Memorial Hall vets voice frustration with county

Group says their recommendations are ignored and that they ‘have no authority’

When Winnebago County Board members created the Memorial Hall Board of Trustees in 2001, they hoped to provide leadership to establish the county-owned building as a center for patriotic freedom. However, a group of military veterans on the board say their recommendations are being ignored by the county, and that they “have no authority” to implement those proposals.

“I don’t think that’s accurate at all,” said Winnebago County Board member John Sweeney (R-14), in response to whether the veterans’ concerns are being ignored by the county. Sweeney joined the board several months ago. He, along with the other County Board representative on the Memorial Hall board, Rick Pollack (R-13), are responsible for bringing concerns to the county’s operation’s committee.

Veterans and trustees, such as Jack Philbrick and Lou Suit, have many concerns they allege demonstrate the county has disregarded the trustees’ recommendations. They point to the contract the county approved last August with Rockford Downtown Rotary as a primary example of how they are allegedly being ignored.

Philbrick and Suit said the trustees voted against the contract, but the county approved it anyway. They said the county should have negotiated a better deal that would have charged more for renting the hall at market appropriate rates, and stipulated restrictions that would protect the historic building, whose Greek-revival architecture was dedicated in 1903 by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

Sweeney said the contract was approved before he was appointed to the board. Pollack said former Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn and Deputy County Administrator Judy Barnard were responsible for negotiating the contract with the Rotarians. Pollack said his role in that contract was to “referee” negotiations.

Memorial Hall’s second floor auditorium is often rented for one-time events such as musical performances. However, Philbrick and Suit said veterans and trustees want the first floor and lower level to be more about veterans and less about having organizations renting cheap space for meetings and offices.

Rotarians are renting the auditorium for $30 per week for 50 weeks per year for a total of $1,500 each year of the two-year contract. The contract also indicates the Rotarians purchased and donated 20, 5-foot diameter round tables to Memorial Hall, which they use at each of their meetings. Estimates obtained by the trustees suggest the Rotarians should have been charged four to five times more for renting Memorial Hall.

A representative for the Rotarians couldn’t be reached for comment.

Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen said: “The space being rented out to the Rotary Club is market rate for the area… Also, there is another organization that is very interested in renting office space in Memorial Hall. So, that will bring in more money soon.” Christiansen made his comments Oct. 29 on WNTA-1330-AM radio’s Stephanie Caltagerone Show.

Pollack said Christiansen will meet with Memorial Hall trustees Nov. 18.

The taxpayer-supported Rockford Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau moved out of their offices in Memorial Hall last summer, and left behind carpet pads that were glued to the building’s hardwood floor and nail holes in the walls. Philbrick and Suit said the estimated $20,000 in “damage” has been difficult to repair, and they are trying to avoid further damage to the interior by narrowing the scope of the hall’s activities.

They hope Memorial Hall will become a self-funded, operated and maintained museum where they can display their collection of military artifacts, some of which they said were being improperly stored in rented space for $8,400 per year at Midway Village. They want the entire collection displayed in Memorial Hall where it will be more accessible to the public.

To that end, the trustees recommended in a 57-page document to the County Board that they put an initiative on the ballot for voters to approve or reject a tax rate increase from 0.002 to 0.004. Philbrick and Suit said, if approved, this means the owner of a $100,000 home would pay an extra 62 cents per year to fund Memorial Hall. The trustees estimate they would collect a total of $134,000 per year if the tax hike is approved.

Sweeney said he would support putting the issue on the ballot.

Pollack said he didn’t think the trustees and veterans’ concerns were being ignored. “I think we’re all in agreement about bringing the artifacts back to Memorial Hall.” He added, “The intent [of forming the trustee board] was never to give absolute power to the board, but to give the vets a greater voice in decision-making concerning programs and activities at Memorial Hall.”

The Memorial Hall Board of Trustees consists of seven members, two of which are from the County Board, whom includes Sweeney and Pollack. Five community members also serve on the board, with a preference given to military veteran applicants.

Friction among veterans, trustees and the county was evident in transcripts of the Oct. 7 meeting of the Memorial Hall trustees.

Veteran and minister Charles Sensel said: “In my business, trustees have complete authority of the building. …If the county is holding this building in trust for veterans, someone ought to check the legal issue there because that would make the County Board the trustee…I find nothing but an insult as a veteran about this building. These men are not trustees.”

Another veteran, Jerry Van Alystine, said: “If you are saying that the County Board are the trustees, and you knew it at that time, why in the heck did you appoint a delegating trustee board? It is useless, and they’re just being used as puppets. The other thing I was going to say was this building is for veterans. Why did the Rotary Club come in?”

Later, Philbrick directed a comment to County Administrator Steve Chapman that Philbrick would resign as a trustee if he didn’t have any real power or authority. After the meeting, Suit echoed Philbrick’s sentiments.

As to the recommendations that trustees detailed in their report, Sweeney said: “I seriously don’t think anything’s being ignored. ….I’m sorry they feel things are not moving at the rate they’d like.” However, protocol requires that the recommendations be approved by the county’s Operations Committee, of which Sweeney and Pollack are not members.

“At the present time, we have no authority” to independently implement our recommendations, Philbrick said. Suit backed Philbrick’s comments.

Veterans’ Day services are scheduled Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. at Memorial Hall, 211 N. Main St.

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