Illinois Public Media News
Champaign County voters could get a chance this November to give their opinion on a proposal for a smaller county board. County Board members voted Tuesday night in committee to put the non-binding resolution on the November ballot.
County Board Vice-Chairman Tom Betz says the proposal --- for a 22-member board with eleven two-member districts --- is a compromise. It's not exactly what he wants, but Betz says it's the version that the county board appears willing to put on the ballot.
"If you're going to change the structure, I think the public needs to get itself invested in it", says Betz. "This is the public's county board, it's not MY county board."
Betz believes a smaller Champaign County Board --- it currently has 27 members -- would be a more responsive body. But fellow Democrat Alan Kurtz says the current 27-member board with three members per district allows for more diversity.
"We have a tremendous background of everything from attorneys to hard-working farmers", says Kurtz. "And they give us their opinions, their experiences, their life experiences, and it helps me make a decision for my constituents as well."
Whatever the voters would say, the Champaign County Board would have the final say on how their board is constituted. A final vote on the referendum takes place next week --- six county board members were absent during last night's committee-level vote.
Also on Tuesday night, a measure to put another non-binding referendum on the ballot --- this one to ban video gaming machines --- received only five "yes" votes from the Champaign County Board. Gambling opponents say video gaming is too addictive. But supporters say the games --- which are soon to be legalized in Illinois --- will produce tax revenue that's needed to help fund highway and other state construction projects.
Family reunification accounts for nearly two-thirds of lawful permanent migration to the United States: it's the largest avenue by which people receive admission to the country. Yet, family separation remains a part of daily living for countless immigrants. A legislative effort in Congress focuses on family unity as a key component of immigration policy. Illinois Public Radio's Sean Powers examines the issues facing lawmakers and families.
(Photo courtesy of Sergio Cuellar)
About 350 employees on the University of Illinois campus have a tentative contract agreement with their employer. The two-year agreement would cover about 350 visiting academic professionals - on Thursday night their bargaining unit announced that members had ratified the agreement. No details have been announced yet. The U of I Board of Trustees will vote on the tentative agreement in July.
The man appointed to be the next federal prosecutor for central Illinois has taken a big step toward the post. The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday unanimously approved James Lewis for the US attorney job. President Obama appointed Lewis, who's been an assistant in the US Attorney's office for the last 27 years. If the full Senate approves, Lewis would replace acting US attorney Jeffery Lang.
One of those responsible for changing the marquee on Champaign's Virginia Theatre says it needs to be recognized as more than a place for showing movies. Champaign Park District Board member Barbara Kuhl favors replacing the sign to make the theatre look more like a vaudeville house, as it appeared in 1921. Board members voted 3-2 for replacing the marquee that's been there since the 40's. Kuhl also says the current one needed replacing anyway. "The current marquee will be taken down and destroyed. It cannot be refurbished," said Kuhl. "So the question was not 'will there be a new marquee?'... it was just 'what was the shape of the new marquee going to be."
Those favoring the change say a new sign would show off more of the upper-level façade and original architecture. Urban planner Alice Novak says there's no doubt the Virginia is a beautiful building, but argues the park district is changing the most defining feature. Kuhl says the public opposition to changing the sign was blown out of proportion. But Novak says there was an obvious public sentiment for retaining the marquee, and the park district board chose to ignore it. "So I think that's very disappointing," said Novak. "And I don't know what the long-lasting implications of that kind of bad policy will be."
Novak sits on Illinois' Historic Sites Advisory Council, which reviews nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. Park District Board members contend the new marquee won't change that eligibility. But Novak says once the old one comes down - she'll submit photos of the Virginia to the rest of her group to consider a change. Champaign Park District Board President Jane Solon says she initially would have preferred the Virginia's next marquee be a combination of refurbishing the existing one, with features from the original sign's 1921 design. But she says public opposition convinced her that the best marquee was the one currently in place. "You can't marry two periods together and create a new that's not the best thing to do," says Solon. "So from a historical perspective and from what citizens had said they preferred, I then became in favor of keeping the triangle marquee."
Both board members say they hope the marquee change will be done when other renovations to the theater are completed. The Virginia closes next week for upgrades to its entrances and lobby, and re-opens in November. A million dollar bequest from the estate of Michael Carragher is funding that work, while ticket sales and other private donations are paying for the new marquee.
Prosecutors say they'll ask that the wife of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich leave the courtroom at her husband's corruption trial when testimony about her comes up.
The often stone-faced Patti Blagojevich has sat in the courtroom since the trial began. She's arrived each day with her husband, often holding hands as they enter the Chicago courthouse.
But according to procedures established earlier, she's supposed to leave when certain testimony arises.
She's in the courtroom Thursday as the former governor's first chief of staff, Alonzo Monk, testifies for a second day.
Judge James Zagel says he'll rule on whether she'll have to step outside right before the testimony that involves her. A defense attorney for Blagojevich has said she'll testify in the trial.
The federal stimulus program was lucrative for the University of Illinois, but less so for government agencies in Champaign County.
A report from the county regional planning commission says more than $162 million in stimulus funding rolled into the county in 2009. But nearly $96 million of that was for the U of I, mainly for research projects according to commission planner Susan Chavarria. $16 million of the total was for infrastructure projects, mostly road construction and improvements.
Chavarria says it's hard to compare whether Champaign County got more or less than other areas of the state or nation. "Smaller communities and smaller counties, they usually don't have the resources to go through the application processes or to take the time to look for the funding sources," Chavarria said. "So in terms of our ability to do that, I think that we have perhaps received more than some of the other downstate counties. For the $546 million that we asked for, our expectations were we'll take what we can get, so I think we've received a fair amount of funding here."
Chavarria says even the U of I assistance indirectly benefits the community in the jobs it ensures for researchers and students. She says stimulus assistance to the county also came in the form of government contracts and business loans.
One Champaign city council member says she's hoping city staff will take some time to clarify a measure that seeks to speed up enforcement of standards for vacant buildings.
The plan is to remedy problems with empty commercial and residential properties without having to go through a drawn-out court process. Council member Marci Dodds says she backs the plan overall, but says the language lacked clarity as to how property owners get back into compliance after getting their building back up to standards. The city council and public discussed the measure for more than three hours in Tuesday night's study session. Dodds says neighborhood service staff should have written the ordinance to say buildings should meet fire safety codes, and not all property codes. "Do you have to bring your plumbing up to current code in a vacant building? Well, no you don't," said Dodds. "But you have to make sure that holes are patched in the wall, the roof's not going to fall in on firemen if they go in, people aren't going to fall through the floor, that kind of thing. Those are two very different standards. And I think that standard needs to be clear. I also think it needed to be clear what triggered going into a building."
Tom Bruno agrees there's a problem with irresponsible property owners and vacant structures, saying there may need to be more details in the proposal. But he says the neighborhood services department needs to be allowed to do its job. "We have inspectors in the field who are trained and comfortable and qualified at exercising some judgment," said Bruno. "And that a lot of the detailed minutia that people are seeking in this ordinance I don't necessarily needs to be there as long as our enforcement people are well-intentioned, well-trained, and well-able to exercise some discretion."
Property maintenance inspector Michael Lambert says the key is finding what triggers use of the ordinance. He says his staff will try to clarify some of its language, and have it back before the council soon.
Governor Pat Quinn's signature extends the power to borrow money to Illinois' community colleges.
Earlier this week legislation that the governor signed gave the same ability to state universities - nearly all public higher education institutions are awaiting backlogged payments from the state, and many of those schools say the delays have prompted them to cut budgets and scrape to make payroll.
In signing the borrowing authority bill in Danville Wednesday, Governor Quinn said the two-year schools now have another tool to work through the state's budget crisis. Republican Representative Bill Black admits that the new borrowing power is only a Band-Aid.
"I know some of you in the media looked at the three bills and said 'this doesn't solve all the problems' -- no it doesn't, and I don't think the governor will give any the indication that it does," Black said. "But they're all small steps that we can take, and when the state gets back on its feet - and it will -- I think the bills he's signing today will help."
Two other bills the Governor signed Wednesday allow more frequent state payments to community colleges and let the state Community College Board limit some travel reimbursements. Colleges would still have to get the approval of their trustees to issue more bonds.
The judge in the corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has seated a jury.
Judge James B. Zagel named 18 jurors -- a panel of 12 and six alternates. The judge postponed an immediate decision on a request by Blagojevich's attorneys to dismiss fraud and racketeering charges against him. The former governor has pleaded not guilty to profiting from his power by trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former Senate seat. Opening statements are now expected to begin.
The ex-governor appeared upbeat earlier as he made his way through the courthouse security and addressed reporters in the lobby.
Interest in the trial was high. The main courtroom in downtown Chicago and another overflow courtroom with audio feeds from the trial were filled to capacity.
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