Illinois Public Media News
The League of Women Voters and the NAACP hosted a forum Wednesday night at the Champaign City Building with the Democratic candidates running for Champaign County circuit clerk and auditor in this month's primary.
Each set of candidates was given an hour to answer a series of questions, but they were not allowed to address each other with their responses. The auditor candidates went first.
Just about a year ago, a referendum to eliminate the office of auditor as an elected post was on the ballot. Voters turned it down, by a vote of 57 percent to 43 percent. The auditor's office has been controversial in Champaign County after email and phone records reported by the News Gazette showed current Auditor Tony Fabri spent little time at work.
The Democratic candidates in the race are George Danos, Kevin Sandefur, and Ben Carlson. They say that they want to bring confidence and transparency back to the office.
George Danos, whose financial background includes jobs in the healthcare and insurance industries, said he would concentrate on making sure county government is fiscally responsible.
"The county deserves a veritable watchdog in the office, one zealous about making sure that our tax dollars are well spent," Danos said. "One who is accessible to both the public and party officials."
Kevin Sandefur is an accounting information systems developer. He said if elected, he would see to it that county finance information gets posted online.
"Who else is going to step up and provide the information to the public in a way that is easy enough for them to understand, easy enough for them to obtain in order to provide the accountability and transparency and openness in government that we need?" Sandefur said.
Meanwhile, Ben Carlson, who works in the insurance industry, said he would like to make the office more efficient by updating technology.
"You know, we've got over 25 years of technology in the current office," Carlson said. "Are you going to keep the current accounting system? Are we going to discuss how to improve that?"
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination for auditor will face Deputy County Clerk John Farney in the general election.
Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates for circuit clerk also took part in the forum. With Linda Frank stepping down as Champaign County circuit clerk after nearly 20 years in that post, the three Democrats running for her seat in the March primary are Barb Wysocki, Lori Hansen, and Evelyn Underwood.
During the forum, the candidates agreed that making court information more accessible to the public should be a priority.
Barb Wysocki, who is a former Champaign County Board member, said part of that involves doing a better job training staff on using technology.
"When the same data has to be entered at two or three different points just to get information circulating or moving between offices, that to me is a human problem more than it is perhaps a technological problem," Wysocki said.
Lori Hansen, who is a law librarian for the Champaign County Circuit Court, said she also wants to find ways to improve services through the use of technology. She said computer stations should be installed in the lobby of the courthouse, so that the public can print out forms before a court appearance.
"Access to justice requires access to information, and information is power," Hansen said. "I want to give the information and power to the people who use the circuit clerk's office."
Hansen added that she would like to keep the self-help desk at the courthouse open, which had briefly closed because of budgetary reasons.
Evelyn Underwood, who is a former member of the Urbana Education Association, agreed that maintaining the self-help desk is a good idea. Underwood said she would also like to see more people serve on juries.
"I can't make them serve, but I would like to encourage them to serve on juries," Underwood said. "It will bring about justice if we have more people of color serving on the juries."
The circuit clerk candidate who wins the primary will face off against Republican Stephanie Holderfield, who currently sits on the county board.
The primary election is set for March 20, 2012.
(Photos by Sean Powers/WILL)
The University of Illinois is losing the Pacifica Quartet.
The Grammy-winning string ensemble has accepted an offer from Indiana University, and is leaving at the end of the spring semester. In addition to a large touring and recording schedule, the group performed often at the U of I's Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
Center Director Mike Ross says they've matured beautifully in their nine years on campus. He says the ensemble's time at the U of I has allowed their relationship to change over time.
"One of the forms that I enjoy the most is the form of collaborative thinking, and brainstorming, and imagining the future," Ross said. "As well as ways to enable the art forms that we work with to have as much impact on the well-being of individuals and families and communities and societies on our global collective as possible."
Violinist Sibbi Berhnardsson, who is a member of the quartet, said the move had nothing to do with Illinois' finances, or other issues at the U of I. He said the quartet struggled with the move, but saw it as a challenge to become part of the storied school of music at Indiana.
"We are very much aware that we are giving up a lot, " Berhnardsson said. "And the only reason we accepted this was it just felt it was a good time sort of take on a new challenge. They have wonderful faculty there, and it's a storied music school.'
In 2009, the Pacifica Quartet won a Grammy for the Best Chamber Music Performance of 2008.
(Photo courtesy of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts)
Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer says city council members were not thinking about accommodating a new Meijer's store, when they approved an expansion of liquor licenses Tuesday night.
But one of the six new licenses created by the ordinance is expected to be granted to Meijer's for the store it plans to build on North Vermilion Street. The new licenses are only for grocery and drug stores.
The ordinance initially fell short of passage. But then one of the aldermen voting "no" asked to have the measure reconsidered ... and the measure passed on the 2nd vote.
Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer says the initial opposition was due to the mistaken notion that the ordinance would create new licenses for regular package liquor stores.
"And the council was not in favor of this, promoting any additional package liquor store license", Eisenhauer said. "And so I think, once that became more clear to them, then they were willing to support this.
The new liquor ordinance splits drug and grocery stores into a new "PG" liquor license category, while package liquor stores will stay under the "P" grouping.
Eisehnauer says existing liquor stores may feel the pressure from new stores like Meijer's, but not as much as if the new licenses went to stores specializing in liquor.
"Simply because the intention of grocery stores or the large box retail stores is to generate new traffic into the market place for all sales, one of which would include alcoholic beverages", says Eisenhauer.
Another new liquor license category will cover micro-breweries.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
The University of Illinois is speaking out against legislation to do away with discounted tuition waivers for the children of University employees.
Employees at public universities in the state who have been in their jobs for at least seven years are eligible to receive half-price tuition for their children. U of I spokesman Tom Hardy says the waivers help give the university more of competitive edge over other institutions.
"It's available to employees at other colleges and universities that are peer institutions of this university," Hardy said. "So, for a competitive reason to be able to recruit and retain the best employees, we need to be able to have a provision like this."
The Board of Higher Education says the tuition waivers for employees' children cost a little over $8 million last year and went to more than 2,000 students.
Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) is sponsoring the legislation. It passed a House committee last week and will move to the full House. The Chicago Democrat says the state cannot afford to provide the benefit.
Meanwhile, the state currently owes the University of Illinois about $387 million.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said the team is releasing quarterback Peyton Manning after a 14-year run that included one Super Bowl title and four M-V-P awards.
The team needed to cut Manning this week to avoid paying him a $28 million dollar bonus. An emotional Manning delivered a tearful farewell Wednesday during a news conference with Irsay by his side.
"I haven't thought yet about where I'll play, but I have thought a lot about where I've been, and I've truly been blessed," Manning said. "I've been blessed to play here. I've been blessed to be in the NFL."
The 35-year-old Manning came off a series of operations to his neck and missed all of last season.
He said he has no plans to retire and hopes to be playing in the NFL at the start of next season. Manning said he plans to live in Indianapolis, even after he moves to a different team.
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said Manning will never be forgotten and Larry Bird, now an executive with the Indiana Pacers, simply called Manning the best athlete to ever play in the Indiana capital.
The Colts are widely expected to replace him with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Officials at an Illinois company that lost a bid for state employees' insurance contracts say they're not surprised by an audit critical of the procurement process.
The state audit was released Wednesday. It finds serious problems with the way Illinois awarded $7 billion in contracts for state workers' health insurance.
A spokeswoman for Urbana-based Health Alliance says many of the auditor's findings were pointed out in the company's original protest of the procurement.
The audit comes as the state is settling a lawsuit by Health Alliance over the contracts.
Health Alliance spokeswoman Jocelyn Browning says the company is focused on submitting a bid in a new request for proposals that's part of the settlement being worked out.
Health Alliance insures about 90,000 state employees and their dependents.
An Illinois appeals court has ordered a new trial for a man convicted in the 1980 rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl based on new DNA evidence.
The Fourth District Appellate Court reversed a trial court judgment that denied a new trial for 50-year-old Andre Davis.
Davis is serving an 80-year prison sentence after being convicted twice in the death of Brianna Stickle in Rantoul.
At Davis' request, DNA testing was conducted within the last few years that wasn't available at the time of the crime.
The court noted in its opinion this week that none of the evidence was a DNA match for Davis.
Davis is represented by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University's law school.
A Chicago man was charged Tuesday of computer hacking in collaboration with five other people aligned with the activist group Anonymous.
Federal prosecutors accuse Jeremy Hammond of stealing the credit card information of nearly 60,000 clients of Strategic Forecasting Inc. (Startfor), a global intelligence firm. Prosecutors say Hammond went by the name "anarchaos," among other online aliases.
A federal complaint alleges Hammond posted that information on a file sharing website resulting in at least $700,000 worth of unauthorized charges. The complaint also said Hammond helped obtain emails from Stratfor employees and put them on certain Internet websites.
The whistleblower website, Wikileaks started publishing emails from Stratfor in February. The website says it has nearly 5 million emails obtained from that company. It's not completely clear whether those emails are the ones prosecutors allege Hammond obtained by hacking into Stratfor's servers.
Hammond appeared in federal court in Chicago on Tuesday after being arrested the night before. He will be transferred to New York to stand trial.
Attorney Jim Fennerty represented Hammond in his initial Chicago court appearance. Fennerty also represented Hammond about two years ago when he was arrested for protesting at a Neo-Nazi gathering. He also confirmed Hammond had been detained for his opposition to Chicago's bid to host the Olympic Games, though Fennerty didn't represent Hammond in that case. Fennerty said he knows Hammond through his activism in Chicago.
"I like the guy. Maybe he does things I wouldn't do," Fennerty said.
Hammond is charged with three federal counts and faces a possible maximum sentence of 10 years for each of those counts.
"He does take them [the charges] very seriously. As you saw him today he looks kinda like - somebody said he looked kinda shell-shocked," Fennerty told reporters Tuesday.
Another four hackers were charged with similar counts in an indictment unsealed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court. A fifth hacker, Hector Xavier Monsegur, pleaded guilty last August. Monsegur is described in court papers as the ring-leader of the Anonymous sub-group LulzSec. Federal agents said Monsegur cooperated with the FBI in their investigation.
After weeks of delay, the Champaign County Board has agreed to seek out a needs assessment study for jail facilities.
The plan to bring in a consulting firm has been discussed for weeks. In Tuesday night's 5-hour committee of the whole meeting, the board agreed to an amended schedule for a criminal justice consulting firm to look at jail capacity needs. That firm will decide costs for either remodeling the jail in downtown Urbana, or expanding the satellite facility. The board is expected to award a contract by late July.
A number of amendments to the request for proposals were shot down. A couple came from Democrat Carol Ammons, who says she's still pleased overall.
"This process has long and tedious for the important reasons, right?" she said. "This is a huge undertaking, and I think we need a complete vetting of what we're going to actually do. And this is the beginning of that process."
Ammons did successfully seek out one motion, asking that a person of color from a minority-influenced county board district serve on a planning team that will also include sheriff Dan Walsh, State's Attorney Julia Reitz, and two other board members.
That suggestion didn't sit well with Reitz, who upset those who remained in the audience.
"Those of us who have volunteered to serve on this committee, to be part of this process, have the best interest of the county, and the system as a whole at heart," she said. "I'm absoutely willing to hear from anybody who has an interest, who wants to say something. But I do not think there needs to be a token person of color on the committee."
County Board Democrat and Facilties Committee Chair Tom Betz threatened to empty the room after members of the public snapped back at Reitz. The suggestion passed on a party line vote of 12 to 11, with all the 'yes' votes coming from Democrats. Ammons will ask the board to appoint her to that panel.
She and other members of CU Citizens for Peace and Justice have been critical of local authorities, saying there's a racial disparity of those incarcerated in Champaign County.
A tax on strip-clubs was approved Tuesday by an Illinois Senate committee.
The legislation would boost the cost of admission into clubs that serve alcohol by $5 per person. Revenue from the tax would support groups that work to prevent sexual assault.
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields) said her proposal would address some of the violence toward women that she attributes to alcohol and nude dancing.
"I understand that this is a pretty contentious subject, largely because it's difficult to talk about in open conversation," Hutchinson said. "We are talking about something that is pretty easy to watch devolve into snickers and jokes about what it is we're trying to do here."
Hutchinson said there's a link between alcohol, strip clubs and crime, particularly violence against women.
However, club owner Michael Ocello said such studies are flawed and outdated. Ocello owns five clubs in the Metro East area, on the Illinois side of the river across from St. Louis. He said a majority of the state's 50 or so strip clubs would not survive the proposal, leaving 2,000 dancers, bartenders and other workers out of work.
"Many of these clubs have been impacted by the worst economy the country's ever seen in years, and a tax of $5 per person will kill most of these small business operations," Ocello said.
The measure was approved unanimously in committee and advances to the Senate floor. But several legislators who voted for it say they want more information before the final vote.
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