Illinois Public Media News
A Champaign County Board committee is recommending that voters be allowed to decide if the county auditor should remain an elected office.
The underlying issue at Wednesday's Policy Committee meeting was not the auditor's office but the auditor himself. Tony Fabri has been under a cloud since the News-Gazette analyzed phone records to conclude that the Democrat was often away from his desk. Democrat Carol Ammons argued that the performance of one office-holder was not reason enough to switch to an appointed auditor.
But Republican Alan Nudo said it was the people who should decide the future of the auditor's office. And he said the mid-term appointments of both Fabri and his predecessor Mike Frerichs to the county auditor position in past years amounted to political cronyism meant to bypass the voters.
"We've had two hand offs in-between elections in the auditors positon', says Nudo, "to high-powered officials within the (Democratic) party. Is that thwarting the will of the public? Is that this magical things that people bring up of how the elected is much better than appointed.
The Champaign County Board will consider the proposal August 20th. If they approve, the ballot question would come to voters in November of 2010. And if voters approve, the auditor's post would be appointed by the county board or perhaps the county administrator, starting in 2012.
Policy Committee rejected proposals to ask voters if they want to make the county coroner and recorder of deeds appointed as well.
A political newcomer will be giving incumbent state representative Chapin Rose his first challenger since first taking office. Democrat Dennis Malak of Tuscola announced his intentions Tuesday to run in Illinois' 110th district. The Chicago native says he'd challenge fellow lawmakers to seek out waste in government spending. While favoring an income tax hike, Malak says it would be a temporary maneuver:
"If it's going to be passed, it needs to be passed in a way that it does end in two years, and it does require supermajority to be renewed,'' says Malak. "Not only that, but it will require that for the next two years any additional tax increase will need a two-thirds majority so that there's no back door around it. We need to really force representatives to find the waste within the system so that we can get back on track, not just keep taxing the people."
Malak is also favors a longer school year, saying that would help students stay focused on difficult subjects and they forget a lot of information during the summer layoffs. He's a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University, where he also works at the Doudna Fine Arts Center. The 28-year old received a bachelor's degree in political science there in 2004. Malak says he'd leave his job at EIU if elected, devoting his time as a full-time legislator. Republican Chapin Rose of Mahomet, who's held the House seat since 2002, has not formally announced his re-election plans for next year, but has said he intends to run.
Operators of a Champaign soup kitchen say they'll be at a new location by next month. A volunteer with St. Jude Catholic Worker House says limited space and an overflow crowd have prompted their steering committee to look elsewhere.
Capacity for the soup kitchen is 24, but 60 to 80 people have been coming on busy days, forcing many to wait in line. The kitchen is already closed during August for maintenance. Volunteer Chris Watson says the house's steering committee hopes to pinpoint a new facility soon, but nothing's on the table right now. "We're wanting to take that and really find a space that will serve us the best as far as space and concerns of safety and noise,' says Watson. "But also kind of keeping that foundation and wanting it to be a personal and caring environment." The St. Jude steering committee will discuss alternate sites at a meeting Saturday. Watson says it may even consider a temporary home for the soup kitchen, and passing out sack lunches if necessary.
He says a change in location has little to do with disruptions caused by some people using the kitchen. As for the St. Jude house itselt, Watson says some restructuring will take place, but he says the home will continue to serve as a hospitality center, with volunteers on hand.
The Safe Haven tent community says it's struggling to find a place to stay, since being ordered to leave the St. Jude Catholic Worker House grounds in Champaign.
The group of about 10 to 15 homeless men and women living in tents were told to leave an RV park near Mahomet. They were given shelter --- indoors --- at a church in Champaign, but only for two nights.
Safe Haven member Jesse Masengale told the Champaign City Council Tuesday night that the situation looks grim.
"We are under crisis right now", said Masengale. "Each night, for 15 people, we're worried about where we're going to go."
Masengale and other Safe Haven organizers and supporters told Champaign council members that a tent community is a viable and low-cost option to help alleviate the city's homeless problem --- but that zoning laws need to be changed to allow them to continue. Organizer Abby Harmon asked the council to consider their proposal to allow tent cities to exist in Champaign under certain conditions. She says they've been meeting with individual council members to explain the details.
In the meantime, Safe Haven is asking the city for temporary leniency to let them pitch camp outdoors. Harmon says the ban on living in tents ---and the media attention they've received --- has scared away people and churches who might have helped them.
But Harmon says Safe Haven members are determined to stay together. She says the members feel that being homeless together is safer for them than each of them facing homelessness on their own.
Organizers of the UC2B Big Broadband project are hurrying to get their applications for state and federal funding in on time --- now that those applications have won the backing of both the Champaign and Urbana city councils. The state grant application is due Wednesday, August 6th, and the federal grant application must be submitted by August 14th.
The state and federal funds are aimed at providing affordable Internet service in low-income and underserved areas of town. But backers say the UC2B project will serve the whole community --- and attract businesses that want access to its high-capacity network.
That's an important point for Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart. He asked UC2B organizer Mike Smeltzer whether the project would add value to the community in the eyes of prospective businesses. Smeltzer said one place that would receive added value would be the University of Illinois Research Park. He says the Research Park already has a high-capacity fiber-optic connection --- but that businesses want a second one as a precaution.
"There are companies moving to the Research Park that talk to (developer) Peter Fox, and they say, 'hey, do you guys have redundant fiber?'", explains Smeltzer. "And he has to say, 'no we don't. We have a single path of fiber'. This (UC2B) would give redundant fiber for the Research Park."
Champaign Council members voted 9-0 to endorse the UC2B grant applications Tuesday night. They're committing up to 920-thousand dollars in matching funds for UC2B. The Urbana City Council voted Monday to commit up to 567-thousand dollars. Both councils also voted to form a consortium with the University of Illinois to oversee the project. UC2B organizers says they'll know by fall if the project has won federal funding.
City of Champaign voters will be asked to weigh in on a proposal to sell off township buildings --- at a special town meeting set for Thursday, August 20th. Champaign City Council members set the date during the township portion of their meeting Tuesday night.
City of Champaign Township Supervisor Pam Borowski wants to sell the townships' two office buildings at the corner of Green and Randolph to buyers interested in re-developing the block. But state law on townships requires an OK from the voters for that to happen --- not voters at the polls, but voters attending a town meeting. Borowski says the event will be similar to the annual town meetings held in Illinois townships every spring.
"Only registered voters will be able to stand up and vote, yea or nay, on whether or not they will allow the township trustees to accept bids and go ahead and sell the township properties," says Borowski. "It's pretty much their call what we
Borowski says approval at the August 20th meeting would only allow the sale, not mandate it. She says it won't go forward until they've identified a new location for township offices. That would involve buying or leasing property ---and perhaps sharing a facility with Champaign city offices. Borowski says she wants township offices to stay in the downtown area, where it will be handy for public aid clients without cars.
The Urbana Champaign Big Broadband project took another step toward becoming a reality Monday night by winning the Urbana City Council's approval. The council passed two resolutions supporting the plan to launch a community-wide fast and affordable fiber-optic network --- starting with service to low-income and underserved parts of town.
On Tuesday night, the Champaign City Council will vote on the same resolutions that the Urbana Council approved the previous night -- support for the grant application and participation in a consortium with the University of Illinois to oversee the project.
Supporters of the project, known as UC2B, plan to submit an application for a federal economic stimulus grant that - if awarded - would provide 80 percent of the funding. UC2B plans to apply for a smaller state grant this week. Together, Urbana, Champaign and the University of Illinois would match the grants with about 2.4 million dollars of their own money.
UC2B organizer Mike Smeltzer says that because the project is spread over three years, the cities and the U of I don't have to pay the money out all at once.
"The federal government's not going to give us all the money at once," Smeltzer explains. "It's only going to give us money as we make progress, and as we show our match. So as long as we show up with a third of our matching funds, they'll give us a third of the money. And a year later when we need more money, we'll show up with a third, and they'll give us another match."
The supporters envision UC2B branching out to cover the whole community in the future. But the initial buildout would be just in the low-income underserved areas. A community survey has revealed that the territory that could qualify for the grant is smaller than expected --- covering just about 45-hundred people in Champaign and Urbana.
U of I Library Science professor Abdul Alkalimat (al-KAL-ee-mat) says he doesn't think the smaller size will hurt UC2B's chances of winning government funding.
Because it makes it a smaller project, and therefore, from the state level, they could include us at a lesser cost, therefore others might have an opportunity. So in this sense, we think it won't hurt us, it will help us."
The state grant application must be submitted by Wednesday. The federal grant application is due on August 14th.
A spokesman for the University of Illinois says the school respects the decision of the chairman of its Board of Trustees to resign. Thomas Hardy said today that the school appreciates the service of Niranjan Shah, who resigned in a letter today to Gov. Pat Quinn amid an investigation into the use of political clout to get underqualified students into the school. Quinn says he's accepted Shah's resignation and a search for a replacement will begin immediately.
Shah says he decided to quit after members of a state commission investigating university admissions practices said they think the trustees should step down. In his letter, Shah said 'I am not in public service for self-aggrandizement and therefore have no interest in a protracted process regarding my role. My interest is solely in the vitality of the University of Illinois.' Shah is the second trustee to resign. Former chairman Lawrence Eppley quit last week.
Shah says his resignation is effective in 90 days or sooner if his successor is in place.
The Consent Decree --- which for eight years dictated how the Champaign school district should address racial disparities in education --- is being lifted. The school board and attorneys for the plaintiffs reached an agreement yesterday (Wednesday) that's meant to lift the financial burdens of the consent decree, while keeping its accomplishments in place.
The Unit Four School Board ratified the settlement agreement on a 6 to nothing vote last night. And that gave Board President Dave Tomlinson the chance to say something he had been waiting to say for a long time.
"With this agreement, all court and attorney oversight for the decree has ended," Tomlinson announced to reporters following the school board meeting. "Unit Four has satisfied all of the requirements of the decree, and all motions to extend the decree will be dropped,"
Attorneys for the plaintiffs had filed motions seeking the extension of the Consent Decree on three issues --- north side classrooms, special education and alternative education. But plaintiffs' attorney Carol Ashley says the extension is no longer needed, because the settlement agreement commits Unit Four to several measures meant to follow-up on those issues --- from an equity policy committee to review the district's progress, to passage of board resolutions confirming plans for the additional classrooms.
Plaintiffs attorney Carol Ashley has worked on the case since the first civil rights complaints were filed 13 years ago. The Consent Decree agreed to in 2002 kept those complaints from going to trial, and Ashley says that was the best solution for all concerned.
"These are difficult issues to deal with, states Ashley. "But the collaborative process used int his case I think was beneficial to African American students, and to the community at large, and to the school district."
The settlement agreement means that a federal court hearing on the Consent Decree set for August 3rd in Peoria will not need to be held.
University of Illinois Trustee David Dorris says he's ready to step down from the board, as Lawrence Eppley did yesterday (Tues) amid the school's admission scandal. But Dorris says his resignation and more need to be accompanied by a concrete plan from Governor Pat Quinn for filling the vacant board seats. The Bloomington attorney says wants to hear from the Governor about keeping a quorum on the board so it can make university decisions. And Dorris says the publicity garnered by the admission of politically-connected applicants has been too connected to the trustees, which he says was responsible for a small portion of the so-called 'Category I' list. Dorris suggests that U of I President Joseph White resign over the admissions scandal, and that the university implement a defined admissions policy.
"We need an ombudsman that's effective that can give the public answers where we can refer them to when we get inquiries,' says Dorris. "We'll say look, here's who you call, you'll get an answer. That was not in place during the time that I was a Trustee. When we would get inquiries or questions about admssions, I was told the procedure we use was that inquiries you get, refer them to (Chancellor) Richard Herman."
Dorris defends Chancellor Herman, who says the volume of inquiries he received was unfair. He also suggests the U of I implement a code of conduct for Trustees, and a way to discipline those who interfere with an administrator's ability to do their job. As for selecting future trustees, Dorris suggests the university put together an independent organization to examine records of candidates, and name them to the board. He's not in favor of plan that would allow the U of I's Alumni Association to select six trustees, saying they would wield too much power.
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