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updated: 8/7/2012 6:00 PM

Gurnee board rejects war memorial settlement

Agreement on statues would have ended 3-year dispute

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  • Kirk Morris

    Kirk Morris

  • Steve Park

    Steve Park

  • Cindy Seng

    Cindy Seng

  • Sculptor Cindy Seng was supposed to create the bronze statues of the troops

    Sculptor Cindy Seng was supposed to create the bronze statues of the troops


Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that the purchase or installation of bronze statues are not part of the $630,000 estimate for Gurnee to build a memorial to soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gurnee village board trustees Monday night rejected 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.

But the village board voted 4-0, with two abstentions, against the proposed deal that would have ended a nearly three-year controversy. Trustees Steve Park, Cheryl Ross, Jeanne Balmes and Hank Schwarz voted against the settlement, while Morris and Greg Garner abstained.

"My rationale is that this was the best decision for the residents of the village," Park said after the vote. "Now the case should go back to court and have an unbiased, unemotional, unpolitical decision on whether or not the village owes the foundation any money. And if we do, we should pay it."

Controversy over the memorial erupted in October 2009, when Morris and Mayor Kristina Kovarik began publicly feuding. Kovarik contended that the foundation accomplished little in the five years it was unofficially in charge of the memorial plan and raising private money for its construction on public land.

In 2010, Morris sued the village over Kovarik's decision to remove his foundation as developer of Heroes of Freedom Memorial Park on the one-acre site where Gurnee police headquarters previously stood on Old Grand Avenue. 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.

On the day a jury trial was scheduled for the case last month, Lake County Circuit Judge Wallace Dunn signed an agreed order with terms of the tentative settlement the Gurnee village board rejected Monday evening. The order says the memorial would be built according to the Morris foundation's original plans.

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 and other work, per an estimate from Joseph J. Henderson & Son Inc. in Gurnee.

Specifically, 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 or 2005.

Morris' foundation had been seeking private donations to pay an estimated $200,000 to:

• 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.

Village Attorney Bryan Winter said lawyers assigned to the case by Gurnee's insurance carrier will ask Dunn to vacate his order outlining the settlement terms as a result of the trustees' vote. Morris said he's confident in his lawyers' opinion that the court order can't be negated by the village board's vote.

"Defying a court order is never a good idea, especially when you agree to it," Morris 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.

Sculptor Cindy Seng, who was supposed to create the bronze statues of the troops and volunteered her time for the project, said she was "discouraged and disgusted" by the village board's rejection of the tentative settlement.

"This (memorial) will bring people to Gurnee," said Seng, who lives in unincorporatd Lake County near Gurnee. "Give it a chance."

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