Illinois Public Media News
Those interested in applying for a vacant Champaign city council seat have until next Tuesday to apply, but a name won't be chosen for nearly a month.
Members are expected to choose a temporary appointment to the vacant District 5 seat on Feb. 1. In Tuesday night's study session, the council chose Jan. 11 as the deadline for applicants, and will hold interviews at its Jan. 18 meeting. Gordy Hulten resigned from the seat Tuesday to be sworn in Wednesday morning as the next Champaign County Clerk.
Paul Faraci, Jim McGuire, and Cathy Emanuel have already filed to run as write-in candidates for the District 5 seat in April's election, but applicants will be considered whether or not they plan on running this spring. Council member Deb Frank Feinen said she has real concerns with naming one of those three to the seat, saying it gives them an edge before voters have a say.
"It provides an advantage for someone that we as a group of 8 have decided maybe is the best fit for the council, but that the voters haven't had the opportunity to decide about," Feinen said. "And I find that troublesome."
But Council member Marci Dodds said that is part of the democratic process.
"This sort of idea that we're giving an instant leg up to the three people running as write-ins, I think, is premature," Dodds said. "It also means it voters in District 5 have a chance to say 'yeah, we don't like what you did. You're out of here."
Mayor Jerry Schweighart has already suggested one possible appointment to serve in the seat, but only until May. Mike Hosier formerly served on the city council in the 1980's. Council members decided against leaving the District 5 seat vacant until May, which would violate a state law requiring it to be filled within 60 days. Meanwhile, those seeking a write-in candidacy to run in for the seat in April have until Feb. 3 to file.
Hulten spent less than nine months with the Champaign City Council, but he said last night's resignation was still an emotional one. The District 5 Republican said as a result of serving on the council, he has learned much more about the issues facing his neighbors, and how a well-run body of government should function.
"You can have vigorous disagreements over fundamental issues facing the city," Hulten said. "We can discuss them in a cordial way, we can vote our conscience, we then can move on to the next issue and we don't become mortal enemies. And that's a rare and special thing in politics these days - and I'm glad there's some a commitment to nurturing that on council."
Hulten was given a round of applause by his council colleagues before the meeting adjourned.
A Cook County judge says Rahm Emanuel is eligible to run for Chicago mayor, but the ballot dispute involving the ex-White House chief of staff isn't over yet.
Circuit Court Judge Mark Ballard heard arguments for a bit less than an hour Tuesday morning in a Daley Center courtroom just steps from city hall.
The anti-Emanuel legal team claimed the candidate gave up his residency when he rented out his Chicago house while working for President Obama in Washington. Lawyers for Emanuel argued he left only to serve his country, and always planned to return.
In a written opinion, Ballard sided with Emanuel, upholding a decision last month by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
"We find there was sufficient evidence to support the Board's conclusion that Candidate Emanuel intended to remain a Chicago resident during his temporary absence, and did not, therefore, abandon his Chicago residency," Ballard wrote.
Burt Odelson, an attorney for the objectors, told reporters he expected to lose in circuit court. Oldeson said he will appeal the ruling on Wednesday.
"Those of us who practice election law, we don't look at these as losses. They're just stepping stones to get to the appellate and [state] supreme court," Odelson said.
Emanuel attorney Kevin Forde said "at some point" Odelson has "to call it quits."
"He's lost before a hearing officer," Forde said. "He's lost before three [election board] commissioners - all of whom are very, very familiar with the election law. He's lost before a very experienced judge here."
The legal challenges could drag on for weeks, complicating things for city election officials who, by the end of the month, must prepare ballots for early voting.
Meantime, Odelson declined to provide specifics about who was paying for the lengthy ballot battle.
"Well, for me it's been very expensive. Very time-consuming and very expensive," he said.
Odelson said he is getting paid by the two people officially listed as "objectors" in his filings, Walter P. Maksym, Jr., and Thomas L. McMahon. But when asked if anyone else is chipping in to pay the bills, Odelson told reporters it was none of their business.
"It's my business who's paying me," he said. "Just like it's your business who pays you."
Odelson is not required to publicly report how much he is being paid for the Emanuel challenge. But the Emanuel campaign is required to disclose its bills, though one of its lawyers, Mike Kasper, said he has not done the math.
"I've been busy on the case, I will say that," Kasper said.
(Photo by Bill Healy/IPR)
Some bumblebee populations in the United States are dropping at an alarming rate, and University of Illinois researchers are investigating the potential causes.
There are 50 species of bumblebees in North America. Researchers examined eight of them, and discovered that in the last 20 years, half of the species declined in relative abundance by as much as 96 percent and experienced a reduction in geographic range by as much as 87 percent.
The researchers compared historical data from 73,000 museum records dating back to the late 1800s with recent U.S. national surveys of more than 16,000 specimens from about 400 sites.
U of I entomologist Sydney Cameron, the lead author of the three-year study, said the rate of decline marks an important finding because bumble bees play important roles in the country's food production.
"That certainly could impact the efficiency of our food production for many crops, such as cranberries, blueberries, tomatoes," Cameron said. "Bumble bees are especially good pollinators of these types of crops."
Cameron said the bumblebees with significant population declines have a lower genetic diversity than bumblebees with healthier populations. She also said it has been hypothesized that North American queen bees may have brought a parasite, known as Nosema bombi, back to the United States from Europe after being raised in the rearing facilities of native bumble bees. However, she said it is unknown if these factors contributed to some species dying out.
"No one's pointing a finger at anyone," she said. "We're just trying to figure out where the Nosema that we're finding in our North American bees came from."
Scientists last year looked at another phenomenon affecting honeybees called "colony collapse" in which large numbers of a hive's worker bees disappear. Research suggests a fungus and virus may be to blame.
The reason for the population decline among the honeybees is still being determined. It may have something to do with climate change, disease, or even low genetic diversity, according to some researchers. But Cameron noted that it is too early to jump to any conclusions.
The report was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
(Photo courtesy of Johanna James-Heinz)
Residents of the Wilber Heights subdivision are barred by zoning rules from making major house repairs and renovations, because the area is zoned for industry, not homes. Now, the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals will consider a change in zoning rules that would allow work on such "non-conforming dwellings" to go ahead.
The proposal was put together at the county board's request by Planning and Zoning Director John Hall. County Board member Stan James (R-Rantoul) said allowing major work on the non-conforming houses will provide relief for the remaining homeowners in Wilber Heights.
"And John's trying to provide some relief so those folks now there can add on and enjoy the homes they do have, with the knowledge that it may come down in the future that even by doing that, it's not going to increase their value much," James said. "Because if it stays Light Industrial, eventually all that will be bought up."
Under the proposal, non-conforming dwellings in Wilber Heights and other parts of the county could receive major repairs and even be enlarged. Garages and other accessory buildings could also be enlarged. Currently, repairs and renovations are barred if they take up more then 10 percent of a building's total area. James said he thinks the residents may be entitled to additional compensation, but believes the zoning change is a good start.
Wilber Heights is located east of the Market Place Mall, in an unincorporated area just outside of the city of Champaign. It contains a mix of industrial and residential development. First built as housing for employees of the nearby Clifford-Jacobs Forging Company plant, Wilber Heights was rezoned all industrial by the Champaign County Board in 1973, with the assumption that the homes would eventually be torn down. But dozens of them are still occupied today.
County Board member James said he thinks the residents of Wilber Heights may be entitled to additional compensation for the burden placed on them by the 1973 zoning change. But he said the proposal to allow greater home repairs and renovation is a good start.
The proposed change in zoning rules will get its first hearing before the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals on at its regular meeting, Thursday, January 6th, beginning at 6:30 PM, at the Brookens Center in Urbana. Planning & Zoning Director Hall says he hopes the measure can receive county board approval this spring.
Illinois Democrats edged closer to a vote on raising income taxes during a lame-duck session of the state Legislature, as the governor met with legislative leaders Tuesday and lawmakers considered measures that would put new restrictions on state spending.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said Democratic leaders want the House to approve a version of the tax increase that passed in the Senate nearly two years ago. That plan would boost the personal income tax rate to 5 percent, from the current 3 percent.
Meanwhile, a new report from a University of Illinois think tank concludes that the state's budget crisis is even deeper than most people realize. The deficit is usually placed at $12 billion with a possibility that it will reach $15 billion, but the Institute of Government and Public Affairs says the shortfall is really $17 billion and climbing.
"It is hard to overstate the depth of the fiscal hole the state is in," the report said. "If nothing is done soon, the state of Illinois faces a very bleak future."
Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, want some Republican support for a tax increase. That would help insulate Democrats from the potential public outcry over higher taxes. So far, however, Republican leaders have opposed any tax talk.
Democrats are pushing several measures that might help attract GOP support and blunt public criticism.
Madigan, for instance, is sponsoring two constitutional amendments. One would limit government spending growth to the same level of growth that Illinois taxpayers see in their own paychecks. The other would make it harder for state and local government to approve costly benefit increases in pension plans.
Both amendments have been approved in committee and now await action on the House floor.
Democrats also are trying to reach deals on Medicaid costs, school management and worker's compensation.
Together, the measures could be used to argue that Democrats are serious about handling tax money more responsibly if an increase is approved.
"I think what we have to do is pay our bills," Cullerton told reporters after meeting with Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn. "I think we have to make sure our bond rating is improved and people see that, going forward, we can pay our bills. If people look at it from that perspective, I think it's something that they would accept."
A new Legislature will be sworn in Jan. 12. It may be easier to pass a tax increase before then, while Democrats still have a large majority and some outgoing members can act without worrying about a future voter backlash.
Democratic leaders, however, won't say whether they're prepared to try to pass a tax during the lame-duck session if they can't pick up any Republican support.
A spokeswoman said House Republican Leader Tom Cross met with the governor Tuesday morning and Quinn discussed raising income taxes by just half a percentage point and using that revenue to pay off $14 billion in new debt. Spokeswoman Sara Wojcicki said Quinn offered few details and that Cross reiterated his calls for government spending reforms before considering higher taxes.
There was little evidence Tuesday to suggest that Democrats and Republicans were coming to any accord.
The governor and Democratic leaders did not include top Republicans in their meeting. Republicans opposed Madigan's constitutional amendments to control spending, arguing either that they don't go far enough or they go too far. And a Senate committee voted along party lines to borrow roughly $4 billion and use the money to make the state's annual contribution to government pensions.
A longtime columnist for The News-Gazette has left the paper after nearly 60 years.
Malcolm Nygren, a former minister with Champaign's First Presbyterian Church, joined the Gazette in 1953 along with about a half dozen other ministers recruited by the paper. Each of the ministers quit after writing a single column, but Nygren stuck around.
Nygren's columns often described different aspects of his life through the lens of the Christian faith. He said his editorials were never overtly religious, but reflected his feelings about major events ranging from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the birth of his daughters. He added that many of his columns could be read and interpreted on multiple levels.
"For some people it came at a time in their life when it was something they really needed, and it was useful for them," Nygren said. "It means different things to different people."
The Gazette's opinions editor Jim Dey was the first person each week to read over the column. He praised Nygren for always meeting a deadline, and writing in clear language that rarely required an edit.
"Writers come and go, and newspapers hopefully are here for the duration, and so people will get used to it," Dey said. "Nothing good lasts forever, and (Malcolm) Nygren's column is an example of that."
Dey said the News Gazette has no immediate plans to replace the column.
In his final editorial, Nygren wrote, "For the writer, it is a lot better to quit before you have to quit." But Nygren said he is not give up writing just yet. Readers can still follow his columns on his blog, "Byline: Malcolm Nygren."
"I will write when I want to, not on a deadline," Nygren said. "I'll get the good part of the job, and not have to have the pressure of it."
(Photo courtesy of Malcolm Nygren)
The economy may still be slowly improving in Illinois, but the author of a monthly gauge of the state's economic performance says it's far from healthy.
For the seventh consecutive month, the University of Illinois Flash Index went up. In December, the index measured 94.9, up .7 from November, but 100 is the break-even point between growth and contraction, and economist Fred Giertz said the slow growth has not been very noticeable.
Giertz said unemployment remains a problem, even though the state's jobless rate is slightly under the national average -- a rare occurrence.
"It may just be an aberration, or it may be that our industries, especially agriculture, are doing fairly well," Giertz said. "Some of the exporting industries are doing alright, and we were not really devastated by the crisis with real estate or things of that sort."
Giertz is also not too concerned that Illinois or the nation will see a return of inflation in the near term. Rising commodity prices, bailout legislation and the Federal Reserve's decision to enact "quantitative easing" have prompted some to warn of an effect on overall consumer prices. But Giertz does not detect any unwillingness in financial markets to lend money at the current very-low interest rates.
"The fact that people ware willing to lend money for the long term at relatively low interest rates suggests that people don't think there's going to be a lot inflation on the horizon," Giertz said. "The Federal Reserve is very wary of the possibility (of inflation). They've made mistakes in the past and I think their intention is to start reining things in once the economy gets going again."
Giertz said there is some good news in the weak Flash Index numbers. He said revenue from sales taxes was up in December, marking a better holiday shopping season than many retailers had expected. The Index uses revenue reports from state income, sales and business taxes to calculate its measurement.
A garbage hauling and recycling firm has expanded its recycling drop off site on the north edge of Champaign, following the closing last week of the city's recycling drop off facility.
Illini Recycling owner Cindy Eaglen said she has expanded her intake capacity to serve the out-of-town users who had come to depend on the city of Champaign's drop off site.
"We've had a drop off site out here for many years, and just felt that there was a need to expand it, because so many people were going to be left with nothing to do with their material," Eaglen explained.
Another company, Green Purpose, is planning to open a new recycling drop off facility that would operate on a subscription basis. But Eaglen said they do not have to charge their users, because they already have the equipment in place to process the recyclables.
"Everything that we have is already in place," Eaglen said. "So basically, what we're doing is just adding additional material to it, which does not increase our cost, as if we were having to go out and buy all the equipment."
Eaglen said the success of her expanded drop off site will depend on whether the public can sort their recyclables according to their guidelines. She said they can accept most common paper, aluminum and plastic recyclables, but she said they cannot accept garbage, Styrofoam, plastic grocery bags, or toys and other plastic items that don't carry a recycling symbol.
Illini Recycling performs garbage and/or recycling pickup in Champaign, Danville, and several surrounding communities.
Eaglen said the company's public recycling drop off site is open weekdays from 8 to 5, at the Illini Recycling facility at 420 Paul Street, in the Wilbur Heights neighborhood just off North Market Street, near the Market Place Mall. There has no charge to drop off recyclables at the site.
The man now assigned with overseeing Illinois' colleges and universities says the change in jobs was a perfect fit for many reasons.
Before starting last week as Executive Director of the state Board of Higher Education, George Reid had just completed a kind of post-secondary blueprint for Maryland as part of that state's Higher Education Commission. And Reid says this new job will borrow from his background as both an administrator and an educator.
Illinois Public Media's Jeff Bossert talked with Reid about the challenges that await him:
(Photo Courtesy of Illinois Board of Higher Education)
A powerful storm packing what may have been a tornado damaged or destroyed nearly two dozen homes and injured one motorist in central Illinois today, authorities said.
The storm hit an area near Lake Petersburg in Menard County around 12:30 p.m., according to National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Smith.
He said damage was reported to homes around the lake near Petersburg, a community of about 2,200 people which is northwest of Springfield.
Petersburg Mayor John Stiltz told WTAX-AM in Springfield that at least two homes were destroyed and several others were rendered uninhabitable. Officials said shelter would be provided for those individuals left homeless by the storm. The station also reported some damage to boat docks around the lake and a building on a golf course.
One injury was reported when a tree or tree limbs fell on a woman's car, said Menard County Sheriff Chuck Jones. The woman's injuries weren't believed to be life threatening.
"It all happened very, very quickly as these things often do," Jones told The (Springfield) State Journal-Register. "Shortly before the storm, we did have the tornado siren, which was a good thing. A lot of people were alerted."
The National Weather Service issued severe weather warnings and watches -- including some for tornadoes -- for counties throughout central and southern portions of the state and for a large swath of the nation's midsection on Friday.
Some tornado watches, particularly along the state's southeastern border, were to remain in effect through Friday evening. Some of those counties include Alexander, Edwards, Franklin Saline and Union.
Tornadoes spawned by the same storm system killed several people in Arkansas and Missouri on Friday.
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