Board members urged to change minds

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116845293124156.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I)‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116845307515577.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Rockford Legal Director Patrick Hayes‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116845313415591.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stutart R. Wahlin’, ‘Jim Ryan, Rockford City Administrator‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116845321215579.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Ald. Nancy Johnson (D-8)‘);

Proponents of the MetroCentre’s plan to purchase a hockey team are lobbying County Board members to reverse their Dec. 28 decision to bar such ownership. The most recent audit of the MetroCentre shows the existing ice rink is not paid for, and the controversy continues over the proposed Ag-Expo center, which is seen by some as competition to the MetroCentre renovation and the city’s efforts to purchase a hockey team.

“Jim Thacker [Mayor Larry Morrissey’s political consultant] called me,” County Board newcomer John Sweeney (R-14) stated. “Says he wants to get together and talk about some issues, talk politics. I presumed he wanted to talk about the MetroCentre, and he said ‘yes’ and kind-of laughed.”

When Sweeney arrived for what he thought was to be a one-on-one meeting at the Irish Rose, Thacker met him outside and told him he was sitting with another Morrissey adviser, co-owner of Rockford Consulting & Brokerage and Rockford Board of Elections Commissioner Ryan Brauns and Rockford Register Star political columnist Chuck Sweeny.

“If somehow the impression is that this was a setup where we went and lobbied and grilled John Sweeny, that’s not true,” Thacker said. “And if he wanted to meet someplace else, I would. I told him they might ask him some questions on the record, and he said he didn’t care.

“Chuck Sweeney never knew that John Sweeney was going to be there. Two days later, I called John Sweeney. I wanted to follow up on some questions he had at the time. I reminded him that I told him who was sitting at the table and that the subject of the MetroCentre might come up,” Thacker said.

“While I was sitting there, the integrity of the County Board was being called into question,” Sweeney said, “and the brain-power of some of the people on the County Board.”

After reminding the group a board member was present, Sweeney said he was assured they weren’t referring to him.

“They were all in agreement that the County Board was holding back progress,” Sweeney added.

“The one point that sticks out in my mind is when Jim Thacker made a comment to me,” Sweeney recalled, “that you have a $60 million asset in the heart of downtown.”

Based on the fact the MetroCentre loses money every year, the board member disagreed with the accuracy of that assertion.

“I do consider the MetroCentre to be a positive draw to the economic well-being of downtown,” Sweeney explained. “That shouldn’t be confused with wanting to make intelligent decisions regarding certain infrastructure downtown and very, very questionable business deals and questionable pro formas regarding those business deals that I believe government shouldn’t be involved with anyway.”

Sweeney reported having told Thacker, “I don’t consider the MetroCentre to be A: an asset, and B: I’ve never heard of it being appraised at $60 million.”

“You’re on the County Board, aren’t you?” columnist Sweeny reportedly responded. “You should know things like that. Why don’t you do some research?”

The columnist is said to have later apologized for the insult, and did not return comment by phone or e-mail by deadline.

Recently, it has been argued the county is being hypocritical in its position to prevent the city from owning a team.

“Chuck Sweeny has written about this,” the District 14 Republican noted “implying that owning the IceHogs, or owning an AHL team…is just like the county building a golf course.” Sweeney added: “There’s a big difference between providing that recreation and owning a sports franchise. The county builds a golf course, but we don’t own the golfers…I’m surprised, with their political intellect and knowledge, that they can’t decipher that difference themselves.”

Sweeney said the group was joined by Rockford Legal Director Patrick Hayes soon after.

“Patrick Hayes stands up and says: ‘I need your vote. I’m gonna get your vote. I have to change your mind,’” Sweeney reported.

Thacker said Hayes only stopped into the Irish Rose for 5 minutes after work, and Sweeney just happened to be there.

“As I told Mr. Sweeney, or any other County Board member, Rockford needs the County Board members’ support on moving forward on this deal with the MetroCentre,” Hayes explained. “The County Board members who voted against that need to give the proponents of that an adequate amount of time to speak with them on the matter.”

Thacker came to the offices of The Rock River Times in reply to a phone call about this story in which all of the direct attribution of this story was given. When asked if it was a fact that the city was lobbying county board members to change their vote, he said, “Well, yeah.”

Sweeney noted the local daily’s political columnist wasn’t the only one to dish out insults that week. After Tuesday’s City Council meeting, he said Rockford Ald. Nancy Johnson (D-8) was also frustrated with his position on the issue.

“She looked at me and directly implied that I was under someone else’s direct influence,” Sweeney said, “and that I was not making my own decisions, questioning my entire moral integrity as an elected official.”

“It was obvious that he had done a lot of homework on the MetroCentre issue,” Ald. Johnson said in response to Sweeney’s account of the conversation. “He was, in my mind, very well-versed on his stand of it, and I just told him that I thought that he should be real careful so that he doesn’t give the appearance of being under the thumb of someone who may be trying to influence his vote one way or the other.”

“I certainly didn’t mean to denigrate him or his ability, or his position in any way,” Johnson added. “It was almost like a little word to the wise kind of a comment and I’m sorry if he took it the wrong way.”

Sweeney was adamant that Johnson’s remarks came down to: “The word on the street is that you are being controlled.”

Sweeney told The Rock River Times’ Editor and Publisher Frank Schier that although he respected his father’s opinion (whose board seat he won after his father moved to county administration) and the opinion of his father’s mentor, State Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34), he had to prove himself by researching all issues and stand apart from them, on his own.

The board voted Dec. 28 to put forth $9 million toward the $20 million renovation project on the condition that neither the city, county nor MetroCentre may purchase a sports franchise.

The Rockford City Council, however, has essentially ignored the county’s decision and continues to seek to purchase the IceHogs in hopes they can change the county’s mind.

“I think what that proves is that the City Council is intellectually dishonest,” said board member Pete MacKay (R-5) in reaction to the council’s decision to move forward, intent on the purchase of a hockey team. “I think it’s pretty interesting because they are the ones that are asking us for money.”

“We didn’t stipulate one team. We said ‘any team,’” board member Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) argued in response to continued efforts to purchase the IceHogs. “The city does not need to own a hockey team. They have enough problems. Crime is rampant. They have drive-by shootings by the day. The flood people don’t even have furnaces. They have another road referendum coming up. It looks like it’s gonna go down the drain if it’s not handled right. Yet, all they worry about is being obsessed about a hockey team. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”

Aiello added, “If we’re good enough to give them the $9 million to help them out, we better have a say in what’s going on.”

The mayor’s office released a packet of information to several media outlets that included the mayor’s remarks to be delivered to the city council last Tuesday night, e-mails from and between the owners of the IceHogs forwarded to MetroCentre Manager Corey Pearson, two formally embargoed press releases, the roll call for County Board votes on the MetroCentre renovations and the amendment that made the county funds contingent on the city not owning a sports team.


e Rock River Times has chosen not to print the e-mails because their contents have not been verified by the IceHogs owners, supposedly because of the ongoing negotiations and a gag order on all parties. Also in question are the return e-mails as well as the question of the full series by all parties involved.

Tumilowicz did say after the Jan. 2 City Council meeting that he was very unhappy “confidential e-mails had been released.”

As of deadline Jan. 9, neither Drecktrah nor Tumilowicz responded for comment about the e-mails released by the city or the following reports of recent meetings.

As to hammering out a lease agreement , Drecktrah allegedly stormed out of a Jan. 5 meeting after being presented with reportedly yet another offer to buy the IceHogs or have them become part of the deal for the new team. He was also supposedly surprised because he thought he was only meeting with Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen.

Reportedly, the Jan. 5 evening meeting and a meeting the following day from 11 a.m. to the early evening with ’Hogs owners, hosted by Christiansen, was attended by Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I), City Administrator Jim Ryan, Deputy Director of Regional Planning & Economic Development Jim Hughes and possibly Rockford Legal Director Patrick Hayes.

Asked to confirm who was present at the Jan. 5 and 6 negotiations, Hayes would only say, “Because of the multiple parties, different people were involved on different days.”

Thacker said, “I heard there were meetings, but I’m not sure who was there because I wasn’t there.”

It is also rumored the MetroCentre offered 25 percent ownership of an American Hockey League (AHL) team to Drecktrah and Tumilowicz, who are attempting to negotiate a long-term lease for their United Hockey League (UHL) IceHogs.

Board member David Krienke (R-3) thinks the whole process is moving too fast considering the number of unanswered questions.

Krienke noted the city tax, which funds the $912,000 annual subsidy to the MetroCentre, is set to expire well before the end of the proposed 20-year commitment. Ald. Jeff Holt (D-11) did raise this issue at a recent City Council meeting, but the tax has yet to be extended to meet the duration of bond repayment.

“It’s 3.5 [million dollars] at least,” Krienke said in reference to tax dollars raised for the 25-year-old arena annually. “The revenue’s supposed to be going into the MetroCentre.”

Krienke argues if that money were being used for the facility, as intended, the building would have been properly maintained, and the MetroCentre wouldn’t be in the state of disrepair it’s in.

“He’s absolutely proven he can’t do it,” added MacKay in reference to general manager Corey Pearson’s maintenance of the arena. “That’s what he was hired to do. He wasn’t hired to bring a hockey team here…He’s done a very good job of managing it into a deficit of about $1.2 million a year.”

Another issue Krienke discussed is the fact the MetroCentre has only been making interest payments on the sheet of ice it purchased in 2002.

A June 30, 2006, financial report prepared by the accounting firm of Suby, Von Haden & Associates states: “The Authority, in 2002, obtained another line of credit with the same bank [AMCORE] in the amount of $1,400,000 for the purpose of installing an ice hockey rink and purchasing the related equipment. Subsequent to year end, the Authority has extended the maturity of this debt from August 5, 2006 to November 5, 2006. This note carries an interest rate of the bank’s prime rate plus 0.25%. The Authority’s interest in any rents, issues, deposits, income and profits from the lease agreement with a professional hockey team and its right, title, and interest in all net income derived from hockey events serve as collateral for this line of credit. In addition, the Authority has agreed to remit to the bank proceeds related to the sale of the Authority’s parking deck property…As of June 30, 2006 and 2005, the amount of outstanding borrowings under this agreement was $1,255,322.”

Several sources have said the existing ice rink was installed with poor planning because it is not regulation size and is too small to book many national ice skating shows and competitions—now it has to be expanded, and that debt will be covered by the renovation monies.

Addressing that the current ice is not even paid for, Krienke argued, “When it came public, it should have been all done, and the information should have been there. We should not have to hunt and dig for the information. The project is far from being ready for any bonding.”

Mayor Morrissey has said if no agreement has been reached with IceHogs’ owners by Feb. 5, the Feb. 12 bond sale is off.

Recently, board member Randy Olson (R-1) began circulating petitions to get a proposed $20 million Ag-Expo center near I-90 on the April ballot.

“City officials knew that Randy Olson was going to be coming in with this proposal, so they knew they had to leak it.” Krienke explained, in reference to the MetroCentre story originally going public last November. “It was orchestrated.”

Olson and Christiansen exchanged words in the county’s Executive Committee meeting over Olson’s proposal. Olson said he was upset with Christiansen’s comments in the local media because Olson alleged Christiansen had known about the Ag-Expo center since its inception.

Saying any endorsement would be premature, Christiansen has commented in several media outlets that he was unhappy about the timing of the proposal for the $20 million Ag-Expo center as it related to the MetroCentre controversy, about the need for a feasibility study and about determining funding for the project.

Olson said of the Executive Committee meeting: “I basically told him that he has told us to watch his back in the community, and I thought he would watch our back. He basically embarrassed me in front of the media, and I told him that straight up.”

As to how long Christiansen has known about the Ag-Expo proposal, Olson said, “I mentioned it to him a year ago.”

Olson also said the rumors of the IceHogs moving to the Ag-Expo center are untrue. “No. I haven’t talked to them,” he said.

Olson also said there is no involvement in land sales or investment by Ken Hendricks, Kurt Carlson or Sunil Puri. Olson said: “This is strictly a county initiative, which will be operated by the county, if it is passed. No site has been determined because if it is passed the owner will consider the economic impact and those benefits. We’ve talked about sites from Winnebago to Bypass 20 to Beloit to Dr. Swanson’s property in Cherry Valley. We’ll try to get the land as cheap as we can.”

Olson also said 120 acres for the project was not set in stone. Considerations of 200 to 80 acres are possible because of set back and, unlike the MetroCentre’s dilemma, expansion, that could include a wildlife project, but not a full zoo, Olson stressed. He said the actual Ag-Expo center would only take up about 30 acres.

As to Chuck Sweeny’s recent parody of the county board in his column “Rockford thrives on government entertainment,” Olson said: “He did that for the city. At the Thacker meeting where they were trying to lobby John Sweeney, John used the term ‘horse shed,’ then there was their editorial with that phrase in it. John knew exactly where that came from. Chuck’s on the editorial board, and contrary to what you’ve heard, he’s supposed to be non-partisan, and he’s not there.”

As of this publication, the team-ownership issue had not been added to the agenda for the Jan. 11 County Board meeting, but a last-ditch attempt to reverse the board’s decision is expected in the very near future.

According to Aiello, a three-quarter supermajority vote would be required to suspend the rules to allow reconsideration. Despite attempts to sway board member opinions, it is unlikely the necessary 21 votes can be attained.

The only other option would be for the board to rescind its decision.

“Anybody can bring that in,” Aiello explained. “But, because it’s not o

n the agenda, we can ask the state’s attorney if it’s appropriate to bring in a motion to rescind. He would say, ‘No, it’s not on the agenda…It would be in violation of the Open Meetings Act.’ Normally, any type of action has to be on the agenda to be voted on.”

Aiello suggested the likeliest scenario would be for a board member to put forth a motion to rescind, with a second, and then lay it over to the subsequent meeting.

“I think we need to, right now, work with the IceHogs, see what opportunities we have with them, and have them be part of the decision-making as well, because if nothing changes between now and next Thursday [Jan. 11], I don’t expect the County Board to rescind what they have,” Pearson explained after the Jan. 2 City Council meeting. “But, if we’re able to get some leeway in one direction or the other, hopefully we can bring these two bodies together.”

Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this article.

From the Jan. 10-16, 2007, issue

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