Illinois Public Media News
Labor unrest is affecting higher education, including University of Illinois campuses in Urbana and Chicago
Members of one UIUC union rallied Thursday outside a residence hall just as freshmen are moving in for their first semester. Ricky Baldwin is an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 1000 employees. He claims that administrative cost increases are taking place while union members have seen their pay stagnate.
"The money that the University is spending on all kinds of things at the top shows us that the university does have money," said Baldwin "It just doesn't want to spend it on the basic operations -- the students, the workers, the instruction at the university."
The SEIU and the U of I are in contract talks... but members say they are not close to striking in Urbana. That cannot be said in Chicago, where about 3000 SEIU employees are threatening a Monday walkout.
At another hall complex Thursday, U of I president Michael Hogan and chancellor Robert Easter met incoming students. During the visit, Hogan said the university faces the prospect of more budget cuts and state payment delays, making salary increases even harder to achieve.
"We've just taken another 46 million dollar reduction in our budget, so that's the subject of ongoing negotiations, and I certainly hope we can reach a settlement," Hogan said. He says it's unlikely the school will see any of its current-year funding from Springfield until next January at the earliest. He says he's been assured that all of the U of I's fiscal-2010 funds will be in their hands in the next few months.
A former Urbana high school coach convicted of a sex crime is back in the US, and will start serving a prison sentence.
But the attorney for Yuri Ermakov Thursday filed a post-conviction petition with hopes his client will get a new trial. The 28-year old Ermakov fled to his native Russia while a Champaign County jury deliberated his fate in 2007.
The former University Laboratory High School track coach was found guilty of criminal sexual assault for incidents involving a female student, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was also convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for providing alcohol to two 16-year old girls. After a brief court hearing Thursday morning, Ermakov was remanded to Illinois' Department of Corrections.
Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz says Ermakov was up against Friday's deadline for filing the post-conviction petition. She says Judge Jeff Ford has a three-month window to act on it.
"The judge could say that all of the allegations in his petitions are frivolous - petition dismissed, and that's the end of the case." said Rietz. "The judge could say that some of the allegations deserve further inquiry, and then we have time to respond. Or judge could say the entire petition deserves further inquiry. We do not believe any of those allegations have any merit, and are absolutely confident that the judge is going to find all of them, if not the vast majority of them, frivilous."
Rietz notes that a federal warrant was out for Erkmaov that preventing him from travelling outside of Russia, which may have been part of his motivation for returning home to serve his sentence.
Judge Ford denied a request from Chicago Attorney Steve Richards that his client remain in Champaign County's custody in order to stay in closer contact with him. Ford says such a move would prove too costly. The FBI had been negotiating for Ermakov's return from Russia the past several months. Rietz says he's also seeking clemency from Governor Pat Quinn as part of a large backlog of cases before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.
The mayor of Rantoul hopes that plans to reopen a shuttered pork processing plant on the west side of town come to fruition.
Mayor Neal Williams says the reopening of the 6-year-old Meadowbrook Farms plant on the west end of Rantoul would be a welcome boost. The plant had employed more than 600 people at its height. Williams says when it closed early last year, Rantoul lost the positive ripple effect that work force had sent through the local economy.
"When the plant closed, obviously all those people were no longer here", says Williams. "And it created something of a void. There was no employment for 600 people, and those 600 people weren't buying goods and products in Rantoul."
Trim-Rite Food Corporation, which runs a pork facility in Carpentersville, has made an offer for the Rantoul plant to Stearns Bank, which took it over when Meadowbrook Farms went bankrupt. Construction Manager Kurt Irelan says their plans for Rantoul include both pork processing and hog slaughtering operations. He says the Meadowbrook Farms plant is the best site they've considered, after dropping plans for sites in Rockford and Freeport, and the old Cavel horse slaughtering plant in DeKalb.
Mahomet-Seymour teachers are going on strike, cancelling all classes and school activities until further notice.
An 11th hour meeting between the union and school district failed Wednesday night - the fourth meeting with a federal mediator. Union Co-President Joan Jordan said administrators left without responding to their latest contract proposal. She said the Mahomet Seymour Education Association's 1-year plan is essentially the first year of a 2-year proposal proposed by the district one night earlier. It includes a 3-point-1 percent average increase in the teacher salary schedule. Jordan said the district refuses to budge from a 2-year contract.
"And because they keep crying poor and saying they just don't have the money... and they have the money, but we're going to decimate all their funds, which isn't true either." said Jordan. "We gave them what they wanted, we just don't want more than one year. Because if things are so uncertain, then we need to bargain again starting in December when we know better what's coming from the state. "
Jordan said administrators plan on meeting with the union again at 6:30 Thursday evening.
Mahomet-Seymour School Board President Terry Greene said the union is putting the district's financial health at risk by asking for unreasonable raises and benefits. He said it is hard to deal with a moving target, adding that the union changed its proposal late Tuesday after it appeared a tentative deal was in place, and he said one contract proposal would mean $700,000 in deficit spending in one year.
"This board of education won't support that, and I don't think our community will support that," said Greene. "So just because we have a fund balance and cash reserve that we've worked years to build up to protect ourselves for difficult times - which we're in, doesn't mean it belongs to the MSEA. Just because we have it doesn't mean it's theirs. It belongs to the taxpayers."
The school board has scheduled a special meeting for Friday to allow the continuation of sports and other activities during a work stoppage. Mahomet-Seymour's first home football game is scheduled for a week from Friday. Administrators say this is the first teacher strike at Mahomet-Seymour schools.
The professor at the heart of a controversy over religious studies at the University of Illinois doesn't believe there's a permanent resolution to the dispute.
Kenneth Howell has accepted the U of I's offer to return to teach an introductory course on Catholic teaching, more than two months after he was let go. A student who was not in the class had complained of an email Howell had sent to one of his students defending the church's views on homosexuality and natural moral law.
Howell says the incident will not affect his teaching, except perhaps for a broader scope of issues covered at the end of the course.
"I'm going to give a general lecture on natural moral law because that's the essential part of Catholicism," said Howell. "Then I'll ask them (his students) if they want me to deal with the question of capital punishment or just war or homosexuality, and they will choose."
The U of I is now paying Howell for his work as an adjunct professor - until his removal in May, Howell had been paid by the St. John Catholic Newman Center, where he has now been reinstated as the head of the center's Institute for Catholic Thought.
A faculty-student committee on the Urbana campus is looking into the general issue of outside involvement in academics - Howell says he has not been asked to appear before that committee.
A jury has found former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich guilty of one count of lying to federal agents.
The maximum penalty for making false statements to federal authorities carries a five year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.
Judge James Zagel said he will declare a mistrial for the 23 other counts against the former governor, including the most serious charge - trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former Senate seat.
Juror Erik Sarnello, 21, of Itasca, Ill said the panel was deadlocked 11-1 in favor of that conviction. Sarnello said a female holdout "just didn't see what we all saw," but that the counts around the Senate seat were "the most obvious."
During the trial, prosecutors relied heavily on FBI wiretap recordings where Blagojevich could be heard spewing profanity, and speculating about getting a Cabinet level post or campaign contributions in exchange for the Senate appointment. Democratic Senate President John Cullerton said the jury confirmed the former governor's pattern of dishonesty even though they were deadlocked on many charges.
Blagojevich's attorneys plastered Washington and Illinois with subpoenas - including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - but by the end of the trial, none of them had testified, sparing Democrats any potentially embarrassing testimony. Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said she is concerned the defense team may have sent the wrong message to the public that Blagojevich was just doing politics as usual in Illinois.
"If there is one thing that elected officials need to do in Illinois, it is to send a strong signal that the politics of the past are over, regardless of what the final verdict may be in the Blagojevich trial," she said.
Lawmakers threw Blagojevich out of office when they impeached him in January 2009. Mahomet Republican Chapin Rose served on the Illinois House committee that drew up the impeachment charges. Rose said the former governor implicated himself with his own words, as heard at the trial in wiretapped phone conversations.
"There were a hundred things to impeach him for," Rose said. "I just completely can't believe anybody in their right mind could hang this jury."
While the impeachment of Blagojevich was sparked by criminal charges, Rose said the two processes are different. He said the burden of proof is higher for prosecutors in a criminal trial, while lawmakers considering impeachment can also look at non-criminal charges, such as dereliction of duty.
Prosecutors say they intend to put the ex-governor on trial again, but Attorney Sam Adam, Jr. said federal prosecutors do not have a case for a mistrial.
Robert Lobe, a criminal defense attorney who teaches at Loyola University, said if prosecutors were able to convince 11 jurors that Blagojevich was trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat, then they should feel confident about getting a conviction next time.
"I don't even think they have to change their approach if this is just one very independent holdout," said Lobe.
Democratic State Senator Mike Frerichs of Champaign said he cannot explain how the jury was deadlocked on 23 counts.
"The only thing I can think is this proves the old maxim that you can fool some of the people some of the time," said Frerichs.
It is clear now that Blagojevich will stay in the spotlight as the prosecution retries the case, according to Frerichs.
Former Illinois Governor Dan Walker was convicted in the late 1980s after his time in office of improprieties connected to a Savings and Loan scandal, and he served 18 months in a federal prison. Walker said the worst part of Tuesday's verdict is that people will likely have to hear more about Blagojevich rather than turn their attention to problems that current state officials are facing.
"I just wish like a lot of other people I think feel the same way," said Walker. "We've just got to rebuild Illinois and the Land of Lincoln."
Walker said while he worked hard as governor, Blagojevich disgraced the office. Current Governor Pat Quinn said Rod Blagojevich's conviction is a "sad day for our state." Quinn said he is the first honest governor Illinois has had in a long time, and dismissed the notion that as Blagojevich's former running mate, the prolonged saga will hurt him on election day.
Meanwhile, Blagojevich's brother, Robert, was acquitted of all four counts the jury was weighing against him. The Tennessee businessman said he feels sorry for his brother, and he thanked his legal team and the jury for what he said appeared to be a "serious deliberation."
Rod Blagojevich spoke to reporters on Tuesday after the jury found him guilty of the one count of lying to federal agents. He vowed to appeal the conviction, and said he wants the "people of Illinois to know that I did not lie to the FBI."
Blagojevich's trial was another chapter in Illinois' history of crooked politics. His predecessor, George Ryan, was convicted of racketeering in 2006 and is serving a 6 1/2 year-sentence.
A hearing about a retrial is set for Thursday, August 26.
The brother of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich says a jury's verdict in the corruption case shows he's been an innocent target of the federal government all along.
A jury on Tuesday found Rod Blagojevich guilty of one count of lying to federal agents. That means they're hung on 23 counts, including four against Robert Blagojevich.
Prosecutors say they intend to retry the case against Blagojevich quickly.
The Tennessee businessman says he's ultimately confident in his acquittal. He thanked his legal team and the jury for what he says appeared to be a "serious deliberation.''
Robert Blagojevich says he feels sorry for his brother.
Both brothers pleaded not guilty to trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat and squeezing people for campaign donations.
A federal jury has found ex-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich guilty of one count of lying to federal agents, and the judge says he intends to declare a mistrial on the remaining counts.
Prosecutors said Tuesday immediately after the jury reached its verdict that they intend to retry the case against Blagojevich as soon as possible.
It will cost an extra 2-cents a gallon to buy gas in Urbana, beginning October 1st.
The local motor fuel tax proposed by Mayor Laurel Prussing last spring was approved by the city council Monday night on a 4-to-3 vote. The tax going towards street maintenance and safety will generate $340,000 annually. An escalator of 0.4 cents will kick in each July for three years, bringing that total to about $544,000 dollars by 2013, but the gas tax will be up for review each of those years. The vote among council members mirrored that of a study session a week earlier.
Alderwoman Heather Stevenson has always opposed the plan, saying this may actually mean she buys her gas and does her shopping elsewhere.
"If I'm in Champaign, I'm going to purchase items over there that I possibly could purchase in Urbana." said Stevenson. "So I think it's not about traveling a mile to save money on gas, it's about saving money... and spending money - tax dollars - in another area."
Stevenson says the council needed to explore alternatives to the tax to pay for road improvements. Urbana resident Bob Bosshart opposed it, saying it will hurt the middle income during the recession.
Alderman Dennis Roberts supported what he calls a 'gentle tax' but admits passing any off on residents during a recession is tough.
"It'll be reviewed, and it is important to be self-sustaining and take care of your own streets as a municipality." said Roberts. "But I also realize that all taxes are a burden to people who are using them, so this is not the easiest vote."
Mayor Laurel Prussing says other towns enacting the tax hadn't seen an increase in gas prices when compared to neighboring communities. She proposed the tax last spring because she says state motor fuel tax dollars haven't increased in 20 years, while the cost of road repairs have more than doubled.
The gas tax also earned the approval of AFSCME Council 31's Michael Wilmore, who says union members from Urbana's Public Works Department work hard to make the city a safe place to live and travel.
As the organizers of Champaign-Urbana's Big Broadband project prepare for the start next year of construction of the high-speed fiber-optic network ... they're asking local institutions to be early participants.
The Urbana Champaign Big Broadband Consortium, or UC2B, has sent out applications to some 300 hospitals, public safety agencies, schools, social service institutions and others, asking them to become "anchor institutions" in the new broadband network.
UC2B Project Manager John Kersh says getting local institutions on board with the new network will enrich the service for residential and other customers who join them later --- because all would be receiving the same high-speed service.
"One primary example would be increased accessibility between medical facilities or rescue and fire, and residents", says Kersh. "And there could be some things that could be done with the technology and accessibility between those two entities."
Kersh says the cost of connecting to the new fiber-optic network would be free for the anchor institutions --- paid for by the federal grant UC2B was awarded earlier this year. The anchors would only pay the monthly service charge, which Kersh says will be lower than what the typical private Internet provider charges.
Potential anchor institutions have until September 1st to submit their applications.
Kersh says if UC2B keeps to its construction schedule, some of the anchor institutions could be using the new high-speed network some time next year.
UC2B is a joint project of the cities of Champaign and Urbana and the University of Illinois. A federal grant is funding construction of UC2B's core network, and hookups to underserved neighborhoods and the anchor institutions. The network will also be available to other Internet service providers.
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