Landmarks Illinois is asking Rock Island County officials to respond to their offer to settle a lawsuit filed by them and five other plaintiffs to prevent the county and Public Building Commission (PBC) from demolishing the historic Rock Island County courthouse, built between 1895 and 1897.
Landmarks Illinois sent a three-page proposal April 24 to County Board Chairman Richard Brunk offering to end litigation if the county agrees to make an effort to market the courthouse to potential developers.
Brunk, however, did not forward the letter to county board members or County Administrator Jim Snider. Landmarks Illinois never received a response to their offer, so president Bonnie McDonald sent a followup letter July 31.
"Our objective in sending that proposal was to start a discussion with the county about the feasibility of reusing and preserving the historic Rock Island County courthouse," McDonald wrote Wednesday. "We believe there are experienced developers who would be willing and able to take on the rehabilitation and reuse of the historic courthouse at little or no cost to the county.
"We have not received any response to the proposal we sent in April," McDonald wrote. "Our lawyers inquired with your lawyers on multiple occasions and assured we would at least receive the courtesy of a response. We have not. We are also concerned some board members may be unaware of our proposal."
This time, McDonald sent the letter to every county board member, the other five plaintiffs, and their attorneys.
Landmarks Illinois is the state's largest non-profit historic preservation advocacy group and has successfully fought for the preservation of numerous endangered sites in the state for decades.
Brunk declined to comment on the settlement offer.
"I really can't comment on the letter because it's related to the pending litigation," Brunk said. "We are reviewing where the case is; I can't say if we will take any particular action."
The settlement offer asks the county to solicit for requests for proposals for the courthouse, allowing six months for offers to come in. If no developers have submitted a proposal within 90 days of the RFP deadline process, Landmarks Illinois agrees the county may move forward with demolition after required documents have been submitted to the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office.
Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Rock Island Preservation Society, the Moline Preservation Society, the Broadway Historic District Association and Frederick Shaw, one of the bondholders in the Justice Center Annex project, filed suit Feb. 6 in Rock Island County against the county and the PBC.
Diane Oestreich, a member of the Rock Island Preservation Society, joined as an additional plaintiff in the case as a taxpayer.
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To avoid conflict of interest, the case was moved to the 10th District Court in Peoria County. Judge Jodi Hoos dismissed the suit March 19, but Landmarks Illinois filed an appeal March 21. The case is pending in the Third District Appellate Court.
"We have wasted the past several months and will continue to waste time if the county will not engage with us during the pending appeal," McDonald wrote. "We also note the county is continuing to devote time and resources to the litigation, all of which could have been avoided through an agreement."
Legal bills soar for county
Documents show Bozeman, Neighbor, Patton & Noe, LLP, the law firm hired to represent the county in the lawsuit, has billed the county $66,406 through June. Attorneys for the firm, Bill Rector and Daniel Hardin, are paid $200 an hour, while a law clerk is paid $100 an hour.
Deb Welling, secretary for the PBC, did not respond to requests for how much attorney Bill Stengel has billed for his services in representing the PBC in the lawsuit.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of outside attorneys making a pretty good salary on a variety of county issues," board member Don Johnston said. "As I've said many times publicly, I don't know who has authority over the building — I don't know if the county is responsible or if the PBC is responsible. I've questioned why nothing has been done to cover the holes in the roof."
Snider said board members have scheduled a litigation committee meeting Monday, Aug. 5 to discuss the proposal from Landmarks Illinois.
"They will give it consideration and discuss options," Snider said. "At least we will work through the process of reviewing it. It will be discussed in closed session. I don't know if there will be any follow-through. It's a formal request and we are going to review it."
The meeting is at 10:30 a.m. at the county office building, 1504 Third Avenue, Rock Island. Committee members include Patrick Moreno, Jeff Deppe, Don Johnston, Mia Mayberry, and Ron Oelke.
In her letter, McDonald offered to make a presentation before the county board and to answer any questions regarding the settlement offer. Brunk said he would not invite McDonald to speak before the board.
"When parties are involved in litigation, communication goes through the attorneys," Brunk said. "While this is pending in the courts, we've been advised against any direct communication with the plaintiffs."
"If the chairman wants to let her speak, that's fine with me," Johnston said. "But I think most are totally confused as to who is responsible for the courthouse. It all started with one judicial individual. Now, I'm not sure what can be done with the courthouse. Sure, it can be restored; anything can be restored."