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Forest preserve board candidates talk controversy at Rockford forum

September 09, 2012 at 11:05 PM

Rockford Register Star

ROCKFORD — Winnebago County Forest Preserve District candidates were tested today in a forum that asked them to respond to several of the district’s most contentious decisions.

About 80 people filled chairs inside Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden for the chance to hear all eight candidates introduce their platforms and explain their position on recent board decisions in advance of the Nov. 6 election.

Moderator Jerry Paulson, executive director of the Natural Land Institute, said the board has experienced its share of “growing pains” since it formed about two years ago. He asked candidates to state their position on controversial topics that included the purchase of former Sheriff Don Gasparini’s fishing ponds, hunting and culling of deer, how to police preserves, whether they support a tax-raising referendum to purchase land and how they would have handled the decision to cut down thousands of trees in three forest preserves last winter.

“This has become one of the most closely watched elections of this political season,” Paulson said at the start of the forum.

In November, voters will choose among Lenae Weichel, Mike Eickman, Commissioner Audrey Johnson, Jeff Tilly and Eric Stromberg for two six-year terms on the board. They’ll select among Commissioner Cheryl Maggio, Commissioner Lee Johnson and Bev Moore for one two-year term.

Candidates responded to individual questions until the end of the forum, when each was given the chance to say whether they would support a referendum and how they would have voted on the purchase of Gasparini’s land near Four Lakes Forest Preserve. The board approved the purchase about a year ago in a 4-3 vote.

Seven of the eight candidates at today’s forum said they would have voted against the purchase of the 18-acre property west of Four Lake Forest Preserve.

“I don’t think it was a valuable piece of property in terms of its natural land, it didn’t have natural habitat. It was created and it’s not a very good habitat at that,” Weichel said.

Maggio, who voted in favor of the $216,500 purchase that’s paid over five years, explained her decision.

“It was a continuous border of our Four Lakes Forest Preserve,” she said. It also provided “additional fishing — which was the number two answer on a survey that was done at the county fair in 2011 — that people would like to see more fishing capabilities.”

Lee Johnson, Maggio, Tilly and Weichel said they could support a referendum to request a property tax increase to pay for the acquisition of critically sensitive lands.

“If it’s going to be saved, it has to be saved now and it has to be saved at today’s dollars, because tomorrow’s dollars are going to be much more,” Lee Johnson said. “We should do everything we can to acquire additional land, and it’s going to require a lot of imagination to accomplish it.”

Audrey Johnson said she would support a future referendum, but not until the economy has improved. Stromberg, Eickman and Moore also said they’re against a tax increase, though Stromberg and Eickman said they wouldn’t be opposed to allowing voters to decide via a referendum.

Kevin Haas; 815-987-1410; .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address); @KevinMHaas

 

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