DNR researching petition irregularities

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113156260417936.jpg’, ‘Photo by Frank Schier’, ‘Northward view of the "No Wake" zone on the Rock River at Martin Park in Loves Park.’);

Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials are examining claims of petition irregularities, which may lead to a formal investigation. The decision on whether to formally investigate the matter may be made within the week, according to Melaney Arnold, public information officer for the DNR.

WTVO-TV Channel 17 reported Oct. 31 that all the petition signatures were those of employees of the Harlem School District and Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department. Of the nine people from Harlem who signed the petition, WTVO reported seven “said they did not have a boat or live on the river.”

That detail is of interest because Chapter 1, Title 17, Section 2030.15, paragraph (a1) of the Illinois Administrative Code requires that signers of the petition “be directly affected by the [No Wake] restriction.” The authority for the code is derived from state statute 625 ILCS 45/5-7 and 5-12.

Specifically, the rule dictates that a “minimum of 25 signatures of interested persons over the age of 18 who would be directly affected by the restriction” be submitted to the DNR before the department would consider restricting the waterway.

The Rock River Times contacted one petition signer from Harlem who said when he/she signed the petition, he/she had no knowledge he/she had to be directly affected by the restriction. The person also said he/she did not have a boat, live on the river or knew who or how many people at Harlem circulated the petition.

In all, 63 people signed the four-page petition to urge implementation of the No-Wake Zone. However, there is no indication on any of the petition pages that individuals must be directly affected by the restriction.

Instead, the petition reads: “The names on this petition will be presented to the Department of Natural Resources to show support of the boaters who use the Rock River to have a No-Wake area imposed upon the area of the Rock River at Martin Park, for the safety of all of the people who use the river.” No dates accompany the signatures.

The lack of this wording conflicts with instructions issued in a Jan. 13, 2003 memorandum from DNR Chief Tom Wakolbinger to Captain Greg Hunter. In the memorandum, Wakolbinger states the rule requiring that persons must be directly affected by the restriction.

Wakolbinger also wrote the following concerning the petition: “I need a map showing the area to be restricted and a petition with at least 25 signatures. I suggest the following wording for the petition:

‘“We the undersigned, being recreational users of the Rock River in Winnebago County, at Martin Park wish to express our concern over an unsafe condition which exists in the area between Riverside Bridge and the island located at the south end of Martin Park due to congested use, and request that the area be designated as a Slow/No-Wake area.’

“They may, however, substitute wording of their choosing if they prefer. …Following that , I ask that you contact [Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department] Sgt. Steven [sic, Stephen] DePauw to explain what is needed to expedite their request and fax your recommendation to me as soon as possible. Because the rule change can take up to four months to complete, time is of the essence. Sgt. Depauw should send his petitions directly to my attention,” Wakolbinger wrote.

DePauw personally signed the petition that did not have the recommended wording, and proposed the restriction in a July 26, 2002 memorandum to the DNR.

As reported by WTVO, Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers claimed the Sheriff’s Department employees who work on the river are directly affected by the restriction. However, what wasn’t clear by time of publication was of those Sheriff’s Department employees who signed the petition, which did or did not work on the river.

The approximately 700-yard long No-Wake restriction on the Rock River is bounded by the Riverside Boulevard bridge to the north and the island in the river to the south near Rockford Country Club. The restriction was controversially implemented earlier this year after the DNR approved the initiative in May 2003.

Also not clear by time of publication was why two years elapsed before the Sheriff’s Department implemented the No-Wake zone, if there was an urgency to “expedite” the Sheriff’s Department’s request as indicated in Wakolbinger’s Jan. 13, 2003 memorandum.

Boat enthusiasts Rick Fiduccia and Steve Lucas are spearheading a campaign to lift the restriction they said is hurting businesses that depend on river traffic, and is driving away recreational boaters.

Their assertions were confirmed in the Sept. 28-Oct. 4 issue of The Rock River Times.

Lucas and Fiduccia personally collected more than 500 signatures from boaters and homeowners on the river during the Fourth of July weekend, opposing the No Wake zone and created a Web site www.rrnowake.com, Lucas was recently elected president of the Rock River Homeowners Association, primarily as a result of that effort.

Other critics suspect the primary reason the No-Wake Zone may have been implemented was an effort to control noise from loud watercraft that pass near homeowners who live on the river.

Meyers argued the restriction was enacted for safety reasons that relate to increased boating activity and river traffic near the dock at Martin Park. However, the only known information relating to boat traffic on the river is estimated and anecdotal, rather than empirical data.

In response to criticisms of the restriction, on July 21 of this year, Meyers requested the DNR to “revisit the issue of the no-wake area” by shortening the zone.

In his memo, Meyers requested “a no wake zone of 300 feet to the north and 300 feet south of the center line of the docks at Martin Park, extending across the width of the river.”

Wakolbinger retired from the DNR, Meyers was out of the office Nov. 8 and DePauw did not respond for comment by time of publication.

Frank Schier, editor and publisher contributed to this article.

From the Nov. 9-15, 2005, issue

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