Community Briefs

Palos Hills

Health Expo

The Palos Hills Community Resource and Recreation Department will hold a Health Expo from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, March 14 at the Community Center, 8455 W. 103rd St.

The expo will offer services including blood pressure screenings, dental screenings, body fat index analysis, and chair massages. Some services will be free and there will be a lower-than-usual charge for others. The expo is open to the general public.

The event will also feature vendors, and product displays and informational pamphlets on issues such as preventing heart disease and dental problems. The secretary of state's office will offer driver's license renewals and state ID cards. Proper identification is required for either a driver's license or state ID.

Vendors will include Walgreens, Ingalls Health Program Representatives, PACE, and Plows Council on Aging.

For more information call the Community Center at 430-4500.

-Kelly White

Evergreen top cop dismisses Fox News reports of gun deals, racial profiling

Says story is sensationalism, 'figment of the imagination'

By Laura Bollin

The police chief of Evergreen Park on Monday night responded to a news report that police officers from his department have been making deals for guns with would-be arrestees.

Chief Michael Saunders spoke at the Village Board's meeting about a Fox News Chicago story that alleged Evergreen Park police officers have been letting motorists out of traffic tickets in return for firearms. Saunders said the allegations are false.

"The officers were allegedly telling people to put their guns in a garbage can, and then the police would give the person a throwaway cell phone, and they could call and the officers would go get the gun, and then they would get out of the traffic stop," Saunders said. "What I explained [to Fox] was, first of all, nobody has come into the department and filed a complaint."

Saunders also responded to allegations by Fox News and the Better Government Association that the police department is guilty of racial profiling. The accusation arose after someone reportedly submitted an allegation to a Fox News reporter, Saunders said. He dismissed the allegations as "figments of the imagination."

The stories about the department aired on television last week, and Saunders declined to be interviewed by Fox because the allegations were false, he said.

"I'm not racist," Saunders said. "I don't care what color people are, or what color my officers are, I just want the best ones. [The allegations are] sensationalism. That's all this is."

The department reportedly received several calls from the press concerning the number of traffic stops and arrests relative to "benchmark analyses," which are reported to the Illinois Department of Transportation on an annual basis, the department stated in a press release. The current benchmark, based on a police review from 2004, estimated the minority driving population through the village at 62.57 percent. Saunders believes the current percentage should be closer to 90 percent.

A team of professors at Northwestern University in 2004 designated the benchmark at 12.3 percent - a figure Saunders called "impossible." That percentage was based on the demographics in Evergreen Park, and 12.3 percent is the minority population in Evergreen Park, not the driving population in the town, he said. He believed the 2004 figure to be impossible because of the village's close proximity to Chicago, and the number of Chicagoans that come into Evergreen Park to work and shop.

Saunders is currently putting together his own study on the minority driving population in Evergreen Park to submit to Northwestern University in March, and the university will then evaluate it, he said.

"A lot of these people come out this way to shop because of the lack of businesses on the South Side, which is one of the reasons we have such a high volume of traffic in town," Saunders said.

"We have two hospitals, Little Company of Mary and Advocate Christ, nearby; and we have the same traffic as the south side of Chicago," Saunders said.

Evergreen Park police reported 20,353 traffic stops in 2011 - 5,697 of Caucasian drivers and 14,656 of minority drivers. Chicago police during the same year reported seven times as many traffic stops as Evergreen Park with 140,942 - 39,780 of Caucasian drivers and 100,227 of minority drivers. Evergreen Park has a population of 25,044 people, roughly 108 times fewer than Chicago, which has an estimated population of roughly 2.7 million people.

"It is staggering they only made seven times more stops than us," Saunders said. "When we stop people, we stop people are who are driving with suspended licenses, revoked licenses, people with warrants, or people with guns or drugs in their cars."

Based on zip code analysis, 92.7 percent of drivers stopped in Evergreen Park - 15,926 out of 17,175 - live outside the village, according to data provided to the police department by IDOT. Minority drivers - 12,538 drivers out of 17,175 stopped - accounted for 73 percent of stops that year, the data shows.

The percentage of minority stops is reflective of traffic coming from outside Evergreen Park, particularly Chicago, police said. The police department records all of the racial information of arrestees via computer, and submits that data annually to IDOT.

The department states it has procedures in place that give stringent regulation to fair and unbiased enforcement of laws including traffic enforcement. Every traffic stop in the village is recorded on video with audio. Moving radar as well as stationary radar detections determines the speed of a vehicle prior to being able to see any identifying characteristics of a driver or passengers, police said.

Some OL trustees say upgrades a must at Central & SW Hwy

By Laura Bollin

A new fund allocation policy for infrastructure projects in Oak Lawn will not prohibit what some trustees say is an important safety project, according to the village's mayor.

Trustees voted 3-2 Feb. 12 to approve a policy that will distribute a portion of the village's remaining Build America Bond funds equally to each of the village's six trustee districts to fund their own infrastructure projects, whether that is repairing potholes or paving alleys.

The village has about $7 million in remaining bond revenues, said Trustee Bob Streit, chairman of the Village Board's public works committee. Of that money, $1 million is earmarked for the expansion of the Village Green, $2 million will go toward sewer projects, and $4 million will be divided equally to between the six trustees - that is $666,000 apiece - to spend within their districts as they please.

One project discussed by trustees is adding a left turn lane and traffic signal at Central Avenue and Southwest Highway. Some trustees said the project is important for safety reasons, while others are concerned the village does not have the money to finance the project this year.

Cook County Commissioner John P. Daley (11th District) and Cook County Highways Superintendent John Yonan were onhand last week to answer the board's questions about the leftturn lane project. Yonan said the intersection is not among the top 10 projects for the county, but is an important for Oak Lawn and has the full support of the Cook County Highway Department.

"It is the top accident location in the village," Yonan said, noting that collisions involving vehicles turning into traffic and being sideswiped have occurred at the intersection.

When the intersection was repaved in 1990, a left-turn lane was not added because of objections from residents, Daley said.

Oak Lawn village manager Larry Deetjen said the $1.6 million project was for a dedicated left-turn lane and left-turn signal at Central Avenue and Southwest Highway, near St. Gerald Church and School and blocks from Oak Lawn High School. The project would impact drivers turning from Central onto Southwest Highway, Deetjen said. The village will split the project 50/50 with the county.

This year, the village was expected to spend $300,000 on the project, and then spent the remaining $500,000 in 2014. With each trustee district being given its own funds, trustees may pool the money to finance the project. A 2009 traffic study at the intersection determined that a left-turn lane was warranted, Deetjen said.

"The project can still go forward," Oak Lawn Mayor Dave Heilmann said. "We just have to find a new way to allocate the funds."

Trustee Tom Duhig said the alley program is a much lower priority than the safety and security of the intersection.

Trustees have discussed not funding the alley project - at a cost of $3 million.

"I support moving forward with [the Central and Southwest Highway] project, but we need to figure out how we are going to pay for it," Streit said.

Trustee Carol Quinlan agreed.

"I support the project, but I don't think we have the funds for it right now," she said. "What if Trustee Duhig and Trustee [Alex] Olejniczak each took $100,000 of their funds to fund the project?"

Duhig suggesting having each of the six trustees put $50,000 toward the $300,000 cost the project in 2013; however, Quinlan opposes that plan.

Olejniczak said the project must be completed.

"We know monies are tight, but when we have matching funds, we need to do this," Olejniczak said. "This is a safety issue in this neighborhood. St. Gerald's Church and School and Oak Lawn High School would all be positively affected by putting this project forward. Oak Lawn High School traffic goes through there, and we are dedicated to making that intersection safer."

The intersection of Central and Southwest Highway is the only intersection along Central Highway between 79th to 115th streets without a left turn lane, Yonan said.

"A left turn lane will decrease the safety issues and ease the flow of traffic," Yonan said.

Once the village board decides to fund the project, the next step is a right of way acquisition, which would cost approximately $57,000, Deetjen said. The right of way is insufficient, so the village needs to begin work on acquiring the slivers of hand between the existing curb and the sidewalk. When the project is approved by the Village Board, Oak Lawn will have to notify homeowners on the east side of Central Avenue between 91st Street and Southwest Highway about the right of way acquisition, and then reimburse them, Deetjen said.

"Normally, the right of way includes the street and the sidewalk, but years ago, when the properties were developed, the village did not acquire sufficient land on the sidewalk on the east side of Central Avenue," Deetjen said. "The ball is in the village's court to acquire the property."

Pending the board's decision on how to fund the project, construction could start in July 2013. If it is not approved in 2013, construction could begin in spring 2014, Yonan said.

What do you say?

What was your reaction to the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia?

(Asked at the Oak Lawn Public Library)

Faith Flores,
Blue Island

"It really left me in awe of our planet."

Kali Pytel,
Evergreen Park

"I think they need to do a better job of warning people. I felt like no one knew about it. They should have evacuated where it was going to hit."

Lourdes Garcia,
Oak Lawn

"I think it would be horrifying if I had to live there. It makes you think that a meteorite could hit anywhere in this world. If a big meteorite hit, it would be catastrophic. Like the dinosaurs, life may perish."

Peter Setaro,
Oak Lawn

"I think it was awesome."

Tom Matthews,
Evergreen Park

"It was bad. There should have been a lot more warning."

A-maze-ing memorial

Museum exhibit remembers life of Megan Hurckes

By Laura Bollin

Visitors to the Children's Museum in Oak Lawn may not all have known Megan Hurckes, but a new exhibit may cause them to remember her.

The museum on Valentine's Day dedicated Megan's Maze in memory of the late Oak Lawn girl, who died more than three years ago. The maze, known as a "super perplexus," was designed by San Francisco-based sculpture artist Michael McGinnis. It consists of a clear sphere three feet in diameter that contains things Megan loved, said her father, Jerry Hurckes.

"The perplexus is everything Megan liked," Hurckes said. "It has softball - she played (Westside) softball in Oak Lawn -- aquatic stuff, her name, the mitt. It's all about Megan. We wanted to do something different and unique for the kids and also be a tribute to Megan."

The maze is set up like a softball diamond, and youths manipulate a ball through the labyrinth to "run the bases," explained Children's Museum director Adam Woodworth. The maze begins on the left-hand side of the batter's box because Megan was left-handed. Woodworth called the exhibit "one-of-a-kind."

"It has a baseball bat and mitt that are regulation size for a 10- year-old girl," he said. "When (McGinnis) was developing the maze, he had questions like if she was left-handed or right-handed, because that mattered to him. It also has dolphins, a whale, a seahorse and starfish, because Megan was thinking about becoming an oceanographer when she was older.

"When you start the maze, you are actually manipulating the ball through her name in purple letters. The mitt and bat are orange because those were her favorite colors."

A special touch was added by McGinnis. A small, dime-sized dot at the start of the maze represents one day of Megan's life, relative to the length of the maze. A plaque at the base of the maze features Megan's photograph and lets visitors know the maze was donated by the Weglarz Family and the Megan Hurckes Scholarship Fund.

Woodworth said Megan's parents, Jerry and Mary Ann, and family friend Mark Weglarz worked together to develop the maze, which took three years to plan and build. Weglarz saw smaller versions that McGinnis sold online, and saw that he had created larger versions for other museums and private collections.

Woodworth said the exhibit is geared for children 6 years and older, though younger children can manipulate the maze with a parent's help. Woodworth said the maze will help children develop critical thinking skills. He is planning to create a Megan's Maze section at the museum to feature tabletop and wooden mazes for children to explore.

Megan Hurckes was 10 when she was involved in a fatal ATV accident while vacationing with her family in Kingston, Wis., during Labor Day weekend in 2009. The Hurckes family has since memorialized Megan in multiple ways, including a scholarship fund in her name and an annual bowling outing held on her birthday.

"Losing a child is very, very tough," Jerry Hurckes said. "You go through a lot of emotions, and you want to do something where your child will always be remembered. This way, it was a win-win for everyone: the community, the museum, the kids, and our family. We wanted to give back to the community that has donated to the scholarship fund.

"This exhibit is permanent. It will always be dedicated to Megan. It's awesome, a nice, warm feeling. My daughter will be remembered by many children who never knew her, but they will be playing Megan's Maze."