Editor’s note: What follows is strictly the opinion of the author and should not be viewed as an official endorsement from this newspaper. Official endorsements, which are determined and written by Editor & Publisher Frank Schier, can be found by clicking here.
Also, in the spirit of disclosure, this newspaper has endorsed Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey in previous elections, and as an attorney, Morrissey — along with Peter Alexander — successfully represented this newspaper in a libel lawsuit in 2004. Also, Michael Kleen served as an unpaid columnist for this newspaper for a short period of time before announcing his candidacy for mayor.
By Brandon Reid
Dear, “miserable” Rockford — the time for change has come. The “Good Ol’ Boys Club” that has ruled this city for decades has gotten us nowhere, except on a list of worsts (Forbes’ third most miserable city, Money magazine’s least livable places and 24/7 Wall Street’s ninth most dangerous city, among other rankings over the years).
In the past decade, poverty within the city of Rockford has more than doubled, while the unemployment rate has remained above 10 percent the past five years. The violent crime rate is among the highest in the country, crumbling roads continue to criss-cross the city and the high school dropout rate has led Rockford’s public schools to become known as “dropout factories” (although improvements may be coming with new Rockford Public School District 205 leadership).
Corruption, croynism and greed have all contributed to the misery of Rockford, and those have been the main tenets upheld by the “Good Ol’ Boys Club.”
When first elected to office in 2005 as an Independent, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey — then 35 — appeared to be the breath of fresh air Rockford needed. His promise of “Excellence Everywhere, Excellence for Everyone” and his plan for “Roads, Rail and Riverfront Development” seemed to be the answer to many of our needs. However, two terms later, despite the mayor’s best efforts and a series of beautification and redevelopment projects, the same challenges that faced the city when Morrissey took office continue to haunt this city today.
Additionally, one matter that has haunted Morrissey’s campaign in this election has been that of tax-increment financing (TIF) funds given by the city to Morrissey Realty Group — the company the mayor helped found prior to his election and the company that is now run by the mayor’s family. The TIF money was allocated by the city for redevelopment of the Lundstrom-Peterson property, 401-411 Seventh Street, to the Midtown Lofts.
Morrissey Realty Group and developer Chandler Anderson were reportedly given a total of $800,000 in TIF funds in 2010 to redevelop the property. Of that, $400,000 was spent to purchase the property. However, when pressed to answer where the remaining $400,000 went, the mayor has failed to answer the question. As reported by Editor & Publisher Frank Schier, city representatives and Morrissey family representatives have said they will release the details of the remaining $400,000 some time prior to the election. UPDATE: The city released details April 5 that showed the project exceeded city funding by $186,005.93. Click here to read details.
When presented with the question by Republican mayoral candidate Michael Kleen during a March 21 Rockford mayoral candidate forum streamed live online by the Rockford Register Star, Morrissey went on the defensive, telling Kleen it was “outrageous” that he would use “rumor and innuendo to base that kind of baloney statement you just made.” Morrissey added that the project was approved under a prior administration, and he, personally, has had no involvement in the management of Morrissey Realty Group properties since prior to first being elected mayor in 2005. However, worth noting is that the TIF funds were distributed in 2010, during Morrissey’s second term. Anderson’s Icon Development Group also declared bankruptcy in October 2011.
Morrissey went on to state that no one in his family has ever received special treatment from the city since he was elected mayor. Specifically, he referenced that his brother-in-law was laid off by the city and he did nothing to stop the move, despite it making him unpopular around the house. He also said the development agreement is managed by city staff, not the mayor’s office.
“If you’re accusing me of illegal conduct, again, I’d like to see the facts as opposed to rumors, because I think that’s outrageous,” Morrissey concluded.
For the mayor to not be able to answer where TIF funds have gone — whether he or his family is involved with the project or not — is completely unacceptable and shows a lack of knowledge on the mayor’s part of how taxpayer money is being spent.
Kleen has stated that if elected mayor he would ask the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to investigate the matter. What is evident without investigation is that the Seventh Street property remains in a state of complete disrepair. Even years after the TIF funds were awarded to Morrissey Realty Group and Anderson, the building is literally crumbling. Piles of bricks litter the area, with more appearing ready to crash from the building to the ground (let’s hope no one is nearby when they do). And many windows are broken out, with one of them filled by a Morrissey campaign sign. This is certainly not an example of “Excellence Everywhere, Excellence for Everyone,” Mr. Mayor.
“Excellence Everywhere” has also not been very evident with regard to crime in the city. In fact, crime and the need for the Rockford Police Department to move from its current headquarters inside the Public Safety Building (PSB) have been the big issues of this campaign.
Morrissey supports moving from one central headquarters to three district headquarters and instituting a geopolicing plan. He also has repeatedly said during his campaign that he supports a “partnership” approach to crime that includes “cops, courts, corrections and community.” While a catchy campaign slogan, this seems to have little substance behind it and is little more than common sense.
Democrat Jim Hughes, a former alderman and county board member and current Winnebago County director of development services, seems to support buying a little more time by splitting the cost of staying at the current PSB with the county. He also has suggested geopolicing could be accomplished from one central headquarters, as opposed to three buildings.
Kleen, a book publisher and author of several books about the history behind Illinois folklore and ghost stories who moved here from Des Plaines five years ago, supports hiring more police. Kleen noted he was not against geopolicing, but believed staffing the police force was the greater priority and also viewed the mayor’s plan of purchasing the three buildings as astronomical in cost. Kleen has also said that if elected he would ask for Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson’s resignation and hire a new police chief.
Both Hughes and Kleen have been critical of the mayor for not sharing with the public the details of his geopolicing plan and how the city would pay for it. In response to Kleen and Hughes, Morrissey said that although all of the small details of the geopolicing plan had yet to be determined, the plan aims to have three district headquarters — one in a building on Seventh Street, one in the Henrietta School building (which the city owns) and one on the east side.
Morrissey also has said that despite both Kleen and Hughes suggesting the city could not afford the three buildings and did not have the staffing level necessary to meet the needs of geopolicing, geopolicing could be accomplished under the current public safety budget and with current public safety staffing.
The discussion about public safety and geopolicing became so heated in the race that the Morrissey campaign filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Elections (ISBE) against the Rockford police union, Police Benevolent & Protective Association (PBPA) No. 6, and Hughes alleging the PBPA and Hughes engaged in illegal campaign electioneering involving television and radio ads that attacked Morrissey’s administration. The ISBE ruled March 27 that it would not take any action against the Hughes campaign. However, the ISBE sided with Morrissey in its final ruling, issued Thursday, April 4.
In a press release about the complaint, Morrissey stated: “We’re simply asking for a level playing field. These ads attack me and my administration directly without disclosing the funding source. The PBPA has ‘endorsed’ the ads, but there is no indication whether the PBPA is the actual organization funding the ads.”
This complaint represents one of Morrissey’s greatest weaknesses. Instead of working with groups such as the PBPA in a respectful manner, or even in a disrespectful manner behind closed doors, he takes his disagreements public in attempts to sway public opinion and play hardball with his opposition. In other words, he puts politics before leadership. In this case, he has fractured relations between the city and the police union, and essentially driven a wedge between Police Chief Chet Epperson and the police union. Completely ineffective leadership.
We have seen this ineffective leadership repeatedly in Morrissey’s workings with both the police and fire unions, and at other times throughout his mayorship. Instead of working for a consensus and then using that consensus to push through his initiatives, Morrissey pounds his initiatives down people’s throats — seemingly telling them they just need to go along with what he says because he knows best. And if you don’t go along with what he says, there will be consequences. Such arrogance and use of scare tactics is uncalled for and is representative of the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” we hoped to get away from when Morrissey was first elected.
This behavior was evident as far back as Morrissey’s first term when he attempted to shove home rule down the public’s throat. Instead of using the mayor’s office to spend time building a community-wide consensus behind the issue, Morrissey came out swinging during his first term, meeting with campaign advisers behind closed doors and attempting to persuade the public into just going along with what he said. Clearly, the results of that failed effort were a lesson learned in what kind of leader we had elected.
As mayor, Morrissey represents a city ravaged by unemployment and crime. With regard to unemployment, the Rockford metro area’s unemployment rate stood at 13.4 percent in February, up from 13 percent in February 2012. However, worth noting is that although the unemployment rate increased in the past year and is still the second highest in the state, Rockford produced jobs at a faster rate per capita than any of the 11 other metropolitan areas in the state between February 2012 and February 2013. During that time, Rockford created 3,200 jobs, which is a 2.2 percent increase. Morrissey deserves some credit for the 3,200 new jobs.
With regard to crime, at a time when the city and the police need to show a united front against crime, Morrissey has been divisive and corrosive — all for his own political gain. He has put the city against the police and put his own police chief against the police union. It is no wonder the crime rate is out of control when it appears the criminal element is more organized and united than our city’s leadership and police. This is unacceptable.
In short, Morrissey has not been the breath of fresh air we had hoped for. His leadership style is often aggressive and divisive, and his associations with campaign financiers suggests he may, in fact, have been a member of the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” all along.
Our March 6-12, 2013, article, “Morrissey contributor owns property near new downtown sports complex,” received the following response from one city leader: “Thanks for the f—job on the mayor.” The article detailed how Morrissey campaign contributor SupplyCore, Inc., owned a number of properties near a new amateur sports complex set to open in fall 2014 in the former Ingersoll building, 301-401 S. Madison St., in downtown Rockford. The article included absolutely no opinion — only facts.
The article stated: “The Winnebago County Treasurer’s tax parcel database showed that Madison Street Properties, LLC — operated by SupplyCore — owns properties listed at 1XX N. Madison St., two properties on South Madison Street, one on North Madison Street, 307 Walnut St., 323 Walnut St., and two listings for 220 S. Madison St. All of the properties are across the street from or within blocks of the new sports complex.”
The article also stated that “The Illinois State Board of Elections’ campaign disclosure website (elections.il.gov) shows SupplyCore, Inc., has given more than $150,000 in contributions, in-kind donations, services and loans to Morrissey’s campaign since 2001. …
“Morrissey’s most recent D-2 quarterly report of contributions indicates his campaign, ‘Citizens for Morrissey,’ owes a total of $28,700 in debt to SupplyCore, Inc. The debt is in relation to loans given April 1, 2005 (original amount was $20,000) and May 23, 2005 (original amount was $13,500). Citizens for Morrissey has paid a total of $4,800 toward the debt.”
While one could certainly view the article as an attempt to show cronyism between Morrissey and SupplyCore, one could also just as easily view the article as an example of a public-private partnership working in tandem to revitalize downtown. Not necessarily a “f—job,” depending on how you view the article.
However, tight relations between Morrissey and his campaign contributors have been evident in other areas as well, and this should give voters and taxpayers reason for concern. Morrissey’s campaign has raised $52,136 in this campaign cycle. Notable contributors have also included First Rockford Group Founder and President Sunil Puri and Joseph Behr & Sons, Inc.
Hughes’ campaign is also not immune from the possible influence of campaign contributor greed on his administration. His campaign has raised $36,197.50, with controversial former Winnebago County Sheriff Donald Gasparini being a contributor to his campaign, donating $4,505. Other notable contributors include various unions, Carl Scandroli and the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association.
Although relations between campaign contributors and elected officials is commonplace in today’s political landscape, taxpayers and voters would be better served never having to wonder whether their elected officials work for them, their campaign contributors, their family members or themselves. This is one very large reason to vote for Michael Kleen in this election.
Kleen has raised about $1,233 in individual contributions, and loaned his own campaign $1,514.73. Instead of campaign contributions, Kleen has been seeking votes in this election. And votes are what should be important in our democratic election process, as opposed to money.
While one could view Kleen’s lack of campaign contributions as a sign he may be a weak candidate, one could also view it as an attempt by the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” to keep the newcomer with new ideas and no associations from wrecking their precious club. Kleen could not even get the support of many in his own party in this election because they would rather back “Good Ol’ Boys” Morrissey and Hughes. Morrissey and Hughes, meantime, have far too many associations with campaign contributors to be completely trusted.
Kleen, 31, seems to be the people’s candidate. He cares about people, not politics, and is educated, smart, humble and capable. Born in Chicago and raised in the northwest suburb of Des Plaines, he has both a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in history from Eastern Illinois University, and a master’s degree in education from Western Illinois University. He moved to Rockford in 2008.
Kleen is mindful and respectful of others, and seems to have the makings of a responsible leader. His idea of government putting needs before wants is truly refreshing after eight years of beautification projects that, although possibly well-intentioned, have failed to revitalize this community. He also has said he would call for a complete forensic audit of the city’s 32 tax increment financing (TIF) districts, which is long overdue and should be among his first orders of business if elected.
Kleen’s call for a new police chief also seems prudent, as relations between the chief and the rank-and-file of the police union have clearly been fractured by the Morrissey administration. We absolutely need a united front against crime, and it would be good to start with a clean slate. And his idea of more police over more buildings makes sense.
Kleen may lack experience, but let’s not forget Morrissey had never held elected office prior to being elected mayor in 2005. Furthermore, political experience in this town is not always necessarily a good thing. This could represent a further detriment to Hughes, whose previous political associations could be of concern. Additionally, having already served various roles with both the county (board member, administration member) and city (councilman), Hughes has had many opportunities to make a difference in this community. Keep him at the county, where he seems to relish his role as director of development services. In fact, he seems to relish the role so much that many of his plans for the city also seem to benefit the county. He is running for mayor of Rockford, not county board chairman. Beyond that, everything else about Hughes seems largely to be against whatever Morrissey is for. Not too original.
One area of disappointment with Kleen is his view that investing in the rebuilding of West State Street is a misappropriation of funds. Nothing could be further from the truth. The west side has been neglected for decades, and the investment is more than justified. One would hope Kleen would continue to expand investment on the city’s west side if he is elected. It is encouraging he is holding his April 3 (7 p.m.) campaign pep rally at Veterans Memorial Hall, 211 N. Main St., on the west side of downtown, as opposed to an east-side venue.
Many in this community complain endlessly about how bad Rockford is, how nothing ever changes and how they are sick of the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” running everything. Well, Rockford, here’s your chance to put your vote where your mouth is — vote for real change April 9, vote for Michael Kleen. Kleen has integrity and class, and he will one day make us proud if we elect him our next mayor. And if you are one of those complainers and you choose to vote otherwise — for “Good Ol’ Boys” Morrissey or Hughes — don’t be surprised if you are still complaining about a lack of change when the next mayoral election rolls around in 2017.
Posted April 3, 2013