House passes Lincoln museum takeover bill

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SPRINGFIELD — A move by House Speaker Michael Madigan to wrest control of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum from a state agency moved out of the House Tuesday despite qualms that his framework seemed “drastic.”

The Chicago Democrat’s plan, which he introduced late Friday heading into the long Memorial Day weekend, passed the House 84-29, with two members voting “present.” The measure now moves to the Senate.

“The problem is you have a world-renowned institution that’s not able to function freely,” Madigan told colleagues. “It’s required to check in with another agency of state government, which has become very burdensome.”

Madigan’s legislation would put the library and museum, which has drawn more than 3 million visitors since opening in 2005, under an autonomous state agency. It now operates under the state Historic Preservation Agency, which reports to Gov. Pat Quinn and estimated Tuesday the reconfiguration would cost taxpayers $2.4 million.

The speaker’s plan would concentrate hiring decisions and all other operations of the museum and library under its executive director, who now is Eileen Mackevich, a Quinn appointee and friend of Madigan’s.

Under Madigan’s plan, that post would be chosen by members of a board appointed by the governor to oversee the library and museum.

Madigan acknowledged having a friendship with Mackevich, and her longtime friend, Stanley Balzekas Jr., who is the landlord of Madigan’s district office at 6500 S. Pulaski Road.

“He’s an eminent Lithuanian-American,” Madigan said of Balzekas, who founded and runs the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, which operates out of the same building as Madigan’s state office and ward headquarters.

Madigan denied being lobbied for the bill by either Balzekas or Mackevich, who was honored as the Lithuanian museum’s 2007 Award of Excellence recipient.

“I would consider them friends of mine,” Madigan said of Balzekas and Mackevich, describing the couple’s relationship together as “friends for a long time.”

Balzekas and Mackevich are not married, though they frequently attend functions together. She told the Sun-Times she had romantic feelings for Balzekas in her 20s, nearly a half century ago. The two often attend functions together; Madigan called them long-time friends.

Mackevich has collided with her boss, Historic Preservation Agency Director Amy Martin, over a series of operational decisions at the museum, disagreements Mackevich attributed to “different visions, not a personality clash.”

Madigan has faced patronage issues in the past, including at Metra, where former CEO Alex Clifford accused him of trying to leverage a salary increase for a campaign worker who worked at Metra. In March, a task force convened by Gov. Pat Quinn to investigate the Metra scandal accused Madigan of “in effect” deciding for years if some job candidates were hired at the agency.

The quick emergence of Lincoln library and museum bill has triggered murmurs at the Capitol, even from some Democrats, who question privately whether Madigan is engaged in a power grab that has the potential to become, what one high-ranking party aide described as “Metra times two.”

Madigan, who hasn’t been to the library and museum in two years, has said he began contemplating the power shift four or five months ago and that one of the problems with the current management setup is that numerous job vacancies have gone unfilled at the library and museum.

The speaker insisted Monday he has zero intention of making the library and museum his “political playpen.”

During floor debate Tuesday, Republicans tiptoed around the hiring question.

State Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, who voted against Madigan’s bill, questioned whether the advisory board — chaired by Urbana lawyer Steven Beckett — that would be put in control of the library and museum has any background in hiring guidelines, such as the anti-patronage Rutan ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Does Mr. Beckett have any awareness of Rutan and how personnel get hired in the state of Illinois?” Harris asked the speaker.

“If he doesn’t,” Madigan answered, “we’ll give him the memo we’ve circulated to members of the General Assembly.”

Since before its inception, the museum and library have been the focus of patronage concerns. Former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., filibustered the U.S. Senate on the funding plan for the complex, raising concerns it could be a patronage dumping ground for then-Gov. George Ryan and former GOP power broker William Cellini, whose wife, Julie, chaired the state Historic Preservation Agency board and is tucked in as a character along with her husband in historic paintings at the museum.

Internal records obtained Tuesday under the Freedom of Information Act from the Historic Preservation Agency show that Madigan’s legislation had been discussed between Mackevich and the House speaker’s staff, beginning in mid-May.

In one email, a member of the advisory board chaired by Beckett, who helped draft the Madigan legislation, questioned last week why the advisory board had not been consulted about the speaker’s measure.

“I’m just wondering, was this separation discussed or voted on at a board meeting?” board member Craig Sautter wrote Beckett in a May 23 email. “Isn’t this the biggest step this board has taken? It seems a little drastic just because we had some disagreements or that we have to work to find common ground. What are the long-range advantages? What are the long range disadvantages? What are the implications if the legislation doesn’t pass both houses? Just asking.”

Beckett responded two days later, outlining the litany of problems he believes warrant making the museum and library a standalone agency.

“We have 17 vacant positions in the library. It took us two years to get a gift agreement from the Stevenson Family papers proposal through our board and it still awaits IHPA approval. Our executive director has no deputy director.  The ALPLM chief of staff was hired by the IHPA executive director without input from the ALPLM executive director. The missions of the two “agencies” [are] not the same,” Beckett wrote.

Another email from a Madigan staffer shows Mackevich being drawn into the formulation of the bill on May 19 and appears to be given assurances that the changes will be “helpful” to her.

“Note that we changed the appointment of the [executive director] from being a gov’s appointment to the board appointing. This is consistent with other agencies similarly structured,” Madigan staffer Jessica Basham wrote Mackevich. “The board members will continue to be appointed by the gov. We also clarified that the agency will no longer be under the purview of the governor, which will be more helpful to you in terms of management decisions.”

Quinn’s office has not taken a position on Madigan’s legislation.

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