Illinois Public Media News
Prosecutors asked a federal judge Friday to drop millionaire power broker William Cellini from Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial. Meanwhile, the former governor asked that the trial scheduled for June be postponed for months.
U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel is likely to grant the motion, which would allow for a separate trial but not dismiss any charges, because Cellini's lawyers have been seeking the same thing.
Cellini is a Springfield lobbyist-businessman and has been viewed for decades as one of the most influential behind-the-scenes men in Illinois politics. He is charged with attempting to extort a payoff or hefty contribution for the Blagojevich campaign from a Hollywood producer whose money management firm did business with the state.
A new state law paves the way for legal video gambling to come to bars and truck stops across Illinois --- unless local governments choose to opt out. A joint study session Thursday night of the Champaign County Board and Champaign and Urbana City Councils considered the pros and cons of the issue.
University of Illinois business professor and gambling opponent John Kindt says studies show that video gambling is a particularly addictive type of gambling. Kindt was a panelist at the s study session, and he says young people have been found to be especially vulnerable.
"By putting these machines in the middle of a student population, this is just the very worst type of gambling in the most vulnerable type of population base", said Kindt.
But the state is counting on tax revenue from legal video gambling to help pay for capital construction projects. In the audience, Larry Swope of the Illinois Pipe Trades Association says that revenue would help provide badly needed jobs.
"It's time we quit worrying about people who MAY end up having a problem, and start worrying about peole who DO have a problem", said Swope, "that don't have work, that if they had work, they could pay their taxes and get construction going. Our people are starving."
County Board member Alan Kurtz pushed for last night's study session. Kurtz is a Democrat whose county board district --- District 7 --- includes the Campustown area --- and most of its many bars. He says he's worried that video gambling machines will prove a dangerous attraction to college students --- even though they state law will require they be placed away from areas where underage patrons are allowed.
"To me, it's obvious that they're not going to be able to control it", said Kurtz. We don't have the police power to be able to be in every bar, every night."
But Champaign City Counciwoman Karen Foster, who also attended the joint session, said afterwards that she favored letting video gambling come to town --- even though she says might have preferred a different way of funding state projects.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, who moderated the panel discussion, says she'd like the state to replace video gambling with alternative funding sources for capital construction. Prussing says the Urbana City Council will continue to study the issue, but would not say if she thought her city should "opt-out", and ban video gambling locally.
It will be a year or longer before legal video gambling is actually a reality in Illinois. In the meantime, at least 27 county and municipal governments --- mostly in the Chicago area --- have voted to ban the games in their jurisdictions --- the county board bans only affect unincorporated areas.
Rallies were held on all three University of Illinois campuses Thursday as talks of a strike loomed among graduate workers in Urbana. Some of the chanting was aimed at administrators as more than 300 members and supporters of the Graduate Employees Organization made their way across the campus quad. The rally was held a few hours after two busloads of union members rallied in Springfield, where U of I Trustees were meeting, while 50 with the GEO rallied in Chicago.
Its membership approved a strike authorization vote last week over a living wage and guaranteed tuition waivers. The union says the U of I has agreed to a new negotiating session slated for Saturday afternoon. Co-President Caroline Nappo says it's the result of the membership meeting a week ago when more than 90% of voting members favored a strike. "When we put serious pressure on the university related to a possible work action they are more responsive," says Nappo. "We've been negotiating for almost seven months now and from April until just a few weeks ago, the university hadn't made any kind of offer that gave us anything." Nappo says there's been some movement on the areas of health care coverage and parental leave, and the administration agreed to drop some language about discrimination-based grievances.
GEO spokesman Peter Campbell says adding the Saturday session is encouraging, but its strike committee has been meeting regularly and can call for a work stoppage at any time. U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says she's hopeful the best possible contract can be reached within the university's financial constraints.
Once again, the Champaign City Council chamber was filled to capacity Tuesday night, with people concerned about police practices in the wake of the shooting death of Kiwane Carrington. This time, the topic was the department's new Use of Force policy, which took effect just before the 15 year old Carrington was shot in a police confrontation.
In his first public comments since his involvement in the confrontation in which Carrington was shot, Police Chief R-T Finney defended the policy, which he says was revised as part of his efforts to earn professional accreditation for the police department. He argued against remarks from police critics, who said that African-Americans were subject to more use of force by Champaign Police than white residents.
"The use of force is based on reasonableness," said Finney. "It's based on the actions that are presented to the officer. We review each one of them for that. It has nothing to do with race."
In contrast to two previous council meetings, police officers and supporters turned out in large numbers at Tuesday night's study session. Many wore buttons that said "Support Our Police". Albert Lo defended the Use of Force policy against critics who said it needed to be more specific.
"The Use of Force policy probably should be ambiguous," said Lo, "giving officers the opportunity to use their best judgment. That's why we hired them."
In contrast, 1st District Councilman Will Kyles said he thought the revised Use of Force policy might be too vague. For instance, he called for more specific guidelines on when officers can draw their gun.
Champaign Police officials say the revised policy allows deadly force only in cases where great bodily harm has or may occur. And they say the guidelines for Tasers are for when the department may call in another law enforce agency that uses Tasers --- Champaign does not. Chief Finney has talked about reviving the idea, but would not comment on the idea last night.
C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice was among those arguing Tuesday night for more specific language in the Use of Force policy, and against any language on Tasers. They also want any changes in police policy that directly affects affecting the community to come before the Champaign City Council. The group plans a noon-hour youth rally on Wednesday, Veterans Day, at the downtown Urbana Veterans Memorial, in memory of Kiwane Carrington.
A Douglas County Judge has ruled that an autistic 1st grader can continue bringing his service dog to school. Judge Michael Freese sided Tuesday with the family of 6-year old Kaleb Drew, saying 'Chewey' clearly functions as a service animal, keeping him calm and focused in class. Kaleb's mother, Nichelle Drew, says before the family got the Labrador retriever, her son often slept 2 to 3 hours at night, ran away from home, and they weren't able to take him to places like grocery stores and restaurants.
"We were seeing such improvement with Kaleb and such growth with Kaleb and Chewey as a team that we didn't want anything to hinder that," says Drew. "We wanted it to be able to continue and for Kaleb just to be able to continue to experience life to the fullest. And I think that's what every parent wants for their child. As parent of a child with autism, it's something that I don't get to experience very often."
Attorneys for the Villa Grove school district argued the dog wasn't helping the child's development, and can be disruptive to other students and staff. Based on the testimony from school staff, Judge Freese noted problems in dealing with the dog at times. But he says the real problems were with a state statute that doesn't clearly define Chewey's role while accompanying Kaleb at school. Villa Grove schools attorney Brandon Wright says its legal team is still weighing its options, and could appeal the district's decision. He says a big problem lies with a state law that allows service animals in schools, but doesn't provide much guidance.
"When you have a student who is young and incapable of being the handler of a dog, what does that mean for the school in terms of its responsibility?," says Wright. "And this statute is silent on that and the judge recognized that conundrum for the school district." This case and a separate lawsuit involving an autistic boy in southwestern Illinois are the first challenges to the state's law allowing service animals in schools. Authorities in both school districts have said that the boys' needs must be balanced against those of other children who have allergies or fear the animals.
A new dispute has erupted among a utility, environmental officials and neighbors near a Champaign site that decades ago hosted a manufactured gas plant.
Ameren has been treating soil and groundwater on the site but maintains that contamination from the residue buried in the soil has not leached out into the surrounding area. The Champaign County Health Care Consumers disputes that, and today they say a nearby water main replacement project is digging up some of that questionable soil.
The group's director, Claudia Lenhoff, says Illinois American Water, Ameren and the city left neighbors in the dark over the safety of the water main project.
"This corridor here should be tested in order to remove any doubt to whether it's safe or not to be digging this soil and into the groundwater," Lennhoff said. "Just a few feet that way (toward the site itself) is contaminated."
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says the water company cleared the project with them. "We were aware of what they're doing. They are aware of what we're doing," Morris said. "They know what the extent of the contamination is. And there is no contamination that they would need to be concerned about.'
But one neighbor, Magnolia Cook, distrusts whatever Ameren is saying about the site's safety. "Ameren has never told us the truth about anything, so why would we believe what Ameren is saying as far as this site is concerned, "Cook said. "How come the Illinois EPA is not out here to see what's underneath this dirt while they're digging?"
Neighbors have questioned why the Illinois EPA issued a permit for the project using Ameren's test results. However, Randy West, local field operations superintendent with Illinois American Water, says they commissioned their own soil testing along the water main site, and found no evidence of any contamination from the old gas plant.
As the union that represents graduate student employees threatens a strike, University of Illinois administrators are laying out some ground rules for all employees.
Members of the Graduate Employees Organization say they could call a walkout within the next week if it doesn't see progress in contract talks with Urbana campus negotiators.
U of I Spokeswoman Robin Kaler says the union has a right to strike, but grad students who teach classes for undergraduates have an obligation to make appropriate plans.
"If an instructor is planning to change a course time or course location or something like that, that instructor is expected to let students know in advance about any of those changes or any arrangements that might be made," Kaler said.
Kaler also says U of I employees who aren't part of the GEO but don't want to cross picket lines to work will have to use vacation days to do so. Both sides in the contract dispute expect to begin another negotiating session next week, but GEO spokesman Peter Campbell warned that a strike could be called before then.
Members of the union representing graduate employees at the University of Illinois Urbana campus have overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization vote. The Graduate Employees Organization says 92 percent of members voting last week approved the question.
Graduate Employees Organization spokesman Peter Campbell says a strike committee held its first meeting Sunday, and is making plans for a potential walkout by graduate and teaching assistants. However, Campbell says they want to get back to the bargaining table quickly. While the next tentative date for a meeting between GEO and university negotiators is November 17th. Campbell says the union is asking the administration to meet with them as often as possible before then, in the hopes of making progress towards a new contract before any walkout is held.
"The GEO continues to remain committed to negotiating in good faith in the bargaining room", says Campbell. "But GEO members have authorized and are ready to call a strike at any moment.
Grad student employees have been working at the U of I Urbana campus without a contract all this semester. Campbell says their two top concerns in current contract talks are a living wage for all union members and protection for tuition waivers.
University spokesperson Robin Kaler said Sunday night that while the administration recognizes the union's right to strike, it does not feel a strike would be in the union's or the university's best interests.
The State of Illinois plans to start its early release of inmates Tuesday. It's part of an effort to save money in the prison system. The move comes about four months after the state first announced the plan. As many as one thousand prisoners could eventually be let go before their sentences are complete.
Sixty two prisoners will be freed in this first group. Corrections spokeswoman Januari Smith says most of them currently live at the department's adult transition centers, "basically meaning that these are people who are already living and working in the community."
Smith says inmates housed in transition centers work or go to school in the day, but must return to the dorm-like facility at night.
Illinois has eight of them ... one each in Carbondale, Decatur and Peoria. The rest are in and around Chicago. Smith couldn't say from which of these the inmates will be released, but she expects it will be spread out over several locations.
Nor could Smith say where the newly-freed prisoners will go to. But she says local authorities have been notified.
Smith says the Department of Corrections is continuing evaluations to choose other eligible inmates. The department must deem them non-violent and low-level offenders, and they must have less than a year of their sentence left to serve.
A $123,454,993 county budget plan for the fiscal year starting December 1st passed through the Champaign County Board's Finance Committee Thursday night --- and comes up for a full county board vote November 19th.
The budget cuts spending from the county's General Corporate Fund by 7-point-2 percent from original 2009 budget plan. Unlike the 4-point-5 percent cuts made partway through FY 2009, these new cuts are targeted and permanent. County Adminstrator Deb Busey says they initially planned for cuts of 6 percent --- but had to go back and cut more as sales and income tax revenue continued to decline.
"We had to cut everything we could from Commodities, Services and Capital at that point", says Busey. "So we went back and focused on recently added positions, or offices where staffing levels are high than in offices in comparable counties. And we added additional personnel cuts to achieve the total 7.2% cut in General Corporate."
Busey says the cuts assume that county tax revenue has bottomed out, and won't fall any further in 2010. Meanwhile, the new budget plan raises spending by nearly ten million dollars at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, which handles everything from long-range urban planning to Head Start programs. Busey says the increase is due to new federal grants --- much of it courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "The growth in the entire budget is almost entirely attributable to the Regional Planning Commission", says Busey.
The Finance Committee also approved a county property tax levy of $26,601,528 --- an increase of roughly 600-thousand dollars from the year before. Busey says that levy will produce an estimated property tax rate of 73.64 cents per $100 assessed valuation, down from the previous tax rate of 74.26 cents.
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