Pillsbury redux

County says OK to environmental felon

click to enlarge Joseph Chernis, Jr.
Joseph Chernis, Jr.

Joseph Chernis, Jr. is back.

Recently an inmate, Chernis was mastermind of illegal salvage operations at Pillsbury Mill on Springfield's north end. After hiring a homeless man to collect asbestos with little more than plastic bags and a flimsy mask, Chernis in 2014 ka-boomed the neighborhood with a surprise pull-down of a building that sent a cloud of who-knows-what billowing through yards and streets while firefighters rushed to respond to a reported building collapse. A federally funded cleanup has cost taxpayers more than $2 million. A lawsuit against Chernis by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is pending.

"I have grave concerns about the damage to the community in this case," U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough said in 2018, when she sentenced Chernis to more than three years for violating federal environmental law. Chernis, who had pleaded guilty, remained defiant. "Anyone can make an accusation, but nothing's been proven," he told the State Journal-Register after Myerscough rendered her judgment.

Out of prison, Chernis a few months ago asked Sangamon County for permission to run an auto wrecking yard and recycling center on nine acres at the northeast edge of Springfield, outside city limits, on land where he already runs a scrap business. Last week, the county board said yes, granting a rezone and variances to a man who clouded a low-income neighborhood with demolition dust and is arrears on property taxes for the mill property. Pillsbury isn't the only blemish on Chernis' record. After purchasing a vacant icehouse on Edwards Street in 2013, Chernis and his father tore it down, then let debris sit for more than a year before court intervention prompted a cleanup.

Not everyone understands the county's decision to give an environmental outlaw permission to run a wrecking yard on Sand Hill Road, where junk cars already sat on Chernis' land before the board gave its blessing.

"It's a head scratcher for me," says former Springfield fire marshal Chris Richmond, who heads a community group aimed at cleaning up the Pillsbury property.

Neighbors aren't happy. Roslind Stein, who's lived in the area since 1973, helped gather more than 40 signatures from residents opposed to Chernis' plans. "I think it's the biggest mess I've ever seen," she tells me.

County board member Greg Stumpf, who represents the area, insists that this isn't about a felon who flouted environmental laws, nor does failure to pay property taxes on Springfield's biggest eyesore matter when it comes to allowing a wrecking yard elsewhere. "There's no reason not to allow this," Stumpf says. "The bottom line is, we zone property, not people."

The property met criteria, Stumpf says, and Chernis knows the regulations. "If he doesn't follow the rules, he would be shut down very promptly," Stumpf says. "And I told him that."

Enforcement is driven by complaints, Stumpf notes, and neighbors will be watching. They might need a drone. After the county cited Chernis for illegal dumping at the Sand Hill Road property, with a $4,500 fine levied in 2014, he refused to allow regulators onto the property in 2015, prompting the state Environmental Protection Agency, then investigating the Pillsbury caper, to enlist a plane and take aerial photographs that resulted in a judge issuing a warrant that gave the EPA access. According to Sangamon County court files, the EPA found suspected asbestos. Regulators also collected samples of "petroleum-like saturated soil around a leaky bulk tote container."

The county board voted 16-7, with three opting for present, to allow Chernis his wrecking yard, which is more divided than the board typically gets over land-use matters. If anyone has learned his lesson, Chernis has, opined board member Tim Krell before the vote. Or maybe he's learned how to work the system. We'll see.

WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' RAISES: Half the city council, plus Mayor Jim Langfelder, Treasurer Misty Buscher and City Clerk Frank Lesko, have turned down raises due under a 2018 ordinance that ties bumps to the cost of living. Last month, city budget director William McCarty sent emails to elected officials: Are you sure you want this money? City council members Doris Turner, Andrew Proctor, Kristin DiCenso, Erin Conley and Jim Donelan said no; the other five accepted raises. The five council members each will get annual raises of $231. Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, who often warns about pension costs, says that he'll donate his raise to charity – better he decide where the money goes than the government – and he also says that he will refuse a pension when the time comes. Mayor Jim Langfelder, who broke a tie in 2018 to set up the raises, said he refused his due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. "It's the times we're in," Langfelder said. "That doesn't mean we don't deserve it."

Note: The city budget office originally said that City Clerk Frank Lesko would receive a raise. However, the city budget director says that a memo from Lesko declining the bump had been misplaced and that the city clerk will not get a raise. A previous version of this column contained original information provided by the city budget office stating that Lesko accepted the raise.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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