By SAMANTHA PIDDE
Trustees of the William J. Davis Trust were advised by Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Val Gunnarsson to take a formal position on which organizations they believe are eligible to receive funds from the $20 million trust during a 20-minute hearing Friday, Jan. 31.
When Davis died on April 26, 1967, he had established a trust with a number organizations listed as beneficiaries. The trust was made in such a way that three of his relatives — first cousins Clarence Davis, Herbert Davis and Helen Grace Davis Marth — each received annual $2,000 payments while designated beneficiaries would not receive funds until all three of the individuals had died. The last cousin, Herbert Davis, died in September at the age of 98.
Six beneficiaries are listed in the trust documents, including: City of Mount Carroll, 50 percent; Shimer College in Mount Carroll, 30 percent; Illinois Masonic Home in Sullivan, 7 percent; Illinois Masonic Children's Home in LaGrange, 6 percent; Mount Carroll Fire Protection District, 5 percent; Mount Carroll Masonic Cyrus Lodge #118, 2 percent.
It is not entirely clear who is eligible for these funds today, particularly regarding the portions for Shimer College, the Illinois Masonic Home in Sullivan and the Illinois Masonic Children's Home in LaGrange.
While Shimer College is no longer operating on the Mount Carroll campus, North Central College in Naperville has assumed the Shimer College Great Books program and name. However, some have noted that the Davis Trust specifies "Shimer College, a non-profit educational corporation, having its campus and principal buildings in the City of Mt. Carroll, Illinois."
Also, both Masonic homes are no longer in operation.
Trustees for the Davis Trust include Sheldon Frank and Robert Watson along with newly-appointed Mary Ann Hutchison. Davis Trust attorney Edward Mitchell filed a petition with the circuit court Jan. 21 on the behalf of the three trustees.
During a recent Mount Carroll City Council work session, City Attorney Ron Coplan explained the petition calls to the attention of the court that there are questions about the eligibility of some of the beneficiaries, but takes no position on the matter.
"It's essentially saying this is the situation, judge," Coplan said at the Jan. 23 work session. "We're not taking a position. You need to give us some instruction."
It was this stance that Judge Gunnarsson disagreed with during the Jan. 31 hearing. Legal counsel attending the hearing included Mitchell as well as Jennifer Friedland, an attorney from Lisle representing The Shimer Great Books Program at North Central College.
Carroll County State's Attorney Scott Brinkmeier also was in attendance along with several members of the public, including representatives from the City of Mount Carroll and the Mount Carroll Masonic Lodge along with trustees Hutchison and Watson.
Mitchell initially suggested the court postpone any action on his petition to allow for more representatives from the potential beneficiaries to be present. However, Judge Gunnarsson said Mitchell's language in the petition paints the trustees as simply "disinterested" stakeholders, with which the judge disagreed.
"I believe each of these trustees have a duty to form an opinion," Judge Gunnarsson said.
The judge’s recommendation was that the trustees file a complaint for declaratory judgment in which they officially state which organizations they feel are or are not entitled to funds, based on the original trust language.
Judge Gunnarsson said filing the trustees’ position and serving notifications to all potential claimants, as well as publishing for any unknown claims, will give the court jurisdiction over the case. He said he would then listen to all arguments and make a determination.
Judge Gunnarsson said that if an organization makes a claim for the trust funds and the trustees take no position and offer no argument against the claim, he basically would have to approve the claim. He said that following the process he recommended also gives any judgment he makes more "sustainable" upon appeal.
Trust attorney Mitchell voiced concerns that if the trustees take a position, his legal fees would not be eligible to be paid by the trust and would be put on the trustees' shoulders. Gunnarsson said that would not be the case.
Gunnarsson asked for another hearing date to see what decision the trustees make on his recommendation and how the process had progressed.
"I can't require the trustees to do this," Judge Gunnarsson said. "This is my suggestion."
The judge did recommend that Mitchell and the trustees move as quickly as possible, reminding those in the court that he will be retiring as of Dec. 7, 2020. He noted that if Associate Judge Jerry Kane was elected as his successor, Kane would have to recuse himself from presiding over this case because Kane served as the attorney for the Davis Trust for many years.
Judge Gunnarsson said this could require an outside judge to travel to Carroll County to hear case proceedings, which could prolong the process. He expressed a desire to move forward with the case as rapidly as possible.
The next court appearance for a status update was set for 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 10.