Several dozen people picketed outside Cook County Forest Preserve District headquarters April 11 in response to an administrative decision to deny an application to rename the Trailside Museum in River Forest in honor of Virginia Moe.
The protest’s organizer, Jane Affleck-Morocco, now alleges that district administrative staff violated the state’s Open Meetings Act during their deliberations on the renaming application. She also re-iterated her contention that the man Trailside was named for, former county commissioner Harold “Hal” Tyrrell, had nothing to do with efforts in 1989 to save the museum.
Moe served as Trailside’s curator for 52 years, and was its public face up to her death in 1992. More than 1,000 people have signed a petition calling for her name to replace Tyrrell’s.
On March 16, District General Superintendent Arnold Randall emailed Affleck-Morocco a letter denying the renaming application, primarily because they could not justify removing Hal Tyrell’s name. That decision was finalized following deliberations by the district’s Naming Committee over several meetings between June and December, though Arnold did not mention those deliberations in his letter.
Affleck-Morocco said the public was never given an opportunity to speak to that committee, and did not know about the meetings. “There was no open meetings. No opportunity for the public to speak. Final action was taken without a vote (and) without a published agenda,” she said.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act reads in part, “‘Public body’ includes all legislative, executive, administrative or advisory bodies of the State, counties, townships, cities, villages, incorporated towns, school districts and all other municipal corporations, boards, bureaus, committees or commissions of this State …”
Affleck-Morocco said she has been in contact with a lawyer from the state’s Public Access Counselor, and that she was told that the Naming Committee’s deliberations may have been in violation of Illinois law. She said she hopes the public access counselor requires the forest preserve district to void its denial decision and hold publicly announced meetings.
Randall’s explanation of his denial suggests that the Naming Committee recommended denying the request not because Moe wasn’t deserving of the honor.
“Virginia Moe was indeed a committed employee of the Forest Preserves,” Arnold wrote. However, he said, Tyrell had been “a committed representative of the Forest Preserves and his name is not associated with perpetuating inequities. The Forest Preserves does not find any justification for removing Hal Tyrell’s name from the nature center at this time.”
After Arnold’s denial, Affleck-Morocco filed an FOIA request with the the forest district for the Naming Committee’s meeting minutes and agendas. She received attendance “notes” that included various comments by committee members regarding the re-naming application.
Meeting notes from Sept. 29 indicate the forest preserve district’s Director of Legislative & Government Affairs, Delio Calzolari stated that “Current Naming Policy discourages naming sites after people and does not address removing a person name and replacing with a person name.”
Another unattributed statement in the meeting notes reads, “We cannot change the name as this goes against our policy. Hal Tyrrell passed the lens of scrutiny, and policy moves away from using people/honorarium for naming sites, preserves, facilities.”
Affleck-Morocco continues to insist there was never any justification for naming the museum in Tyrell’s honor in the first place. She produced documents showing that it was another commissioner, Winnetka Republican Joseph Mathewson, who stepped forward to protect Trailside from the wrecking ball, along with Chicago commissioner Bobbi Steele.
Mathewson submitted a resolution to the County Board on June 5, 1989 calling for Trailside to remain open pending a feasibility study and a public meeting to gather input. In a related press release, he called Trailside “… one of the most popular Forest Preserve facilities. We should try to renovate it, or perhaps rebuild it. It would be sad to lose it.”
Mathewson also attended a rally for Trailside on June 4, and was present at a public hearing on June 27. Newspaper accounts mention Mathewson, Commissioner Richard Sweibel, a Republican, and two Democrats, Bobbi Steele of Chicago and Mary McDonald of Lincolnwood. Affleck Morocco said she was present at both events and did not see Tyrrell at either.
“It was always Bobbie Steele and Commissioner Joe Mathewson,” she said.
Only after the County Board unanimously voted to preserve the Trailside building and forwarded the renovation proposal to the board’s finance committee, was Tyrell appointed to a subcommittee tasked with overseeing spending on the project.
Affleck-Morocco said the district’s own naming policy favors Moe and not Tyrrell.
“When a person’s contributions have significantly advanced the mission of the District and are so significant and long lasting that it is appropriate to weave that person into the District’s history — whether through naming or incorporation of the person and their contribution into cultural interpretation …”
“It’s almost like they didn’t (consider) their own words on the policy,” she said. The policy also states that “Reasonable care and consideration should be given to determine if the individual’s merit and/or contribution can stand the test of time…”
“That’s the big one,” Affleck-Morocco said. “Everyone said, ‘That’s Virginia Moe.’”