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Madigan’s bid to shift control of Lincoln museum advances

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan | Sun-Times files

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan | Sun-Times files

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Updated: June 28, 2014 6:30AM

SPRINGFIELD — The push by House Speaker Michael Madigan to shift control of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum advanced in the House on Monday amid questions about the speaker’s friendship with a pair of key players in the last-minute, fast-moving policy debate.

The Chicago Democrat’s plan, which was filed late Friday as lawmakers were heading into the long Memorial Day weekend, moved out of the House Executive Committee on a 10-1 vote and now awaits action by the full House.

His measure would take the Lincoln library and museum away from the state Historic Preservation Agency and establish a separate agency to oversee one of Springfield’s top tourist destinations, which has drawn more than 3 million visitors since opening in stages during 2004 and 2005.

The new agency would be controlled by a board of directors appointed by the governor and subject to confirmation by the Illinois Senate. That board would be empowered to pick the library and museum’s executive director.

“Given the significance of this library and museum to the state of Illinois, it ought to be a free-standing entity operating on its own without being required to operate under jurisdiction of another agency,” Madigan told the panel.

After Monday’s hearing, Madigan acknowledged having a friendship with the museum’s executive director, Eileen 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 said he has been considering the idea for “four or five months” but 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.

In an interview, Mackevich said she supports Madigan’s plan, which does not put her in lockstep with the governor’s office, which has not yet staked out a position on Madigan’s idea.

“It’s a good idea if it’s possible and if it works for everybody,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think that the museum and library are among the gems of the state, intellectually and culturally. And the fact it would be able to be a standalone institution would strengthen it greatly.”

The administration is neutral on Madigan’s legislation, Chris Wills, a spokesman for the Historic Preservation Agency, said before Monday’s hearing.

Mackevich and Historic Preservation Agency Director Amy Martin have had disagreements, including over where to house and how to display a potential gift from former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III of his political papers and those of three previous generations of his family, including his father, Adlai Stevenson II, who was a former governor and a Democratic presidential nominee, and Adlai Stevenson, who served under President Grover Cleveland as vice president.

Martin and Mackevich also have disagreed on the importance of a potential exhibit of Civil War-era music at the Lincoln museum, which was Mackovich’s idea. She described it as not a “high priority” for Martin, who could not be reached Monday.

But Mackevich insisted a personality clash with her boss, Martin, is not what is driving Madigan’s legislation.

“I don’t think this is a personality clash. If that’s what people are trying to say, that’s not so. I’m long in the tooth. I’m a person who’s been founder and president of the Chicago Humanities Council. I ran the National Bicentennial Commission. I’m willing to share of my knowledge and learning. I think what we’re talking about is different visions, not a personality clash,” she said. “There’s a big difference.”

The library and museum have had a succession of executive directors since its inception and has first faced questions about patronage even before ground was broken on the complex. When former Gov. George Ryan first sought out to staff the facility shortly after its 2001 groundbreaking, he contemplated moving his longtime chief of staff, Robert Newtson, into Mackevich’s current role but backed off amid criticism from then-U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., and a string of hard-hitting columns from the late Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal.

Madigan, who was at the center of a patronage scandal at Metra last year in which he allegedly tried to influence raises and hiring decisions at the transit agency for decades, denied that his move would politicize the Lincoln library and museum or turn it into his own “political playpen.”

“No, I wouldn’t expect that,” Madigan told reporters.

The only “no” vote during Monday’s committee roll call came from state Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, who said he was not aware of operational problems at the Lincoln library and museum to warrant changing its control structure.

Sosnowski also said he was not aware of Madigan’s friendship with Balzekas and Mackevich.

“That just adds to my concern if there’s some personal issues there. Obviously, that raises a concern,” Sosnowski told Early & Often, the Chicago Sun-Times online political portal. “To have this kind of come out of left field at the last minute of session raises question marks in my mind.”

Madigan made his presentation to the House Executive Committee along with the chairman of the library and museum’s advisory board, Urbana lawyer J. Steven Beckett, who has held the post for two years.

“It was a great honor to be selected and I think everyone of us who was selected on the advisory board had great hopes that we’re going to have a significant role to play regarding the operation of the museum and library here in the state of Illinois. We were greatly disappointed when we saw the organizational structure,” Beckett said.

“We actually had very little say in the operation of the library and museum. We have struggled with vacancies particularly on the library side. We have an internationally preeminent library that is currently down 17 staff members,” Beckett told the committee.

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