Gurnee OKs memorial park plans

Memorial plans to proceed despite lawsuit

Posted6/18/2012 10:27 PM
  • No flags are flying from the poles at the site of a proposed memorial to troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan on Old Grand Avenue in Gurnee.

      No flags are flying from the poles at the site of a proposed memorial to troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan on Old Grand Avenue in Gurnee. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • STEVE LUNDY/, 2009Heros of Freedom Memorial on Old Grand Avenue as it looked in 2009.

    STEVE LUNDY/, 2009Heros of Freedom Memorial on Old Grand Avenue as it looked in 2009.

Gurnee village board members Monday night approved their end of an agreement the mayor says will lead to construction of a memorial park for soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under the concept promoted by Mayor Kristina Kovarik, Heroes of Freedom Memorial Park would rise on a 1-acre site on Old Grand Avenue, where Gurnee's police headquarters once stood. It would be a joint development and maintenance venture with village government, the Gurnee Park District and Warren Township.

Originally, village Trustee Kirk Morris pursued construction of the memorial for the same publicly owned Grand Avenue property. He did so through his Pfc. Geoffrey Morris Foundation, named for his son who died in Iraq while fighting for the Marines in 2004.

Controversy 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 and no longer should lead the project.

At Monday night's meeting, trustees voted 4-1 -- with Morris abstaining -- in favor of the agreement with the township and park district.

Plans call for immediate property improvements by having Warren Township plant flower beds on the land, which will be maintained by park district employees. The village would improve a parking lot and sidewalk, while the park district continues handling grass mowing and weeding.

Trustee Greg Garner was the lone dissenter. He quizzed Kovarik about the idea of striking the agreement while a lawsuit Morris filed against the village over the memorial remains active and wanted to know what exactly is planned for the site.

Kovarik responded that Morris' complaint doesn't affect what the village may build on the land because it's the owner. She said an advisory committee with three members appointed by the village, one from the park system and one from the township would chart the memorial's course.

"I'm not comfortable with this," Garner told Kovarik. "It doesn't make sense to me."

Village trustees approved a five-year agreement that also will go before park district and township officials. It'll extend for consecutive two-year periods unless terminated by the local governments.

Gurnee village government, the park district and township "are committed to a working relationship that will develop, maintain and manage property known as the Heroes of Freedom Memorial," according to the agreement.

Morris filed a lawsuit against Gurnee and Kovarik over his foundation's removal in 2010. The suit was dismissed by a Lake County judge, but an appellate court decision last year sent the case back for a jury trial, now set to begin July 16.

However, Morris' lawsuit no longer will center on the claim his private foundation had the right to develop the village-owned property for the memorial. Instead, the foundation is seeking reimbursement for improvements it made on the Old Grand Avenue site.

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

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.

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. Gov. Pat Quinn, when he was lieutenant governor, and military officials were among those who attended a dedication ceremony in April 2005.

All of the flags have since been removed from the poles. Morris, who was not a trustee when the village decided in 2005 to build a memorial, 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.

Park: 5-year agreement must be OK'd by park district, township

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