The year 2019 saw much gained and lost in area communities.
Among the gains: A new school was built in Paxton, a new event was started in Paxton to celebrate gay pride, and plans were made for a new outdoor swimming pool in Gibson City.
Among the losses: The construction of the new Paxton school meant an old one being torn down. Also, three longtime current or former police officers passed away in 2019, and toward the end of the year there was a double-homicide in Iroquois County, followed by the suspect taking his own life in Colorado.
While change did occur, some of the other notable headlines from 2019 in the Ford County Record were about stories that carried over from years past — and that should continue to make the news in 2020.
Such stories included the seemingly never-ending debate amongst Ford County Board members about revising the regulations for wind farms, the discrimination lawsuit against the TimberCreek Bed & Breakfast, and the ongoing legal wrangling by an alleged terrorist from Clarence.
Here are the top 10 news stories of 2019, as selected by Ford County Record Editor Will Brumleve:
#1 — Old school torn down after new one opens
From May through December, the demolition of the 94-year-old former PBL Eastlawn School building at 341 E. Center St. in Paxton drew plenty of news coverage.
For much of that time, the coverage was about the efforts of some community members to see the historic building — which was deemed eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places — saved rather than torn down as planned by the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district.
The coverage also focused on some controversy — specifically, the district not obtaining a permit for the demolition project from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Some community members, plus the nonprofit organization Landmarks Illinois, contended that such a permit would be required, given that the scope of excavation appeared to exceed 1 acre based on the bid specifications.
However, after that was brought to the attention of PBL officials, a new plat of the property was suddenly completed by a land surveyor showing the scope of work would be 0.99 acres — just barely under the threshold for the IEPA permit.
The reason the permit requirement — or lack thereof — was such a hot topic was because of the fact that if no permit would be required, neither would a review of the project’s adverse effect on historic resources by the State Historic Preservation Office.
PBL, of course, ended up avoiding both, and the building was torn down over the course of several weeks in November and December, with an empty lot left in its place.
Meanwhile, PBL Eastlawn School’s students moved in to a newly built two-story, 63,400-square-foot addition to Clara Peterson Elementary School’s east side in September.
“I’m excited for our students; I really am,” Cliff McClure, the school district’s superintendent, said in advance of the new school building opening. “I think our students are really going to enjoy this, and it will be something to be remembered. It will be a great memory.”
#2 — Wind-farm debate continues
Another year, of course, meant another year of debate by the Ford County Board about what new rules should be put in place for wind farms.
It was the second full year of discussion on the topic by the board’s zoning committee, which started meeting in fall 2017 to work on revisions to the county’s ordinance regulating wind farms. That same month, the board implemented a moratorium on the issuance of any new special-use permits for wind farms until the ordinance revisions were finalized.
In a Nov. 26 meeting, the chairman of the committee lashed out at his fellow members, telling them he was at his “wits’ end” over their continued nitpicking in drafting the revisions.
“I am literally at the end of my sitting here — seriously, though, not figuratively,” Randy Ferguson said. “I’m one meeting away from being done with this, because we’re worried about every little dot, crossing every ‘T’ — every little thing that might possibly happen someday ever, maybe. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.”
Ferguson was clearly frustrated by the lack of progress.
In December, yet another meeting resulted in little progress. There remained two contentious issues on which the board was unable to agree: (1) setbacks from properties containing no primary structure and (2) the required lighting on wind turbines.
Progress hopefully will be made on those two issues and any others that remain during another committee meeting that is expected to be scheduled during the full board’s next meeting on Jan. 13, 2020.
#3 — Gay pride on display
June 30 marked a historic day in Paxton. On that sunny Sunday, the inaugural Paxton LGBTQ Pride March was held.
At least 169 people from no fewer than 20 communities participated, gathering at Pells Park for an hour of music and mingling before marching down Orleans Street to the downtown area while displaying their LGBTQ pride or support.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Tyger McClure, the event’s organizer. “At first I thought there would maybe be a small group of 50 to 100 of us ... but I really had no idea it was going to explode.”
McClure decided to organize the event in his hometown because pride marches, while common in larger cities, have rarely, if ever, been done in a town of this size — and because no matter how small of a town it is, there are plenty of LGBTQ people who need some love and support.
“It’s important to have this here in a small community because this is where people come from,” McClure said. “We are here. We are here in Paxton. We are here in Loda, Ludlow, Hoopeston, Gibson City.”
McClure hoped to show through the event that there is indeed support for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people in Paxton and in other rural communities.
“You are showing them that there’s a community for them, that there’s love for them, even if they can’t find it in their immediate family or in their school or in their community,” McClure told the march’s participants before departing for the downtown from Pells Park.
“To be able to celebrate life with people who understand what you’ve been through is amazing,” McClure added. “Nobody could really understand (what an LGBTQ person experiences) unless they’ve been through it themselves.”
#4 — Double-homicide in Iroquois County
Tragedy struck not once but twice in Iroquois County on a single December weekend, when Matthew W. Borden allegedly killed two people before taking his own life following a high-speed chase with police in Colorado.
The 43-year-old Melvin man was suspected of killing Pamela Williams, 54, of Martinton, and Brian D. Musk, 50, of Milford.
At the time of the murders, Borden was wanted on a warrant by the U.S. Marshals Service for a probation violation. Borden had been put on five years of probation following his February 2017 release from federal prison; he had been sent to prison for robbing the Dewey State Bank on Oct. 7, 2006.
According to Eric Starkey, an investigator for the Iroquois County Sheriff’s Office, the two murder victims and Borden all “ran in the same circles,” but the motive for him shooting them to death remains undetermined.
“There’s a lot of information floating around out there,” Starkey said about speculation amongst the public. “You probably heard drugs had a part in this, but did it? It’s possible, but is that the sole reason? I think we’d just be guessing at this point.”
After a warrant was issued for his arrest in connection with the murders, Borden was found by Colorado police driving a stolen car. After a high-speed chase, Borden crashed, and he then fired at officers before taking his own life.
The two murders were the third and fourth to occur in Iroquois County since August. Prior to August, the county had not had even one homicide since 2016.
“It’s certainly something that you don’t see every day,” Starkey said.
#5 — B&B ordered by judge to pay up to same-sex couple
In what could be a final resolution to a case that has been making headlines for the past eight years, a judge in December ordered a bed-and-breakfast west of Paxton to comply with penalties imposed for discriminating against a same-sex couple in 2011.
The order entered in Ford County Circuit Court by Associate Judge Robert Travers requires the TimberCreek Bed & Breakfast to pay $30,000 to the couple, Todd and Mark Wathen of Tuscola, in damages for the emotional distress they suffered, along with $50,000 in attorneys’ fees and $1,218 in costs.
The B&B is also required to allow the Wathens access to its facility within one year for a ceremony celebrating their civil union, as well as to cease and desist from violating the Illinois Human Rights Act by discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.
Those penalties were originally imposed in 2016 by the Illinois Human Rights Commission, but the B&B refused to comply, resulting in a lawsuit being filed in October 2018 by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office on behalf of the Illinois Department of Human Rights.
The lawsuit asked the court to demand the B&B comply with the 2016 order of the commission, which determined the B&B discriminated against the Wathens based on their sexual orientation when the business’ co-owner, Jim Walder, refused to allow their civil union ceremony at his facility. In denying their request, Walder wrote an e-mail to the Wathens citing various biblical verses and denouncing homosexuality as “wrong and unnatural.”
Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which joined in the lawsuit as an intervenor on behalf of the Wathens, released the following statement following the ruling:
“On behalf of Todd and Mark, this ruling is welcome after so many years of delay. Most important, the ruling makes clear that violations of the Human Rights Act — after a fair process — must be respected by all parties. That sends a strong signal across the state of Illinois.”
#6 — Debate over allowing local cannabis sales
In summer 2019, village boards and city councils across the area began discussing the possibility of allowing — or instead banning — the sale of cannabis in their communities once recreational marijuana becomes legal to buy and use by adults in Illinois on Jan. 1, 2020.
Among the first to take up the topic at a formal meeting was the Paxton City Council. In August, the council’s license/permit/zoning committee agreed to wait to make a decision on the issue mainly because of uncertainty over two things: (1) how the law legalizing cannabis sales will end up looking after clarifications are made to it through an anticipated trailer bill and (2) how the community feels about the issue.
Aldermen also wanted more time to consider the pros and cons themselves.
“This body has had how many days since this (law) has been approved by the state in which to digest the information?” Alderman Rob Steiger asked rhetorically, adding that opinions vary widely among people in town with whom he has spoken.
“Also, I don’t think this is something that’s just straight-forward and can be decided all within the purview of this little committee right now because we don’t have the information from the state to say what’s going to happen (with clarifications to the law). ... It’s not fully hashed out (by the Legislature).”
Other communities, including Gibson City, have decided to take a wait-and-see approach, as well.
Municipalities are authorized to prohibit cannabis businesses under the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, but, so far, none in Ford County has taken that step. Instead, some — including Paxton — have implemented a 3 percent sales tax on recreational marijuana purchases that would be made in their town — but without making a decision yet on allowing or banning cannabis businesses.
“In passing the tax ordinance, we are not at all agreeing to allow it, ban it, or anything in between. We’re just simply making a protective revenue decision, I guess, if you will,” Paxton Alderman Rob Pacey said. “We can debate the economic development merits of it or the moral/social (issues) later, I guess.”
#7 — Alleged terrorist taking on judicial system
Throughout 2019, prosecutors and public defenders filed what seemed like an endless list of motions in the federal cases against domestic terrorism suspect Michael B. Hari, 48, of Clarence.
But still, the year ended without the former Ford County sheriff’s deputy standing trial in either Illinois or Minnesota for any of the numerous terrorist acts he allegedly committed as the purported leader of the homegrown domestic terrorism group known as the “White Rabbits.”
Hari’s two trials are tentatively set for next year.
Hari was one of four Clarence men — all believed to be members of the “White Rabbits” — charged in federal court in both Illinois and Minnesota in connection with alleged acts of terrorism, including the August 2017 firebombing of the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minn., and the attempted firebombing of the Women’s Health Practice in Champaign in November 2017.
Hari’s codefendants — Michael McWhorter, 30, Joe Morris, 23, and Ellis “E.J.” Mack, 19 — have pleaded guilty to various counts and are awaiting sentencing.
#8 — Settlement reached in wrongful-death lawsuit vs. jail
In June, a $2.2 million settlement was reached in a wrongful-death lawsuit brought in 2013 against Ford County, its sheriff and two county jail employees for failing to provide proper medical treatment to an inmate who later was found dead in his cell.
Under the terms of the settlement, the funds were to be given to the children of the late Richard J. Gonzalez.
The seven-count lawsuit alleged that correctional officers “failed and/or refused” to provide Mr. Gonzalez, a 30-year-old Hoopeston resident, with proper medical treatment for “serious medical needs” and instead locked him in a solitary padded cell. The lawsuit further alleged that jail staff conspired to cover up the circumstances surrounding his death in May 2012.
“We believe that if adequate medical care had been provided to Mr. Gonzalez, he would still be with us today,” said attorney Janine Hoft of the Chicago-based People’s Law Office, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Gonzalez’s estate.
#9 — New outdoor pool eyed in Gibson City
Gibson City officials moved forward in 2019 with plans to replace the city’s 99-year-old outdoor public swimming pool with a new outdoor pool featuring more amenities.
In June, city council members approved spending $10,000 for Champaign-based Fehr Graham to complete a preliminary feasibility study for the proposed pool. Earlier, a committee was formed to explore options for a new pool and unanimously recommended the council proceed with designing the new outdoor pool.
Plans call for the new pool to feature a lap area, diving area and walk-in area. It would also feature heated water, which would allow for the pool to open in May and close in September for a five-month operating schedule instead of the current three-month period.
The committee visited several pools to gather ideas for the new pool’s proposed design. Committee members took trips to indoor facilities in Pontiac, Flanagan and Champaign, as well as the outdoor pool at Lincolnshire Fields Country Club in Champaign.
Construction could begin in late summer or fall 2020 while the old pool is still open. The new pool is expected to be open in 2021.
#10 — Cops pass away
Among notable deaths in 2019 were the deaths of three current or former police officers.
On March 23, Tony Row, a 10-year veteran of the Gibson City Police Department, died after a nine-month battle with colon cancer. The 44-year-old Row was known to have treated everyone with respect, whether it was someone he was arresting or a senior citizen he was helping. Everyone seemed to respect him, too, as was evident following his untimely death.
“Arrestees, senior citizens, kids — everybody was treated with respect,” Gibson City Police Chief Adam Rosendahl said. “You won’t find anybody who has anything bad to say about Tony Row.”
On Aug. 26, Jim Brammer — whose 40-year career in law enforcement included stints as a police chief in Buckley and Onarga, a police officer in Cissna Park and Milford, and an Iroquois County sheriff’s deputy — died at the Gilman Health Care Center. He was 73.
During his 16 years in Buckley, Mr. Brammer was well liked and respected by adults and children alike.
“He was a police officer from a different era,” recalled former Buckley resident and Iroquois County sheriff’s deputy Doug Bluhm. “He could talk to kids and talk to adults. He was just an all-around great guy who just knew how to talk to people and solve problems. And he was never in a hurry. He took his time and sorted through problems. He didn’t rush through anything.”
On Dec. 8, former Paxton Police Chief Bob Bane died. He was 60.
Mr. Bane was the city’s police chief from May 2006 until August 2017. He previously served as the police department’s captain and a youth officer/patrolman for nearly 20 years.
Mr. Bane came to Paxton after working for several years as police chief of the LaSalle County city of Wenona.
Police officers and emergency personnel were joined by numerous city and county officials and residents in paying their respects to Mr. Bane at his graveside funeral service at Glen Cemetery in Paxton.