Illinois Public Media News
The Champaign City Council is affirming its support for the agency set up to promote tourism for the area. But Mayor Don Gerard says he expects more accountability from the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau from now on.
Council members endorsed a new set of goals, principles and expectations for the CVB at Tuesday night's study session. Among other things, it calls for more proactive marketing from the bureau, and accountability that demonstrates a return on investment.
Mayor Don Gerard said he wants know what the Convention and Visitors Bureau is doing to promote Champaign right now, not just what it's done in the past.
"I want to take a fresh look at things as we're going, as per their day-to-day operations," Gerard said. "I want to know what is it are they doing there, 8 to 5 everyday? What sort of things are they doing? What sort of things are they going after? What sort of things did we used to have that they're either trying to bring back or replace? I just want to hold them to a very high standard."
Champaign is providing $223,000 to the Convention and Visitors Bureau this year --- at a time when Urbana has eliminated its funding. Several Champaign council members used Tuesday night's study session to praise the CVB, while pointing out Urbana's lack of support. The Urbana City Council is expected to revisit the topic at an upcoming meeting.
Lawyers accuse State Farm Insurance of lying about and trying to cover up the amount of company support in a massively expensive race for State Supreme Court back in 2004. A filing alleges fraud against the State Supreme Court.
The case involves a class action lawsuit involving State Farm's policies on use of after-market auto parts in repairs. In 2005, the State Supreme Court overturned a billion dollar judgment against the Bloomington insurance giant with the key vote of newly elected Justice Lloyd Karmeier.
The plaintiffs now want the high court to at least reconsider the case without Karmeier. And they'd prefer the original billion dollar verdict in their favor.
Court papers allege at the time, State Farm characterized its donations to Karmeier as...a limited number of officers and employees making quite modest contributions. In fact, the filing indicates an investigation by a retired FBI agent shows State Farm lobbyist Bill Shepherd helped recruit Karmeier for the race, and funneled loads of money through the Illinois Civil Justice League to Karmeier.
Bill Shepherd also was a member of the Civil Justice League's Executive Committee. State Farm then denied that Ed Murnane, the head of the Civil Justice League, ran Karmeier's campaign, something now confirmed by e-mails. The filing says Karmeier knew State Farm was bankrolling him to the tune of two and a half to four million dollar, or up to 56-percent of all his funding and still failed to recuse himself from the case.
The filing notes the billion dollar ruling in State Farm's favor is either a coincidence or an impressive rate of return on State Farm's investment. In either case, the argument goes, other justices should have disqualified Karmeier from hearing the issue because of a serious risk of actual bias.
The plaintiffs quote a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a different case that....just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause no man should be able to choose a judge in his own cause. The filing says State Farm's immense efforts created a constitutionally intolerable probability of bias and possibly denied them their due process rights.
State Farm responds to the new allegations by saying only that the case was decided years ago and the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is airing another concern about gambling expansion that would add a new Danville casino and four others in the state.
Quinn has repeatedly harped about insufficient regulation in the bill and on Tuesday he said he was worried it could shortchange education funding.
But Democratic Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie said Illinois would still get millions of new dollars if the expansion is approved, even with changes in the sliding scale for taxing casino revenues.
Quinn has talked down the expansion but the governor doesn't have the legislation yet to sign or veto. Lawmakers have held on to it since May to try to deal with Quinn's concerns.
Lang says Quinn has discussed items but not provided a specific list of changes to the bill.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has vetoed legislation to increase electric rates for consumers across the state.
The measure was part of a $3 billion, 10-year plan to give Commonwealth Edison and Ameren money for infrastructure improvements and a modern Smart Grid. The bill does not guarantee higher electricity prices, but any future hikes could take effect immediately - rather than first going through a lengthy review.
Quinn's action came as no surprise as he already pledged to veto it, saying the legislation didn't have enough consumer protections and would unfairly raise electric rates.
"It may be a dream come true for Commonwealth Edison, but it's a nightmare for consumers in Illinois," Quinn said. "I think we want to make it clear to the public that they should not be gauged with paying unfair rates for something that they don't really feel is delivering better service."
Quinn urged lawmakers Monday to let his veto stand and said everyone should go back to the bargaining table. He said the starting point should be a plan put forth by the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates utility rate increases.
ComEd said opponents were off base about the legislation known as Senate Bill 1652 or SB1652.
"Despite the rhetoric of the legislation opponents, SB1652 does not guarantee profits, will not result in automatic rates increases and does not strip the authority of the ICC," ComEd said in a statement. "Illinois customers want more than the status quo. We look forward to working with members of the General Assembly to help make grid modernization and economic growth a reality in Illinois."
Ameren Illinois spokesman Leigh Morris said he is disappointed with the governor's decision to veto the legislation.
Morris said among the changes tied to modernizing the state's electrical distribution system would be fewer power outages, an additional 700 thousand smart meters, and improved energy efficiency.
"Because of the regulatory process that we would have to follow without this legislation, it would take at least 30 years to archive what we could do in 10 years with this legislation," he said.
Morris said Ameren is optimistic that there will be enough support in the General Assembly to override the governor's veto.
Listen at 10:06 am on Tuesday to WILL-AM 580's "Focus" for a call-in program with area health officials.
About one in 10 restaurants in Champaign County failed a health inspection from April 2007 through April 2011, according to a review of inspection records by CU-CitizenAccess.org.
But customers have no easy way of knowing just how sanitary the places at which they eat really are.
Take, for example, Geovanti's Bar & Grill, which failed public health inspections five times from September 2008 through February of this year.
But no one who eats there would ever know, unless they requested copies of the Campustown restaurant's inspection reports from the local public health district.
That's because - unlike many other counties and cities in central Illinois and across the country - the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District currently doesn't publicize the results of its restaurant inspections in any form. Not online, not on placards at restaurants and not in local newspapers.
This means the public has no way way of knowing about health-code violations, such as the live and dead cockroaches found during a November 2009 inspection at Geovanti's.
Owner Anthony Donato said the restaurant works closely with the district to make sure it meets health codes. Geovanti's recently had a voluntary health inspection and passed with flying colors, he said.
Julie Pryde, the district's public health administrator, said the fact that a restaurant is open for business shows eating there is safe.
"If you go into a restaurant and it's open, we've been in there, and they've passed," Pryde said. "And there are times where you'll go to a restaurant, and it will not be open. It may not say, 'Closed by the health department' on the front door, but if it's not open, that's because there's an immediate health risk."
Pryde and other public health officials have long said they want to make information about inspections of the county's more than 1,000 eating establishments more available to the public. They believe providing diners with access to complete restaurant inspection reports will give them the information they need to make the best decisions for their health.
But, after years of talk, they still have not done so.
Since getting new software to manage inspection reports in 2007, they have spoken about plans for a website that would allow consumers to look up the records online.
In 2008, environmental health director Jim Roberts said he hoped to have the site up the following year.
This spring, he said they were shooting for September. In late August, he revised the time line once again.
"I would hope by January 2012," Roberts said.
He said there are several reasons for the delays.
"First, we had to make sure the system was working as we wanted it to," Roberts said. "The second thing is that I don't have a project manager to do this, so I do this as time permits me to do so."
Meanwhile, since 2003, neighboring Vermilion County has taken the low-tech route of requiring restaurant owners to post letter grades from their most recent inspections in their establishments alongside their health permits.
Douglas Toole is the environmental health director in Vermilion County.
"It's a lot about informing the public," Toole said. "When they go into a restaurant, the public can see the dining area, certainly, and they can see what the restrooms look like and they can see, depending on the place, a small amount of the food-preparation or food-storage area. But a lot of it takes place behind the scenes."
While Vermilion County officials see this as a way of providing the public with information they're entitled to see under the state's Freedom of Information Act, Champaign-Urbana's Julie Pryde see the letter grades differently.
"It's completely worthless," Pryde said.
She said when people see a letter grade, they don't bother to find out what went into earning that grade.
"If you only are looking at one thing, A, I think it will give people a false sense of security, and, B, it might negatively impact a restaurant's business when there's no point in it," Pryde said."Give them all the information or no information at all."
Illinois law doesn't require health departments to publish inspection results online or in hardcopy. But Vermillion isn't the only area county the takes the initiative to make its scores public.
McLean, Macon and Sangamon counties all post inspections scores on their websites.
Manny Martinez is executive chef of Destihl Restaurant and Brew Works, which has locations in Champaign and Normal. Inspection scores for the Normal restaurant are posted on the McLean County Health Department website.
The scores can be deceiving because they don't tell customers whether a restaurant lost points for major violations or for several minor violations that might have little to do with sanitation, Martinez said.
But overall, he doesn't mind the information being available to the public.
"For a restaurant, it doesn't really matter to us, as long as we know we're doing a good job, and we get inspected and we're doing a great job," he said.
How to Obtain a Restaurant Inspection Report
The public can obtain copies inspection reports for specific restaurants by calling the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District's Environmental Health Division at (217) 373-7900, emailing email@example.com or visiting the district's offices at 201 W. Kenyon Road, Champaign.
Depending on the number of reports being sought, you may be asked to file a Freedom of Information request with one of the district's Freedom of Information officers:
Freedom of Information Officer
Address: 201 W. Kenyon Road
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 531-4257
Fax: (217) 531-4343
Deputy Freedom of Information Officer
Address: 201 W. Kenyon Road
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 531-2905
Fax: (217) 373-7905
Deputy Freedom of Information Officer
Address: 201 W. Kenyon Road Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 531-4265
Fax: (217) 531-4343
About one in 10 restaurants in Champaign County failed a health inspection from April 2007 through April 2011, according to a review of inspection records by CU-CitizenAccess.org. But customers have no easy way of knowing just how sanitary the places at which they eat really are. Dan Petrella reports.
(With additional reporting by University of Illinois journalism alumna Jennifer Wheeler, CU-CitizenAccess reporter Pam Dempsey and UI journalism alumnus Steve Contorno)
Despite delays and debunked predictions-and a never-ending wait for Gov. Pat Quinn's decision on a gambling expansion bill-supporters of expanded gambling in Illinois say they expect to find common ground by Oct. 25, the first day of the fall veto session.
The bill, stalled for months due to policy differences, political infighting and Quinn's reluctance to increase gambling venues, remains a top priority.
But the waiting game may be ending soon. Unless Quinn outlines his concerns "in short order," legislative leaders will present him with their own version of a clean-up gaming bill, known as a trailer bill, that will tighten control over the proposed Chicago-owned casino, according to State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), House sponsor of the bill. Other revisions may be coming as well, Lang said.
The options will be limited: Any change risks losing a vote on a bill that was a delicate balance of interests among Chicago, struggling cities such as Danville and Rockford that want new casinos, the horse racing industry and places like Joliet and Aurora where existing casinos fought the increased competition.
An amendatory veto, which would allow Quinn to change the bill and send it back to lawmakers for a re-vote, would be an unwise choice, Lang said.
"Substantial changes would put the speaker in a position of weighing compliance with the (Illinois) constitution on the amendatory veto," said Lang, who is House Speaker Michael Madigan's floor leader. "That's not a good way to go. If the governor thinks we're going to have substantial changes by way of amendatory veto, I think he's mistaken."
Whether lawmakers' power play will work remains to be seen. Quinn is occupied by daily state budget pressures. He announced Thursday a series of employee layoffs and facility closings that also will be a top item of negotiation during the fall veto session.
For now, the gambling bill that narrowly passed the legislature in May is not on Quinn's desk. In an unusual legislative gambit, Senate President John Cullerton is holding the bill in his chamber, even though it passed, for fear the governor will veto it. And by delaying, he is buying time for an ongoing negotiation. Once the bill reaches Quinn, he must act within 60 days or it becomes law.
Lang, along withSenate sponsor Terry Link, a Democrat from Waukegan, and Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, have been waiting for more specifics from the governor on which parts of the bill make him uncomfortable, but so far the governor has not been forthcoming. Lang and other proponents of the gambling expansion bill spent months crafting legislation with the right ingredients to win approval from a diverse General Assembly. The bill passed the House with only five votes to spare. It passed the Senate with the minimum 30 votes. If Quinn vetoes the bill, lawmakers would need to override his action with supermajorities in both chambers. Supporters would need six more votes in the House and six more in the Senate-likely an impossible threshold on such a controversial piece of legislation..
The more realistic option is to craft a trailer bill that addresses Quinn's concerns while keeping the original bill's vote intact. Starting over, bill sponsors said, is not an option. Many lawmakers who voted against the bill opposed it on moral grounds or voted "no" to protect existing casinos in their districts, which would be hurt by the competition. Ten casinos already exist in Illinois in Elgin, Aurora, East Peoria, East St. Louis, Metropolis, Rock Island, Alton and two in Joliet. The newest casino opened in July in Des Plaines.
Other lawmakers who voted against the bill feared more gambling would not play well in their districts. Those minds would be difficult to change, especially in an election year when they are running in new territories. The boundaries of all House and Senate districts will change for the 2012 election cycle because of redistricting.
When lawmakers return to Springfield this fall for a two-week veto session, some of them may not know whether they are facing competition next year.
"During the periods of time we'll be in Springfield for veto session, the time to circulate nominating petitions (to get on the ballot) will still be going on. So some legislators will be a little nervous about that," Lang said.
Even a follow-up gambling bill addressing Quinn's concerns could be tricky. Just a few cold feet would topple the coalition Lang and Link created last spring to pass the original bill.
For example, Link was able to bring reluctant Republicans on board, including state Sen. Larry Bomke of Springfield, by adding a year-round horse-racing component at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Lang pulled House colleague Luis Arroyo, Democrat of Chicago, into the "yes" column by promising a stream of casino revenue to a fund that would help homeowners facing foreclosure.
They convinced downstate representatives who would not benefit directly from expanded gambling to support it anyway by committing new money to county fairs, a source of pride for farming communities. They included a Danville casino to the bill, which added one senator and two state representatives as supporters.
As a result, the bill is a delicate pyramid of political trades. Any significant changes from Quinn would be a major setback.
"The timeframe is veto session or game over, right?" said Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association, who says the bill is the last hope to save his industry. "I think we've showed the governor how our industry is on life support and we need him to sign the bill as is."
In addition to policy differences-Quinn said from the beginning the bill was too big-political infighting has slowed it down.
Quinn and Cullerton share a mutual lack of trust. One flare-up in May prompted Cullerton to call the governor "irrelevant" during state budget negotiations. Cullerton has refused to send Quinn the gambling bill until they reach a compromise, fearing Quinn might remind the legislature of his relevance by vetoing it outright. The bill is trapped in limbo between Cullerton's desk and Quinn's indecision.
The legislation would create the nation's first city-owned casino in Chicago, along with four others around the state. The measure also would allow the state's five horseracing tracks and Chicago's two airports to add slot machines, and it would allow existing casinos to expand.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who wants the bill, cranked up the pressure on Quinn several times already and is planning more. The Chicago City Council on Thursday approved a resolution supporting a new casino. In mid-summer, Emanuel publicly unveiledthe projects a new casino would fund and organized a news conference of minority aldermen who called on Quinn to sign the bill. Emanuel also is expected to drum up more publicity by working with downstate groups who want Quinn to sign the bill.
Last week, Emanuel hosted a tour for General Assembly members, bringing them on Chicago Transit Authority buses to the National Teachers Academy to meet with Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, followed by a visit to the 911 Emergency Communications Center. They ended the visit at a Millennium Park reception. The Chicago casino wasn't an explicit topic of conversation, but the tour gave Emanuel a chance to outline the city's needs.
Like all of Emanuel's moves, the timing was strategic. Lawmakers next month will be addressing the casino bill, however it plays out. Emanuel desperately wants it. The projected revenue boost for the city alone is an estimated $650 million annually, a huge cash cow for a city facing its own budget pressures.
A group of Illinois lawmakers are scheduled to travel to Cuba on Tuesday, in hopes of striking deals between Cuban officials and Illinois businesses.
Representative Dan Burke of Chicago will be going on what he calls a learning mission for him and other legislators. The Democrat said Cuban imports and exports with Illinois have dropped dramatically in the past, but he thinks now is a good time to turn things around.
"Being an agricultural state, we have everything that they would potentially need, I think the controls over the commerce and industry in Cuba has been lessened in the last few months so there are business opportunities for our state based companies that might be pretty dramatic," Burke said.
Burke said the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba is a reason for a decrease in exports and imports.
Taxpayers won't be footing the bill for the trip, as lawmakers will be paying their own way from either personal funds or their political accounts. Burke said the group will publish a report of the trip when they return home.
This isn't the first time Illinois politicians have visited Cuba. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was the first sitting U.S. governor to visit Cuba after Fidel Castro took power.
Health Alliance Agrees on Contract Extension
Health Alliance has approved nine-month contract extensions for state workers and employees.
The director of the Illinois Department of Corrections disputes charges from two state senators that many state prisons fall short of proper staffing levels.
State Senators Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) and John Jones (R-Mount Vernon) say that numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the ratio of inmates to security staff is reaching dangerous levels at some prisons. But state Corrections Director Tony Godinez said the numbers lack the context of the different conditions at each facility --- based on security level, building design, inmate population and the quality of training given the security staff.
"We will have enough staff, no matter what, because we have established what our minimal staffing patterns should be. We will not go below that," Godinez said. "In addition to that, my comfort level is more so with the fact that our staff is the best and they're the best trained."
Senators Cultra and Jones had also expressed concerns about whether enough new guards were being trained to replace those who would soon be eligible for retirement.
According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, roughly 800 recently trained guards have been hired in the past year, and new cadet training sessions will be scheduled later in fiscal year 2012.
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