Daily Chronicle Year in Review: Top news stories of 2022

Before the Sycamore School District 427 school board meeting Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, a sign in the front row of the packed auditorium at Sycamore High School reflects the amount of days Sycamore teachers have been working without a contract. The meeting never began however after board president Jim Dombeck told the largely masked crowd that the meeting would be switched to a virtual format after saying several maskless individuals refused to comply with districts instruction to wear a face covering.

During the past year, developments have expanded in DeKalb County, buildings have been sold, community amenities have come and gone and several high-profile court stories have made more than just our headlines.

In no particular order, here are some of the Daily Chronicle’s top stories for 2022:

Expected strike by Sycamore teachers’ union halted after two parties come to agreement

In January and February, nearly nine months of negotiations for an updated labor contract had stalled between Sycamore District 427 and the Sycamore Education Association.

The union, who’s more than 200 members had been working on an expired contract for nearly days by that point, pushed for higher wages and filed an intent to strike in early February. District officials, including the Sycamore school board, fielded weeks of demonstrations at board meetings. District leaders also faced criticism from union members who’d said the step increases being offered weren’t good enough to make up for competitive salary disparities.

An agreement was reached weeks later on Feb. 23, nine months after negotiations had stated in May 2021, halting any plans for a strike after teachers had worked nearly the entire school year on an expired contract.

Mountain lion killed on I-88 in DeKalb County

DNR confirms this photo of a large cat taken by a trail camera 10 miles north of Winterset is a mountain lion.

In October, a mountain lion was killed on I-88 in DeKalb County. It was a news story that swept headlines across northern Illinois, after a vehicle struck and killed the animal that had also been sighted a month prior in Whiteside County.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources released a statement that said the lion’s whereabouts had been monitored by the agency, which deemed mountain lions protected since 2015 in Illinois.

Former DeKalb District 428 superintendent found guilty of sending explicit photos of former employee to school board members

Former DeKalb School District 428 Superintendent Douglas Moeller talks to his attorney Clay Campbell during his trial Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, at the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore. Moeller was charged in April 2018 with non-consensual dissemination of private sexual images, a class 4 felony.

More than four years after former DeKalb District 428 superintendent Douglas Moeller had been accused of sending explicit photos of a former female subordinate employee to the school board, a DeKalb County judge found him guilty of non-consensual dissemination of a private sexual image, a class 4 felony.

The Dec. 5 verdict was read two months after a two-day bench trial that saw Moeller’s victim, a former district school resource police officer, and two former school board members offer testimony.

DeKalb County Circuit Court Judge Philip Montgomery’s ruling also found that Moeller had sent the private images without the woman’s permission and gone to great lengths to hide who texted them to school board members.

Moeller, 65, of Elgin, is set to be sentenced Jan. 31. He’s represented by Clay Campbell, former DeKalb County State’s Attorney. He faces up to three years in prison.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that Moeller sent the compromising photos of the woman because she scorned his sexual advances and had filed a complaint against him for unwanted attention. Moeller enlisted a former student to help him buy the cell phone he used to send the photos, prosecutors said. He sent the photos to school board members months after he was placed on leave and a day after the board approved a separation agreement with him in February 2018.

Moeller, of Elgin, was the district’s superintendent from 2014 to 2016. He declined to testify in his own defense during the trial.

Moeller was arrested April 13, 2018, more than a year after he was placed on leave from his $199,600-a-year position Sept. 20, 2016.

Longtime community pool in Sycamore to close, future of potential aquatic facility up in the air

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Sycamore Park District officials announced the 40-year old community pool had seen its last swimmer.

The Nov. 23 announcement cited the pool’s aged condition and what park district officials said was a significant high cost to repair or replace the pool – between $5.5 million and $7 million – that had reportedly operated at a loss for the past 11 years.

Officials estimated that the pool would have lost about $66,762 in operating deficit had it remained open for the 2023 pool season.

There’s no timeline for whether, or when, a new community pool could come to Sycamore. Officials estimate a new aquatic facility – which Sycamore residents said they wanted in a recent park district survey – could cost more than $16 million.

Meta’s DeKalb Data Center expands its investment to top $1 billion on DeKalb’s south side

Construction on one of the buildings continues Wednesday, April 27, 2022, at the Meta DeKalb Data Center.

In April, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, announced plans to expand its already-in-progress DeKalb Data Center, topping its local investment above $1 billion.

The social media giant’s DeKalb footprint also meant expanded community grants for schools and nonprofits, including DeKalb District 428.

The expanded development will mean an additional three buildings on the city’s south side, meant to be completed in the 1500 block of Gurler Road by 2023.

The almost 2.4 million-square-foot facility will represent an investment with 200 operational jobs, officials said. Construction is expected to employ more than 1,200 workers over the length of the build.

In the data center’s first two years of construction, crews have moved 1.4 million tons of dirt, poured 10,500 cubic yards of concrete and erected 7,500 tons of steel, said Stefan Kasan, infra construction manager and site lead at Meta on April 27.

Downtown DeKalb gets a makeover: $1.8M Lincoln Highway renovation

Lincoln Highway Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022, from Second Street looking west after the recent downtown DeKalb renovations.

Downtown DeKalb looks a little different now as a summer $1.8 million reconfiguration project for the downtown strip of Lincoln Highway was mostly completed.

The project turned a four-lane section of East Lincoln Highway, from First Street to the middle of the block between Third and Fourth streets, into three lanes. The railroad crossing at the intersection of Lincoln Highway and Fourth streets was not be included in the project.

New sidewalks were poured and expanded as part of the resifting of lanes in a plan that city officials said was meant to inspire more foo traffic downtown, and encourage businesses to expand offerings such as patron seating at restaurants, outside.

The significant construction work completed in time for Corn Fest began around Memorial Day and ended late August, temporarily impacting commuters and pedestrian flow.

City officials said they wanted to ease speeding truck traffic in the area, too.

Work continues on the sidewalk of Lincoln Highway near First Street Wednesday June 29, 2022, in DeKalb. Construction is ongoing on Lincoln Highway between First and Fourth Streets.

Village of Waterman sues own president for holiday train debacle

The Village of Waterman sued its village president in January for $28,000 worth of clean-up costs after a fire destroyed president Pete Robinson’s longtime holiday train site.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 3, was for what the village claimed the government had paid to remove the charred remains of Robinson’s holiday train from a public park after it was destroyed by fire in 2021.

Village officials allege in DeKalb County court documents that Robinson, 74 – who also is founder and owner of the Waterman & Western Railroad – breached the land lease he had with the village for his storage shed where he kept the train materials.

The train was once a Christmas tradition for area residents, a local tourism draw where the Robinsons offered family friendly holiday rides. The lawsuit claims the railroad was not in good standing with the State of Illinois as a corporation and did not have adequate insurance at the time of the fire on April 3, 2021.

Robinson said he maintains he, his wife and Waterman and Western Railroad – all named in the lawsuit – have not done anything wrong. He said he will concede if proven wrong, but won’t resolve the issue until it’s addressed by a judge. He said he’ll only resign as mayor if a court of law tells him to.

The case remains open in court, with a hearing set to go before Circuit Court Chief Judge Bradley Waller at 9 a.m. Jan. 24, according to DeKalb County court records.

Sycamore begins laborious task of replacing lead service lines, with $5.6M in state aid

Bryan Carlson, a Sycamore Public Works employee flushes a fire hydrant Tuesday, Sep. 21, 2021, on Briggs Street in Sycamore.

A yearslong debate continued in 2022 at the city level between Sycamore residents alleging quality of water concerns and city officials facing an ongoing class action lawsuit.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that the agency was “closely tracking” lead levels in Sycamore drinking water after the latest round of water sampling in Sycamore showed several homes tested higher than the legal amount for lead in water.

In the past year and a half, at least 60 Sycamore homes have been tested for lead in the water, with at least six reporting levels ranging from 18 parts per billion to 304. The amount deemed legal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 15. However, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, any amount of lead exposure can be damaging to a person’s brain. The ongoing lead concerns, coupled with several residents experiencing discolored and foul-smelling water, has Sycamore homeowners on edge, saying the city isn’t doing enough to remedy the water problems.

Because of lead concerns throughout the city, the Illinois EPA is requiring the city of Sycamore to increase testing on water samples, a department spokesperson told the Daily Chronicle.

The city of Sycamore began its laborious process this year of replacing lead-lined water service lines throughout the city, offering a plan for residents to have the lines replaced at no cost to them.

The replacement work is being funded in part by several substantial grants the city of Sycamore has received from the Illinois EPA. In December 2021, the IEPA awarded the city with a $1.6 million loan meant to go toward the replacement of water service lines.

An additional $4 million loan was awarded to Sycamore in August. As of July, the city had replaced more than 90 lead water pipelines so far.

That effort came on the heels of state legislation passed last year, and a lengthy saga of water quality concerns documented by Sycamore residents.

City of DeKalb’s updated housing regulations latest in attempted overhaul of citywide rental realities

DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes speaks during a special meeting of the DeKalb City Council Monday, May 9, 2022, in the parking lot of the former Hillcrest Shopping Center. The meeting was held to kick off the demolition process of the strip mall on Hillcrest Drive which will begin Tuesday morning.

Months of debate and an ongoing plan by DeKalb city leaders to address longstanding quality care for area tenants was wrapped un in a new crime-free housing ordinance passed this year by the DeKalb City Council.

The DeKalb City Council’s unanimous decision came after a string of summertime unrelated gun violence reported on the north side that prompted the city’s first homicide of 2022.

The updated ordinance is meant to target what the city called irresponsible landlords and weed out tenants or property owners who don’t do enough to curb unlawful activity in the area.

The ordinance, approved in October, comes with hefty fines for landlords and a set of guidelines that dictate levels of punitive measures the city could take if actions deemed unlawful continue.

DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes called the measure instrumental in his administration’s effort to curb ongoing safety and tenant concerns in the city.

Opponents have argued that the ordinance fails to protect tenant rights and is inadequately addressing the issue of how to abate unlawful activity from occurring on rental properties in the city. Earlier this month, more than a dozen regional and statewide fair housing advocacy groups sent two letters to the city council alleging the ordinance violates state law and risks resident safety, namely low-income or minority residents, women and victims of domestic or sexual abuse.

The city responded to the letters saying the proposed policy wasn’t violating state law, and included protections to ensure victims or witnesses of crimes would not be subject to punitive measures.

The crime-free housing ordinance wasn’t welcomed by all, however.

No to referendum, yes to $8.3M sale: DeKalb County Board votes in tense meeting on nursing center

Brian Gregory (right bottom corner), county administrator, speaks to the DeKalb County Board Wednesday, July 13, 2022 during the board's Committee of the Whole meeting at the Legislative Center in Sycamore. Gregory presented updated financial numbers about the nursing center, which sits about $7 million in debt, as the board considers whether to sell the home to a private buyer or place a property tax referendum on the November 2022 ballot.

A woman’s voice rang out, “Shame on you,” during a tense July 20 meeting as the DeKalb County Board voted to push forward an $8.3 million sale of its struggling nursing home to a private Evanston-based buyer.

And for the second time in four months, the board voted down a ballot referendum in an 11-11 split vote, which would have asked voters if they support a property tax to help the DeKalb County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.

The center – which has been the subject of more than a year of fiscal debate – faces more than $7 million in debt due to what county officials have alleged was mismanagement, delinquent billing and ailing resident numbers.

The failed referendum vote fell largely along political party lines. All present Democrats voted for the referendum, joined by Republicans Patrick Deutsch and Jerry Osland. The remaining 11 Republicans opposed it, while two Democrats – Kiara Jones and Michelle Pickett – were absent.

Chuck Simpson, a 33-year employee of the nursing center, said he was very upset by the board’s decision to sell the nursing home the county has owned for 169 years. Simpson became the interim president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees No. 3537, the union that represents the county center’s employees, after serving as the vice president in the summer of 2022.

“It’s going to be a long day trying to explain it to the residents tomorrow that it’s no longer going to be a county facility,” Simpson said after the mid summer county board meeting. Simpson said he expected to see tears from coworkers the Thursday after the county board’s decision.

“A private nursing home is just not your home,” Simpson said.

DeKalb County Board seat flips after state elections board finds mail-in ballots were counted twice

Incumbent DeKalb County Board member Laurie Emmer, a Republican from District 4, found out she'd been reelected to the board on Nov. 30, 2022 through an email and phone call with DeKalb County Clerk and Recorder, Douglas Johnson. Emmer spent 21 days thinking she'd lost her County Board seat before an error an election vendor was caught by the Illinois State Board of Elections. Pictured: Emmer listens to public comment during the DeKalb County Board's Committee of the Whole meeting Wednesday, April 13, 2022, at the DeKalb County Legislative Center in Sycamore.

The result of a DeKalb County Board race changed after DeKalb County Clerk and Recorder Douglas Johnson announced on his last day in office the Illinois State Board of Elections found an error in mail-in ballot tabulation.

“When [Illinois State Board of Elections] started going through it they saw a discrepancy and they called us up and said ‘contact your vendor and see what you did here, what’s up?’” Johnson said.

Johnson said a reporter asked him on election night where the vote by mail ballots were, and he said he recalled saying they’d been lumped in with the early voting ballots.

“I was correct at the time, but the next morning the vendor came back in to go back over stuff and he’s like, ‘Oh my, I didn’t upload the vote by mails’ because the column was zero,” Johnson said. “So he went ahead and uploaded them, which he shouldn’t have done.”

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