State officials want Island Lake to return a $239,000 grant delivered 22 years ago, alleging village leaders misrepresented facts and misused the money, documents indicate.
"We're in the midst of a formal grant recovery process," said Chris Young, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the agency demanding the refund.
The grant was awarded in 1992 to help the village purchase about 12 acres called Greenleaf Woods. The sum covered half of the estimated $478,000 purchase price, documents show.
Charles Amrich was mayor at the time. Amrich left office in 2005 but was re-elected in 2013.
According to a March 10 letter from an IDNR lawyer to Amrich, the village misrepresented and omitted facts in the agreement with the state agency. Village officials also failed to use the grant as they promised, attorney Shelly Knuppel said in the letter.
Knuppel didn't go into greater detail about the allegations, which have been made even though the IDNR has repeatedly praised village officials for meeting grant requirements at Greenleaf Woods.
This is the second time IDNR officials have demanded the village return the grant. The agency sent a near-identical letter in 2008 to then-Mayor Tom Hyde.
That request came less than two years after a criminal investigation into the grant and the land acquisition, village documents revealed.
Nothing came of the investigation or the IDNR's 2008 effort to recover the money.
A hearing regarding the latest request is planned for next month at the agency's headquarters in Springfield.
The village's attorney, David McArdle, declined to comment, saying the issue may end up in court.
In an April 15 letter sent to the IDNR and shared with the Daily Herald, McArdle requested more information about what the agency believes village officials did wrong. McArdle also questioned why the matter is being pursued now.
"I do not understand what could be done about it under (the) law almost a quarter century later," McArdle wrote.
Amrich also declined to comment.
The Daily Herald acquired the grant application, related letters and other paperwork concerning the grant through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Greenleaf Woods Park is on the east side of town, near Route 176 and Westridge Drive.
It's not far from village hall, the police station and the public works department.
Aside from some trails, the space is undeveloped.
The village acquired the land in a 1991 deal that led to development of the Westridge residential subdivision, which is in the same area. The land was delivered to the village as part of an annexation agreement with the previous owners, according to village documents.
The grant was part of the state's Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development program. At the time Island Lake got the grant, the state agency was called the Illinois Department of Conservation.
According to the August 1989 grant application, village officials wanted to preserve the land and create nature trails there. The grant was approved in January 1992, state records indicate.
When the IDNR first requested Island Lake return the $239,000 grant in 2008, the village's attorney at that time, Scott Puma, said the village hadn't retained many records from the application and land-acquisition process.
Even so, in a letter to the agency, Puma insisted the village's actions in the matter were "transparent."
The transaction was discussed publicly "on numerous occasions," Puma wrote. Additionally, he said the land had been used as a park since its acquisition.
Although the IDNR wants its money back now, the agency expressed satisfaction with the Greenleaf Woods project in the past.
In 2002 and again in 2012, officials in the agency's grant administration division wrote to the village and said the site "remains in compliance" with regulatory requirements. The letters also commended the village for providing outdoor recreation opportunities for residents and visitors at Greenleaf Woods.
In 2007, however, the grant was the subject of a criminal investigation by the Lake County state's attorney's office, documents provided to the Daily Herald indicate. A grand jury reviewed the matter that March, but no charges were filed. Additional information about the investigation wasn't immediately available.
The IDNR's Young didn't know why the Greenleaf Woods project came into question again last month.
"It's taken a long time to get to this point," he said.
A hearing about the issue is scheduled for May 20. The goal is for village and IDNR representatives to reach an "amicable agreement," Young said.
Island Lake Trustee Shannon Fox, who leads the town's grants committee, said she expects Amrich and McArdle will fight the request.
"I hope they are successful," she said. "I wouldn't want the residents to be punished for (past actions) from a previous administration."
Trustee Mark Beeson said he looks forward to learning more about the IDNR complaint. Village officials don't have a lot of fresh information, he said.
Despite the agency's strongly worded letter, Beeson isn't worried.
"We're all just being patient," he said. "The sky's not falling down."