Illinois Public Media News
The last of three people convicted in the beating and stabbing deaths of a Champaign couple four years ago faces a 30 year prison sentence for the crimes.
Russell Pitcher will first serve out a prison term in Iowa before coming to Illinois to start serving the sentence for helping murder Jerry and Sue Haigh in the couple's home.
Pitcher pleaded guilty Wednesday morning - he had testified in the trials of his niece and accomplice, Crystal Myrick, that he had helped kill Mr. Haigh as the three broke into the home to rob it.
The third participant, Myrick's ex-boyfriend Kenneth Sean Kelly, had pleaded guilty and was given a 50 year sentence. Myrick was convicted and is serving a natural life sentence. Prosecutors say Pitcher will not be eligible for early release.
The Illinois Senate discussed the state's horrible budget problems but did it in a closed-door session that was off limits to the public.
Illinois lawmakers are defending their decision to bar observers from Wednesday's meeting, where national researchers presented details on how state budgets are suffering in the recession.
Senate President John Cullerton's spokeswoman says both Democrats and Republicans agreed to close the session to encourage "bipartisan dialogue.''
The Constitution requires "sessions'' of the General Assembly and its committees and commissions to be open. Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon says the Senate was not in session and senators did not comprise a committee or commission.
Public-access lawyer Don Craven doesn't believe the meeting was legal. He says it's unlikely there was anything discussed that couldn't have been said publicly.
A national ranking of counties based on the health of their residents puts Vermilion County near the bottom in Illinois.
Champaign County ranked 31st, Vermilion 96th in the survey put out by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors wanted to put public health in a new light to motivate people to discuss those issues in their communities.
Champaign Urbana Public Health Department administrator Julie Pryde thinks the study will do that, though counties already have a regular four-year process to assess health issues and act on them.
"In Illinois we do something called the I-Plan, which is a local assessment of need, and we're getting ready to do that again," Pryde said. "So I think (the report is) very timely and it will be more data and more information that will help stimulate discussion when we get in these groups."
The study used factors ranging from access to medical care and healthy food to smoking and obesity rates. Vermilion County health administrator Steve Laker says some of his county's low rankings are in areas that use patient interviews rather than raw numbers.
"Self-assessment, self-reported data is always a little suspect," Laker said. "But what they're saying here is true. If they're using the same data everywhere and it's just as suspect everywhere, then it may be relative."
Laker says Vermilion County's blue-collar history has a lot to do with its low public-health ranking. He says community stakeholders are already meeting this afternoon (Wed) to talk about the survey.
The city of Champaign has turned down 33-thousand dollars to help pay for enforcing underage drinking laws among college students for three years. It's part of a federal grant obtained by the Mental Health Center of Champaign County to study ways of fighting underage drinking in college towns. But the Champaign City County voted 5 to 4 Tuesday night to drop out of the program.
Councilwoman Deb Feinen said the grant - which she supported -- would have helped pay for law enforcement efforts to curb underage drinking that the city would likely do anyway.
But Councilman Tom Bruno argued that it would only contribute to efforts that drive student drinking to private apartments and away from bars, where he says there's at least some supervision. He said that drinking at private parties during events such as Unofficial St. Patrick's Day is "probably an even greater problem than if it occurs in a bar."
Bruno then challenged council members who had opposed other federal or state grants on principal to oppose this one, too, because he agreed with Bruno. "At this time", said Schweighart, "when money is very tight --- state's broke, cities are broke, federal government's broke, that we should be careful in accepting this grant in a small amount, or large grants in the amount of 30 million dollars that's coming down the pike".
Schweighart referred to the Big Broadband grant that's been sought for Champaign-Urbana, which he opposes. The mayor says he doesn't believe refusing the grant money will hurt Champaign's own efforts at controlling underage drinking.
After the meeting, Feinen defended her vote in favor of the grant.
"All of us have budget problems", said Feinen. "I recognize it's all tax dollars. But we had an opportunity to pay for something that we're going to be probably doing anyway, from another source."
The federal Juvenile Justice grant also involves the city of Urbana and the Univesity of Illinois. Champaign Police Sergeant Scott Friedlein says it will be up to the Mental Health Center of Champaign County, which oversaw the grant proposal, to decide if the program can continue without Champaign taking part.
The deadline for local elections officials to finalize their primary results is now passed. But the outcome of the Republican race for governor remains unsettled, and it may be another week before there's a clear winner.
By now, elections authorities should have all of their absentee and provisional ballots counted. With those totals factored in, Hinsdale Senator Kirk Dillard could clear the 400 vote difference by which he's trailing Bloomington Senator Bill Brady. Dillard admits his chances aren't good. But he says he'll wait until all local tallies are submitted to the state elections board on February 23rd.
"I'd rather be in Senator Brady's position than myself," Dillard said. "But you need to make sure that all the local election authorities, there's 110 of them, have double checked their mathematics. One small error and the race flip flops."
Dillard says the limbo is torture. Brady, meanwhile, says he's confident he'll hold on to victory. "Our experts have told us that you can rest assured that that will hold, in the era of electronic balloting," Brady said. "It's not chad ballot voting anymore."
But Brady says he understands Dillard's desire not to concede given the slim margins.
Dillard says it's too early to consider if he'd request a recount.
A University of Illinois researcher back from Haiti says it was hard to separate his scientific work from the crisis surrounding him. Scott Olson is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He and a team of other geo-engineers examined if a process called liquefaction shook the Haitian soil so much that it could no longer support the structures on top of it - like the giant cranes at the capital's only port. The destruction blocked valuable aid from getting to victims. Olson sat down with AM 580's Tom Rogers to talk about the trip in both scientific and human terms.
Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday for former Champaign County auditor and Democratic Party Chair Gerrie Parr --- who died last week at age 63.
Parr was elected Champaign County Auditor in 1992. She had worked in the auditor's office under her predecessor, Laurel PrussingAs auditor, Parr was frequently at odds with the Champaign County Board's Republican majority --- perhaps all the more so because she had also become the county's Democratic Party Chair. Al Klein holds the post today, and says Parr was a great leader of the party..
"She came on in 1994", Klein says of Parr's chairmanship, "when we were at the nadir of our experience, down to the minimum on the county board, and helped bring the party back until, by 2000, we had taken the county board for the first time in county history."
Klein says Parr was industrious, energetic, and bore no ill will towards anyone during her ten years as auditor and Democratic party chair. He credits her success as party leader to hard work, and an attitude of "get things doneand do what you can and keep on going".
After stepping down as auditor and party chair, Parr held other Democratic party positions, but she also battled cancer. Her death came late Friday at her sister's home in Waukegan, where she was receiving hospice care.
A memorial service for Gerrie Parr will be held Thursday at 1 PM at St. Pat's New Church in Wadsworth, located near Waukegan. Klein says the family plans to hold another memorial service in Champaign-Urbana, possibly in March.
Faculty unions and students say they're both opposed to the concept of furlough days as a way to cut costs at the University of Illinois.
A capacity crowd of around 100 attended at least a portion of Monday's 'teach-in' on the Urbana campus, in which faculty unions urged for more affordable and accessible education - without requiring furloughs, layoffs, and other cost-cutting measures. Students say lectures from groups like the Campus Faculty Association and Graduate Employees Organization were valuable, but a few were concerned their teachers took a common furlough day and cancelled classes in order to do it. Sophomore Eric Hessenberg says his history professor cancelled an 80-minute course in order to be at the teach-in, and he says that hurts instruction when it meets twice a week. "I guess my beef with this is that professors like to paint themselves as the good guys," says Hessenberg. "If they're so great in taking the high road, then why are they cancellling our classes? They've got all these research days, they could easy do this on that."
Leigh Ragsdale is an Officer-At-Large with the Graduate Employees Organization. None of her classes were cancelled, but the furloughs are creating a new problem for graduate workers because what their supervisors have asked of them. "And what's happening is they're asking us as grad students to cover their classes and their responsiblities which obviously presents a problem," says Ragsdale. "We already have our own job responsilibities and shouldn't be forced into doing the jobs of our professors during those furloughs."
U of I sophomore Rebecca Bauman says her English teacher will have to condense her lectures by cancelling one of two meeting times this week. But she was also asked to attend some of the lectures on higher education funding for a class on human rights. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler says furloughs should be taken in a way that doesn't hamper students' education. But she says it's good that that students and faculty spend some time discussing challenges at the U of I.
With a 95-million dollar deficit to deal with, the Chicago Transit Authority has sought a cutback in mandatory free rides for seniors. But it's a less urgent matter for two transit agencies in east central Illinois.
Danville Mass Transit allowed seniors to ride for half-price until 2008, when the state required all mass transit agencies in Illinois to let everyone over 65 ride for free.
DMT Director Richard Brazda says they adjusted to the 100 percent discount, thanks to an increase in state funding.
"So at the time that was added, there was also an increase in funding that was provided for the various downstate operators", says Brazda. "So I guess it was felt that there wasn't an issue there, because they were getting additional funding, and therefore the loss of revenue was not significant."
The Illinois House Mass Transit Committee voted 20 to 4 on Thursday to approve a measure (HB 4654) limiting the free-ride mandate to low-income seniors enrolled in the state's Circuit-Breaker program. Brazda says if the measure becomes law, it's up to the Danville City Council to decide if Danville Mass Transit should follow suit.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District says he expects their free-ride policy to remain, no matter what lawmakers do. Tom Costello says the CU-MTD started granting free rides for all seniors and people with disabilities about 7 years ago, before the state mandate took effect.
"We certainly had our plan in place before the state made this move" says Costello, "and we see no reason to change the plan subsequent to the state deciding what they're going to do. Our plan was in effect without regard to what the state plan was."
Costello says they've budgeted for the free rides --- which serve as an alternative to more expensive point-to-point service, which the CU-MTD also provides to seniors and people with disabilities.
Illinois Public Media announced staff cuts and programming changes for WILL Radio and TV Thursday, including the elimination of its weather department.
Illinois Public Media General Manager Mark Leonard says the layoffs and programming changes come in response to continued cuts in Illinois Arts Council funding, one of the main sources of government funding for WILL --- which also receives funding from underwriters, grants, and donations from listeners and viewers.
Leonard says the decision to eliminate the weather department was one of the hardest ones to make, given the long tradition of weather programming at WILL. The department, featuring Mike Sola and meteorologist Ed Kieser, provides regular weather forecasts for WILL Radio and TV and the WILL website. But Leonard says some sort of programming cutback was unavoidable.
"We have taken all of the lesser, invisible cuts that we could make, and we are now longer able to absorb cuts in funding without it being visible to our listeners", said Leonard. "And our weather service is something that WILL has to underwrite at a cost of $100,000 per year --- funds that we no longer have."
Leonard says Illinois Arts Council funding for WILL has been cut nearly 300-thousand dollars since 2006 --- including a 110-thousand dollar reduction this fiscal year. In addition, the WILL has not yet received any of its promised funding for this year. Leonard says he hopes there will be no more cuts in Arts Council funding next year. But he says, "if we see an additional cut or elimination of that funding, it may be necessary to make additional cuts."
In other changes, NPR's flagship news programs, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", will begin running on WILL-FM as well as WILL-AM, beginning in April. Leonard says the move will bring the programs to an audience west of Champaign-Urbana, where the WILL-AM signal is weak. WILL-FM is also dropping jazz, folk and programming from its weekend schedule, in favor of more classical music --- although Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" will remain.
Leonard says he expects there to be criticism of the changes from WILL's listeners and viewers, and perhaps a drop in contributions..
"We understand that any sort of programming change of this magnitude is going to cause some listeners to object", says Leonard, "and we that some people will, perhaps, want to withhold their membership contributions. We're asking for them to be patient, to listen to the new services. And we hope that they'll understand that WILL is making a careful investment of their membership dollars and will continue to do that."
Besides the phasing out of the weather department, the layoffs include staff in radio programming and operations, the art department and TV production.
At the same time, Illinois Public Media will add three new staff positions, including one person to be the local host of "Morning Edition" on WILL, another to work on content for the stations' website, and a third position in the Development Department.
Leonard will discuss the staff layoffs and program changes at WILL on WILL-AM''s "Focus 580" with David Inge. The interview airs live on Monday, February 15th at 11 AM CST, and will be archived on the WILL website.
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