‘The Rock River Times’ celebrates 25 years — part 2
By Susan Johnson
We continue the account of The Rock River Times’ 25 years of news reporting and community contributions in the region, highlighting some of the paper’s most notable accomplishments.
TRRT probes the school district
In 2010, TRRT Staff Writer Joe McGehee began a series of investigative articles probing the disturbing reports of a conflict between Rockford School District Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield and Auburn High School Principal Dr. Patrick Hardy. In our Oct. 13-19, 2010, issue, McGehee wrote: “Nearly two months after The Rock River Times first submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request Aug. 18 to obtain a copy of an unflattering letter written by former Rockford Auburn High School Principal and current Freeport High School Principal Dr. Patrick Hardy, the letter remains unread by Rockford taxpayers.
“Rockford Public School District 205’s legal department has refused to make the letter public as of press time. The letter was written by Hardy in response to District 205 Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield’s letter titled ‘Separation of Employment,’ dated June 17, 2010.”
In following weeks, TRRT published updates on our efforts to obtain the requested information. Oct. 20-26: “District 205 yet to release unflattering letter.” Nov. 3-9: “Board of Education says little about battle over unflattering letter,” requesting comments from Board of Education President David Kelley. In the same issue: “Public must take stand in battle for unflattering letter,” an editorial by Assistant Editor Brandon Reid.
Nov. 10-16: “Preliminary hearing in IPA, TRRT suit against District 205 Feb. 2,” stating that Judge Edward Prochaska would hear preliminary arguments against District 205 and Sheffield by the Illinois Press Association and TRRT. Nov. 17-23: “Watchdog group responds to District 205 superintendent’s remarks,” a guest column by Watchdogs for Ethics in Education.
The Nov. 24-30 issue addressed “The responsibility of credible reporting and public trust,” by Joe McGehee and Editor & Publisher Frank Schier responding to radio station WNTA’s posting of “the Dr. Hardy Letter” without first seeking permission. Then, the district released the Hardy letter, which we published in three parts: Dec. 1-7, Dec. 8-14 and Dec. 15-21. Joe McGehee reported, “In a District 205 release, Chief Communications Officer Mark Bonne stated: ‘Superintendent LaVonne Sheffield decided to make the letter public after being informed by Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP that the Public Access Counselor (PAC) for the Illinois Attorney General has issued a verbal opinion that Dr. Hardy’s letter does fall within the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] exemption regarding disciplinary documents, a distinction not previously addressed.’”
In April 2011, Dr. Sheffield resigned her position as superintendent of the Rockford School District.
The Rock River Trail Initiative
Editor & Publisher Frank Schier is the founder of the Rock River Trail, a project he initiated in February of 2010, hoping to establish a trail that would run from the source of the Rock River in Lake Koshkonong, Wis., down through central Illinois to its mouth on the Mississippi at the Quad Cities. Other crucial partners and consultants include Greg Farnham, Rock River Trail Initiative coordinator in Juneau, Wis.; Wisconsin DNR State Trails Coordinator, Bureau of Parks and Recreation Brigit Brown; Illinois DNR Grand Illinois Trail Coordinator & Acting Region 1 Landscape Architect George Bellovics, IDNR Greenways and Trails Outreach Coordinator Amy Madigan; and U.S. National Park Service Officers Angie Tornes and Diane Banta.
Our “Community News and Notes” of April 21-27, 2010, reported: The Rock River Times and the Rock River Trail project extend their sincere appreciation to the Winnebago County Geographic Information System (WinGIS) and its officers for creation of the first digital maps of the Rock River presented at the historic First Annual Rock River Trail conference April 16-17 at Best Western Clock Tower Resort & Conference Center. Many thanks are still due to WinGIS Director Burnie Turner, Database Administrator Tawane Burke, Programmer Steve Gregg and 911 GIS Tech Sarah Brown. Their efforts were and still are greatly appreciated.
That conference and the one that followed in 2011 were historic because they were the first instances of representatives of all the villages, towns, cities, counties, and many regional, state and even federal organization on the Rock River gathering together in one place to address our most important common geographic, historic, cultural, economic and environmental asset.
With the motto, “Hike it! Bike it! Kayak it! Canoe it!”, all 157 access points along the entire river have been catalogued and classified, and signs have been placed along the trail to encourage tourism. This year, the opening of the Janesville and Beloit section of the Rock River Water Trail took place Sept. 12 in Wisconsin, and Sept. 13 in Illinois. As Greg Farnham reported in our Sept. 12-18 issue, “These openings follow sections of the Rock River Water Trail opening in Waupun, Horicon, Mayville and Janesville, Wis., and Cleveland, Ill. Trail signs for campsites and dam portages have been erected in Winnebago and Ogle County, with plans nearing completion to open various sections in those counties as well as Dixon in Whiteside County.” Rock River Trail signs were erected on Rockford’s Jefferson and Chestnut Street bridges Oct. 3, and the Dixon section was opened Oct. 12.
Frank Schier was a featured speaker at the Sept. 26-28 Fifth Annual Mississippi River Conference at Stoney Creek Inn and Western Illinois University Riverfront campus in Moline, Ill. Schier gave a presentation on “Three Trails in One: Drive it, Hike it, Canoe it.”
Some 4-by-8 signs warning kayakers and canoeists to move to the east shore of the river to portage the Fordham Dam were installed by Rock River Enterprises and Barge, Inc. Another 4-by-8 sign giving Park District phone numbers to call for transportation around the dam were installed next to the boat launch at the Prairie Street Brewhouse and the Riverview Ice House. Schier expressed appreciation to Rockford Public Works Director Tim Hanson and his staff for their help in getting the signs out. “The City Council, Mayor Morrissey and City Administrator Jim Ryan’s support and donation of more than $6,000 of signs to the trail has been crucial,” Schier added. “They have reaffirmed by their commitment and actions that Rockford and Winnebago County are the founding city and county of the Rock River Trail.”
Our Nov. 2-8, 2011 issue reported that the Rock River Trail Initiative named its council members and advisers. TRRT Editor and Publisher Frank Schier, founder of the trail initiative, and Greg Farnham, commissioner of Lake Sinissippi Improvement District, Hustisford, Wis., serve as coordinators. Ten residents were selected to represent the six Illinois counties of Winnebago, Ogle, Lee, Whiteside, Henry and Rock Island. Seven Wisconsin residents represent the five counties of Fond du Lac, Dodge, Jefferson, Dane and Rock.
Farnham and Schier made presentations to the Wisconsin and Illinois DNR trails committees and many civic organizations along the entire river in the last year and a half. They garnered more than 110 letters of support and consent from all the counties and cities on the river, as well as their park districts, tourism and civic organizations, with the assistance of the RRTI council members.
“In August, our coordinator Greg Farnham and RRTI Council Member David Schreiber, principal of Schreiber/Anderson Associates in Madison, Wis., really created a life’s-work achievement in 2012. They created the ‘Rock River Water Trail: Illinois and Wisconsin, Inventory, Analysis and Plan.’ It is an impressive body of work, and is probably the most complete work of its sort in the country. This assertion was first made by RRTI Council Member Tom Lindblade, president of the Illinois Paddling Council, who himself has been involved with the creation of many water trails. Everyone should go to www.rockrivertrail.com and click on the flashing red title to see their landmark work. The plan’s depth is amazing. The entire council is very proud of them.
“Most significantly, we have received our final letters of support from both the Wisconsin and Illinois Departments of Natural Resources. Those letters and the plan were included in our Oct. 23 application to the U.S. Department of the Interior for National Trail Status for the Rock River Trail. They probably will give a decision in the first half of 2013. If granted, the Rock River Trail will be on the same status level as the Ice Age Trail and Appalachian Trail, but we’ll be a water trail like the Lake Michigan Trail, “ Schier concluded. “This means potentially much more than most realize for the local economies and environments of our backyard river and all of its natives.”
We’d also like to thank Mike Werckle for his fine efforts in updating our website: www.rockrivertrail.com.
Environmental concerns in Winnebago County
The Rock River Times has also expressed concerns about the environmental objectives of the Winnebago County 2030 Land Management Resource Plan not being followed by the county board. As reporter Stuart R. Wahlin wrote in our June 9-15, 2010 issue, “In March, the board voted 22-5 to disregard years of work that led to a policy strongly encouraging that new developments connect to public sewer and water … Even as the 2030 plan was in development, this publication recognized the fundamental difference between requiring and merely recommending responsible development.” Editor & Publisher Frank Schier concurred, stating, “The power is in the language,” when he addressed his concerns to Zoning Committee members. More discussion was sure to follow, but as Wahlin wrote, “Starting off on the wrong foot with the new 2030 plan, that poor decision is already haunting board members, and will continue for many moons to come. The arbitrary nature of such decisions is bound to cost taxpayers, too.”
For his two years of work on the 2030 plan, Schier received the Atwood Award and the Sinnissippi Audubon Environmentalist of the Year Award. Schier returned both of the awards because of the failure of the local “supposed” environmental advocates and groups to oppose the county’s ordinance allowing industrial wind installations in agricultural and environmentally-sensitive areas. “Where is everyone else’s courage? I was played, set up as the hit man, while everybody else hid and then deliberatly stood away,” said Schier. “The 2030 plan is a bad joke with no real punch line for strong zoning protection, and it’s not backed up by people who mouth ‘Green’ but really just wear it and sip drinks of that color, fashionably, of course.”
Still more environmental concerns came to light when evidence of pollution around the former Amerock plant surfaced. In September 2011, contributing writer Richard S. Gubbe began a series of articles documenting toxic waste dumping in the area west of Central Avenue and north of Auburn Street on Rockford’s west side. Residents Roger Hare and LaVern Benjamin had both experienced many health problems and been told by doctors that they had less than two years to live. The source was chemical exposure from many years ago when they played in the creek behind the Amerock plant.
As Gubbe reported, “The Rock River Times has interviewed a dozen witnesses independently who confirmed the area has been a toxic wasteland for nearly 55 years, a place where garbage was dumped and where toxic chemicals poured into Kent Creek and into the fields behind and around the Northwest Community Center.”
As the investigation continued, TRRT, with assistance from a local metal detector enthusiast, discovered metallic material below the ground around the NWCC and the fields north of Kent Creek near the border of Searls Park.
The series reported that from 1956-1974, “Amerock Co. had a blatant disregard for the waters that flowed in Kent Creek, the land around the factory and the residents who lived there, according to allegations made by former employees.”
Successive articles documented that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) launched two investigations, one into groundwater pollution in the area reported earlier, and the other into allegations of environmental pollution by Amerock. Gubbe wrote, “The announcement of the investigation comes as a result of a series of articles by The Rock River Times (TRRT). Most recently, our investigation revealed five drainage leads from Amerock to Kent Creek.”
More articles followed: “Dumping, storing of highly toxic chemicals alleged inside Amerock,” Oct. 5-11; “IEPA confirms well water contamination,” Oct. 12-15; “IEPA releases well contamination information,” Oct. 26-Nov. 1; “IEPA conducts geoprobe tests around Amerock plant,” Nov. 2-8, “Heavy metals found under Northwest Community Center land,; IEPA probe continues,” July 25-31, 2012.
One of the sources of the pollution was reportedly tracked to underground tanks of former and existing area gas stations.
TRRT wins two IPA awards
The continuing in-depth coverage of an environmental issue with far-reaching consequences was recognized in Springfield. In June 2012, Illinois’ top newspapers were honored at the Illinois Press Association’s (IPA) annual convention, in which more than 100 daily and non-daily newspapers competed in 36 editorial categories.
TRRT entered two categories for 2011, both for its series on the toxic contamination of the neighborhood around the Amerock plant. TRRT took first place in the Class 6 six-division “News Reporting — Series.” The Division C First Place Award went to TRRT contributing writer Richard S. Gubbe for the series on “Toxic Waste Dumping.” The review of the entry included: “Outstanding investigative reporting. Excellent example of reporting, tracking down numerous sources. Covered a variety of angles.”
In a separate three-category University of Illinois’ Best Investigative/Enterprise Reporting Division B, TRRT and Gubbe took second place. The review of the Amerock toxic waste dumping and well contamination series read: “Culling a tip from attending a public meeting, the newspaper uncovered evidence of the dumping of a toxin into a water supply of a neighborhood. It also discovered alarming cancer illnesses in the neighborhood. The reporting led to government and government-funded water connection of homes in the neighborhood to city water.”
Sensata employees at ‘Bainport’
Since October 2012, TRRT has been following developments at the encampment called “Bainport” outside Freeport’s Sensata Technologies plant, owned by Bain Capital. Ever since the company announced it would be moving the jobs of 170 workers to China, and that the displaced workers had to train their replacements, tensions have run high. Several protest demonstrations have been held, petitions signed, and much community support has come in for the workers. Since Bain Capital was originally owned by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, many appeals were made to him to help the displaced workers. However, he has repeatedly stated that he left the company in 1999.
Other stories covered by TRRT include: various Rockford Art Museum exhibits; arts events such as the Greenwich Village Art Fair; Fall ArtScene; the “Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair with Guitars & Music” exhibit at Burpee Museum of Natural History; music programs presented by Charlotte’s Web, Mendelssohn PAC, Rockford Symphony Orchestra and others; questions raised about the clear-cutting of pine trees in Roland Olson, Pecatonica River and Fuller Memorial Forest Preserves; the resignation of Winnebago County Forest Preserve District Board President Randy Olson; and various articles on how to improve education in Rockford School District 205.
Look for upcoming commentary on these topics and others by Assistant Editor Brandon Reid and Schier during their tenure with this paper, and look for columns of other writers you have seen in our pages in the past 25 years.
Most importantly, we always look forward to hearing from you, our readers, as many of our story ideas come from you and are always presented in your best interests. Happy 25th anniversary!
Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this article.
From the Nov. 21-27, 2012, issue
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