Illinois Public Media News
Champaign County citizens will choose an auditor next year in the March primaries and the November election, and at least four candidates have been collecting petition signatures to get on the ballot.
The auditor's office has been a controversial one in Champaign County. A referendum to eliminate the office as an elected post was on the ballot last April --- voters turned it down, by a vote of 57 percent to 43 percent. The question was put on the ballot, after News-Gazette reports in 2009 that analyzed phone and email records to conclude that current auditor Tony Fabri spent little time at the auditor's office.
In response, Fabri said he is a full-time auditor, even if he is not always at work. Fabri resigned his chairmanship in the Champaign County Democratic Party so he could devote more time to the auditor's job. And, as his first full term draws to a close, the controversy has brought out other candidates for auditor, who have joined the chorus of Fabri's critics.
John Farney of Urbana, the only declared Republican candidate, works in the county clerk's office. He is a GOP precinct committee member, who ran unsuccessfully for a Champaign County Board seat in 2006. Farney said Fabri doesn't stack up to Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, who won a close election 35 years ago to become the first in an unbroken string of Democratic Champaign County auditors.
"I remember if you wanted to see Republicans on the county board pulling their hair out and red-faced, it was because Laurel Prussing was questioning the way they did things," Farney said. "That's what we need in the auditor's office, somebody that's willing to go out and ask those questions and make people defend the way they're spending the taxpayer's money."
Farney said he would draw on his experience in the county clerk's office, and his prior experience as a newspaper reporter to make sure he gets the answers he needs about county finances.
Farney may have the least experience with numbers and finances of all the declared candidates for auditor.
But none of the candidates claim they would do the actual auditing if elected. Democrat George Danos of Champaign, whose financial background includes jobs in the healthcare and insurance industries, said he would work to make sure county government is fiscally responsible, based on the recommendations of his staff.
"They're there 8-to-5, crunching numbers," Danos said. "When issues come up, that are political in nature, or involve a conflict of interest, that is the duty of the county auditor, to engage in collaboration or confrontation along those lines."
When Republicans dominated Champaign County government, it was easier for a Democratic auditor to say they would protect the county from the other party's fiscal mistakes. But with more Democrats in county government today, the current candidates all say party affiliation doesn't define them.
Ben Carlson of Champaign is a self-described conservative Democrat who works in the insurance industry.
"No party affiliation should be where the auditor's at. It's not about whether I'm a Democrat or a Republican," Carlson said. "It's about working together with the other county board members and the team in the office, as well as in the county."
Another issue the auditor candidates come together on is the need for greater public transparency. One popular idea is putting county financial records online. Democrat Kevin Sandefur of Royal said he wants to put information online that is easy for people to search through and understand.
"You don't want to be creating extra work for the people in the auditor's office," Sandefur said. "They already are doing an outstanding job under the circumstances. But I think that if you had somebody who actually showed up for work, then they would be able to pick up some of that slack, in terms of making the information available to the public."
In an email to Illinois Public Media earlier this month, current auditor Tony Fabri said he did not yet have a "solid answer" on whether he'll seek re-election. If Fabri decides to run for auditor again, it is not too late. The window for submitting ballot petitions to the county clerk for the March primary is Nov. 28 through Dec. 5.
Work on the John Street storm sewer project in Champaign means motorists will have to take a detour when using Prospect Avenue, starting next week.
Prospect Avenue will be closed at John Street for three weeks, starting Monday, Nov. 14, so that a section of the new sewer can be installed. Champaign City Engineer Roland White said the scope of the work requires a complete closure of the street.
"We looked at this early on, and we determined that with the depth of the excavation being some 12-to-14 feet, 9-foot diameter manhole being installed, with large heavy equipment moving around, that the complete closure of the intersection was the safest and fastest way to get the work complete," White said.
Detours will be marked during the closure --- using Neil, Mattis, Springfield and Kirby Avenue to get motorists around the street closure on Prospect. White said he hopes motorists will avoid residential streets when driving around the closure on Prospect.
This is the last work on the John Street sewer project to be done this year. White saod the street will be clear through the winter, and work on the sewer will resume in the spring.
The University of Illinois' investigation of inflated test scores at the School of Law has determined that one person was responsible for inflated grades and entrace exam scores being posted online.
Former college assistant dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Paul Pless was placed on administrative leave on Sept. 7, and resigned from the U of I last Friday. The investigation determined that the College reported and/or publicly disseminated inaccurate LSAT and GPA statistics with respect to the class of 2008 and the classes of 2010 through 2014.
Urbana campus Chief Legal Counsel Scott Rice said the law school lacked adequate control to prevent, deter, and prevent such actions. With the help of data analysis firm Duff & Phelps, the U of I included a set of eight recommendations to prevent such incidents from happening again.
"We did find that there was too much concentration of authority in one individual," said attorney Theodore Chung, who led the investigation.
Chung said in trying to explain what happened, Pless claimed he never knowingly did anything wrong. He says the former dean had a solid reputation, and that may have been one reason the inaccurate data took a while to be discovered:
"Frankly, it was very striking to the investigative team how well he was regarded and how universally well he was regarded," said Chung. "To my mind, that is one of the explanations why the issues weren't detected earlier. He didn't do anything in his own professional or personal life that raised a red flag."
Meanwhile, Chung said the law school has encouraged College of Law Dean Bruce Smith to correct all erroneous data, conduct a comprehensive review of control procedures, and implement "best practices" for staffing and operations in the admissions office.
Smith issued a formal apology to the legal-academic community, the U of I, alumni, and students. "This investigation has concluded that a single individual - no longer employed by the college - was responsible for these inaccuracies," he said. "The college takes seriously the issue of data integrity and intends to implement the report's recommendations promptly and comprehensively.
Illinois lawmakers head to Springfield on Tuesday for the last week of the fall session.
Several big items have been pushed to the back burner, including a bill that would overhaul Illinois' pension systems. It's proving to be one of the most radioactive issues in the legislature this year. And that's why lawmakers might put it off -- again.
Putting it off, however, won't make the state's financial picture better. Gov. Pat Quinn in September announced he needed to close seven prisons and homes for the disabled because there is no money to keep them operating. If his decision stands, it will mean a major reshuffling of the mentally ill, some of whom were sent to institutions because they're dangerous. It could mean relocating adults and children who have severe physical disabilities.
There are many examples of the budget crunch. The state is so far behind paying its bills, it had to stop a program that helped fund burials of poor people whose families couldn't afford to bury them.
"We're broke, as everyone knows," said Ty Fahner, a former Illinois attorney general and president of the Civic Committee, which focuses on economic growth.
His group has been pushing legislation that would make state workers, teachers and others pay more toward their retirements. Because the state is so far behind paying its share to their retirement accounts, there is little money left over. The debt grows each year, taking a bigger share of the state budget.
State Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park) is chairman of the House pensions committee.
"I don't think there's any member of the General Assembly who doesn't realize this is a problem we have to do something about," he said.
But lawmakers seem to be gearing up for their final week of session without addressing the single biggest budget pressure facing taxpayers.
"This all comes from basic cowardice, and I mean that word sincerely," said Fahner who believes lawmakers are more focused on their re-eletion campaigns than on the state's budget crisis. Goups that oppose the bill are powerful. Unionized teachers and state workers are hounding lawmakers with phone calls and e-mail. And union leaders are determined to run candidates against incumbents who support the idea of making their members pay more.
The unions say the reason the state is in this mess is the state's fault, not theirs.
Even legislators will admit they used the pension system as a credit card. When there wasn't enough money for schools or health care for the poor, they made a smaller payment into the retirement accounts of workers, thinking eventually they would catch up.
But it didn't stop there.
They also made pension benefits more expensive over the years. They made retirement ages younger for certain groups. They made retirement income go up each year, higher than the cost of living, through a compounded 3 percent adjustment. And they added more workers.
House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego is sponsoring a bill to overhaul the pension system, and he is ready for a vote on it this week.
"We could sit here and point fingers, but I think this is the issue of the day, and if we don't address pensions, it will consume us like we've never seen before," he said.
Lawmakers meet for three days. So far, it looks like they'll be asked to vote on a tax cut package for businesses and maybe a casino bill.
But the state' s biggest money crisis - pensions - just might get kicked to the spring.
The days may be limited for Urbana native Roger Ebert's weekly show "Ebert Presents: At the Movies," which premiered in January on public television stations across the country.
In a blog post, Roger Ebert says the show will likely be canceled at the end of its current season because of a lack of funding. The longtime film critic says after Kanbar Charitable Trust gave the program an initial $25,000 donation, he and his wife have been footing the rest of the bill to keep the show on the air.
"I believe a program like this is needed on television," Ebert wrote on his blog. "On "Ebert Presents," a new Johnny Depp movie can get two thumbs down (or up, or a split decision) from two intelligent people who will tell you why they voted that way, and challenge one another. Movie coverage on TV is otherwise so intensely driven by marketing that some programs actually cover the marketing itself."
Ebert said that he had hoped other contributors would come forward to underwrite the program, but he said that hasn't happened. Chuck Koplinski, a film critic in Champaign, said with more people getting their movies reviews online, the possible demise of At the Movies is simply a sign of the times.
"They don't want an in-depth discussion of film," Koplinski said. "They want to see if it's worth...if it has enough laughs or enough scares or enough thrills for them to throw their $9 on. I think that this happening to him is just the latest step in the death mill for intelligent film criticism."
"At the Movies" is hosted by Associated Press reviewer Christy Lemire and Mubi.com film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.
Ebert said he has to decide this month if his show will return next year.
Amanda McGrory of the United States set a course record in the women's wheelchair race and Masazumi Soejima of Japan won the men's race at the New York City Marathon.
The 25-year-old McGrory of Champaign, Ill., finished the 26.2-mile course through the five boroughs of New York in 1 hour, 50 minutes, 24 seconds.
McGrory, a four-time Paralympic medalist, also won the Paris and London Marathons one week apart this year. She was followed by Shelly Woods of Britain (1:52:52) and Tatyana McFadden of the United States (1:52:52).
The previous women's course record was set by Edith Hunkeler of Switzerland in 1:52:38 in 2007.
In the men's wheelchair competition, the 41-year-old Soejima finished in 1:31:41, followed by Kurt Fearnley of Australia (1:33:56) and Kota Hokinoue of Japan (1:34:22).
In the main NYC Marathon competition, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya won with a course record time of 2 hours, 5 minutes, 6 seconds (unofficial), crushing the previous mark of 2:07:43 set by Tesfaye Jifar of Ethiopia a decade earlier.
In the women's competition, Firehiwot Dado of Ethiopia won in a stunning comeback. Dado trailed London Marathon champ Mary Keitany by nearly 21/2 minutes at the 15-mile mark but passed her with about a mile left for her first major marathon victory. The 27-year-old Dado won in an unofficial time of 2 hours, 23, minutes 15 seconds --- almost a minute better than her previous personal best.
A strong internet presence pushed Ron Paul to the top in the Illinois Republican straw poll. The Texas congressman bested the other presidential candidates in the survey, which wrapped up on Saturday.
Casting a ballot in the straw poll cost $5, and the Illinois Republican Party said more than 3600 people participated. Three quarters of them did so online, which is how Ron Paul claimed more than 50 percent of the vote.
"I think what this does is it shows the relative strengths of the candidates," said U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk at a press conference announcing the results. "Ron Paul is obviously a big online performer."
Georgia businessman Herman Cain finished second overall, but well back at 18 percent. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney got third, powered by a relatively strong support from voters who showed up in person to cast ballots at straw polling places around the state.
Illinois' poll got little if any attention from the major candidates, though a representative from Paul's campaign said it sent email reminders to supporters in the state.
Kirk said he hopes the straw poll becomes a tradition, held every four years.
"So that candidates - either on the Democratic side or Republican side - will come here not just to raise money but to campaign and seek votes from Rockford to Cairo," he said.
As for this election, Kirk guessed the Republican nomination will be "largely" decided by early February, more than a month before Illinois holds its primary.
"But we could be proved wrong, and the Illinois primary could still have an impact," Kirk said.
This was billed as the first statewide straw poll for Illinois, and there was some confusion over the rules. The party's website explained that multiple votes could be cast online using the same credit card, "in order to facilitate voting in households where there may be only one credit card, but more than one voter (a husband and wife, for instance)."
But at the press conference Saturday, organizers said such votes were not counted.
"I think there were roughly 30 people that tried to do that," Illinois GOP Chair Pat Brady said. "I don't think there was an ill-intent there. It's just that they tried to do it, but it wasn't allowed."
That apparently wasn't clear to the House Republican Organization, a political group headed by state Rep. Tom Cross, the GOP leader in the Illinois House. An email to supporters said online participants "can vote multiple times to 'run up the score' for your favorite candidate."
"Yeah - [Cross] was incorrect," Kirk said when asked about the email, which was first written about on the website Republican News Watch. "And so, we did find 30 people that tried to vote twice and they were eliminated."
This is the second straw poll taken in Illinois in the past month. In early October, a convention of Tea Party activists meeting in Schaumburg overwhelmingly supported Cain's candidacy.
Cain's second-place finish in this week's statewide poll followed intense media coverage of allegations that he sexually harassed several employees while heading the National Restaurant Association. Cain has denied the allegations.
Prosecutors say a central figure in the administration of disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich never provided particularly useful information about his former benefactor to investigators.
The government makes the claim in a new filing that recommends a prison sentence of between 11 and 15 years for Tony Rezko.
Prosecutors note Rezko only agreed to cooperate after his 2008 conviction on fraud and other charges.
They contrast that with the help provided by Rezko's co-conspirator, Stuart Levine (leh-VYN'). Levine pleaded guilty in 2006 and testified at Rezko's trial and at millionaire William Cellini's recent trial.
The filing says Levine's cooperation was "dramatically more valuable'' than Rezko's.
Rezko offered to testify at Blagojevich's and Cellini's trial. But prosecutors say Rezko's persistent lies after his indictment would have opened him up to damaging cross-examination.
It took two attempts, but Champaign County's Zoning Board of Appeals has recommended the county board approve the construction of a wind farm near Royal.
The 4-to-3 vote Thursday night came after Chicago-based Invenergy added language to a reclamation agreement concerning salvage value of its 30 wind turbines should the wind farm have to shut down early. ZBA members have also cited the potential for noise pollution at neighboring homes.
Invenergy has also said its standards regarding noise pollution will comply with the Illinois Pollution Control Board. But ZBA member Brad Passalacqua says that language in the permit is too vague for him.
"My concern is for the good of the county, and for the participating (land) owners, as well as the people who don't participate in this project," he said. "We don't want to create a situation where they have injury to their property, or their happiness and life, and their home. It's just a very tender area that we need to be very cautious with."
Republican Champaign County Board member Alan Nudo says he still hasn't decided how he'll vote when the full board takes up the issue in two weeks. Two weeks ago, ZBA members cited its concerns in a 5-2 vote against approving the wind farm. The Champaign County Board's Committee of the Whole sent the project back to the ZBA earlier this week.
But Nudo says he now has a better perspective on this issue after Invenergy added language to its special use permit giving Champaign County 'absolute protection' against liability.
"I still don't want to be a speculator in commodities, and I think that there's some room for negotiations with them to come up with a better formula," he said. "But that being said, I have a much better perspective of what they're trying to do, and I think that they are offering something that they haven't offered to other counties."
Invenergy attorney Michael Blazer says new language in the agreement ensures that whoever the company finances the project with will also be obligated to decommission the turbines in the event they ever take over the project.
The full Champaign County Board will take up the wind farm on November 17th. Construction on Vermilion County's portion of the wind farm is already underway.
A suspect in last month's robbery of a customer outside a Campustown coffee shop has turned himself in.
Dennis Boston, 19, surrendered at the Champaign County Jail, early Thursday morning.
Boston was wanted for armed robbery with a firearm, in connection with the Oct. 10 robbery at the Expresso Royale coffee shop on East Daniel Street near the U of I campus. A surveillance video recorded one man taking an iPad from a customer seated outside the coffee shop and running away. He was followed by a 2nd man who displayed a handgun to the victim.
Champaign and U of I Police are continuing to look for the 2nd suspect in the robbery, who is identifed as a 23-24 year-old black male. He was last seen wearing a blue Milwaukee Brewers baseball cap, a long-sleeved black shirt, khaki colored shirt, and black tennis shoes
Anyone with information is asked to call either police department, or leave an anonymous tip with Champaign County Crimestoppers.
Police are asking for the community's assistance in providing information, especially regarding the identity and/or location of the second suspect. Information can reported to the Champaign Police Department by calling (217) 351-4545 or the University of Illinois Police Department by calling (217) 333-1216. Callers can remain anonymous by calling Crime Stoppers at 373-8477 (TIPS).
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