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Village Vision News

Board seeks answers

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Village Board votes to seek outside legal counsel to study school district repayment situation.

Village officials seek to unravel the confusion over an uncompleted repayment agreement with Maroa-Forsyth School District by hiring outside legal counsel to determine how the process broke down four years ago and what should happen next.

At their Oct. 3 Board meeting, trustees unanimously authorized Village Administrator Heather Kimmons to hire her choice of counsel to review all documents related to three intergovernmental agreements with the school district initiated in 2007. The chosen firm will also be asked to advise trustees on how to resolve the situation and address any possible legal ramifications.

At issue is the fact that a planned third agreement, to define the school district’s repayment to the Village for sales tax revenue used to build a new $15 million grade school that opened in the Village in 2009, was never finalized. Voters had been told in 2007 that their approval of a referendum to increase Forsyth’s sales tax by .05 percent would generate revenue to pay the school district’s bond payments for the new school but were also told that the money would be repaid to the Village by the school district. The total repayment agreement could have been for up to $25 million to include interest on the loan to the school district. To date, the Village has made payments to the school district totaling more than $3.5 million, complying with the terms of the first intergovernmental agreement between the two entities.

The failure to have a repayment plan agreement in place came to light after the school district approached the Village about entering into an additional agreement to purchase a parcel of land adjacent to the elementary school as a proposed site for the new middle school the district hopes to build within the next 15 years. In September, the district completed its purchase of the land where the new grade school sits, at an earlier agreed-upon price of $319,360, adjusted downward to $277,500 to account for the amount of infrastructure costs for development which the Village had previously agreed it “owed” to the district.

The Board’s Oct. 3 decision to seek outside counsel to help resolve the missing agreement followed a lengthy interactive discussion and commentary among Board members and several of the more than 20 residents who filled Village Hall that evening. Many residents urged for an independent investigation, including resident Julie Lakshmanan, who read the definition of “integrity” from a dictionary she had brought. “What happened here is an example of why people don’t trust government anymore,” said Resident Leo Morland, suggesting that the situation might be described in terms of “unethical … gross negligence … malpractice” on the part of Village’s current legal counsel in not shepherding the agreement to execution. Former trustee and Kimmons’ father, Don Van Lyssel, read a statement which in part said that as a new, part-time Board member in 2007, he had “relied on our Mayor and our long time professional Village Attorney, who has been involved throughout the entire process, to represent us while making proper judgments for the “win-win” conclusion we were told the agreement would represent.” He urged the Board to take time to “analyze what happened, learn from it and correct mistakes.”

Village Attorney Darrell Woolums spoke publicly that evening for the first time since the issue surfaced at the Sept. 6 Board meeting. He retraced his professional involvement with the Village, denied any involvement in negotiations with the school district and said all of his actions came from directions of the Village board, noting that he had no knowledge of why nothing happened after he presented a draft of the repayment agreement to the mayor. Woolums agreed that “the repayment part of it was always part of the plan,” and at one point declared “it’s a political issue, not a legal issue.”

In an interview after the meeting, Mayor Hap Gilbert noted that he was instrumental in bringing the issue of the missing agreement to light early last summer after the school district expressed interest in buying additional land from the Village.

“There was no collusion on the part of the [Village] Board or the school board to deceive,” he said. “The key focus was to find a way to build the [new grade] school without raising property taxes.”

He welcomed hiring outside counsel to study what happened. “I’m hoping that the independent counsel helps clarify some of these events and the timing of them. I do think there is a responsibility of both parties to explain.”

Gilbert said he was going through meeting minutes of that time period himself in the effort to find answers, and noted that the Village Board was dealing with “quite a few intense issues” at that time, but said that any Board member could have raised questions about the progress of the intergovernmental agreements at any time.

Two law firms under consideration

The choice of proper outside legal representation will be key in helping to sort out the options and ramifications related to the missing repayment agreement between the Village and Maroa-Forsyth School District.

“The issue is a confusing one for a lay person to understand,” said Village Administrator Heather Kimmons said in a interview. “It’s important to get an unbiased legal opinion as to the legal options here. My concern right now is making sure that the Village is well protected, and I’m flattered that the Board has placed its faith in me to select the firm for this investigation.”

Before the Oct. 3 Board meeting where the decision was made to pursue outside legal help, Kimmons, also an attorney herself, had talked with five or six law firms and narrowed the selection to two possibilities: Sorling, Northrup, Hanna, Cullen & Cochran Ltd., a Springfield firm, and Ancel, Glink, Diamond, Bush, DiCianni & Krafthefer P.C., which is headquartered in Chicago but has several satellite offices, including one in Bloomington. Both firms have looked at preliminary information she provided, and both noted that many legal and political issues were involved. While Kimmons said she was confident she could work with either firm, she said Ancel Glink is “… the best source for municipal law in the State of Illinois.”

Mayor Hap Gilbert reminded the Board that Ancel Glink is the same firm trustee Bob Rasho consulted in 2008 concerning a proposed Village ordinance intended to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the mayor and the Village administrator. Rasho sought to dismiss any suggestions of conflict of interest for the present legal work, saying he sought that firm’s legal advice as a private citizen and personally paid for its legal opinion. Rasho said Ancel Glink authored the original template ordinance from which he worked, and he selected the firm for their municipal expertise. The mayor accepted Rasho’s explanation and moved forward in support of Kimmons’ choice for legal counsel, which was left open to her choice of the two she recommended. At press time, Kimmons said she planned to make a decision by Oct. 7.

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