Neophyte takes on 2 veterans in new Champaign County Board District 11

A political novice is challenging two longtime Democratic members of the Champaign County Board in an all-new district in north Champaign and Urbana.

Brent West, a staff member at the University of Illinois, is running against veteran Democratic board members Lloyd Carter (almost 20 years on the board) and Lorraine Cowart (28 years) in Tuesday's Democratic primary in District 11, a product of the county board's downsizing and redistricting processes. Rather than nine districts with three members apiece, the new county board will have 11 districts each with two members.

The three candidates differ on whether to revise the county's correctional system, which now includes two separate facilities a mile apart.

West said that while he hopes to avoid a major expansion, it "seems logical to consolidate the facilities."

But Cowart said she was opposed to closing the downtown jail and expanding the satellite facility in east Urbana.

"I'm not for expanding the satellite jail. I'm for properly renovating the downtown jail because the reason the downtown jail is in such deplorable condition is that there was no money put in there to do the renovation," she said. "My thoughts are that if we build a new jail or add on to the existing jail, is it going to be put into the same condition as the downtown jail?"

Carter said he wouldn't support building a new jail.

"I couldn't vote for any money to construct a new jail," Carter said. "That is out of the question in my district. You know that 90 percent of the people that are put in jail are from my district so I couldn't support that at all. I think there are more alternatives that we could go to without building jailhouses. We need to get away from building jailhouses and start to educate people to stay out of jail."

All three of the candidates said they supported looking into increased funding for social services and for alternatives to incarceration.

The three also disagreed on the operation of the county nursing home, with both Cowart and Carter saying that the county board should reassert its oversight of the facility.

"The first thing I think the county board needs to do is accept the responsibility of the county nursing home. We've got a company that is running our nursing home at a tune of about $200,000 a year. They hire the administrator, so we're paying for the administrator and for the company that is handling our administrator, for both of them to do the same job, which is our responsibility," Cowart said.

She also argued for higher wages for employees and more staff at the facility, and said she would not support turning to a private operator.

"If I'm going to expand anything, it would be the nursing home, because I think that these are our senior citizens and our disabled. I would expand on their wages and the number of people there to serve the nursing home," she said.

Carter agreed that the "county board meeds to take control of the nursing home and be more involved."

He also said he would like to eliminate the nursing home board of directors, which advises the county board on nursing home operations.

"We don't need the extra board there that I don't think is meaningful. It's not doing anything constructive and we need to get that out of the way," Carter said.

"I think it's just a place to dump issues and stuff that you want to hide and not be brought forward to let people know what's going on. I'd get rid of that."

West said the nursing home needs to become more creative in marketing, including promotion of private rooms, and "keep on top of expenses."

On other issues, Carter said the county board should help young people find places to mingle "and get off their frustrations instead of fighting and killing each other."

Further, he said the board should move away from the committee of the whole structure it has used the last two years and return to the old committee structure.

"You don't get to have much input," he said. "When you go to the board meetings now, you've got a stack of materials that we don't get a chance to digest."

West said he would oppose getting involved in the operation of Willard Airport, now run by the University of Illinois.

"It seems questionable as to the benefits to the taxpayers, and alternatives exist for the transportation infrastructure Willard provides," he said. "For instance, the money spent on an airport subsidy might be more effective in operating a shuttle service" to the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington.

Cowart agreed that the county shouldn't have any involvement in airport operations.

"I think the university is doing a semi-good job of running it," she said. "I don't think it's something that we need to do."

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