When cities trumpet the glories of their downtowns, they normally talk about such things as the number and variety of restaurants and stores, easy access from other parts of the city, even the availability of parking places. Here, however, we believe in “a different kind of greatness,” and I can see the ads now: “Come to downtown Rockford and stay a while. Enjoy the latest amenities, including a deluxe weight room and a whirlpool. Walk through our spacious tunnel to conduct your business at the Winnebago County Courthouse, sheltered from the weather. All this and more awaits you at the new Winnebago County Jail.”
Last month, I wrote about an inept power grab by a group of Winnebago County Board members and county officials that threatened St. Mary’s Oratory, Rockford’s second-oldest Catholic church, which, since 1997, has been home to a thriving Latin Mass community. I had hoped to be able to report this month that the church was safe. Capitalizing on local outrage generated by crusading radio talk-show host Chris Bowman and national publicity by Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, county-board member Mary Ann Aiello had succeeded in scuttling a resolution that would have expanded the land-aquisition area for the jail to include St. Mary’s. She substituted a measure allowing the Durrant Group, the architectural firm that the county hired to construct the new $93 million facility, to get permission from the diocese of Rockford to conduct a survey of St. Mary’s property. St. Mary’s lies directly between the current county courthouse and public-safety building, on the east, and the proposed jail site, on the west, and county officials have insisted that they need a tunnel to connect the new complex with the old. Aiello’s resolution, passed unanimously by the county board, removed St. Mary’s from the threat of acquisition until the Durrant Group reported the results of its survey back to the county board.
Or, at least, it should have. No one who has lived in Winnebago County for more than 30 days, however, should underestimate the power of what Rockford Register Star political editor Chuck Sweeny calls “TLBF”—Temporary Loss of Brain Function, an incurable disease suffered by “dozens of county leaders, elected and appointed.” TLBF flared up again on September 25, the very night Aiello’s resolution was passed, when the board—confronted with a $4.5 million county deficit and an impending county-employee strike—voted to take some of the money from the one-cent sales-tax increase that county voters had approved to finance the jail project and to use it to cover current shortfalls in the county’s public-safety budget. While Aiello and fellow county-board member John Terranova argued that this amounted to a betrayal of the voters who had supported the increase, the majority of the board seemed unconcerned.
As Chris Bowman later told me, “We knew something was going on when they reallocated money to prevent the budget cuts.” That “something” was revealed on October 1, when the Durrant Group presented the final concept study for the jail to the county board’s Public Safety Committee. Despite the fact that Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli and Sheriff Dick Meyers had agreed, while selling the referendum to the taxpayers, to reduce the size of the jail from 1,212 beds to 976, the final concept returned to 1,212. (The actual capacity may be even higher, since inmates in lesser-security sections could be double-bunked.) Indeed, the final concept turned out to be identical to Logli’s and Meyers’ “wish list,” which, at a public hearing in mid-September, they had claimed would be built only if their “wildest dreams” were fulfilled. Apparently, since the jail will be erected on Elm Street, they were counting on being able, like Freddy Krueger, to turn dreams into reality.
The final concept, which will come before the county board for a vote on October 23, also includes $3.75 million for a tunnel, even though the Durrant Group has told Mary Ann Aiello that they will not conduct the architectural survey of St. Mary’s property until after the board has voted. Moreover, Logli and Meyers have backed off on their initial claim that they would use the tunnel to transport prisoners. At the mid-September hearing, Meyers admitted that a tunnel would be unnecessary if the jail had four courtrooms (which it does in the final concept), and, on October 2, Logli stated that prisoners would be moved using surface transportation—the $3.75 million tunnel is for his convenience and for that of the public defender. Since Logli has repeatedly stated that the final decision on the project will be made by the county board, a cynic might suspect that the board is being set up: If the board approves the concept (including the tunnel) on October 23, what happens when the Durrant Group reports some time later that its survey shows that the only way to construct the board-approved tunnel at the board-approved price is to demolish St. Mary’s?
Some public figures, such as Chris Bowman and Chuck Sweeny, who put their reputations on the line to support the jail referendum are having second thoughts. After the final concept was presented to the Public Safety Committee, Bowman confronted Logli, who showed just how far his TLBF has advanced. “He told me to do something to myself that it is physically impossible to do,” Chris Bowman claims. The sheriff quickly joined in. “Meyers referred to me in unflattering terms,” Bowman says. “I’ll have you know, my parents were married.”
Ultimately, the problem, Bowman told me, “is just like the theme of so many of your columns—no leadership, and an arrogance of power. They don’t even know what they want power over.”
One thing that they clearly do not want is national exposure. After the board agreed to leave St. Mary’s (temporarily) untouched, the Catholic League said that they would continue to monitor the situation and would step back in if necessary. Bill Donohue, I hope you’re listening.