Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting by Pam Dempsey of CU-CitizenAccess)
A Champaign County judge granted a temporary restraining order Thursday that gives public health officials the power to evict tenants living at an unsafe apartment complex north of Thomasboro. The judge also ordered the managers jailed until the complex's problems are repaired.
The action follows a previous court hearing in April in which Bernard and Eduardo Ramos, managers of the Cherry Orchard Village apartment complex, were ordered in April to close down the property. In addition, they were fined more than $54,000 following the conclusion of a civil case filed by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
The pair was found guilty of failing to legally connect and repair sewage systems for six of the eight buildings on the property. During several inspections, health department officials have found raw sewage on top of the ground and discovered sewage flowing into a neighboring farmer's tile. The case was opened in 2007 and filed in court in 2010 after the Ramoses failed to remedy the problems.
The raw sewage poses serious health risks for both the tenants at Cherry Orchard and people they come in contact with - such as Hepatitis A, E. Coli and Salmonella, according to health officials.
Yet as several witnesses testified Thursday in a nearly four-hour hearing, the property is still being rented and the sewage problems continue.
The public health district filed a petition for a restraining order to stop the continued use of the property.
Judge John Kennedy granted a temporary restraining order until July 17 that allows county health officials to evict tenants from the property and make sure no one else moves in. He also amended two arrest warrants issued in May for Bernard and Eduardo Ramos - on a civil contempt and criminal contempt of court - after they failed to show up for a hearing.
Up until Thursday, the two had to post the full amount of each warrant - a total of $20,000 each- to get released if they were arrested. Now if they are arrested, then they will remain incarcerated until the sewage problems at Cherry Orchard are fixed - either through emptying out the property or repairing the sewage system.
Neither Bernard Ramos or his father, Eduardo Ramos, appeared in court on Thursday and their attorney, Philip Summers, unsuccessfully tried to vacate the warrants - arguing first that the Ramoses were not given enough notice to appear in court the day the warrants were issued and second, that the building now being used is not part of the Cherry Orchard complex and therefore not in violation of the April orders.
Summers said earlier that the Ramoses have filed a post trial motion that highlights several errors in the original hearing. Once a ruling is issued on that motion, then the Ramoses may opt to file an appeal, Summer said.
A message left for Bernard Ramos on a cell phone number he is known to use was unreturned Thursday evening. Bernard and his father, Eduardo, have repeatedly declined comment on stories about Cherry Orchard.
Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde said county officials will print and distribute eviction notices in Spanish and English beginning Friday and visit the property with a translator to make sure people move out. The health department is working with social service agencies to provide emergency housing for the families until they can find permanent housing elsewhere.
"There is a lot of people living there now, and a lot more on the way," Pryde said.
The health department will also post signs warning people away.
Cherry Orchard has been used as a migrant camp and health officials remain concerned that it will be used again as such this summer. A state official testified Thursday that Bernard Ramos submitted an application for a migrant camp at the property on behalf of a not-for-profit company called La Posada and spoke of preparations he has made to house about 80 migrant workers in one of the buildings there.
Pryde said she was "disturbed" and "horrified" by Ramos' application for a migrant camp.
Since the April order, health officials have continued to observe tenants on the property. Rantoul-area social service workers have reported that new clients are listing Cherry Orchard as their place of residence on applications for help.
At a status hearing in May, the judge issued two warrants each for civil contempt of court and criminal contempt of court after they failed to show up. The pair informed the state's attorney's office that they were on extended leave to Texas. As of Wednesday, the warrants have yet to be served.
County officials and neighbors have seen tenants in the far-east building on the property, commonly referred to as "The Jones Building," which has its own sewage treatment units. It is this building that the Ramoses argue is not part of the judge's April orders to vacate - although county health department officials and the judge ultimately disagreed with.
In earlier agreements with the Ramoses, public health officials had suggested that Ramos could move tenants to The Jones Building if they legally repaired that sewage system. Septic professionals testified Thursday that the building's sewage system does not work and continues to release raw sewage into the property's main discharge line, which flows into a neighboring farmer's tile and then into a creek.
The court next meets July 15 on the case.
A member of a Vermilion County panel that has signed off on a license for a large wind farm on the county's west side says further qualifications will be required for the project
According to Bill Donahue, the Wind Turbine Regulatory Committee said his panel's job was not to weigh the merits of wind farms, but to make sure Chicago-based Invenergy met all the requirements of the county's wind ordinance. Donahue said there is a continuing process involved.
"Just because you've got the permit doesn't mean the heat is off," Donahue said. "We monitor any changes they notify us about, if there's substantial changes and if they want to do something drastically different, we may have a new hearing. So it's not like it's all said and done and over and we pretend they don't exist. There's an ongoing relationship that's going to continue throughout the life of the project."
The Vermilion County Board will take up the recommendation when it meets Tuesday night at 6 p.m. The committee approved the plans Wednesday night. The 134 turbine wind farm would start in an area northeast of Kickapoo State Park, and extend into eastern Champaign County. Donahue said there have only been a handful of concerns citing noise and shadow flicker caused by turbines, but county board members will have to weigh those.
"They (opponents) like the way their land is now, they don't even want to see wind turbines," he said. "And I understand that. The difficulty, of course, is that there are other landowners who want that economic development. They're the ones who have leased the land out. And even if we were in the business of trying to make value judgments and I'm not, the community does have some interest in economic development, and I think we're right to begin weighing those things."
About 30 of the turbines would be located in Champaign County, just north of Royal and south of Gifford. But Champaign County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said the application has not been received yet. Champaign County's Zoning Board of Appeals could take up Invenergy's proposal in late August.
An Invenergy spokeswoman said the company can't comment on its plans at this point, but in a released statement, says the two counties are an "optimal location for a successful wind project, with an excellent wind resource and strong community support.'"
Invenergy has developed 26 wind farms in the US, Canada, and Europe.
The state's largest public employees union is asking an arbitrator to decide if Governor Pat Quinn can cancel members' promised pay raises.
About 30,00 AFSCME members may not get their two percent raise this year. Quinn has cancelled some state workers' scheduled pay increases, but not if AFSCME has its way. The group has called on the same arbitrator who mediated the last time Quinn and AFSCME fought, after the governor's 2010 attempt to layoff employees. That agreement ended with Quinn promising no layoffs in exchange for AFSCME members taking voluntary furloughs and deferring their raises.
Now AFSCME wants that arbitrator to decide if by rescinding those raises, Quinn is violating the union's contract. AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said the union could still also take the governor to state or federal court.
"We're reviewing all of our, all of our options," Lindall said. "We've always said that we'll pursue every avenue."
Each side has to have briefs filed by July 16th. The union is also going to picket on Tuesday.
Quinn said it is not a breach of contract because state expenditures are subject to appropriations. The budget legislators crafted and he signed does not have the necessary $75 million to pay for the wage hikes.
AFSCME had supported Quinn, a Democrat, in November's election. Just prior to that endorsement, the union agreed to defer raises while Quinn guaranteed two years without layoffs.
A man whose body was discovered in north Champaign Wednesday has been identified as 50-year old Nathaniel Carter of Champaign.
Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup said an autopsy was performed Thursday morning in Bloomington, but he said authorities still aren't sure how Carter died or how long he had been dead. Results of the autopsy aren't yet availalble.
The decomposing body was discovered by a man Wednesday afternoon in knee-high weeds in the 800 block of North State Street. Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney said the body was so decomposed that after Carter was found, officers couldn't even be sure of his race.
The Champaign Unit 4 School District wants to be more involved in finding substitute teachers.
So, for the first time, it is hosting a career fair over the next week where Unit 4 principals get the chance to do short sit-down interviews with perspective subs.
The career fair comes months after the state shifted more of the responsibility of screening substitute teachers from individual school districts to the Regional Offices of Education.
Jeff Scott, the principal at Carrie Busey Elementary School in Champaign, said he hopes the career fair strengthens Unit 4's pool of teachers.
"We have so many kids that are sitting in front of substitute teachers throughout the course of the year," Scott said. "We feel like it's important to get the best people approved to actually substitute instead of just people that might not be qualified."
School District spokeswoman Lynn Peisker said about 150 substitutes intend to return to the classroom in the fall, and as many as 50 additional subs may be brought on board. While Regional Office of Education #9 ultimately decides which people are qualified to substitute in Champaign County, Peisker said the job fair will help Unit 4 narrow its pool of potential candidates.
"We do have candidates that are not recommended for hire as substitutes in classrooms," Peisker said. "However, we need substitutes as teacher's aides, substitutes in clerical, substitutes in other areas of our building. So, we continue to look at their information and encourage them to apply in those other opportunities."
The career fair will be the only opportunity for people to apply to work as Unit 4 substitute teachers during the 2011-2012 school year. It continues next week at the Mellon Administrative Center in Champaign on Monday, July 11 from 1pm to 4pm and Tuesday, July 12 from 5pm to 7pm.
Legislation that was initiated in Champaign County is expected to expand and diversify Illinois' jury pools.
University of Illinois Law Professor Steve Beckett has tracked the makeup of jury pools for the past seven years. He says county officials have made some effort to increase participation in juries by shortening the jury term from two weeks to one week.
Courts have been relying on lists of registered voters and those with their driver's license to make up jury pools. But Beckett says the National Center for State Courts recommended to a Champaign County Committee that unemployment lists be tapped as well.
"Arguably, you would you miss someone who was not registered to vote, doesn't have a driver's license, but could be receiving unemployment benefits," he said. "And so that's the idea, I think, is that the broader the pool, the greater we enhance the chances of diversity in our juries."
Jennifer Putman with Champaign County's Citizens Advisory Committee on Jury Service says the Secretary of State's office often has dated contact information.
"The courts spend a lot of money mailing out jury qualification questionnaires and summonses to addresses where the respondent has moved," she said. "And because the Illinois Department of Employment Security has up-to-date information, we're expecting more accurate results when we mail to that group of individuals."
The bill was signed by Governor Pat Quinn last week. House Democrat and sponsor Naomi Jakobsson of Urbana says it makes sense to include another block of people with solid contact information. Putman's committee plans to analyze jury pool numbers by this time next year, to ensure the legislation is working. The panel is also working to increase the daily 10-dollar stipend that jurors receive, but Putman says that's a pipe dream right now, given Illinois' financial state.
Illinois will assess only reading and arithmetic now that high school juniors will no longer be tested on their writing skills during standardized exams every spring, according to a published report.
Cutting the writing exams will save about $2.4 million amid the state's budgetary shortfalls. Writing tests for elementary and middle school students were dropped last year.
"We're trying to minimize the damage" of the cuts, Schools Superintendent Christopher Koch told the Chicago Tribune for a story published Wednesday. "Writing is one of the most expensive things to assess."
Federal law doesn't require or fund writing tests. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, public schools are evaluated based on their reading and math test results.
Illinois isn't alone in struggling with how to offer an effective education for less money. Oregon and Missouri also recently made money-saving cuts to their writing exams.
Illinois education officials expect to restore the writing assessments in 2014 when a new state testing plan will require students to periodically take online tests, Koch said.
And the end of the writing section on state standardized exams for now doesn't mean students won't be tested on their writing at all. Many Advanced Placement exams given in May require writing, and the SAT college entrance exam has a writing requirement.
While some teachers and advocates lamented that the changes may take attention away from writing instruction, others said it may open some doors.
Without having to focus on the tests, "I think it offers some freedom," said teacher Heather Schwartz of Pfc. Omar Torres Charter School in Chicago.
Iraq War veteran and former Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs Tammy Duckworth says she's running for Congress.
The Democrat announced Wednesday that she'll file paperwork to run in the newly drawn 8th Congressional District in Chicago's western suburbs. The district has no incumbent.
Spokesman Pete Giangreco says the 37-year-old will file the paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday or Thursday.
Duckworth lost both her legs in a rocket-propelled grenade attack while serving in Iraq. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006 in another district. Parts of that old district are included in the new 8th District and are areas Giangreco says she won last time.
Another Democrat, Raja Krishnamoorthi, also has formed an exploratory committee.
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
Most University of Illinois employees should soon get their first standard raises in three years.
U of I president Michael Hogan emailed faculty and staff Tuesday, saying the current budget allows for a 3% increase in the salary pool. Most employees had gone without raises since 2008 - and many effectively lost pay through furloughs last year.
In March, Hogan told a Senate committee that employee pay was a top concern:
"We have not had a general salary program since August of 2008, and of course we had furlough days last year," Hogan said. "And so addressing this problem and retaining our very best faculty has got to be one of my top priorities in the coming year."
Giving raises could help to alleviate the number of faculty leaving the U of I system for other, better-paying jobs.
University spokesman Jan Dennis said state lawmakers were more sympathetic to higher education this year, approving only a one-percent overall reduction in this year's budget.
"We also have implemented cost containment measures on our own that have saved more than $14 million in the first year," Dennis said. "That combination, along with fundraising and other initiatives on campus, enabled us to come up with the pot of money to provide raises for employees this year."
Dennis said the U of I will also honor union contracts that call for changes in their negotiated pay-raise schedules based on university-wide wage programs.
He said the average hike should be about 3%, but individual units will be able to adjust the raises based on merit.
Read Michael Hogan's E-Mail About the Raises:
We've faced many challenges in recent years and I deeply appreciate how hard you've all been working throughout these difficult times. I've stated all year that one of my top priorities has been to avoid furlough days and strive to find enough cost savings to restore merit-based compensation programs.
I'm pleased to announce that our cost-savings measures and careful planning on all our campuses has helped us in this regard. We've been able to identify funding to enable the first campus salary program for our faculty and academic professionals in nearly three years. This program authorizes the chancellors on each campus to use 3.0% of the salary pool for merit-based compensation adjustments. The same program will be implemented for the University Administration. This modest allocation is well-deserved for our hardworking employees who have faced salary freezes for consecutive years, as well as effective compensation losses in FY 2010 as a result of furlough days.
Many of our collective bargaining units have contractual language that provides for pay adjustments based on the campus wage program, if the campus wage program is greater than previously negotiated pay adjustments for the same period. I will, of course, honor those agreements. For any negotiated groups that do not have such considerations in their contracts, the University will be willing to explore similar arrangements for this time period.
I couldn't be more proud of our great University, which is made possible by our outstanding faculty and staff, who have worked hard to continue to make this university the best it can be. We still have challenges ahead, but I know that by working together, continuing to streamline our administration and cut costs, we will continue to become stronger than ever.
Once more, I thank you for your commitment to the University and your ongoing support for our efforts to streamline operations and save costs, while also improving our programs.
Michael J. Hogan President University of Illinois
The organization overseeing Provena's hospitals in Urbana and Danville has agreed to a merger to create the state's largest Catholic hospital system.
Exploratory talks with Chicago-based Resurrection Health Care have gone on since February. The union with Mokena-based Provena Health still requires the approval of the state, which could happen this fall. Provena spokeswoman Lisa Lagger said as the merger was explored, areas provided by one hospital system seemed to better serve in where the other wasn't as strong, including behavioral health and home care agencies.
"So you can see a very comprehensive array of services and offerings. and it's all very complimentary in its nature in that we don't compete with other Resurrection hospitals, for example in our markets," Lagger said. "And it's from a complimentary geographical base."
Outside of Urbana and Danville, Provena primarily serves Illinois' so-called collar counties, which includes cities like Joliet and Aurora, while Resurrection primarily operates in Chicago. Resurrection spokesman Brian Crawford said one focus of building a patient- family center care environment is to better care for someone long after their hospital stay.
"We really the ability here to build, I think, what could be a very unique system that treats people in the hospital when they need to be in the hospital, but then also does follow-up care through our non-acute facilities," he said. "It keeps track of patients to make sure they don't end up back in the hospital, which is also very costly to the patient themselves."
Crawford said there should also be cost savings incurred by closing down information systems and a corporate office for one of the hospital systems. The combined system would provide more than 100 sites, including 12 hospitals, 28 long-term care and senior residential centers, and more than 50 clinics.
Lagger said the Illinois Health Facilities Services Review Board could approve the merger by October.
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