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Rock Island County Courthouse

The Rock Island County Courthouse

ROCK ISLAND — Six plaintiffs have joined together and filed suit against Rock Island County and the Rock Island County Public Building Commission in an effort to stop demolition of the courthouse, 210 15th St.

Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Rock Island Preservation Society, the Moline Preservation Society, the Broadway Historic District Association, and Frederick Shaw, one of the bondholders in the Justice Center Annex project, filed suit in Rock Island County late Wednesday.

The plaintiffs are being represented by the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block, LLP.

"We want to make sure state law is followed," Bonnie McDonald, Landmarks Illinois president, said. "The reason we are filing the lawsuit is to preserve the county courthouse, and we feel this was necessary to do so."

McDonald said Jenner & Block is providing their services on a pro bono basis. She said the plaintiffs have not filed a temporary restraining order yet to stop demolition, but doing so remains an option. 

The 364-page complaint includes numerous examples of case law and states the county and Public Building Commission are in violation of the Illinois State Agency Historic Resources Preservation Act and the Illinois Public Building Commission Act if demolition proceeds. 

The complaint also states the Public Building Commission is "operating outside the scope of its operation" by using bond funds borrowed for the purpose of construction to be used to pay for courthouse demolition. 

Landmarks Illinois listed the courthouse, built between 1895-97, on its 2018 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois.

The plaintiffs have been "involved in a dialogue for some time," McDonald said. 

"They have all been advocates for the courthouse since we listed the building our 2018 Most Endangered list," McDonald said. "We felt it was very important for them to be part of this lawsuit."

The village of Andalusia confirmed last week it was asked to join in litigation with Landmarks Illinois against the county and the Public Building Commission. 

"The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been part of our conversation for the last couple of weeks because of the violation of state law," McDonald said. "They want to ensure our preservation laws are followed."

The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), an arm of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, revoked its letter of compliance and permit from the Public Building Commission Nov. 29 after discovering demolition of the courthouse was not included as part of overall construction project of the annex. 

The SHPO still has not issued a new letter of compliance or EPA permit for stormwater runoff. 

Once construction of the annex was complete, all court functions moved from the historic courthouse to the annex, leaving the historic courthouse vacant. 

Rock Island city officials have refused to issue a demolition permit until the proper permit has been issued by the state, saying the city could be held liable if they do not follow the law. 

According to page 24 of the complaint, Valley Construction applied for a demolition permit Feb. 5 from the city. 

McDonald said she is not concerned the suit was filed in the 14th Circuit court and she is confident the plaintiffs' claims are valid​.

"We want to ensure the process is followed," McDonald said. "If it is necessary, we can always file a motion to have the lawsuit moved to another district."

Architect Italo Milani, Rock Island, filed suit Oct. 11 against the county and the Public Building Commission, seeking a judicial review of whether bond money borrowed for the purpose of building Rock Island County’s new Justice Center Annex could be used to raze the county’s courthouse.

Judge James Conway dismissed Milani’s claim, calling it “legally insufficient” and stating Milani’s status as a taxpayer did not give him “standing to sue.”

Rock Island County Board Chairman Richard Brunk was not aware a suit had been filed Wednesday.

"Obviously, the process will play out and we'll see where it goes," Brunk said. 

Rock Island County State's Attorney John McGehee said he could not comment until he had read the complaint.

Rock Island County 14th Circuit Chief Judge Walter Braud filed an administrative order Jan. 25 ordering the demolition of the courthouse, saying its proximity to the annex presents a security issue.

Braud claims his role as chief judge gives him authority over the building and that the Historic Preservation Act does not apply to the courthouse. 

The complaint notes Braud's administrative order, calling it an "abuse of discretion."

Braud could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

County board member Drue Mielke questioned the use of bond money for the purpose of demolition in April 2018.

A legal opinion provided by bond counsel Chapman and Cutler, LLP to board members in June affirmed bond funds could be used for demolition, as razing the building was included in the overall project. 

"I know I took the right action to assure that the board was acting correctly in how the county was using bond money for the annex," Mielke said Wednesday. 

Elizabeth Merritt, deputy counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in a release Wednesday that options to preserve the courthouse should be considered. 

"Demolition of the historic courthouse is unnecessary, violates state historic preservation law, and would squander an opportunity to reuse this important building," Merritt said. 

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