Last week, some Rock Island County Board members got a bit of a surprise. Landmarks Illinois, which is part of a group that's suing them to try to keep the old county courthouse from being torn down, has offered to settle.
Ordinarily, one would think, the defendants in a lawsuit might know about such things. But, as Sarah Hayden of the Dispatch-Argus made clear in an article last week, several of the board members were clearly in the dark about the offer.
"It was never sent to me," Don Johnston, a board member, said. Others said they, too, had not seen the offer, which was made in April.
Not all the board members were in the dark, though. Hayden reported that Richard Brunk, chairman of the board, was aware of the offer.
Why the rest of the board wasn’t informed isn’t clear. Brunk declined to comment.
According to Hayden's reporting, Landmark hadn't received a response as of last week.
We can understand why those kept in the dark might be upset. As Johnston noted, "the courthouse building belongs to the county." And each of the county board members have a responsibility to know about what's going on with it.
It has seemed to us improbable that the courthouse might be successfully redeveloped; yet, we have urged the county board to follow the law in pursuing its disposition.
Despite what appeared to be attempts to short-circuit the process, those who want this building saved have been able to get this matter into court.
A circuit court judge ruled in favor of the county earlier this year, but Landmarks and local preservationists have appealed.
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Landmarks' offer was to settle the case in exchange for an agreement with the county to work together and issue a request for proposals to redevelop the property.
If, after 90 days, no satisfactory proposal were forthcoming, demolition could proceed, according to a draft agreement.
Prospective developers would be required to outline the future use and planned rehabilitation of the building and also describe how it would be financed. The settlement asks that the county turn over the building to a developer for $1, along with what would have been spent on demolition. The county and the Public Building Commission signed an agreement last year that would turn the building over to the commission for demolition, with the PBC agreeing to pay up to $1.6 million for demolition and installation of green space.
Perhaps the county board chairman and the attorneys feel confident in their legal position and that's why they did not respond.
Regardless, we wish they had, and if there are any talks going on now, we would encourage them. If there is a way to make this court dispute go away and save this building without a major taxpayer investment, we think that ought to be explored.
There has been private-sector interest in restoring the courthouse for quite a while now, but the the county hasn't appeared interested.
We believe Landmarks' settlement offer represents an opportunity to explore that interest and to find out whether there are other offers out there. We realize this could delay the ultimate disposition of this building. However, we have become convinced the county could take greater steps to assure the public it has gone the extra mile to save a key part of its history.
This building is not just another county asset. It is one that a good number of people in the county clearly cherish.
Exploring this settlement offer would be a good step toward assuring these people they are being heard.
At the very least, all of the county board members should be briefed on this offer – its pros and cons – and they should be able to talk about it. After all, each one of the county board members are answerable to the people on this issue.