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Thursday, May 29, 2014 12:01 am

Presidential politics

Lawmakers ponder future of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Personalities, politics and power have been on parade since House Speaker Michael Madigan proposed that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum be divorced from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and become a standalone state agency.

The proposal came one week before adjournment and without input from Gov. Pat Quinn, who would lose authority to appoint the institution’s executive director. More than three days after Madigan introduced legislation last Friday, the governor didn’t know what to think.

“We are reviewing the bill,” David Blanchette, Quinn spokesman, said in an email on Tuesday afternoon.

After the out-of-nowhere idea sailed through the House executive committee on a 10-1 vote, media attention focused on ALPLM director Eileen Mackevich.

Madigan is a friend and tenant of Stanley Balzekas, Jr., who heads the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture that is located in the same building as the speaker’s district office in Chicago. Mackevich, whom Madigan describes as a friend, is a longtime friend of Balzekas and has accompanied him to social events – the two had their picture taken together at a Washington, D.C., ball held on President Obama’s first inauguration.

After Monday’s committee vote, the speaker told reporters that he’s been thinking about divorcing the museum from the IHPA for four or five months, but neither his landlord nor Mackevich pushed him. Even as Quinn took no position, Mackevich, who serves at the pleasure of the governor, told the Chicago Sun-Times that she thinks that Madigan’s plan is a good one, and she confirmed that she has had differences with IHPA director Amy Martin over acquisitions and exhibits.

Steven Beckett, chairman of the institution’s advisory board that would assume oversight from the IHPA board, told Illinois Times last week that Senate President John Cullerton and Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka had indicated support for splitting the presidential library and museum from the IHPA. But a press aide on Tuesday denied that the senate president has taken a stand.

“I don’t know why someone would say that,” said Rikeesha Phelon, Cullerton spokeswoman. “He’s not taken a position on that bill.”

Bradley Hahn, a Topinka spokesman, could not be reached for comment.

Beckett on Tuesday said that he based his statements on information he received from the speaker’s office.

“I got a message that the Senate was going to support it,” Beckett said. “That’s the message I got from the speaker’s staff. I got a message (saying) ‘Comptroller says OK, Senate will support.’”

While the governor took no official position, the IHPA said that the change would cost $500,000 for new computer equipment, plus $2 million a year for 14 new employees who would handle such matters as legal issues, marketing, human resources and other work now covered by IHPA staff. Madigan and Beckett, however, told legislators that there would be little, if any, added costs.

Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, the only legislator who voted no on Monday, said that he was unaware of any problems or misgivings about IHPA oversight prior to the committee meeting, and Madigan’s friendship with the institution’s executive director and ties to Balzekas cause concern.

“I’m just concerned with a last-minute, end-of-session push to create a new state agency,” said Sosnowski, who is one of four Republicans on the executive committee. “It smells to me, a little bit.”

Beckett, a University of Illinois law professor, said he took the unpaid position as head of the museum’s advisory board two years ago and soon concluded that the institution would function best as a separate agency.

“My idea when I got on this board wasn’t to train-wreck this whole thing, my idea was to make this work,” Beckett said. “I just think it doesn’t work and we need to do something different.”

Madigan told reporters that the institution has “operational problems.” Beckett has expressed concerns about a lack of progress in acquiring papers held by the Stevenson family, which includes a governor, a senator and a vice president of the United States, and vacant positions at the library. Chris Wills, IHPA spokesman, says that the institution has 20 vacancies and hopes to fill 14 if money allows. Since 2010, the institution’s costs have gone from $9.5 million to more than $12.1 million with most of the money coming from the state’s general fund, according to an email from Wills. The speaker, however, told reporters that he believes money is available to fill vacant jobs.

“I would think there’s an appropriation for those positions today,” Madigan said. “They just haven’t been filled.”

Harold Holzer, one of the nation’s leading Lincoln scholars, said that he did half the research for an upcoming book on Lincoln and the press at the presidential library, both in person and via correspondence, and had no difficulties.

“I, for one, have not noticed any slowing down or any problems, I have to say,” Holzer said.

Madigan’s bid to change governance is the latest in a series of awkward episodes for an institution born in turmoil. Concerned about sweetheart deals for insiders, then U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican, filibustered 14 years ago an attempt to require that construction contracts be let under federal bidding procedures. The institution has had five directors, including an interim director who held the post for more than two years, since opening in 2004. In 2010, the American Association of Museums issued a report that described the institution as “rudderless,” and the ALPLM remains without accreditation. Money has been tight, and there have been concerns about patronage hiring.

The institution is the only presidential library in the county that is not run by the National Archives and Records Administration. Madigan and Sosnowski, the legislator who voted against the speaker’s proposal, agree on at least one thing: Handing the institution over to the feds is a worthy idea.

“(I)t could become part of the National Archives,” Madigan said. “It’s something that should be considered.”

Sosnowski agreed.

“I think there’s a lot of options,” Sosnowski said. “The national one would be a great one to look at.”

But Holzer, who withdrew himself from consideration in 2003 as the institution’s first executive director out of concern that the IHPA director would have duties that should be the purview of the museum’s director, said the institution should remain with the state.

“It’s worked well,” Holzer said. “It’s both a research library and a tourist attraction. A way ought to be found to stabilize…funding so it can continue to grow in both respects. I like the idea that it’s an Illinois institution.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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