Illinois Public Media News
Despite an unsuccessful drive to get his name on the ballot, a candidate for Champaign County Sheriff is confident he can still win the post through a write-in campaign.
Jerommie Smith kicked off his long-shot campaign this week - last month, the county electoral board rejected his petition drive to fill an independent slot on the November ballot, claiming many of the names were not from registered voters. Smith believes there are factors that give him a fighting chance at an upset.
"We look at the number of people who were looking for a choice with those who signed the petition as well as the undervotes (for sheriff) in the last two elections, and we decided that we're in a pretty good position to make a good run at it, especially with all the work we've done and all the people who had supported us," Smith said.
Smith is trying to unseat Sheriff Dan Walsh, who has won two previous terms. He's a former sheriff's deputy who now owns a fitness club in Urbana.
Illinois, along with 18 other states, is still in the running for a competitive federal grant program that promises more than three billion dollars for educational improvements.
The Illinois State Board of Education said the funds will help raise student success and train qualified teachers. The state failed to win enough support from school districts to compete for the first round of "Race to the Top" funding earlier this year - instead, that money went to schools in Tennessee and Maryland. Beth Sheppard is an assistant superintendent in Champaign Unit 4, which is backing Illinois' bid for the money.
"We felt that there was no good reason not to seek the additional funding in these economic times," said Sheppard. "If the focus is on closing the achievement gap, that is a high priority in this school district."
Teachers' unions have also lined up behind the application. State schools Superintendent Christopher Koch said the state has worked harder to get cooperation from local school districts and teachers' unions during this phase of the competition. Koch said Illinois will emphasize its plans to better prepare school leaders for reform when officials visit Washington in August to make their pitch for a grant.
Rod Blagojevich's attorney is scheduled to give his closing argument Tuesday morning and the judge has already warned him that he could be held in contempt of court.
The warning came at the end of the day Monday.
Sam Adam Jr. told the judge that he planned to talk about the fact that jurors have heard all about Tony Rezko and Stuart Levine and yet the government never called either of them as witnesses.
Judge James Zagel said Adam should focus on the evidence that was presented, not the evidence and witnesses that weren't presented.
Zagel said, "You will not argue it.".
Adam told the judge he wouldn't follow the order at which point Zagel told Adam he'd be held in contempt.
Adam told the judge that he was ready to go to jail.
Zagel said Adam was showing a "profound misunderstanding of the legal rules."
He then adjourned for the day to give Adam time to reformulate his argument.
The Champaign City Council will discuss a proposal at its Tuesday, July 27th Study Session, to work with a private non-profit group promoting local public sculpture. In doing so, the city may change the policy for public art that it set in 2003.
That policy created the city's Community Arts Group, a mayor-appointed panel that has standing by to consider proposals for sculpture on public land. However, very few applications have come in. Now, the city wants to work directly with the recently formed Public Art League, a private group that's raising money to lease eight pieces of sculpture this summer that would be located at downtown public sites for two year periods.
The Public Art League issued a call to artists earlier this year, and from 42 entries, it's chosen eight sculptures plans to bring to downtown Champaign this year. The group has raised funds from private donors to lease the sculptures from the artists for a two-year period. League Treasurer Eric Robeson says the sculptures will be initially displayed during Champaign's Downtown Festival of the Arts next month. He says they then hope to install the sculptures at various public spaces in and around the downtown area.
Robeson says the goal is to bring art to streets where people regularly walk, drive and work.
"You can interact with them", Robeson says of sculpture located on public sites near city streets. "You just kind of happen upon it as you walk by. Or it becomes part of the backdrop of your day, as you go by these sculptures on a regular basic. It just amplifies more and more that way. And the people that we've brought this up to, most people that we've talked to, just kind of love the idea."
City Economic Development Manager Teri Legner says under their proposal to work with the Public Art League, the Champaign Community Arts Group would disband, leaving decisions and finances about public art acquisitions to the new non-profit group.
"What we're proposing now is something that's more proactive", says Legner, "in working with a third party to basically provide for the art, and then the city just facilitating its siting, basically its location on public property."
The Public Art League's goal is to bring new sculptures to public sites in Champaign every year. But Board president Brian Knox says their longterm goal is to find local buyers for the artwork. "And once somebody likes the sculpture and wants to purchase it", says Knox, "they can move it to their facility or their business, or anyplace in town to be part of the public consciousness."
While the Public Art League could take the place of the Champaign Community Arts Group, the two bodies already have a common link. League Treasurer Eric Robeson is the son of Community Arts Group member Phyllis Robeson.
State lawmakers have ordered a commission to look into Illinois' unsteady system of higher education funding -- that commission meets for the first time Tuesday.
One of the members of the panel is an economics professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. Walter McMahon says the commission will compare Illinois' higher ed funding procedure against other states and discuss the right balance between state appropriations, tuition and money for students financial aid.
McMahon says that leg of the funding system - financial aid -- is crucial because many students drop out for lack of money, which leads to lower graduation rates. He believes the Monetary Awards Program, or MAP, favors needy students who go to private colleges instead of public universities or community colleges...and McMahon says the maximum MAP award each year should not go up. "That would then funnel the money a little bit more to students who are most in need and going to places like Parkland (College in Champaign), where tuition is not as high," said McMahon.
The commission will give its recommendations for higher-ed budgeting in December to the Governor, the General Assembly and the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
The corruption trial of former governor rod Blagojevich has come down to closing arguments, and a University of Illinois law professor says the success of either side depends on those arguments.
Last week Blagojevich's defense rested its case without bringing the ousted governor to the witness stand. Law professor Andrew Leipold says that's a common decision for defense attorneys, since defendants are innocent until proven guilty, and defenders don't think the prosecution totally proved its case. But Leipold still says he was surprised that Rod Blagojevich didn't testify since he and his lawyers had often said he would.
"I think most of what they were thinking is, 'Do we have anything to gain by exposing the governor not only to rebuttal evidence but to cross-examination?'" Leipold said. "Will he be able to articulate why it is that these tapes, that sure sound bad, really aren't that bad?"
Leipold says Blagojevich's attorneys will probably tell jurors that despite numerous phone conversations discussing potentially illegal acts, the ousted governor never took action. "To the extent the defense plan is going to be that the governor was blowing off steam, that he was just exploring possibilities but never intending to act on it...that's really important for the defense in closing, to help the jury reconcile the evidence they heard with that version of events," Leipold said.
The decision not to bring Blagojevich to the stand kept prosecutors from using two key former officials as witnesses. But Leipold says if prosecutors thought Tony Rezko or Stuart Levine were crucial to their case, they would have had them testify earlier in the trial.
Leipold says a lot rests on whether jurors see the prosecution's witnesses as credible - especially former chief of staff Lon Monk, who negotiated a plea deal in exchange for his testimony.
The Champaign County Board approved a two-year labor contract Thursday that freezes wages for nearly 90 county employees.
Union members ratified the agreement three weeks ago. Tara Mcauley of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Workers-Council 31, says union members understand the county's difficult financial position.
"The revenue from their tax base for the county is down, and the state of Illinois has not been paying their bills and potentially is cutting their funding this year", says McCauley. "So the money just really isn't there right now for a wage increase."
The contract is retroactive to last December, and will be reopened for negotiation this coming December. McCauley says they hope that more state funding or local tax revenue might be available at that point.
Champaign County Administrator Deb Busey says similar labor contracts have been negotiated for other county employees not under county board authority. Those include employees at the county courthouse, and the circuit clerk's and state's attorney's offices.
A neighborhood group's dream of a new playground has come closer to reality. The Champaign County Board voted Thursday night to lease the group some county-owned land in the neighborhood, where the playground can be built.
The Dobbins Down neighborhood in northwest Champaign is mostly in unincorporated territory. And its location north of I-74 puts its far away from any public park. But with the Champaign County Board's approval of a $50-a-year lease on a vacant lot it owns, the Dobbins Down Improvement Association looks forward to a small park where neighborhood kids can play. Association Chair Lesley Kimble says it's been the group's longtime goal.
"We want to see playground equipment that kids can have an option, a healthy option in their neighborhood to go do, other than play video games and hang out and not get in trouble."
The Dobbins Down group has applied for assistance from KaBOOM, a non-profit group that builds playgrounds using local volunteers and corporate funding. Kimble says getting the lease on the vacant lot was the last thing they needed to be recommended for funding. If all goes well, she says the park could be built in September. The Dobbins Down Improvement Association would assume liability for the park, and be responsible for its upkeep. Kimble says they hope to name the playground in memory of the late Mable Thomas, a longtime Champaign city employees who worked on neighborhood issues.
Four communities in East Central Illinois saw slight increases in the jobless rate between May and June.
The state's Department of Employment Security says Champaign-Urbana, Danville, Bloomington-Normal, and Decatur all saw that figure go up more than a percentage point. Danville and Decatur's unemployment rates were among the highest last month - at 12.3 and 12.2%. Champaign-Urbana's unemployment rate went from 7.8 to 9.5%, while Bloomington Normal's from 6.9 to 8.0%. Those rates in all four metropolitan areas are also higher than they were in June of 2009.
But the agency says overall, rates appear to be going down, citing a drop in rates in and around Chicago over last year. Director Maureen O'Donnell says a trend of smaller increases are encouraging, noting specific movement must occur before jobless rates drop consistently across the state. "Any economic rebound following the most profound recession in decades will include slight up-and-down movements in the unemployment rate as well as the number of jobs created,' said O'Donnell. "That is why long-term trends continue to offer the best guidance on our national and state economy."
Elsewhere in Central Illinois, Peoria's unemployment rate for June was 10.3%, holding steady from the previous month, and Springfield's was 8.2%, up from 7.3%
A preliminary hearing has been set for August 17th for Brian Maggio. At his arraignment Thursday in Urbana, the 42-year old appeared on closed circuit TV in court. Champaign County Judge Jeff Ford read the charges against him as he appeared in court via closed circuit television wearing a green gown, a protective garment worn by inmates correctional officers fear have suicidal tendencies. He was charged with 4 counts on first degree murder in the shooting death of his brother, 32-year old Mark Maggio. Each charge carries a sentence of 20 to 60 years, but because Maggio was using a handgun, he faces an additional 25 years to life if convicted.
Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Reitz says the defendant's and witnesses accounts differ - but that Mark Maggio did die at the scene of the parking lot of the Maggio's IGA supermarket. "The defendant took out the handgun and shot his brother," said Reitz. "Preliminary autopsy results indicate that the gunshot wound was to the side and back of the victim and that it was essentially one gunshot wound into him that ultimately caused his death."
Reitz says Brian Maggio made the initial 911 call and indicated that he had shot his brother. His bond has been set at $1-million.
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