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Local stories of 2019

DeKalb 1st Ward Alderwoman Carolyn Morris (left) talks with Tiffany Meadows, (center) from Hunter Properties, as residents begin to remove their belongings from Ridgebrook Apartments July 10 at 808 Ridge Drive in DeKalb, a day after a fire at the complex caused injuries and displaced tenants.
DeKalb 1st Ward Alderwoman Carolyn Morris (left) talks with Tiffany Meadows, (center) from Hunter Properties, as residents begin to remove their belongings from Ridgebrook Apartments July 10 at 808 Ridge Drive in DeKalb, a day after a fire at the complex caused injuries and displaced tenants.

At the close of 2019, the staff of the Daily Chronicle chose what it thought were the biggest, most impactful stories of the past year. Here we present those stories that were the most read and important of the past 12 months, in no particular order.

St. Albans Green fire

On July 27, Building A at the St. Albans Green apartment complex in Sycamore went up in flames in one of the largest fires in Sycamore's history. The fire began in late afternoon and continued through the night, with flareups continuing through Sunday and hotspots reigniting in the days that followed.

People nearby reported hearing a pair of explosions. Incredibly, everyone made it out of the building alive, although 120 residents were permanently displaced. Sycamore School District opened nearby Southeast School as a shelter location. Volunteers from the Red Cross were meeting with families in the school's gym.

Area businesses and residents came together to raise money for the residents who lost their homes in the fire. Sycamore Strong - A Gathering of Hope took place less than two weeks later, and the Turning Back Time Car Show donated to residents the day after the fire. Sycamore Food Pantry also helped out residents.

More than 100 days later, demolition of the ruins began. Property owner Jim Mason plans to erect a series of townhomes on the site of the former Building A.

DeKalb city seal

On July 22, after a city council meeting, DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith asked City Clerk Lynn Fazekas to resign from her position. Two days later, Fazekas announced that she would not, setting off a battle that for months would drag on and lead the council to debate the nature of the office.

At the heart was Fazekas holding onto the City Seal, used for stamping official documents and permits in the city, even though she was not at city hall during full business hours. Smith said Fazekas was impeding city business. City Manager Bill Nicklas said in emails obtained by the Daily Chronicle that Fazekas was failing to perform her job, calling her "sour and unprofessional."

In the middle of the dispute was Ruth Scott, deputy city clerk and executive assistant to the city manager. Fazekas would fire Scott and hours later Nicklas would rehire her.

In September, business leaders came to city council to say that local media coverage of the dispute was impacting business in the city and could deter developers to come to DeKalb. Council passed an ordinance to eliminate the Deputy Clerk position and the duties would instead be designated to whoever fulfills the role of executive assistant to the city manager. The clerk remains a part-time elected role, and designates the City Seal to both the clerk and the executive assistant, who is allowed to use it in the clerk's absence.

In October, Fazekas filed a lawsuit in DeKalb County Circuit Court, saying the new rules were unconstitutional.

Recreational marijuana

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in June, making it the 11th state to do so.

In response, local communities began debating whether or not they wanted to allow sales of recreational marijuana within their city limits. The cities of DeKalb and Sycamore both approved sales of recreational marijuana, and voted to tax the sales at the maximum 3% allowed by the state.

DeKalb County also voted to allow sales of recreational marijuana within areas under its jurisdiction, but voted a moratorium through June to have more time to sort out details.

No businesses selling recreational marijuana in the county will be open on Jan. 1, but the program is set to expand over the course of several years throughout the state.

DeKalb aparment fires

In July, DeKalb was rocked by a series of suspected arsons in apartment buildings owned by the city's largest landlord, Hunter Properties.

In the waning hours of July 9, residents leapt from the burning building at 808 Ridge Drive as a fire engulfed the third floor hallway. Days later, residents recounted throwing their babies from third floor balconies to safety. Six people were taken to the hospital and 140 people were displaced by the fire. The building remains condemned as city officials look to the property owners to address what they say are building code violations that existed prior to the fire.

Two days later, investigators looked into another suspected arson at another Hunter Properties building at 930 Greenbrier Road. That building was also condemned but later reopened. It's the second summer in a row that suspected arsons have plagued Hunter Ridgebrook apartment complex.

Following the fires, city officials issued warnings to Hunter Properties, alleging a pattern of property neglect that has since been taken to DeKalb County court.

Records showed the city had cited Hunter Properties for more than 500 violations since 2017, many of which have still gone unresolved.

The fiery summer also led to the founding of the DeKalb Tenant Association, tenants across DeKalb County advocating for renter reform and landlord accountability.

Project Hammer

Two large projects began eyeing property south of Interstate 88 in DeKalb this year. One of the businesses, later dubbed "Project Hammer," is an international confectioner that is seeking to combine several operations in the Midwest. City officials said it could bring in 1,000 jobs and substantial tax revenue to the area.

The end of the year was marked by DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas attending meetings of local taxing bodies to have them agree to a 15-year tax abatement plan to incentivize the confectioner to come to DeKalb.

DeKalb is competing with a similar-sized city in Wisconsin for the business.

All of the relevant taxing bodies signed on to the plan, which will abate 50% of property taxes from 10 bodies total, and sometime in 2020 it will be announced whether or not DeKalb will be home to the confectioner.

Egyptian Theatre 90th Anniversary

In its 90th year, the Egyptian Theatre began a renovation to restore and modernize the historic theater in downtown DeKalb.

Among the new amenities coming to the theater would be air conditioning, expanded concession offerings, more bathrooms, new carpeting and installing baby changing stations.

The project is estimated to cost $4.5 million. It's received grants from local and state sources to help defray the cost. It also received $2.5 million in tax increment financing funds from the City of DeKalb.

To educate the community, the theater began holding hard hat tours in October to showcase the ongoing work.

The project is expected to be completed by summer 2020.

Tasing on video

DeKalb made national news in August after cellphone video showed DeKalb police wrestling with an Aurora man on the ground and a DeKalb County Sheriff's Deputy tased the man.

Elonte McDowell of Aurora was pulled over by DeKalb police at 10:59 a.m. on Aug. 24. Police said they were acting on information from Snapchat that McDowell was selling a large amount of marijuana. Video later released of the stop showed a K9 unit searching the Chevy Malibu McDowell was driving. McDowell asked several times why he was being pulled over but police did not answer.

At 11:08 a.m., police cruiser dash cam video showed police grabbed McDowell by the wrists before he appeared to dart away.

Cell phone video showed a DeKalb police sergeant wrestle McDowell to the ground and a DeKalb County Sheriff's deputy use a Taser on McDowell, who appeared to be rendered unconscious. The police officer was later reassigned to desk duty.

The fallout that followed the controversial arrest included a public meeting during which community members expressed their fear of DeKalb police, and a rally and march by community members and Northern Illinois University students with a list of demands for the DeKalb Police Department including policy reform and sensitivity training.

After an Illinois State Police investigation, a DeKalb County grand jury declined to indict the DeKalb police sergeant, who will also be subject to an internal investigation by DeKalb police to determine whether he violated department policy.

Cleveland sentenced

The former Kingston Township Assessor resigned her post as part of a guilty plea in March. Cleveland was charged in 2017 with forgery, official misconduct and failure of a local assessment officer to perform duties. In June, however, Cleveland sought to retract her guilty plea.

In August, Cleveland testified at a hearing that she did not understand the nature of her guilty plea and that she was rushed into making the decision. At the time, she said, she believed she had no other option.

Judge Phillip Montgomery denied the motion to vacate Cleveland's guilty plea, saying he did not believe her testimony.

On Dec. 13, Montgomery sentenced Cleveland to 60 days in jail to begin immediately. Cleveland is good time eligible, meaning she could be out of jail in 30 days.

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