Sunday, June 14, 2020

Champaign County Weather Radio Returning

The weather radio tower that serves Champaign County has been down for a few months now. The status is available from the NOAA website information here. More details and background information in a previous Cheat Sheet post here. There have been some updates and indications that it the radio service will be back up on a new tower within 4-6 weeks. From Tom's Mailbag this week:
"In response to the question you have in the mailbag - will the weather radio ever work again? The answer is YES. It will be working again and we are planning on it working again soon," he said. "Earlier this year (February) the weather radio was removed from service because of frequent equipment failures and an issue with the tower the antenna was located on. We were told by the tower owner to remove our equipment and find another tower because they had other plans for the tower and associated land.

"At that time, we alerted the public, emergency management officials, and local media that it could be off the air for up to six months while we searched for a tower that had the proper specifications.

"Four and half months later, we have identified a new tower location, and are waiting for lease agreements to be finalized by NOAA headquarters. Once a lease agreement is in place, we will install the transmitter and antenna, and begin system testing to ensure the associated signal is performing at an optimal level. We are expecting this will occur in the next four to six weeks.
That full Mailbag article here. A previous Mailbag article at the end of May had indicated that the service could be returning now that a new tower had been secured. Until then there is still a list of alternatives for weather and other emergency alerts from the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency website:
As always, we HIGHLY recommend that people have multiple ways to receive
weather warnings and information. Forecasts, watches and warnings for
Central Illinois can also be found on:
     *   NWS Lincoln webpage:
     *   Mobile device:
     *   Facebook:
     *   Twitter:
     *   AlertSense: A service provided by Champaign County can
         relay emergency alerts and weather warnings via text
         message to cell phones and email to any email address.
         These alerts are provided free of charge, however
         standard text messaging rates and other charges may
         apply. To sign-up, go to:
     *   Smart Phones: Most smart phone users receive Tornado
         Warnings and Flash Flood Warnings from the National
         Weather Service through the Wireless Emergency Alerts
         technology provided by nearly all cell phone providers.
         This feature is enabled on most cellular devices, with no
         setup or software to download. The emergency messages
         are broadcast through cell towers at no cost to the
We will provide updates on the status of the Central Illinois NOAA Weather Radio Transmitter through Public Information Statements as more Information becomes available.
Full article and other radio stations/frequencies for surrounding areas in the region available from that page here (a few posts down from the top).

Saturday, June 13, 2020

County Home Rule Proposal

County Board member Stephanie Fortado and County Board candidate Emily Rodriguez have been doing public outreach on the idea of making the County government a "home rule" entity. This post tries to break down what that means, links to some of their arguments and explanations, and also a recent public Zoom discussion on the topic (video here).

The Illinois Association of County Board Members has an explanation of home rule that could be a little confusing for Champaign residents. We're one of only two counties outside of Cook County that have an Executive Form of County government. When we adopted that form, we specifically excluded the "home rule" part of it. From their website:
A county which has a chief executive officer is considered a "home rule unit". A county-wide referendum is required to establish this plan. Home rule counties have broad authority to provide for local government issues. The advantage of this designation is that, except as limited by State law, home rule counties may exercise any power and perform any function relating to its government and affairs, including the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; and to borrow money and levy taxes.

Cook County is the only home rule county in Illinois. Will County voters elected to go to a county executive form without home rule in 1988. Champaign County voters approved restructure to executive form in 2016.
More at that page here. Essentially we have the additional elected Executive office instead of an administrator that operates as an extension of the County Board's authority. A little more division of power, but without the additional home rule authorities.

Fortado and Rodriguez make their case for the change to home rule for the County in this Medium article here. Here's an excerpt of their descriptions of home rule from that article:
In Illinois, a home rule unit can exercise any power and perform any function unless it is specifically prohibited from doing so by state law. We can restructure our budget to reflect our values. We can get affordable housing, increase treatment for substance use disorder, shrink the jail population, and build a meaningful partnership between the County and local trade unions — and much more. Here, we’ll outline what home rule could mean for Champaign County’s recovery, and what it would take to get home rule on the ballot in the upcoming General Election.

What is Home Rule?

Home rule units have a more flexible system of power that can be used to address complex social, economic, and environmental problems at the local level. Like most legal concepts in the United States, we imported the concept of home rule from England. It was a part of a larger labor movement in the 1870s to secure internal autonomy for Ireland within the British Empire. In fact, Illinois home rule powers are among the broadest and strongest in the nation. Here’s what the home rule provision in our State Constitution says:
“[a] home rule unit may exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt., (Ill. Const. of 1970, art. VII § 6[a]).
Except for county governments, home rule is the default-mode of authority for most forms of local government in Illinois with a population greater than 25,000. Therefore, Champaign and Urbana became home rule units automatically when the State Constitution was rewritten in 1970. County governments, on the other hand, must adopt home rule by public referendum. It requires a petition with 500 votes to get home rule on the ballot and a simple majority to pass.
That full article with their arguments here. It goes on to make the case for some political issues that they feel could be better addressed with home rule authority.

Their virtual Town Hall for Home Rule is available on YouTube here. Their slide presentation is available on Google Docs here. They also had a form for anyone interested in their efforts, updates, or ask questions here. You can jump to the Q & A portion of the Town Hall here.

Back in 2016, the idea of adding home rule to the County Executive form of government proposal was raised as a possibility. A WILL article at the time highlighted some of the political division on why:
Cook County has a similar arrangement with its elected County Board President. But Cook County has something that Will County --- and the Champaign County executive proposal --- do not have: home rule powers.

Among other things, home rule governments can raise taxes without asking the voters through a tax referendum. That’s not a popular concept with groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Farm Bureau. But Petrie says the challenges Champaign County faces with its nursing home, its county jail and the maintenance of county buildings in general, are financial challenges that will need new revenue.

“So it is a bit antithetical to know that the Farm Bureau  and the Chamber are only putting forth a referendum for an elected county executive because they want things to happen, but they have not given any provision for the county to raise money,” said [former Champaign County Board Chair Pattsi] Petrie.
That full article here, including a bit more background on the original Executive Form debate. Rodriguez brings up the historical conservative opposition in the Town Hall presentation here. The issue of "home rule" was raised in the District 8 primary debate between Rodriguez and current board Chair Giraldo Rosales who lost in March. It was raised in the League of Women Voters candidate panels with that video here. In a Cheat Sheet overview here, I highlighted some of the other accusations raised in that panel discussion. Rodriguez pushed for adopting home rule and why, while Rosales mostly dismissed it as empty rhetoric.

In addition to this push to make the County Executive Form of government a home rule entity, there has been an opposite push to abandon the County Executive Form of government altogether in a step back to a County Administrator under the authority of the County Board. More on that from a Cheat Sheet post from earlier this year here.

The Executive Form of government was supported by Republicans and conservative groups initially when it was viewed as a sure bet that a Republican would win the elected office. This would give a Republican veto over the Democratic majority County Board. That sure bet candidate who was groomed for and helped plan the position with those groups was former Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten. From that Cheat Sheet post on why conservatives might now oppose the Executive Form of government they created:
The surprise victory by Democratic Darlene Kloeppel was a shock to many, including Hulten who dismissed the possibility as realistic prior to the election. Since that election his and Republican Party desires to have veto power over the Democratic majority County Board have disappeared.

What has happened since has been frustrating and confusing for many Democrats hoping to consolidate those gains towards more political victories after the 2018 "blue wave" as they like to call it. Instead the Republicans have formed a coalition with self-described pragmatic Democrats on the County Board and elected Giraldo Rosales as Chairman of that coalition majority.

The Chairman and the Republican coalition have acted as an interim check on the Democratic Party's majority on some of the very issues Republicans hoped Hulten would play as County Executive. This appears to be a limited and temporary solution to their original goals, however. The ability to elect a Republican County Executive in a couple years is far from certain. The fractured Democratic party may be infighting before a primary election now, but that's not certain to continue either. The coalition some Democrats have formed with Republicans is causing serious resentments and bizarre power moves that could result in a very different situation heading towards or after the general election.
That full post is available here. Readers can make up their own mind on the motivations and the plausibility of the explanations in contrast with the power interests. I leave it to voters to decide if home rule is a good option for the county or their own interests.

Community Coalition Updates

The Champaign County Community Coalition was interrupted in March by the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, but it has been hard at work and adapting to the situation. Recent meetings and events have been online and working with the community. This post has information on their most recent meeting as well as some previous meetings and events over the past month or so.

Their most recent meeting (agenda, video) was mainly a response to the George Floyd killing in police custody, the protests, and the outrage across the country and locally. There were several speakers:
  • Mayor of Champaign Deb Feinen and Mayor of Urbana Diane Marlin
  • NAACP of Champaign County President Minnie Pearson
  • Paign to Peace youth group that organized the large recent protest
  • U of I Chancellor Robert Jones
  • Champaign County Sheriff and police chiefs of Champaign, Urbana, UIPD, and Parkland Police.
  • Michael Schlosser of the U of I Police Training Institute  
Slides from the presentations are available in PDF format from the Coalition website here. The slides contain advice for white allies, book recommendations, and presentation slides from the NAACP of Champaign County and Paign to Peace. The advice for white people to listen and reflect on the concept of privilege was shared on social media quite a bit.

The concept or wording of "white privilege" can start arguments all on its own. In this context its not referring to a privileged lifestyle, but that even white people who have faced adversity and hardship in their lives may have faced even greater obstacles if they hadn't been white. For example working hard and scraping by one's whole life, but then add anti-black discrimination or biases on top of that. Even if folks might be able to have a civil discussion or disagreement at that point, it can be difficult just to get through the semantic debates without people getting frustrated and hurt.

The speakers all expressed what appeared to be a genuine desire for significant change from the status quo. In a room full of folks ranging from activists to law enforcement to politicians, the language used could leave room a great deal of disagreement on what that looks like to each of them. Minnie Pearson and the Paign to Peace members both made powerful arguments to be listened to and taken seriously. They are not complaining to complain, but have a very different experience in America that. They're asking the rest of the community to join them to change that.

The police chiefs generally condemned the killing of George Floyd and expressed their desire to work with the community to move forward and do better. Chief Seraphin of the Urbana Police Department was under more public pressure to build trust due to the local case of Aleyah Lewis and public protests demanding an investigation into the violent arrest and video (more on that in Urbana City Council updates here). Chief Cobb of the Champaign Police and Chief Seraphin were guests in the first hour of "Penny for Your Thoughts" radio program this week as well talking about these issues.

At the end of the meeting Tracy Parsons called on the anonymous critics in the Zoom and Facebook chat to show up to the Coalition meetings and join them in the work with the real names. WCCU had coverage of the meeting here. WCIA had some background information previewing the meeting here (with post-meeting coverage here).

Previous meetings:

The May Community Coalition meeting (agenda, video) was closer to the format prior to the coronavirus cancellations. The meeting minutes are up here on the Coalition website for anyone who would prefer to do a quick scan through the information covered as opposed to the full video.

As the first regular, but remote on-line, meeting of the Coalition there was an overview of the adaptations taking place in the community. The police chief updates unfortunately reported an early rise in gun violence compared to last year already at the County level and in Champaign-Urbana. The campus police are working on public safety in a situation where students are mostly absent from campuses.

The interim UIPD police chief is expecting a new chief to be appointed prior to his planned retirement at the end of July. He noted that there were four finalists being considered at that time and he hoped whoever is selected will be on the job by July 1st. I haven't seen any updates on that appointment yet.

After the coronavirus update from the C-UPHD, there was a look at programs and services adapting to the stay at home and social distancing requirements. Of special concern with local gun violence is a lack of summer activities as most are currently difficult if not impossible to adapt to under current restrictions.

The Community Violence Response Task Force was looking at the Boston 10 Point model for possible violence interrupter strategies locally. They were looking for feedback, volunteers, and potential funding sources towards that goal.

There was a panel discussion on Champaign-Urbana gun violence in a program highlighted by the Coalition and covered in a previous Cheat Sheet post here: Aiming for Peace 217

There was also a panel on April 29th discussing the impact and response for the coronavirus in local immigrant communities. From the Coalition facebook post:
We hosted our third panel discussion with community experts, this time to discuss the impact of COVID-19 in Champaign County’s immigrant communities.

Featuring: Gloria Yen (New American Welcome Center at the University YMCA), Mariel Huasanga (Illinois Small Business Development Center at Champaign County EDC), LucĂ­a Maldonado (Urbana School District #116), and John Matanda (Congolese Community Center).
That full panel discussion is available here on vimeo. The University YMCA's New American Welcome Center had links and information for coronavirus for local immigrants in a resource guide here in multiple languages. The New American Welcome Center was also recently in the news for its fundraising efforts for immigrant relief. WCIA had a short blurb and article here. In general, many of the coronavirus impacts have been hitting various local immigrant communities in amplified or unique ways.

Maldonado and Matanda spoke of some of their unique experiences trying to get information and services to Latinx and Congolese immigrant communities. Getting information in a language or understandable and trustworthy way can be a challenge. Access to the internet and online resources can be a challenge for many immigrants, but especially undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigrants face additional challenges on top of being more likely to be essential workers and have less access to services. They are also not included in many of the relief programs available and legal fears and challenges interacting with various systems.

Huasanga spoke of various support and information available at the Champaign SBDC website and some of the language translation services they have been offering.

The information slide at the end had a short link to the YMCA New American Welcome Center's coronavirus resource guide:

And their immigrant helpline (in English, Spanish, French, Chinese and Arabic languages): 217-417-5897

Thursday, June 11, 2020

June County Board COW

Following up on the County Board's June committee meetings (Cheat Sheet overview here), the Committee of the Whole (agenda, video) is generally the next step in the process for items to get approval to the full board for a final full vote. It's another step that allows public input and pressure for issues and agenda items the public may be concerned about or impacted by.

At the June Committee of the Whole, the public input began with concerns about tax disbursements by the Mahomet-Seymour School District Superintendent, Lindsey Hall. Delays could mean additional costs and headaches to school districts again as their Fiscal Year comes to an end in June. John Bambenek raised some additional concerns with the County Treasurer's property tax system that has added more anxiety to the process after recent failures and delays over the past couple years.

There were also public comments pressing for a local reopening strategy beyond the State mandated regional phases and timelines. Speakers pointed to other examples, both international, in neighboring states and neighboring counties to urge better alternatives to current policy. Annie Murray of Pear Tree Estate once again spoke of the economic strain compounded by being unable to compete with businesses in nearby counties that have opened beyond State guidelines.

The Committee of the Whole meeting is also an opportunity for informational presentations. June's meeting had an overview presentation on the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District local government body (starts at the 20 minute mark in the video). A letter with more details along with the slide presentation is available on the County website here.

I recommend checking out the presentation as it lays out an often overlooked but critical part of local government. It deals with protecting watersheds and preventing soil erosion, but those are very critical issues to prevent future crises. This impacts our economy, our ability to feed an ever-growing population, clean water consumption, recharging aquifers, climate change, and so on. A quick summary from their about page:
The Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District is a local unit of government which has been in existence since 1943.  It is governed by a five person board of directors, elected by landowners and land occupants within the District.  The Directors, themselves landowners or land occupants, are given the responsibility of developing and administering a comprehensive natural resource conservation plan.  The District receives its operating funds from The Illinois Department of Agriculture and the Champaign County Board.
And from the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts about page:
In the early 1930s, along with the greatest depression this nation ever experienced, came an equally unparalleled ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl. Following a severe and sustained drought in the Great Plains, the region’s soil began to erode and blow away, creating huge black dust storms that blotted out the sun and swallowed the countryside...

On Capitol Hill, while testifying about the erosion problem, soil scientist Hugh Hammond Bennett threw back the curtains to reveal a sky blackened by dust. Congress unanimously passed legislation declaring soil and water conservation a national policy and priority.
It's difficult to explain how important those last few inches of topsoil are to the people who depend on the land for their livelihood and survival. Their monthly meetings are open to the public, typically in the evening depending on farming schedules. Contact their office in Champaign for additional information to attend.

The meeting quickly delved into some partisan drama, which is covered below. For those who'd rather skip to the Treasurer's report and the IT and server updates for the County, click here to jump to that part.

County Clerk versus the Board:

After that presentation, the County Board ran through some appointments on the agenda, but quickly got to the County Clerk report and a heated exchange between the County Clerk and County Board member Jim Goss. It started off with Goss asking a series of questions that appeared to come off as adversarial or prosecutorial to the County Clerk who asked for a more direct question. County Clerk Aaron Ammons began his first response speaking about the George Floyd death, protests, and national conversation. He highlighted the lack of attention to the issue so far, especially by Mr. Goss. He expressed his frustration with Goss' line of questioning and pressed for him to ask his "real question."

There was then a back and forth about responsibility for the tax cycle and previous tax issues relating to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, the Champaign Public Library and the County Clerks office. Goss pressed for a public answer for what the Clerk described as lengthy matters already worked out with those tax bodies.

Accusations of political gamesmanship met accusations of mistakes followed. This included a statement of previous grievances by the Clerk that the GOP had orchestrated an exodus out of the Clerk's office after being a solidly Republican office for years. With any mistakes being dismissed as a natural consequence of the office being sabotaged and condemned. Goss denied knowing anyone in the office or sabotaging the Clerk's office.

Goss stopped his questioning and County Board member Rector, who had the committee chair control of the floor, attempted to move on while encouraging other elected officials to join County Board meetings. Ammons began reading a statement in response about the subject he was expecting to talk about, with details about a Rantoul TIF (what's a TIF?) issue that had apparently been a public dispute in The Rantoul Press.

Ammons gave his side of the Rantoul story to those disagreements, which went on for several minutes before Rector cut him off to move the meeting forward. Ammons became frustrated that Rector was cutting him off and not allowing him to finish his statement and there was a struggle for control of the floor. After a brief comment by member Stohr Rector appeared to have been ready to move on and apologized for having to cut Clerk Ammons off. The situation escalated again (video link here).

Ammons disagreed with the decision and explanation. Ammons then complained that the Republicans attack and appear to hate him so much. He asked whether it was because he was a Democrat or because he was black. He then accused member Goss of defending Nazis in the white nationalist Patriot Front group that has put up pro-fascist material locally.

At that point Republicans demanded they shut him off, called points of order and denounced charges of racism. Ammons stated that he wasn't making charges for stating facts. A multitude of voices started chiming in over the Zoom meeting and Chairman Rosales finally pushed the agenda forward.

As the meeting continued, Clerk Ammons stayed on the Zoom meeting, visibly frustrated at times in his camera window. At the end of the meeting, during Other Business, member Ingram commented on the George Floyd protests and the need to listen to and support other voices in the community. Then he left an open ended question to Ammons about his thoughts on the Rantoul situation.

Ammons began speaking about the accusations against him with only a slightly noticeable grumble from the Republicans on the audio. County Board Chair Rosales interrupted after he mentioned that the attacks came from both Republicans and Democrats and he admonished Ammons not to personalize it. This immediately raised tensions as they were on either side of the recent local party infighting. Republican member McGuire then jumped in to demand a stop to the statement, but Rosales asked him to let Ammons finish.

Ammons continued until he got into the topic of the protests and the changes he saw in Mahomet at those protests. He described Mahomet as a predominately white sundown town that had given him hope for change. He ended his remarks by saying it was a sign of the end of people like member Goss and County Recorder (and long time local Republican party leader) Mark Sheldon. He told them to enjoy their "last hurrah." Chairman Rosales quickly thanked him for his comments and immediately adjourned the meeting.

Other highlights beyond the drama:

The Treasurer's report was deeply concerning and went into details of two week delays and the public dealing with erroneous filing and fee messages on systems that still need to be updated for the correct information to show up. The Treasurer and staff explained the complications and various systems involved in the process and how they're doing that work with limited staff and while attempting to correct previous problems under the previous Treasurer Prussing.

More local news stories have broken about more problems and concerns with the Treasurer's Office, including a union dispute in today's News-Gazette and delays and notification problems in yesterday's paper:
This is a system that was inherited by [Treasurer Marisol] Hughes, who was appointed treasurer three months ago after the resignation of former county treasurer Laurel Prussing. The state’s pandemic lockdown began two weeks after Hughes took office.

Another big issue has been that some taxpayers who voluntarily sign up for the option of having their tax payments automatically withdrawn from their bank accounts don’t let the treasurer’s office know when they’ve sold their properties.

And for anyone who assumes the treasurer’s office would know a property has been sold, “there is no way for us to know,” [Chief Deputy Treasurer Alejandra] Aguero said.
That full article, which basically mirrored the meeting discussion, here. In the meeting the staff noted that the phones to the office ring nonstop throughout business hours.

There was also an overview of the recommended Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system from Tyler Technologies to replace the antiquated server and software the County runs much of its data and work through. The new cloud based system would fit well under the budget assumptions of the technology plan put forth last year to get the County out of the technological lurch. Video of that discussion in the meeting is available here with a direct link. The technology plan report was on page 78 of the December County Board meeting agenda packet here (page 82 of the PDF file). The questions and answers portion on that report is available from the December meeting video here at the 43 minute mark.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

June County Committees

Each month there are a number of Committee meetings that deal with topics such as Facilities, Environment and Land Use, Highway and Transportation funds, etc. The County government is generally much larger and complicated than folks imagine. This can be confusing and confounding for folks just trying to understand how to have their say on a specific issue that may affect them. Democracy is messy and at the local level it takes persistence and learning just to figure out where you can have an impact.

So far this month, before the regular County Board meeting next Thursday:
The Facilities Committee focuses on the maintenance and building needs of the County. Here is where you would have seen a lot of discussions about potential jail consolidation plans, presentations and overviews of various upkeep and repair projects, etc. At the June meeting, the jail situation was brief and one of resignation. It really sounded as though the plan going forward is to hope and pray that the County can get through the pandemic hurdles and come up with a workable jail plan before they're forced to close the downtown jail. At that point the County would have to find a place to house prisoners separated for safety and legal reasons. And during a pandemic, outside regional jails may outright refuse the infection risk.

With the coronavirus epidemic and economic fallout, there doesn't appear to be any chance of reviving the plans presented earlier this year. An overview of the jail consolidation outlook in February is here with a lot of helpful background information. Below is an excerpt from the last updates from the County May meetings on jail consolidation:
In Board communications, member Stohr advocated an ad hoc committee to look at and possibly revive the jail consolidation plans. Member Harper would vehemently oppose the idea in the regular board meeting's communication portion next week. Jon Rector emphasized the public participation comments on the desperate economic relief needed locally in balance with health concerns. There were other members who spoke on and thanked community members for their efforts to help fellow citizens and other topics...

The jail consolidation issue was brought up again, with all of the concerns about the downtown jail being on the verge of having to be shut down at any time, no current plan to come up with a facilities remedy, and now a situation where other jails are unlikely to accept any prisoners that may need to be segregated or moved elsewhere.
That full Cheat Sheet post here. More information about the consolidation plans falling apart from the March/April meetings here. It was worth noting that some of the glass demand for pandemic related safety barriers has been stretched even more thin by recent looting and window smashing around Champaign-Urbana. No County facilities were damaged in those incidents, however.

The Environment and Land Use Committee (ELUC) often deals with agricultural and zoning issues. This month's focus was on nailing down the language of the cannabis business regulations around towns that may not want certain elements of the industry nearby. In this case there are desires for a 1.5 mile area around such towns where they'd have primary say. There are ongoing disagreements about what that means for the people who live nearby, but aren't represented by those local governments, but rather their County government.

Highway and Transportation deals with a lot of the spending and details of the various road projects and transportation related issues on county roads and integrating transportation with local and State government. 

For your average Joe just wanting to keep up with what's going on in local government, almost all of the work of these committees ends up going through the Committee of the Whole where reports and recommended items are then passed on to the full regular County Board meeting. These steps can be confusing and there are all sorts of rules to ensure that they're done with enough time for public input and opportunities to speak out at each step.

Activists and other folks who have an issue they really care about or could impact them take advantage of these parliamentary steps to pressure County Board members at every step of the way. They do sometimes have more extended discussions and presentations on difficult topics, which can be useful for wrapping one's mind around them.

The Committee of the Whole this month was a bit of a bear, so I'll be doing a separate post on that meeting soon. For folks who can't wait to get their COW fix, I strongly recommend the presentation on the Soil and Water Conservation District local government body (starts at the 28:30 minute mark in the video). It may not sound exciting at first, but they're a government entity created in 1943 in response to the Dust Bowl and have been protecting the last few precious inches of top soil in America.

Their work intersects with our local economy, long term concerns about feeding the population, watershed protection, climate change, and building trust with science in a sector with a lot of traditionalist thinkers.

Drama over malfunctioning property tax systems and accusations of supporting white supremacy rounded off the meeting in ways I'm still figuring out how to write up.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Coronavirus Updates 6/5

It was announced that the daily flyer / announcement updates (see 6/3 informational flyer here) will become a weekly update on Wednesdays. The website will still have daily updated coronavirus information here. Public testing sites like the one at Marketplace Mall will also be open to everyone now, regardless of whether they have symptoms or other factor. WAND had more on the opening of testing to all here.

There was a meeting of the Joint Information Center with some questions from the media after the local updates from C-U Public Health District administrator Julie Pryde and City of Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen. The video of that meeting is available here. Previous videos are available at the C-UPHD website at this link and under the heading "Champaign County Joint Information Center Public Outreach Videos" near the bottom of the page.

A highlight from the questions was an explanation about people who attended the protests and the need to get tested. Administrator Pryde explained how long one should wait to get tested after a possible exposure. The way this infection takes hold and the way PCR tests work, at least 4 days is probably good to avoid a higher chance of a false negative. She reminded listeners that the testing is a tool, not a certainty, however. She encouraged vigilance and safe distancing as in some cases it can take longer (e.g. 14 days).

Mayor Feinen explained her latest Executive Order and how it expanded additional hours for private spaces that would apply to certain businesses. The City is looking to expand outdoor seating options next week. While Urbana is adding some more public music options this week, that's something Champaign isn't doing yet, but also considering.

WAND had an article with an overview of the changes from the State's Phase 2 to Phase 3 with a lot of additional details here. A snippet with a basic overview of Phase 2 and Phase 3 from the public chart:

WCCU had an article yesterday specifically looking at Phase 3 guidance for Illinois schools and the very different setting kids will be entering when they return to classes. There was a link to the full guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education here.

The News-Gazette's latest update today suggests signs that we could be moving to phase 4 in the central region if outbreaks and cases can be kept under control and within our regional hospital capacities:
To advance to Phase 4 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s five-phase Restore Illinois plan three weeks from now, regions will have to hit the same metrics that they did to move on to Phase 3 last week.

So far, so good for the central region, which includes Champaign, Douglas, Ford, Piatt and Vermilion counties.
More on that at the full article with today's Champaign County updated numbers (including 4 new cases for a cumulative total of 675). WCCU had a brief overview of the County numbers today here. More data from the C-UPHD website here.

I missed the June 1st Board of Health special meeting and update mentioned in my last coronavirus update that covered the previous May meeting. I don't have any additional details on that yet.

A few other recent highlights:

Smile Politely had a quick blurb about a COVID-19 Relief Fund grant and a link to additional information here.

WCIA had an article about the Housing Authority of Champaign County's Youthbuild program providing care packages to seniors as part of COVID-19 assistance.

Unit 4's summer food program is still going on this summer. More details on that from WCIA here.

Friday, May 29, 2020

May County Board Updates

May had a return to many of the County Board committee meetings since the initial coronavirus cancellations and transition to remote meetings on Zoom. While most members are still attending remotely, there are some attending in person at the Brookens Administrative building. Some County Board members have raised safety concerns about the current process. Videos of the May meetings are primarily available on the Champaign County Clerk's YouTube Channel:

Agenda packets are generally available from the County website "Meeting Info" page by clicking the specific Board or Committee you need information for. This is a handy page to get previous meeting minutes and presentation materials and other handouts.

This post gives overviews and summaries of most of these meetings, but also has an additional reference to the City of Champaign's government that has put out a call highlighting a funding crisis being caused by the Champaign County government (jump to that item below here).

Committee Meeting Overview:

The Facilities meeting covered topics like public safety in County buildings, including the County Courthouse. The News-Gazette had an overview of coronavirus related precautions the Courts are taking to begin jury trials soon:

The first batch of summonses for jurors in a pandemic have been sent out in Champaign County with accommodations in place to make the process as safe as possible.

Those include watching jury orientation from home, only reporting to the courthouse when a trial is set to begin, sitting several feet apart and deliberating in a separate courtroom, not a jury room.
More details at the full article here. There was a more comprehensive overview of reopening the Courts earlier this month. Excerpt:
Pieces of Plexiglas are being installed around the witness stands to shield the court reporter, who is seated right in front of the witness, and to the side of the witness stand, to shield the jurors who sit closest to the witness.

It’s impractical to spread jurors out in the gallery because that would preclude spectators from having a place to sit. And Difanis noted that jurors have to be up close to hear audio clips and see physical evidence.
That full article here. The ELUC meeting was covered in the News-Gazette and looked at cannabis business regulations again. More on that at the News-Gazette here.

The Committee of the Whole (COW):

The Committee of the Whole began with public comments from a local business owner begging for economic relief and highlighting the damage being done to business owners and their livelihoods. The County Clerk made comments about the impact of the coronavirus on the primary election and potential impacts and planning for the 2020 general election.

The COW also had a presentation on the Youth Assessment Center and its work on diversion and restorative justice services. The slide presentation is available here. The video presentation is available here with a direct link.

In Board communications, member Stohr advocated an ad hoc committee to look at and possibly revive the jail consolidation plans. Member Harper would vehemently oppose the idea in the regular board meeting's communication portion next week. Jon Rector emphasized the public participation comments on the desperate economic relief needed locally in balance with health concerns. There were other members who spoke on and thanked community members for their efforts to help fellow citizens and other topics.

After the Treasurer's report, there was a technical discussion about payment penalties being delayed or forgiven, but the topic involved some confusing legal technicalities that I didn't fully understand. Deputy Director of Finance for the County, Tami Ogden and the Treasurer's office explained some of the administrative hurdles and complexities involved with some of the suggestions.

A little bit later there was a 50 minute discussion on mitigating expenses for 2020 and 2021. This discussion had an overview of the County's financial situation (dire) and projected hardships and revenue decreases (severe). There appears to be real concerns among Democrats that austerity measures will go too far and Republicans that the Board may not be prepared to cut deep enough to keep the County government functioning. The discussion appeared sobering to all County Board members who were already looking at difficult budget choices before this crisis. The Finance Committee will be looking at the issues and sacred cows raised during this discussion to bring some options back before the board later.

There was some debate on extending the county disaster proclamation, a dispute about the message it sent for reopening the local economy versus its role in ensuring that the County could receive funding related to the the current coronavirus emergency and other funds. Republicans throughout the meeting emphasized the economic concerns while Democrats emphasized the health concerns. The differing emphasis aligned with assessments of economic and health impacts and interpretation of data that has become a divisive topic in both local and State politics.

The jail consolidation issue was brought up again, with all of the concerns about the downtown jail being on the verge of having to be shut down at any time, no current plan to come up with a facilities remedy, and now a situation where other jails are unlikely to accept any prisoners that may need to be segregated or moved elsewhere.

The video of the meeting cuts off around three and half hours in, but towards the agenda of the agenda items. John Clifford resigned at the end of the COW meeting according to the agenda.

Regular County Board Meeting:

The regular County Board meeting began with multiple public participation speakers on the topic of the coronavirus and its impact. There was a presentation from scientists at the University of Illinois on coronavirus data. Will Kyles, an at-large member of the City of Champaign City Council spoke on the impact on minority owned businesses and the need to consider that impact in reopen policies. Others spoke on impacts to those in addiction recovery, the local health care industry, and our local homeless population.

Former County Board member and Champaign County Auditor Diane Michaels was sworn in to fill the vacancy left by John Cliffords.

The County Executive delivered her annual report to the County Board, though the video quality and compression made it unreadable from the Zoom app to the live streaming videos for home viewers. The projections started at a worst case scenario, but overall the outlook is looking grim for future revenues. The current budgets were already strained under debt, limited balances, and departments already operating on limited staff. Maintenance, IT, facilities, and other basic needs have been delayed for years and in dire shape (if not flirting with disaster such as with the downtown Jail or unsupported technology).

The County Executive asked County Board members to make sure their priorities and sacred cows were made known so that the upcoming budget cuts could take their concerns into consideration. Funding for the County's reentry programs and staff employment and pay were mentioned in the discussion afterward.

City of Champaign:

The City of Champaign's Mayor raised serious concerns with the Champaign County Board and Treasurer's Office during "Council Comments" of the most recent City Council meeting. at the 27:40 mark in the full video. She argues that social programs in Champaign and through the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission are being threatened due to a lack of an audit required for funding. She explains that we are in jeopardy of losing millions of dollars of that funding and encourages people to contact to their County Board members to address the audit delay. She says they have been receiving letters from funding providers citing the lack of audit for a potential loss of funding.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

March / April County Board Updates

The pandemic may have interrupted a lot of plans and activities, but local governments still continued, albeit with more remote access and technology hurdles than usual. The County Board meetings since our last coverage of the regular February meeting have been... interesting... to say the least. The videos are available on the Champaign County Clerk's YouTube Channel here.

March County Board Meetings:

The March Facilities Committee meeting delved into the jail consolidation plans and public concerns again. The video is available here for those interested in where they left off before those plans were canceled.

The last normal County Board meeting was the Committee of the Whole (What is this?) on March 10th. That video is available here and generally focused on the jail consolidation plans that have since fallen apart under the uncertainty of the coronavirus and its detrimental effects on budgets and planning. There was a great deal of public participation and a presentation on the jail consolidation issues, including local activists and State Representative Carol Ammons and the Criminal Justice Collaboration presentation.

There was also an update by Rosecrance on the Champaign County Reentry Council (video link here) and a presentation on the Champaign County Clerk's website updates (video link here).

After that March 10th meeting, the coronavirus news took a dark turn for the rest of the week, from European travel bans to the NBA canceling games and the country beginning to close down. University students were asked to return home and life changed dramatically.

The "regular" County Board meeting for March was done partially in its normal location with initial attempts at social distancing as well as with remote Zoom meeting participation. That chaotic learning process is available on video here. The technical issues, sound problems, alien reverberation noises, etc made the meeting almost unwatchable.

Public participation started around the 25 minute mark (video link here) and began with concerns about the jail and the infection control concerns with the coronavirus. Public participation continued later in the video (due to difficulties with the new Zoom app method of participating) and that video link is here.

April County Board Meetings:

A lot of the meetings in the rest of March and in April were canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, including the April Committee of the Whole meeting.

The regular County Board meeting was still a bit of a technical difficulty mess, but improved over the month before (video available here). The main issue of contention at this meeting was about pandemic funds and making them available for immediate use if need be or requiring approval or emergency approval by the County Board. A lot of budget technicalities were discussed about ensuring the funds balances were sufficient to set aside the money for that purpose while ensuring the County's other obligations were paid on time.

In the end half of the funds for pandemic response were made available in case they were needed immediately, with the remaining half available later. In an emergency those funds could be made available by a special meeting of the County Board in roughly 48 hours, if I understood the details correctly.

There seemed to be some concern among Democrats on whether the Republicans were being sticklers on protecting the County's financial situation or being unreasonable due to partisan distrust. There appears to be a division locally mirroring national disputes on the facts and what they mean.

There was a presentation on the Champaign County Financial Forecast that is worth checking out if one is interested in the outlook prior to the coronavirus pandemic basically adding endless uncertainty and wrecking balls through it. The written report is available in PDF format here.

There was also some discussion about extending the contract with Rosecrance on the reentry program and some quick questions about the effect of the coronavirus so far.

May Links:

May meetings are available on the County Clerk's YouTube channel and will be the subject of another post. They're available to watch now, with a bonus meeting of the County Board of Health, available separately here, that had an unusual amount of public participation and questions and answers worth checking out. That meeting and a general coronavirus update is available in a previous post here.

A new County Board member (also former Board member and County auditor, Diane Michaels was seated to fill the vacancy left by John Clifford who resigned at the end of the May Committee of the Whole meeting.

Coronavirus and General Updates

Sometimes the Cheat Sheet doesn't have any posts for days or weeks depending on how busy everyone is and everything going on in the world. The last 12 weeks since we last posted have been an extraordinary time for everyone.

The coronavirus went through some naming conventions and concerns about political correctness versus inflaming racial tensions. Older posts still refer to the likely geographic origin, but the technical names for second severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2 and the coronavirus disease of 2019, or COVID-19, that it causes are a lot to type out.

I'll be referring to the coronavirus currently kicking humanity in the teeth as the coronavirus and qualify any other coronavirus with additional information (e.g. the original SARS or in contrast with less virulent coronaviruses that cause other diseases).

The latest County statistics on the coronavirus here are still available on the C-UPHD website here, with regular updates on their facebook here. There's also a collaborative effort to help businesses during the reopening phases here.

For folks looking for more detailed information and with some spare time on their hands (and coffee), I strongly recommend the last Champaign County Board of Health meeting video here (with a 17 minute delay during logons and Zoom setup). The meeting runs about two and half hours, but it begins with an update by Julie Pryde of the C-U Public Health Department with the latest information on local outbreaks and efforts. If you keep watching beyond that you'll get to see her respond to community and County Board member concerns on a host of issues.

Some highlight's from that update last week included details on the the 19 local outbreaks in Champaign County. There were over 700 people in quarantine (potentially exposed and avoiding contact and further spread) and 188 people in isolation (confirmed infected and avoiding contact with others). The low hospitalization rates due to the lower ages of many of those who have been exposed.

Critically, our local region, including Champaign County, is in a "sweet spot" according to Pryde when it comes to our hospital capacity in the cities and overall infection rates and treatment needs. This means that we're on track to move to Phase 3 of the reopening process. This next step allows other classes of businesses to open along with essential businesses and relaxes some other areas of the Stay at Home Executive Order. She answered numerous questions and addressed several concerns about the timing and process of this.

Phase 3 has a minimum period of 28 days (or two incubation cycles) to ensure that changes to the mitigation policy are being done safely. With the exponential nature of out of control infections, lives hang in the balance between being patient enough to have accurate data and acting quickly enough to control outbreaks before they get out of hand. An exhausting and constant effort that has been going on locally since the beginning of the year.

One of the issues that came up was child care access expanding in Phase 3, which would be necessary for many parents, but there were concerns about needing more details. Illinois Newsroom had a blurb on that this morning:
Child care facilities  will be able to operate again once Illinois enters the third phase of its reopening plan, which is expected Friday. Maria Whalen is president and CEO of Illinois Action for Children’s, which offered input into the plan to reopen child care centers. “I think that this is a plan that recognizes that at the end of the day, we’re talking about children who are being cared for in congregate settings,” said Whalen.  Newly reopened child care facilities will limit rooms sizes to eight for infants and 10 for others. There are now new sanitation and social distancing requirements. Children over the age of 2 will wear face covering when possible.
More information will probably be available as policy meets reality next week.

The meeting ended by adding an additional June 1st Meeting at 5:30pm (with Zoom meeting information for people to attend remotely to be made available on the Champaign County website later). It will be for additional public participation and updates prior to the regular meeting scheduled on June 16th. 

I'll try to get more updates and information on the Cheat Sheet going forward. I apologize for the long break while adjusting to the every changing landscape on how local governments were adapting and a tsunami of news and information that we just couldn't keep up with. I have a huge to do list on updates and information on how people can still participate in local government. Good luck and stay safe, everybody!

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Downstate Coronavirus Updates

A lot of the updates on the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak and the related Covid-19 illness have been international, national or specific to the Chicago area. Downstate news has been general preparations and precautions. This post has updates more applicable statewide and specifically downstate and local. It includes updates on safety measures for voters, laboratory testing downstate, impacts to agriculture downstate, an update from Champaign-Urbana Public Health District's Julie Pryde, and University updates (students returning from abroad, role in response coordination, and more).

In today's News-Gazette they highlight various safety measures being taken at polling places to avoid spreading flu or coronavirus. Excerpt with just some of the precautions and procedures:
That office had already developed an emergency management plan for elections that includes flu and pandemic scenarios, she said.

So all polling places — and early voting locations — in Champaign County are being supplied with hand sanitizer, masks, antibacterial wipes, gloves and Lysol disinfectant spray, she said.

Election judges are being asked to wipe down pens and other surfaces as time allows, and they’re welcome to wear protective masks and gloves if they want, Patton said.
More precautions and accommodations at that full article in the eEdition here (subscription).

WCIA had coverage on two labs being added downstate for testing and the possibility of drive-through testing in the future to allow greater testing with reduced exposure risk (e.g. in waiting rooms). Excerpt:
[Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Illinois Department of Public Health director] said the agency is considering drive-thru style testing where people can pull up and be tested in their cars, eliminating the risk of spreading the virus. For now, new labs in Springfield and Carbondale are open in addition to the original testing lab in Chicago.

While 22 people in Illinois are awaiting test results, Ezike said 116 people have been tested for the virus in total. Only four people have been diagnosed with the illness, no one has died of the aliment in Illinois yet.
More at that full article here. WCCU had more on the Springfield lab here and a more statewide assessment on the continued low risk in the State here.

There have been ongoing economic concerns and affects on global trade, but also specifically with Illinois and farming businesses. From Capitol Illinois News last month (also ran in the News-Gazette here - subscription):
After a promising trade deal with China last month gave farmers hope amid an intense trade war, the deadly Wuhan coronavirus currently overwhelming China is also damaging its economy.

The country’s economic slump is now sowing fears that China might not be able to buy all of the $32 billion of U.S. agricultural goods it promised for 2020, including soybeans from Illinois, America’s top soybean-producing state.
A lot more additional information in that article here. WCCU had more on this last week:
The outbreak of the coronavirus is impacting U.S. trade and the stock market, with the effects trickling down to hit local farmers.

China is one of the nation’s biggest trade partners, especially for farmers. Local farmers have seen less trade with China recently.

"Farmers have been hurt over the last two years with the tariffs and right at the brink of when we thought we were gonna be able to get past this, the coronavirus hits," said Somnath Bhattacharya, the dean of UIS College of Business and Management.
That full article with video segment here.

Local Updates:

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District's Director Julie Pryde had a quick update in an interview with Elizabeth Hess available here from Urbana Public Television.

The C-UPHD has regular updates on its facebook page here and additional information on the coronavirus on their website here.

University Updates:

A lot of students will be returning from their studies abroad in Italy and South Korea according to the Daily Illini. Excerpt from the Daily Illini article on South Korea students abroad:
These new requirements will affect 15 study abroad students in South Korea and 137 study abroad students in Italy.

Additionally, any University-related travel to China, Iran, Italy or the Daegu region of South Korea has been restricted.

Although it is only required that students in Italy and South Korea return at this time, the University is offering all 852 study abroad students to end their program early.

Students, faculty and staff members returning from any countries under the Center for Disease Control Levels 2 or 3 travel advisories will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
That full article here. The article on the situation in Italy is here. WCIA had additional coverage on students returning abroad here.

The University also has a role in coordinating the coronavirus response across the State. From WCCU yesterday:
The University of Illinois System is helping to coordinate the coronavirus response with a new COVID-19 Planning and Response Team.

U of I universities in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield, as well as regional campuses across the state, will make up the team...

The team will be led by Dr. Robert A. Barish, vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
That full article available from WCCU here with video segment.

The 21st Show had a audio segment on how Universities and smaller airports are responding to the coronavirus outbreak here. The guest list includes:

  • Nathan Thomas, Vice President of Student Affairs at Bradley University
  • Gene Olson, Director of Airports for Metropolitan Airport Authority of Peoria
  • Chris Brooke, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Ilinios Urbana-Champaign 
Full audio clip here.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Candidate Information

I've updated some of the local race information with additional links to candidate interviews and news coverage. Here's just a bit of what has been added:

In the County Board District 6 and District 10 races, Smile Politely has had interviews with the Democratic Primary candidates. In District 6 they have interviews for Dr. Charles Young and DeShawn Williams. And in District 10 they have interviews for Connie Dillard-Myers and Mary King.

Smile Politely started out with an overview of the Judicial races in the primary:
In just over a month, on March 17th, Champaign County and the rest of the State of Illinois will have their primary election. Though the Presidential election is obviously important to focus on, it’s equally pressing to consider our options at the local level. If you’re not one that pays attention to politics in general, you probably have a tendency to overlook these races until there are a bunch of names on a ballot, some of which you might recognize from yard signs. I was once this person. We don’t want you to be that person, so we’ll spend the next couple of weeks highlighting a few of the races that you should be paying attention to. Smile Politely does not do endorsements, so it’s up to you to sort out who you feel should represent you in these county level offices. First up, the race for circuit judge in Champaign County. 
More at the full article here. More at our Judges page here. The News-Gazette had coverage of the latest State bar polls where legal peers rate judicial candidiates:
Of seven lawyers running for two Champaign County judgeships, three have been not recommended for office by their legal colleagues.

Of the four Democrats who want to be their party’s candidate for the vacant seat of now-retired Judge Michael Jones, Urbana attorney Ruth Wyman was “not recommended” in the Illinois State Bar Association poll released Friday afternoon, netting the lowest rating of any judicial candidate in the Sixth Judicial Circuit...

The lawyers who choose to fill out the ballots are asked to also rate candidates on their integrity, impartiality, legal ability, temperament, court management skills, health and sensitivity to diversity and bias.
More at the full article here, including some comments by those candidates who explained their disappointment with the poll and how voters should interpret the results. The article gets into the general methodology of these polls where one could understand where their arguments are coming from.

There are still a lot of opportunities to learn more about the candidates in the Champaign County Voters Alliance non-partisan candidate guide, from their campaign links, or at one of the many meet and greet events happening all over the area. Generally if you look at the candidate's social media or website they'll have the latest information on upcoming events you can attend.

This past week there were two meet and greet events that involved County candidates for office and more than a little drama. I'm still trying to piece together exactly what happened at the downtown and campus events, but so far it seems that the county candidates were caught in the middle of local party factionalism. The downtown incident had more to do with the U.S. Congressional race and the Party divisions at that level. The campus incident appeared to involve the local County Democratic Party leadership clashing with student leaders. More details to come as (or if) I can sort through the rumors and verify anything informative.

Local Coronavirus Preparation Updates

With the latest updates nationally with community spread incidents on the West Coast, it's worth highlighting some local information sources and coverage about how to prepare for an increasing number of cases in the United States. The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District put out this informational flyer for the public:

More information available from their facebook post and facebook page for updates. The CDC has the national updates here. Some of the basics in that flyer were also reiterated in Tom's Mailbag today. WCCU had some coverage yesterday:
While there are no known cases in the C-U area, the virus is known to spread quickly around the world.

Now, the Champaign Urbana Public Health District is warning residents in the Champaign area to prepare for the spreading of the virus.

In a Facebook post, it tells people to prepare to stay in their homes for at least two weeks, in case you get sick.
More at that full article here with a video segment. The News-Gazette had additional information on preparation yesterday here:
Preparing for coronavirus? 'It's not as simple as slapping a mask on your face'
[Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde] urged everyone looking to buy N-95 respirator masks to consider that these masks are going to be most urgently needed by health care workers and supply is running low.

She and Healy also advised taking similar precautions used to help prevent the spread of flu.

While there’s not a coronavirus vaccine, there are other protective steps, among them washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, disinfecting surfaces touched by sick people, staying home when you’re sick, covering up coughing and sneezes and staying alert to updates from public health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That full article here.