Jim Dey: Ongoing battle

Jim Dey: Ongoing battle

In politics, there are winners and losers. The winners maintain or expand their turf while the losers cede ground.

That's why the debate over the future of Springfield's Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has devolved into a fight that has as much or more to do with who runs it than about how well the library operates.

It's unclear how the ongoing battle over the library's future — some want the library to secede from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency — will end. But if backers of emancipation have their way, a newly organized Lincoln library may end up as an affiliate of the University of Illinois.

In a recent report, the library's executive director, Eileen Mackevich, suggested the facility could establish formal links with "a major college or university which provides fellows and residential scholars" as well as the National Archives Records Administration, which "has management controls and oversight of budgetary matters" with all the nation's presidential libraries, except for the one in Springfield.

"We could ... establish ourselves quickly as a leader among the presidential libraries and museums under (the National Archives). We could benefit greatly from closer University of Illinois affiliation with their library school, Krannert Center, music school and business school," said Mackevich.

Mackevich's recent report came in response to an outside consultant's report that criticized the library's "lack of a strategic plan and strategic priorities" that account for "inefficiencies and communications problems." The report prepared by outside consultant Karen Witter will be followed by another study of the library's governance structure.

The flurry of paper comes in the aftermath of a legislative effort headed by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, acting at the behest of local lawyer Steve Beckett, to remove the library from under the umbrella of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Madigan's proposal passed the Illinois House and now is pending in the Senate, where Democratic President John Cullerton said the legislation is under review and will come up for consideration in the post-election session.

But, as Gov. Jim Edgar said recently about another issue, too much of what goes on in Springfield has little to do with the merits of the issue, if the merits actually can be determined. It is on that uncertain premise that the future of the Lincoln library, a hit with both tourists and researchers alike, will be determined.

The question is this: Would the library be better off as a free-standing entity with its own board of directors who are free to change its course, or remain under the control of the preservation agency and the agency's board?

Here are some facts that frame the debate:

— The preservation agency oversees the library as well as 56 historic sites and monuments. Its executive director, Amy Martin, answers to agency board members.

— The library has a foundation board that raises funds to support its operation.

— The library has an advisory board that has no authority and an executive director, Mackevich, who answers to Gov. Pat Quinn.

Beckett, a Lincoln buff who is chairman of the library's advisory board, contends the administrative structure is fatally flawed, that the preservation agency's executive director and board members ignore recommendations from the library's executive director and advisory board and that failing to free the library from its current strictures will cause it to "wither and die."

"This is a structural error," he said, noting that the library's revenues are funneled to the agency's bank accounts and used to subsidize its money-losing operations.

The historic preservation agency, however, contends that the library can operate just fine the way it is and that separating it would create additional administrative costs in excess of $2 million.

With action complete in the House, the 59-member Senate will take up the issue late in the year.

Cullerton said he will review the issue before deciding what position to take. But it's not an issue that is high on the priority list. "To be honest, I haven't focused on it," said state Sen. Chapin Rose, R- Mahomet. "Keep in mind this is not the most urgent issue facing the state of Illinois."

Based on what he does know, Rose said, he is conflicted. He said he's "always suspicious of (House Speaker) Michael Madigan trying to take over a board," but that "I have a lot of respect for Steve Beckett."

"We need (the library) to be successful. I'm more focused on 'What's the plan?' than 'Who's in control?" he said.

State Sen. Jason Barickman, a Republican from Bloomington, declined to comment because "I'm not really up to speed" on the issue. State Sen. Michael Frerichs, a Champaign Democrat, was unavailable for comment. But Beckett said he has discussed the issue with Frerichs and considers him to be supportive of the concept of an independent library.

While smoldering beneath the surface for months, this issue first became public in mid-May when Speaker Madigan used his clout to ram the bill through the House, a power play that resulted in a storm of publicity and speculation. Members of the Senate are certain to be more circumspect.

"I bet there will be (legislative) hearings," said Beckett.

The veteran lawyer acknowledged Madigan's legislative style doesn't match civics books descriptions of how bills are passed. But Beckett contends that's not all bad.

"We've got a lot more people talking about it than we would have if (the proposal) had come in the slow way," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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Chris Wills wrote on July 14, 2014 at 12:07 pm

As communications director for the presidential library and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, I would like to correct a major factual error in this column. (I'll forego commenting on any of the opinions.)

Mr. Beckett says "the library's revenues are funneled to the agency's bank accounts and used to subsidize its money-losing operations." This is absolutely incorrect. All revenues generated by admissions, parking, souvenir sales and so forth remain with the ALPLM. So does the money appropriated to the library by lawmakers.

The idea that the ALPLM somehow supports sites like the Lincoln Log Cabin or the Old State Capitol is false -- period.

The statement also implies the presidential library and museum generates enough money to support itself, as opposed to the "money-losing" historic sites. Actually, the presidential library and museum does not come anywhere close to generating enough money to cover its expenses. Like historic sites around the state, it requires support from the taxpayers of Illinois to maintain operations.