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Walk the walk: 24 miles of hope

MANTENO — Twenty-four miles. One mission.

This was the mantra of Manteno resident Jake Smith on Sunday morning as he set out to walk the near-marathon distance in honor of several local suicide victims and to raise awareness about mental health throughout the streets of Manteno as September kicks off National Suicide Awareness Month.

A surprise note of encouragement greeted Smith as he began his walk, mile markers were placed on his route by supporters, dozens honked as they passed by and neighbors awaited to accompany him on his final 2-mile stretch.

Smith returned home eight hours and 20 minutes after departing Diversatech Drive at 9:30 a.m. and shared his thoughts following the event.

What were some reactions you got as you walked around town? Did anybody join in today?

I did have a lot of people honking at me as I walked through town — smiling, giving thumbs up and waving at me. A few people did join in with me and walked a few miles. My neighbors joined in on the last couple of miles, walked with me and escorted me back home. I was truly surprised.

Why 24 miles?

I had originally planned on walking 21 miles today. Twenty-one was the age of the oldest suicide victim in Manteno. But my tracking app kept messing up when I had the 21 miles mapped out. I felt like maybe it was a sign from above telling me that 21 miles just wasn’t quite long enough. So, I added a couple of extra neighborhoods onto the route. Perhaps a few extra lives were impacted by that.

When you got tired, what kept you going?

All of the talk of walking 24 miles, I couldn’t break that promise and that commitment. I truly had to walk the walk. The lives I could impact motivated me. The physical pain I feel is nothing compared to the mental and emotional pain that the families of those who have lost a loved one to suicide or addiction. I had to practice what I preach. I preach about never giving up when the pain gets rough. I had to prove that you can fight through the pain.

I think of the support. I’m doing this for my community. I don’t want to take shortcuts. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. It is all about fighting to the finish. The people of this community were my motivation to not give up. They are fighters. So am I. We fight together.

What did walking today mean to you?

Walking today was personal because I not only advocate for mental health and suicide awareness, but I also struggle with mental illness myself. I live with major depression and severe anxiety. I have been down the road where I felt like ending it all because the pain just felt like too much to handle. There are so many others out there that are going through the same struggles and the same thoughts.

So many people are suffering in silence. I wanted to be the one to step up to the plate and be their voice and be the light in their darkness. I know the pain of the struggles. I know the thoughts of no longer wanting to be in pain anymore. They are a living nightmare.

As an advocate, I have heard so many stories from people, and it is very alarming how many are truly out there struggling — just in Manteno alone. I created the Manteno Community Public Mental Health Support Group to bring people together and share their struggles. Having learned so many stories and meeting new people, I felt like we’d rallied together.

Now, it was time to put some thoughts into action and take to the streets.

What do you hope others who saw or joined you take away from this?

I hope that the people who joined me know that they got to be a part of the change in breaking the stigma that surrounds mental health. I hope that they know they are truly appreciated by me and everyone else struggling. I hope today shined a light on people’s darkness. I hope today made an everlasting impact on the community. I hope today gave hope. There’s more people cheering you on than you think.

Time for 312 interchange action

It has been on the Illinois Department of Transportation’s to-do list for years.

It has been in Phase 1 engineering with IDOT for perhaps 10 years.

It has been the subject of on-again, off-again discussions among Kankakee and Kankakee County leadership for at least the past decade.

Yet the Interstate 57 interchange at East Court Street on Kankakee’s east side remains virtually unchanged in these years, except for some occasional repaving work.

Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong and city engineer Neil Piggush are trying to get that changed and the pair is hoping that perhaps 2021 will be the year that this project can finally begin to move at a pace somewhat faster than a horse and buggy. Piggush noted the mayor has been constantly pushing IDOT on this project.

At last week’s Kankakee City Council meeting, Piggush, while discussing gateway improvements set to take place near the interchange — which will include the closing the 100 block of Hammes Avenue at East Court Street — said he is hopeful IDOT will host public input forums yet this year.

Piggush is hopeful Phase 1 engineering may be completed by early to mid-2021.

Once that portion is completed, Phase 2 engineering would follow. Phase 1 of an IDOT study focuses on engineering and environmental studies. Phase 2 focuses on more detailed plans and specifications. Phase 3 focuses on funding. A cost estimate has not been made public.

Because the interchange is bounded by Mount Calvary Cemetery and an apartment high rise on its southern edge, and commercial development on the northern side, redevelopment plans are a little more complicated.

Preliminary plans, Piggush said, call for the interchange to be compact, called a single point urban interchange.

“This is a very complicated project. There is definitely space concerns,” Piggush noted. But, he said, the new interchange is critical to development on the city’s east side. He noted trucks at times have difficulty negotiating the interchange. With the Ricky Rockets Fuel Center moving toward construction, truckers will only be using the interchange more frequently.

“This is critical for the city, economic development and the future growth on the east side,” he said. “This is an important project for the success of the city and the east side.”

Tim Nugent, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County, said the project is important simply because it is the first impression gained by those entering the city.

“It’s always been an odd entrance. To have that upgraded would be a big boost, both aesthetically and transportation-wise,” he said. “It’s certainly time for the east side of Kankakee to get some attention.”

Lisa Wogan, the vice president of marketing and business attraction for the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County, will soon be leaving the organization and the community.

It was announced at the alliance’s Zoom meeting on Thursday that Wogan’s resignation had been accepted. Tim Nugent, the organization’s president and CEO, said he tried to talk her out of the decision.

“I’m not happy about it,” he said of the person who has been like his right hand since stepping into the position May 2016. “I tried to convince her otherwise.”

Wogan, 50, of Momence, who was earning $67,000, simply felt the time was right to make the move. Wogan came to the area in 1999 from Lombard. She has been with the alliance since 2008, except for about an 18-month period in late 2012 to spring 2014.

She worked on a contractual basis for the alliance from 2008 through 2012. She was hired as a full-time employee in May 2014 and was appointed its director of marketing and business attraction in December 2015. In January 2019 her title was elevated to vice president of marketing and business attraction.

Wogan said if her replacement is found within the coming weeks, she will assist the new person in learning the job functions as well as the communities and organizations as well as key individuals within the county.

Nugent said the alliance is already advertising for her replacement. He did not list a salary, noting it will depend on what level of experience and qualifications the candidate brings forth. Nugent hopes to be interviewing candidates by the first week or so of October and have someone hired by mid-October.

“I’ve very much enjoyed working in this community,” Wogan said shortly after Thursday’s meeting. “This is a great community. This is very difficult for me. This community is a very special place for me.”

What she will be doing once she exits from the alliance, she doesn’t exactly know just yet. She said she will be relocating to the urban/metro core and will see what presents itself. She noted she grew up in the Waukegan area.

Whatever she may eventually do, she said, it will have something to do with promoting economic development. She noted this profession is now in her blood.

“It’s time to see what my next step will be. The time is right to take the next step,” she said.

Lisa has three sons, ages 23, 20 and 18.

On a personal note, I will miss Lisa. She is a true first-class professional who routinely went above and beyond in an effort to meet the needs of others. I wish Lisa nothing but the best as she enters the “next phase” of her life.

Auditor's lawsuit moves forward

KANKAKEE — The lawsuit filed by Kankakee County Auditor Jake Lee against the Kankakee County Board in Kankakee Circuit Court is going to move forward after both sides couldn’t reach a settlement agreement.

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato is representing Lee, while Grundy County State’s Attorney Jason Helland is representing the defendant, Kankakee County Board.

Amato wrote on June 16 in a settlement offer that, by state law, the auditor is to be the general accountant of the county and is to devise and install a system of financial records in the offices and divisions of the county and be suitable to the needs of the office in accordance with generally accepted principles of accounting for governmental bodies.

“Thus, the auditor is not just to monitor the county, he/she is to perform as the county’s accountant as well,” he said. “This appears to be a particular problematic portion of Mr. Lee’s auditor duties for the county to accept.”

Amato wrote the county has ignored the entire law.

“They have altogether sidelined Mr. Lee in favor of a financial director,” he wrote. “That response is not appropriate and is unsustainable considering that the Illinois Attorney General put the issue to rest in a formal opinion almost 30 years ago.”

Further, Amato wrote, “Kankakee County has effectively taken the Auditor’s Office, stripped away its duties and staff, and empowered the Finance Office to act in its place. It has unceremoniously usurped the Auditor of his role in county finances, and this is the crux of all the remaining problems. This is an abuse of the Board’s discretion. ... It is unquestionable that the Finance Office is acting as the County Auditor, without statutory authority and in violation of the law.”

The plaintiff proposes that the most cost-effective and responsible manner would be to reverse course and transfer the statutory functions of the auditor back to Lee.

“We ask that the County Board begin to enact, repeal, and/or amend the necessary financial policies to allow the Auditor to properly perform the function of auditor and accountant,” Amato wrote.

The county board contends that the county split the auditor and finance departments in 2003 because it said the federal government required more checks and balances.

Helland wrote a letter Friday, supporting the separation of the duties of the auditor and county finances. He contends that it has been clear since day one that the auditor and his legal representatives have no intention other than suing the county.

“I have been presented all documents, communications, policies ... relevant to the duties of the Auditor and the authorities within that office, as well as the Illinois Constitution and statutes provide for County Government Administration. As documented by on-the-record statements from the Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe, as well as opinions from the Kankakee County assistant state’s attorney when directly asked, there has been no evidence presented of criminal activity currently or previously being committed by any of the defendants in this lawsuit. There have been no audit findings from outside auditors that point to any lack of internal control of violations.”

Helland said he has tried to set up a meeting to bring both sides together to resolve the issues to no avail.

“The County has been, and will be, committed to a resolution of this matter without wasting taxpayer money on litigation between an elected official and the County Board. “

Helland’s office sent a response to the plaintiff on Aug. 7, addressing many of the issues presented in Amato’s settlement offer of June 16. The main issue is the county’s finance department is infringing on some of the auditor’s statutory duties and those duties need to be returned to the auditor in order to comply with the law. The finance department’s check is the auditor, and not the county board.

In response, Helland wrote, “The Auditor only performs accounting according to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles as mentioned in the statute. Those standards describe that you cannot audit your own accounting work, or per federal single audit standard, have direct report to do it. It must reside outside of the office.

“... The County believes that all statutorily defined duties of the auditor were returned in the December 1, 2019, revised Financial Policy Manual. The County is open to having discussion of what specific accounting duties need to be returned to the Auditor’s office, if any, in order to avoid litigation.”

In his conclusion, Helland wrote, “The County is not seeking to sue any party nor do they want to get sued. Based on the current financial condition of the County and a 20-30% decrease in revenue due to the COVID-19 during this fiscal year, the County does not have the appetite for engaging in needless litigation that could cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Kankakee police investigating 3 shootings

KANKAKEE — Three men were wounded in three separate shootings this weekend in Kankakee.

At 12:35 p.m. Sunday, Kankakee police responded to a report of shots fired in the 1300 block of East Maple Street. Upon arrival, officers found a man with a gunshot wound to his upper body.

Witnesses told officers that a man walked up to the area where the victim was standing in front of his residence and shot him before running from the scene.

On Saturday at 9:45 p.m., officers responded to the 400 block of South Elm Avenue for a report of shots fired. Officers found a man with a gunshot wound to his leg.

Police say the victim was uncooperative and there is no vehicle or offender information at this time.

At about 1 p.m. Saturday, officers responded to a report of shots fired in the 200 block of South Evergreen Avenue. Upon arrival, officers were told that a man had been struck in the lower body by gunfire from a passing black SUV.

The victim, who was getting out of a vehicle when he was struck, had been driven to a local hospital for treatment.

Kankakee Police Chief Frank Kosman said all three cases remain under investigation and there is nothing definitive that relates the shootings.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Kankakee police at 815-933-3321 or Crime Stoppers at 815-932-7463.