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In his own words: Mayor on North Chicago controversies

North Chicago Mayor LeRockingham Jr. begins his third term North Chicago City Hall. | Joe Shuman~For Sun-Times Media

North Chicago Mayor Leon Rockingham, Jr. begins his third term at the North Chicago City Hall. | Joe Shuman~For Sun-Times Media

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Darrin Hanna, 45, died Nov. 13, 2011, a week after he was arrested for alleged domestic battery. An autopsy found that physical trauma and restraint, including Taser use, were contributing factors to his death. But after reviewing the findings of a four-month-long investigation by the Illinois State Police Integrity Unit, the Lake County State’s Attorney declared that police used reasonable force.

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Updated: July 10, 2013 2:27AM

North Chicago Mayor Leon Rockingham, who was re-elected to a third term last month, spent 31 years with Illinois Bell, most of them as a lineman climbing telephone poles in all kinds of weather. When the ladder wouldn’t reach, he had to “gaff” or mount the splintery creosole pole on hooks.

“In training, they told us not to think about anything else till we got to the top of that pole and belted-in,” Rockingham said. “It’s all about focus.”

It’s that focus that has helped the embattled mayor through a rough second term, which included attacks on his leadership, a police department embroiled in controversy over allegations of excessive force and a police chief under indictment for theft. Here, in an extended interview, Rockingham talks about the controversies, the death of his wife and the future of North Chicago.

Q: Darrin Hanna, who died in custody after an arrest by North Chicago police, was ruled a homicide. What did you learn from the incident? What would you have done differently?

A: There’s still tension in the city. We could have done a better job of training. But if the officers did anything illegal or that warranted charges, the state would have seen it. It’s not my job to criminally charge people. That’s the job of the State’s Attorney. I did put the officers on desk duty pending the outcome of an independent investigation.

I don’t think any answer I give would be good enough. I just let the family and others have their say. The case got the attention of the media and it’s been going since. I respect the family. I’m sorry for their loss. I do sympathize with them. But our officers have a really tough job. Every day that they go out they don’t know what’s going to happen and they have a right to get back to their loved ones just like anybody else.

Q: A month later your wife Gwen died after a three-year battle with ovarian cancer. What was it like to go through the Hanna case at the same time?

A: During the Darrin Hanna incident, I was spending every night in a Lay-Z-Boy at Lake Forest Hospital. I didn’t tell many people about my wife’s illness. A few of my closer department heads knew. So I would spend the night with her then come home, shower and go to work. I’d sit here in the office and about 4:30, 5 p.m. I’d look out my window and see trucks from CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, all start lining up. Then I’d go out and face City Council. I was trying to figure out how the Hanna arrest − a terrible, tragic situation − should be investigated, what was going on with the chief (former Police Chief Mike Newsome), and always thinking about going back to the hospital. I’m glad my wife didn’t know too much about it. She was trying to get stronger. There was a point where I had no peace at work and I had no peace at home. But I do have faith, and that was the time I really had to hold on to it.

Q: How has your faith informed your leadership style?

A: Mom sent me to Sunday School and as I grew, she made sure I went to church. The pastor would always tell us, “Don’t be a bench warmer,” and so I got involved. I became a trustee and an usher. Faith is something you can lean on for a lot of the things you go through in life and it has brought me a long way. I believe in prayer. Throughout the Hanna crisis, I prayed for peace. I didn’t pray for the situation to go away, but to have some type of conclusion. Faith also says to wait. You can ask for something, ask a question, and there are three possible answers: yes, no or wait. I think we’re still waiting and I’ll accept that and when a conclusion comes, God will give us that peace.

Q: You’re an Eagle Scout and a board member for the Boy Scouts Northeast Illinois Council. What do you think of the Scouts’ recent decision to overturn a ban on gay participants?

A: My church may not agree with me, but when the survey came out, I did pretty much accept it. Times are changing. My faith is (that) it’s one man and one woman. But how I react to people, how I treat people, is going to be the same whether they’re gay or not. I believe in treating everyone with respect. And, if that’s what’s going to make you happy in your life − life is so short. My wife and I used to look back on raising our kids and say to each other “just a moment in time.” A moment, that’s all we do have.

Q: You won a third term as mayor last month after a primary challenge by three Democrats, including two on your council. At the swearing-in ceremony this week, you thanked some who opposed you, including your harshest critics. What have you learned from them?

A: Everyone has their view on how they think the city should be run. My opponents believe their direction, their vision and their leadership is the direction the city needs to go in. As mayor, you take bits and pieces from everyone, either good or bad, in shaping the direction you want to go. Alderman (Bobby) Allen ran a respectful campaign and stayed on issues. He didn’t get into the mud and that’s how I ran my campaign. If people want you back in, they want you back in for your leadership and I look forward to Alderman Allen’s leadership as we move forward over the next four years.

Q: The chairman of your Finance Committee, 4th Ward Alderman Bobby Allen, worries that the city can’t afford the two raises − step-increases and cost-of-living − it gives each year to employees. He, and others, have pushed for a salary freeze. Are you worried?

A: Our budget right now is solid. We are doing OK. We’re about $5 million in cash reserves. When I came onboard (in 2005) we were about $1 million. But we’re not there anymore, partly because residents took a tax increase, but the city did a lot, too. We consolidated the water plant and street department, chose not to fill some positions and put off equipment purchases. We’re going to always try to hold the line as best we can. We’re dealing with union negotiations and we’re trying to keep increases as minimal as possible. Our unions are realizing the economy is trying to turn around but it hasn’t yet. I think they’re at least willing to work with us and I appreciate that.

Q: You make $57,000 a year, including $5,000 as liquor commissioner. Do you think you deserve a raise?

A: I haven’t had an increase since I was elected in 2005. I think the position deserves a raise. You’re running a city. For North Chicago, it’s a full-time position. To know that secretaries earn as much as you do, it’s kind of hard. But I don’t do this job for the money. I really want to see Sheridan Crossing up and developed, more development on Green Bay Road. I want to see less crime. I want to see our police have the manpower they need to cover the city.

Q: You have cited public safety as a priority. Your police department is understaffed. What’s your plan for the summer?

A: We’ve hired six new officers. Two are on the road, the other four should start by August. We hope to bring in an additional three or four, which will put us pretty close to full complement, which is 63. As for this summer, MEG (Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group) is helping us and even the state helps on some occasions. It’s important to have those relationships. We’re also targeting hotspots, problem spots, in the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Lincoln, along Hervey and Broadway.

Q: Property owners have seen steady tax increases under your administration, as high as 18 percent in 2007. Are you going to raise property taxes for 2014?

A: In 2007, we were in a deficit and we did away with our vehicle stickers to give residents some kind of relief. Now I’m hearing, ‘Why don’t you bring in vehicle stickers?’ The 4.9 increase last year doesn’t bring in a lot − $300,000-$400,000. But it’s needed to supply services. We still have close to 190 employees. We need vehicles. We continue to hold the line as much as we can but we need to make sure we get the funding we need. About 75 percent of our expenditures are salaries and benefits. Yes, it’s quite possible we’ll ask for an increase of 4.9 percent. I hope that’s what the council approves.

Q: The city is making principal payments on several bond issues for the Grant Place shopping center and Sheridan Crossing, which is still waiting to be developed. Payments due Nov. 1 total nearly $1 million. Are you comfortable with that?

A: We have revenue available to make those payments for at least another year or so then, hopefully, we’ll get development. That’s our goal. We have groups working very hard to try to bring it in.

Q: According to the last census, the city has a homeownership rate of 40 percent compared to 70 percent statewide. What challenges does that pose?

A: You can only control what you can control. We have to make sure rental properties are kept up. In North Chicago, you have to have a license to own property, so we know who to contact. We’re going to put tighter nuisance ordinances in place. We have a lot of homeowners under water. They’re walking way. We’ve got to get with the banks to refinance those mortgages.

Q: Residents have complained about “Chicago crime” arriving in North Chicago, along with people who are bringing their housing vouchers after their public housing in Chicago was bulldozed. What can the city do?

A: If they have a voucher and we have the housing, not much. But what we can do is try to bring in jobs to help people support themselves. Sheridan Crossing, when it’s developed, will bring in jobs. A casino would bring in jobs. Yes, Sheridan Crossing could be a site for a casino. I would support that. I get calls constantly from people who say ‘I’m willing to work. I had a good job.’ We have a lot of people who just need an opportunity.

Q: Your favorite pastime is camping. Why?

A: In 1972, me and a best friend took a road trip to Key West (Fla.) to go scuba diving. We camped on the way down and back − in the South. From then till now I can say I’ve never had a bad experience camping. People have always been respectful, no matter their color. There have been a lot of looks. Yes. You get a lot of looks. My wife and I bought a 37-foot motorhome, a Tiffin, just before she got sick. How many does it sleep? My wife and I used to say “two.” We called it “roughing it smoothly.” When we were young, we had a tent, took Similac in a cooler. Then we got a Starcraft pop-up. We pulled it down to the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. Camping gets me away.

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