Top 10 local stories from a year many are glad to put behind them
By Stuart R. Wahlin
While most in the following list of top stories from 2009 are in no particular order, one in particular clearly stands alone on the highest rung. Having ignited a controversy throughout the community and beyond, the shooting death of Mark Anthony Barmore by police in a church basement on Rockford’s northwest side is destined to endure as a top newsmaker in 2010 as well.
A city divided
Barmore, an unarmed 23-year-old African-American, was shot to death by white police officers Aug. 24, which appears to have widened the city’s racial divide in the days since.
Sought in connection with an alleged domestic disturbance involving a knife, Barmore was chased by officers Stan North and Oda Poole into Kingdom Authority International Ministries, 518 N. Court St., where a daycare was in session in the church basement.
Officers had reportedly been advised Barmore might be armed before cornering the suspect in a basement boiler room he had barricaded himself in. The moments that followed were to become the subject of much scrutiny by civil rights crusaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In a statement to police, 17-year-old Marissa Brown, daughter of the church’s pastor, alleged Barmore surrendered peacefully, emerging from the boiler room with his hands raised and head down.
The officers reported, however, that Barmore tried to wrestle Poole’s service firearm away, and that North fired at Barmore during the deadly struggle.
Dec. 23, a grand jury determined officers North and Poole were justified in exercising deadly use of force. They remain on desk duty pending the conclusion of an independent administrative review, however.
The grand jury ruled that physical evidence and testimony by at least one other witness were not consistent with Brown’s statement.
Brown and mother Sheila, who had also been present, were subpoenaed to provide sworn testimony during the grand jury hearing, but did not appear. As a result, State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato (D) asked Judge Joseph McGraw (R) to hold them in contempt of court. Attorneys for the Browns, however, argued Jan. 4 that McGraw does not have such authority, because an appeal had been filed regarding his previous ruling not to reschedule their testimony until after the holidays. The case will resume Jan. 20.
Meantime, two civil lawsuits have been filed against the city and its officers.
A state proud and ashamed
In January 2009, Barack Obama (D), junior U.S. senator from Illinois, was sworn in as the nation’s first African-American president.
Taking the helm at a time of economic crisis, Obama launched a $787 billion federal stimulus package in an effort to counter the recession.
On Christmas Eve, the U.S. Senate passed a bill meant to overhaul the nation’s health care system. Making insurance available to millions of Americans not presently covered has been a priority in the first year of Obama’s term. As the new year begins, the Senate and House will try to reconcile their respective bills into one, but Republicans have vowed to oppose the government-run health plan from being passed into law.
Also in January 2009, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was unanimously impeached by state senators a month after being indicted on federal corruption charges.
Blagojevich is alleged to have auctioned Obama’s senate seat to the highest bidder, but has denied any wrongdoing.
As a result of the scandal, Blagojevich’s appointee, Roland Burris (D), faced resistance from senators, but was eventually seated as the only African-American in the U.S. Senate.
MetroCentre still on thin ice
Despite $23 million in tax dollars spent for renovations and acquisition of a hockey franchise in 2006—both meant to help make the MetroCentre competitive and self-sufficient—the arena was still unable to make ends meet on its own, even after an additional $2 million in help from the city in 2007.
In July, the city pledged $1.2 million for the MetroCentre’s 2010 fiscal year, plus $1.1 million and $1 million for 2011 and 2012, respectively. The council also agreed to take over the arena’s $486,000 annual debt service payments related to the renovation, which is in addition to the $912,000 the city already pays toward the construction bonds. Additionally, a $300,000 maintenance fund was established as part of the three-year deal.
In December 2009, the Rockford City Council secured $2.5 million for the struggling arena, because the MetroCentre was unable to obtain private financing on its own. Although MetroCentre leadership intends to make the related payments on the debt, the city is regarded by PNC Bank as the sole borrower.
Bumpy first semester for new superintendent
Prior to the start of the 2009-2010 academic year, Dr. LaVonne Sheffield was instated as Rockford Public School District 205’s new superintendent.
Her first semester proved to be a difficult one, however, after adjustments to the discipline code, as well as student violence and weapons violations.
Auburn High School and West Middle School were particularly troublesome schools, and Sheffield removed principals Richard Jancek and Thomas Schmitt from their posts, sparking protests and calls for her dismissal.
A Canadian National Railway train hauling ethanol derailed at a South Mulford Road crossing between Rockford and Cherry Valley June 19, resulting in a number of injuries and one death, for which a lawsuit has been filed.
Another lawsuit filed by the Illinois attorney general and Winnebago County resulted in Canadian National being ordered to pay more than $25,000 for environmental monitoring after the spill, which burned uncontrollably.
A sheriff’s deputy discovered a portion of tracks had been compromised after torrential rainfall, and the railway was reportedly notified of the potential danger before 12 cars derailed and burst into flames at the crossing.
Following the spill, more than 72,000 fish in the nearby Rock River died. Meantime, scientists continue working to determine the source of the fish kill.
Winnebago County was ordered to pay $17 million in settlements related to a 2006 fatal traffic accident involving a sheriff’s deputy.
Although Deputy Joseph Boomer was acquitted of criminal charges in 2008, civil lawsuits determined the county was liable in the crash that killed brothers Aaron and D.J. Bachman and left sister Kori permanently disabled.
The Bachmans’ vehicle was struck as they tried to cross West State Street at Weldon Road. Boomer was responding to a call at high speed without flashing lights or a siren when his squad car slammed into the Bachman vehicle.
The incident resulted in the drafting of a statewide bill called Bachman’s Law, which would require use of sirens and flashing lights during high-speed emergency responses. The bill passed in the Illinois House of Representatives, but stalled in the Illinois Senate.
The county’s $5 million insurance related to such liabilities wasn’t nearly enough to cover its court-ordered obligation, however. In December, the county board authorized a “backdoor referendum” to issue bonds.
According to the ordinance, however, voters could force the issue to a referendum in November if enough qualified signatures are collected on a petition and submitted to the county clerk within 30 days of published notice of the bond hearing. Notice for the Jan. 28 public hearing is expected to be published by Jan. 14.
Terror in Thomson?
The small northwestern Illinois community of Thomson is being eyed by the Obama administration as the new home for terrorism suspects detained at a naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The president has vowed to close the Cuban detention center.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) has offered to sell the relatively underutilized maximum-security correctional facility in Thomson to the federal government, despite predominantly Republican resistance to housing terror suspects on American soil.
Critics of the plan fear Illinois would become the target of terrorism, but supporters argue the move would bring needed jobs to the area.
As yet, no funds have been earmarked for the $150 million prison purchase, however.
Mall becomes Main Street again
After more than 30 years, the Main Street pedestrian mall downtown was removed as part of a streetscape project meant to bring continuity to the city’s cultural corridor.
Vehicular traffic resumed Dec. 18 on the two-block stretch of Main Street between Elm and Mulberry streets.
The city spent about $2 million for the project in 2009, but faced overruns related to underground utility vaults beneath the Main Street mall. City leaders plan to complete the project in 2010 by adding landscaping, lighting and other streetscape elements that couldn’t be afforded in 2009.
Local economy suffers more than most
By the end of 2009, Rockford’s unemployment rate exceeded 15 percent.
As the City of Rockford’s revenues continued to decline amid the recession, so did its ability to keep about 30 of its workers employed. Additionally, furloughs and wage freezes were implemented as the city tries to ride out the economic storm.
The city council averted further layoffs in October by agreeing to raise garbage fees by $3 to save public safety jobs.
Ending 2009 with an estimated $4 million general fund deficit, city leaders await word from a budget advisory group that will make recommendations for shoring up a $7.6 million shortfall projected for 2010.
Wind farm blows into Winnebago County
In October, the Winnebago County Board approved an ordinance that paved the way for Minneapolis-based Navitas Energy to expand its wind farm project by 40 turbines at the confluence of Winnebago, Ogle and Stephenson counties.
Adoption of the ordinance came after a long battle over whether such projects should be classified as a special use or a permitted use. The board opted for the latter, which means other wind power endeavors will not require individual public hearings for approval.
Labor groups strongly supported the proposal in the name of putting people back to work, while environmentalists concerned about migratory flight patterns and other protections remained relatively silent and disorganized.
A last-minute attempt by board member Paul Gorski (D-5) to send the issue back to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for further review failed. Among other reasons, Gorski argued that new information—from the petitioner and others—had been considered by board members. By law, only evidence before the ZBA may be weighed by the board in making its decision.
As a result, at least one lawsuit was rumored, but none has been filed.
From the Jan. 6-12, 2010 issue
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