfall feature and formal landscaping.
• Build interior sidewalks with benches.
• Assume responsibility for the memorial's maintenance and insurance.
Warren Township Supervisor Suzanne Simpson has written a letter to Kovarik and trustees expressing concern about building the memorial with original plans, as the lawsuit settlement would require. She said she's drawing on her experience in being a steward of the 82-acre township park at Washington Street and Almond Road in Gurnee.
Simpson said the statues and waterfall feature may attract "the monsters of the night" to the site to cause damage or create other problems.
"I just want everyone to be aware of the issues," Simpson said.
Gurnee village board members agreed in March 2005 to establish a memorial park in remembrance of U.S. military personnel who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and military officials attended a dedication ceremony in April 2005.
Morris' foundation wasn't named in the March 2005 resolution, and no construction timetable 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 site.
Nine flags representing every military branch and lights were the most visible work done on the memorial from March 2005 until the dispute arose in 2009. After the controversy arose, Morris and his supporters removed the flags and lights.
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