Illinois Public Media News
A yearly ranking of cities and their air pollution problems lists Champaign-Urbana as relatively problem-free.
The area is listed as one of 25 cleanest when it comes to short-term pollution from particulate matter. The report covers the years 2006 through 2008 and compares metropolitan areas across the country.
Katie Lorenz is with the American Lung Association, which commissioned the study - she says Champaign-Urbana also fared well when it comes to ozone pollution over those three years.
"In Champaign there was one ozone day in the orange category, which means unhealthy levels of pollution for sensitive groups," Lorenz said. "And for that reading w gave them a B, which is actually pretty good comparatively across the state."
In comparison, McLean County had five days with orange-level ozone pollution two years ago, and Cook County had 25.
Lorenz says some long-term trends may be to credit for the improvement. "One of the reasons why we think that the quality has been better is due to reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants. (Also,) transition to cleaner diesel fuels and engines and really the steps that individuals are taking every day to make sure the quality of our air is improved."
Still the Lung Association's "State of the Air" study found that the St. Louis and Indianapolis areas suffer significant year-round pollution despite year-by-year improvements.
An Illinois House committee advanced a Democrat-backed plan Tuesday to change the legislative redistricting process. It could be called for a floor vote as soon as Wednesday. But Republicans made a last ditch attempt to keep their own proposal alive:
The big difference between the two sides is that Democrats want lawmakers to have a shot at deciding their own districts, before passing deadlocked cases over to a "special master".. Their plan also calls for statewide hearings and separate maps for both chambers. Republicans say a panel of non-lawmakers should be given the task of mapping out legislative districts.
"If we say no, we don't believe this process is right and we're going to stick to our guns that the legislature should not be part of this", says GOP Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs.
Since Republicans are in the minority at the state capitol... their plan has been blocked. But even though Democrats have the edge in the House... their measure needs at least one Republican to come on board for it to pass.
The Republican effort also has the backing of the League of Women Voters. That group's effort to circumvent the legislature by collecting voter signatures is coming up short.
Meanwhile, debate over the two plans led to flaring tempers at a hearing of the House Civil Law Committee on Tuesday.
Chris Butler, an African American volunteer with the League of Women Voters, questioned what the Democrats' version does to help elect minorities.
"I take strong offense to this caucus...parading as great defenders of minority rights", said Butler.
To which Chicago Democratic Senator Kwame Raoul, who's also African American, took offense.
"If you're going to say that you're African American and you're fighting for African American rights and all of this", responded Raoul, "you know, look at the language and answer the question honestly. You know, don't bring tokens out here to defend something that is inadequate. It's insulting."
IIllinois' current redistricting process typically gives one party a huge political advantage for the next decade.
Champaign's CommUnity Matters program is preparing for a third year of activities for at-risk youth. The program brings private and public agencies together to offer afterschool programs and summer day camps for younger students... and career-building programs for high school students. The program has targeted the Garden Hills neighborhood but is set to expand this year.
Unit Four Assistant Superintendent Dr. Michael McFarland says he measures CommUnity Matter's success by the children involved in its program - such as the Operation Hope program for high school s students:
"If you look at the results, last year we had 18 seniors, and they all are currently still in college, doing well", says McFarland. "We have seven seniors this year. And we feel really positive about the fact that when kids leave our schools, they'll have more than a diploma. They'll have choices and opportunities."
Among the high schools students in Operation Hope is Champaign Central sophomore Tuyrin Griffin,
"Before I got into it", says Griffin, "my grades were real bad. And then when I got into it, it helped me out a lot, and I improved a lot. And it made me want to do better. And it's teaching me more about colleges and stuff, and it's letting me know about stuff that I didn't know before."
Griffin and other Operation Hope members addressed the Champaign City Council Tuesday night, as they reviewed plans for expanding CommUnity Matters. The city, the Champaign Park District, and the Unit Four school district work together on the program, along with local agencies such as the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club. Council member Deb Feinen says the willingness to collaborate is a key strength.
"Doing that probably isn't always easy", says Feinen. "It's probably easier to sort of just do it yourself, and nor share it out. But sharing it out is the piece that helps to make it so successful"
Two more partners will be joining CommUnity Matters...with the Parkland College for Kids program this summer and the Champaign County YMCA in 2011. The program also will be expanding into the northeast Champaign neighborhoods of Douglass Park, Beardsley Park, and Bristol Park.
Champaign City Council unanimously endorsed the expansion at its Tuesday night study session. A final council vote is expected in mid-June.
Illinois' top education official says schools should expect to receive all they state funding they've been promised for this year - but they shouldn't expect to get it before the end of the school year.
State school superintendent Christopher Koch says it would take a change in state law for the state to withhold funds permanently. But districts - and other state agencies and contractors -- have been waiting for the funding for months, and the statewide backlog has surpassed six billion dollars.
Koch says he can't tell schools when they can expect to see the money.
"You're not going to see it in this fiscal year", says Koch, "and even if the fiscal year's extended, we're not sure when money will be delivered. General state aid payments have been timely. Everything else has been delayed. Another large payment that school districts are awaiting are the reimbursements for transportation, special education costs. Those are in a category called Mandated Categoricals. Those are still pending --- one from December and one from April."
Koch says with the delays stretching back more than a year, it's getting increasingly tougher for school districts to plan their budgets several years down the line.
Koch was in Urbana Monday to salute eight Champaign County schools named to the Illinois Honor Roll - one of them, Urbana's Wiley School, has been discussed as a potential target for closing.
U of I students at a sometimes contentious town-hall-style meeting on the Urbana campus Monday night accused administrators of not doing enough to bring the school through the current financial crisis.
Students from the GEO --- the union representing grad students on campus --- and the Undergraduate Graduate Alliance told administrators at the meeting they weren't doing enough to lobby lawmakers to pass an income tax hike to fund higher education.
Administrators, including Associate Provost for Budget and Resource Planning Michael Andrechak, said the administration was fighting hard for the U of I's survival --- but the state's fiscal problems are a big challenge.
"The state's economic situation is absolutely catastrophic", said Andrechak. "A tax increase is needed. It's very unlikely that one will occur prior to the election."
GEO incoming co-president Stephanie Sewall says the university has to increase the pressure on lawmakers. She says an expected tuition hike will prevent more students from attending the U of I.
"I wasn't convinced that fundamentally, preserving accessibility to public education is reflected in the decisions that are being made", said Sewall. "And more work has to be done on that."
Students at the meeting talked about the likelihood of 10 to 20 percent tuition hikes. But U of I interim president Stanley Ikenberry said earlier this month he believes the next tuition increase will be under 10 percent.
Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias says no one from the Democratic Party has suggested he step aside following the failure last week of his family's bank.
Giannoulias said Monday at the Courier Cafe in Urbana the failure of Broadway Bank on Friday gives him a better understanding of the economic struggles of many Americans. Giannoulias says a lack of regulation in the commercial real estate market can partially be blamed on the poor economic policies of his opponent, Republican Congressman Mark Kirk. "I'm not saying that mistakes weren't made in the private sector, of course there were." said Giannoulias. "That being said, what's taken place with community banks, with the seven community banks that failed on Friday, the four more that got consent agreements with FDIC, when you have a real estate market that just plummets the way it did over the last two years, you're going to be dealing with huge challenges."
Giannoulias was in Urbana Monday. Giannoulias says he looks forward to debating his opponent, and offering voters a departure from policies that allowed the national debt to double in the last decade under President George W. Bush. The Treasurer also says he plans on being in Quincy on Wednesday, when President Obama gives a speech on Wall Street reform. And The White House on Friday ended speculation about whether Obama would campaign for Giannoulias, saying the president would help all Illinois Democrats. At the Urbana cafe, Giannoulias listened to University of Illinois students talk about their doubts they'll be able to find jobs when they graduate.
Mattoon Mayor Dave Cline has submitted his resignation, saying he has moved into a subdivision outside the city limits.
Cline submitted a letter of resignation Monday morning at Mattoon City Hall, saying his last full day as mayor will be Friday.
Cline said later he had chosen to move into his new residence, knowing that would end his term as mayor. Under Illinois law, elected municipal officials must live within city limits.
The resignation comes less than a week after three city commissioners refused to approve annexation resolutions for Cline's new residence.
Cline said the annexation was designed to bring more property into the city, but City Attorney Preston Owen said Cline had delayed the annexation for several months to avoid paying for a city building permit. Cline denied those accusations.
Federal money will give health officials in Vermilion County the chance to inspect old industrial sites for contaminated waste and discuss their future.
Half the $400,000 grant from the US EPA will go towards identifying hazardous substances... while the other $200,000 is to identify petroleum as part of the agency's Brownfields assessment program.
Doug Toole is an environmental health specialist with the county's health department. He's identified 32 potential sites for inspection and possible cleanup... including old factories, gas stations, salvage yards, and dry cleaners. The sites are in Danville and nearby cities like Hoopeston and Westville.
Toole says the funds will let the county bring in an environmental consultant to help coordinate public hearings. He says the first hearings wouldn't be about specific sites, but serve more as an orientation:
When people are complaining about junk houses in their community and dump sites and things like that --- stuff that we handle on a routine basis --- and that's good", says Toole. "We can get those things cleaned up. But I want to be sure the public's aware of what we're talking about with a brownfield. Just because there's an empty business in the area doesn't mean that that it necessarily has contaminants in the soil or asbestos or lead-based paint."
The $400,000 from the EPA can't be used for salaries at the financially struggling health department. Toole says a separate grant will be required for cleanup of the sites, and other hearings will be held to look at potential uses. Danville failed in its bid to receive the same EPA grant, but plans on re-applying.
The Vermilion County Health Department is owed half a million dollars from the state, and has laid off more than 40 employees this year. Toole says it's hard to say what would happen if the department was to fold, but he would expect that someone else in the county would take over the work.
The attorney representing Kiwane Carrington's family in their civil lawsuit against Champaign Police says Thursday's decision to suspend the police officer involved to 30 days' unpaid suspension doesn't necessarily make their case stronger.
But James Montgomery Junior says he plans to build the family's case on the testimony of the only other witness to the shooting other than the officers - the teenager who was with Carrington, Jeshaun Manning-Carter.
"While Officer Norbits claims he doesn't remember them (certain alleged facts in the case that Montgomery wouldn't disclose), this young man does, and (he) will shed clear light on the fact that Kiwane Carrington was wrongfully shot, and there was some conduct there that went beyond accidental firing of the weapon."
Montgomery calls Officer Daniel Norbits' 30 day suspension a good first step toward picking up the pieces from the shooting. Yet another investigation of the police shooting incident - this one by the Justice Department -- is still in progress.
A long-range plan to guide Champaign County regulation of rural land use won county board approval Thursday night with the support of all of the Democrats and half the Republicans.
The new Land Resource Management Plan covers a wide range of issues, with the goal of preserving Champaign County's prime farmland. But the focus of recent controversy had been limits on what development will be allowed on agricultural land "by right", that is, without county approval. As originally drafted, the plan limited building on farmland to one lot per 40 acres. But Barb Wysocki, the County Board's Democratic Land Use Committee Chair says that was modified during talks with Republicans over the last two weeks..
"Some were very adamant that the strict one-per-40, which is where we started, had virtually no support in the Republican caucus", said Wysocki, "which obviously was not going to work."
What apparently did work was a policy allowing two new lots per 40 acres of farmland by right, as long as no more than 3 acres of best prime farmland is developed. With that change added, six Republicans voted for the plan meant to guide county land use regulation for the next 20 years.
But Mahomet Republican John Jay doesn't feel the plan gets it right. While recent debate focused on how much farmland an owner could develop without seeking county permission, Jay says the problems with the plan go beyond that.
"Specifically property owner rights, obviously" said Jay. "But more importantly, it's overreached. And I'm not sure where we're going with this. You know, building codes and health and safety issues, and all the things that concern all of us, shouldn't be in a land use plan. A land use plan ought to be concise to land use."
Jay was one of the six Republicans voting against the Land Resource Management Plan.
Champaign County officials must now work out how to apply the plan to its ordinances and rules governing rural land use. They had struggled for years to find consensus for a comprehensive zoning review, before deciding to work out the Land Resource Management Plan as a guideline.
One of the six other Republicans who voted no, John Jay, says the Land Resource Management Plans' main problem is its overall scope --- one he says goes far beyond actual land use issues.
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