Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Coronavirus Updates 8/4

This post has a collection of coronavirus updates including the trends locally, regionally, at the State and federal level. At the end is also a list of tentative school reopening news links as well.

The local and regional coronavirus news is still better than many parts of the State of Illinois and the country in general. There was an update from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (latest COVID information from C-UPHD here) in an interview with Elizabeth Hess on Urbana Public Television yesterday and available on YouTube here:

Illinois Newsroom had additional coverage on C-UPHD guidance last week here. Unfortunately the bad news is our local cases and hospitalizations are up recently. More details available from the News-Gazette website here and reporter Ben Zigterman's twitter feed here. Here's a snip of the chart's he posted today:

The News-Gazette had a more detailed local breakdown for the area with some recent remarks from the Governor today here.

Looking at the regions of Illinois for coronavirus data, we're still doing better than other regions by test positivity. This bug doesn't respect borders, so it depends entirely on people on whether the it moves from place to place, however. Illinois government and politics reporter Hannah Meisel has regular updates on her twitter page here:

The national numbers are disheartening after many were expecting the daily deaths to plateau at a low of roughly 500 per day, which is still pretty terrible compared to many of other Western industrialized nations at this point in their response. Unfortunately that plateau came and went and we have gone back up to roughly a thousand American deaths every day and rising. Where we go from here is completely dependent on public behavior when it comes to mitigation policies. More at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation here. This chart is from last week, so expect an updated projection later this week based on the latest numbers:

A lot of folks locally are concerned about schools reopening. The C-UPHD put out its guidance for school openings last month (Smile Politely had a brief overview and links here). More recent updates on school openings here:
With rising cases and the future difficult to predict, it's hard to say how these plans will change over time, if reopenings will go on as planned or if they'll face sudden cancellations like the Major League Baseball season right out of the gate. Hopefully this post gives readers some helpful links to stay updated on the various numbers they may be interested in. As always the official County numbers are available from the C-UPHD website here and regular updates are posted on their facebook account here. 

County Updates

In addition to a followup on the July County Board meeting available here, there was some other County government related news worth checking out recently:
  • Updates on the County "home rule" issue
  • Court updates on electronic reminders and Judge appointments
  • County Clerk dispute with Rantoul officials
  • Champaign County Community Coalition meeting online

A County "home rule" referendum won't be on this year's ballot. From WCIA:
The question of giving Champaign County home rule will not be on the ballot this election.

Supporters say that’s because they couldn’t get enough support for it. They would need 500 signatures for it to be on the ballot. Today is the filing deadline. Supporter and county board candidate Emily Rodriguez say she’ll be trying again in 2022. She believes home rule is what the county needs to recover losses from covid-19.
Full blurb with video segment here. More on the home rule issue including a public presentation on the issue by the supporters on the Cheat Sheet here. The County Executive had a recent article explaining home rule in the News-Gazette here as well.

The Champaign County Court House is offering electronic reminders for court cases. From the News-Gazette last week:
Champaign County Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman announced Thursday that people who have court cases in Champaign County may now receive text or email reminders of their next court dates by filling out a form at champaigncircuitclerk.org...

“Court-date reminders have been proven to significantly improve court-appearance rates, reducing the need to issue warrants for failure to appear,” she added. “We intend to closely monitor appearance rates following implementation and report on the success of the program.”

Blakeman said the idea of providing reminders to court participants was a recommendation from the Racial Justice Task Force report presented to the Champaign County Board in October 2017. She said she hopes to get money from the Illinois Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission to expand the messaging platform to include multiple languages and chat assistance for issues like parking and transportation.
Full article here. In other Court updates, another Circuit Judge has been added to the local bench. From today's News-Gazette:
[Judge Sam Limentato] has been an attorney since 1994; he’s had a robust civil practice in Champaign with Ken Torricelli for the last 20 years. He will take on the family-law docket that Judge Randy Rosenbaum has administered for the last few years.

The recent retirements of Ladd and fellow jurist Jeff Ford have meant the shuffling of judicial assignments that will need even more tweaking this fall when Tom Difanis retires from the bench after 25 years as a judge and 19 as state’s attorney before that...

Besides Ladd, there were 10 other judges from the Sixth Circuit present for Limentato’s swearing-in.

Among them was Ben Dyer, who was sworn in June 1 to fill Jeff Ford’s seat. He and Limentato were selected at the same time in May by Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman for their respective resident judgeships.

Both men will have to run in 2022 in Champaign County only for their seats. Limentato plans to run as a Republican and Dyer as a Democrat.
Full article available at the News-Gazette eEdition here (subscription).

The Champaign County Clerk is still demanding an apology for accusations made by Rantoul officials, blaming him for something that appears to have been their responsibility. The Clerk believes that the reasons for blaming him include the fact that he is an African-American in the position. This may be one of the issues that led to County Board member Stan Harper's self-described rant at the July Board meeting (more on that here). More on the dust up between the County Clerk and Rantoul officials from the News-Gazette:
The county clerk said Ramage made “grossly false” comments about him and his office regarding whether Rantoul’s Tax Increment Financing District 1 would come off the tax rolls this year or next year. Because Rantoul City Schools and Rantoul Township High officials thought it wouldn’t come off until next year, they did not levy for the additional money.

The two districts lost the opportunity to levy against nearly $700,000 in equalized assessed value. They will not be able to levy for that amount in years to come, either.

Ammons said it is neither his nor his office’s responsibility to oversee such matters. But officials from both districts said the county clerk’s office had provided such information in the past.

The state’s attorney’s office advised Ammons that he should “in no way advise, guide or track TIFs for any district,” he said. “My office was being blamed for not doing a job we’re not responsible for doing.”
Full article with additional information here.

And finally, a reminder that the Champaign County Community Coalition is continuing to hold meetings online with updates from local efforts against gun violence, police chiefs reports and other presentations for opportunities to get involved in local criminal justice reforms and social services. July's meeting is available here at their facebook page (also on their website with agenda and power points here). More information available on their website here. including on their next meeting coming up August 12th at 3:30pm (streamed live on facebook and Zoom and available afterward as well).

County Board Updates

There are some County government committee meetings coming up this week (more information on those on the weekly calendar here).

Following up on a previous post previewing the July County Board meeting here, the July meeting (agenda here, video here). There was an economic presentation by the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation that delved into some the current outlooks and challenges, including with the coronavirus pandemic ongoing (direct video link here, slide presentation here). There was a handout from the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce with local business owners and operators and the frustrations they have had with the coronavirus, government response, and the chaos both have caused. Many go into heartrending detail about the hurdles they've faced as the livelihoods and economic survival of themselves and their employees teeters over an uncertain future.

The meeting was perhaps more notable for the frustration on display between Board members than any items on the agenda itself. Many of the items were passed in omnibus and bipartisan votes, including authorizing the intergovernmental agreement on the Douglas County Enterprise Zone that would help that county navigate some tax and Enterprise Zone technicalities for a solar project there (presentation at the January Committee of the Whole available here). Also approved was the contract to Tyler Technologies for the new County government server/software replacement, frequently referred to in meetings as the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) System.

Another issue everyone appeared to agree on was rejecting the proposed 6-year Workforce Plan (available on page 72 of the agenda packet, page 75 of the PDF file). Complaints ranged from board members who felt like they or their committees should have been consulted prior to the plan being presented to the board to wanting more input from the workforce itself in developing the plan. Deputy Director of Administration Isak Griffiths defended the process and the plan, but to no avail.

There was some silent protests and angry swearing peppered throughout the meeting as well. County Board member Jon Rector's business logo has often been visible in the background of his Zoom video feed, which has raised concerns about using the County Board for advertising among a couple Democrats on the board. To highlight the issue they changed their Zoom video alternate backgrounds to Rector's business logo:

County Board member Stan Harper took a moment in the middle of the meeting to announce he was going to go on his "semiannual rant and rave about stuff" where he began swearing about how tired he was of people like him being called Nazis and racists. It appeared that the County Executive muted him for violation of the County Board rules. That in turn caused a bipartisan push back about muting board members by the County Executive without some protocol being established by the County Board first. The Executive pushed the meeting along on the grounds that the discussion was off topic on the items being discussed (federal CARES Act election funding which was approved). 

As the meeting was going into closed session, member McGuire complained about the lack of an auditor's report earlier in the meeting. The Executive pointed to the previous auditor items on the agenda as the time to bring it up. County Auditor Danos was on the Zoom call and jumped in and exclaimed that the report is on the County website, "It's done! It's Done!" An argument ensued over the agenda structure and criticisms. There was no Committee of the Whole in July which usually covers reports like this as opposed to the regular meeting.

A handful of board members then struggled to navigate the Zoom setup for the closed meeting live on the County Board meeting feed, sharing phone numbers and codes and a moment where the Chairman of the County Board dropped the f-bomb in frustration for the public to hear (the video is still on the facebook version of the meeting video here).

From the presence requested for the closed meeting, including the Treasurer, Deputy Treasurer, Director of IT, and others it sounded like it may have been related to legal and technical problems with the Treasurer's property tax system. But that's just a guess on my part from the context and the vague closed meeting description in the agenda: "to consider litigation which is pending against or on behalf of Champaign County, and litigation that is probable or imminent against Champaign County."

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

County Board: June Meeting / July Preview

The June County Board meeting (agenda here, minutes on page 4 of the PDF of the July agenda packet). The YouTube video of the meeting appeared to have a sound problem on the County Clerk's YouTube channel here, so I recommend the video on facebook here.

The big news out of that meeting was that the marijuana business zoning regulation passed in spite of the City of Urbana's City Council voting in favor of a protest to the regulation (forcing the vote to require a 3/4 supermajority to pass). The Urbana City protest, in spite of the county regulation mirroring their own, was against the advice of their own city staff who saw no negative impact. From the discussion at that meeting it appeared they simply wanted the County government to have to have broad support for the measure.

The primary opposition to the regulation was on the Republican side of the of the County Board who wanted more consideration for smaller communities to restrict marijuana related businesses near their towns and villages. The language of this resolution, that had finally made it through the entire legislative process and committees of the County Board, however appeared to be the only real option for now versus even less regulation if it failed. Given the choice between an arguably imperfect regulation or none (that wouldn't make hardly anybody happy), the board voted 19-2 to approve.

There was a bit of a question about whether the County had officially received the Urbana protest paperwork due to the timing of votes and communication with the County Clerk and staff prior to the office closing, but the supermajority vote made that irrelevant.

July Preview:

Tomorrow's July County Board meeting (agenda here) will include a presentation from the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation. There's also a handout from the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce here that has numerous personal stories about the hardships faced by local business owners and their employees due to COVID related policies and shutdowns.

I strongly recommend reading the various pleas and hardships faced by local businesses to better understand not only their plight, but also potential ideas and areas for accommodation and fairness. I don't know where the balance can be had between public safety and economic survival within this pandemic, but if we go too far in either direction lives and/or livelihoods could be destroyed unnecessarily.

Other items on the agenda include approving funding for mail-in voting via the federal CARES act/funding and the intergovernmental agreement with Douglass County on an Enterprise Zone for a solar farm and tax issues with the solar farm there (presentation at the January Committee of the Whole available here).

Other County Updates:

Vote by Mail applications are available now from the County Clerk's office for the November 3, 2020 General Election.

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District has released its updated guidance for local schools. WCCU coverage here. Full guidance available here.

Champaign County LIHEAP program for energy assistance starts Julty 27th. News coverage from WCCU here. More from the Regional Planning Commission here.

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: www.weather.gov/Lincoln
     *   Mobile device: mobile.weather.gov
     *   Facebook: www.facebook.com/NWSLincoln
     *   Twitter: twitter.com/NWSLincolnIL
     *   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:  https://public.alertsense.com/SignUp/?regionid=1157
     *   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: http://tinyurl.com/cuimmigrantcovid

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.