Tom's Mailbag Aug. 23, 2014

Tom's Mailbag Aug. 23, 2014

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The mailbag was overflowing when I got back from a one-week vacation. Questions and comments about school construction, road construction, a disabled water fountain, restaurants, the Clinton landfill and a lot of questions about politics, perhaps too many questions about politics. Here we go ...

Crystal Lake Park fountain

“I’m wondering why the Urbana Park District has not been running the fountain at Crystal Lake Park all summer. In previous years, I think it was turned on during the daytime hours, starting at 9 a.m. I haven’t seen it operating all summer. Now there is what appears to be stagnant rainwater in the basin.”

Tim Bartlett, the executive director of the Urbana Park District, explained that the fountain is off in order to keep the lake level down this summer. And the lake level is being kept down in order to help eliminate some of aquatic invasive plants.

“We have to keep the water level down so that the chemical can do its treatment,” Bartlett explained. “The way the fountain works is that it’s sort of a ‘makeup’ fountain. It keeps the lake at a certain level (with fresh water). But we had to keep the level down this summer. In order to put the chemical in we had to lower the water. The chemical needs to sit on the water in order to be effective and you can’t have new water coming it in and rushing it over the spillway.”

Eventually, Bartlett said, the fountain will be back in operation, keeping the lake level constant, aerating the water and allowing children to splash water on each other.

I-74 relief coming soon

“When will the construction on I-74 between Mahomet and Champaign be finished? The morning commute on both I-74 and U.S. 150 is a slow mess.”

George Davis, a field engineer with the Illinois Department of Transportation, said the project is scheduled to be completed by Oct. 4 but it may be finished before then.

“It could be mid-September if we get lucky,” he said.

And the lane closures — down from two lanes to one — should ease in the next week or so, particularly on westbound I-74, he said.

Crews are installing high-tension cable guard rails along the highway as a safety measure, Davis said.

Restaurant closed?

“Hey Tom, just curious, what is the status of Q Smokehouse on Green Street?  It seems they are never open, are they out of business?”

A call to the restaurant — which opened in Campustown last October — revealed that the number is no longer in service. And I got no response to an email inquiry.

Why Centennial fix before Dr. Howard?

How did it happen that Centennial ‘jumped the line’ ahead of Dr. Howard, which is at least 50 years older than Centennial?  We definitely need an updated Central, but changes at Centennial could wait.”

Stephanie Stuart, the school district’s community relations coordinator, said that the district had known for years that demands for facility improvements would be greater than the funding available. 

“In order to prioritize these projects and determine the future direction of the district’s facilities, the board and district worked to engage the community during the 2012-2013 school year and asked specifically about building priorities by level. The overwhelming feedback received was that the district should address the needs of the two high schools first,” she said. “As a community school district, the board weighted this community feedback quite heavily in their decision-making on this issue. You can review the engagement efforts and documentation from that process at our Future Facilities/Referendum website at the following link:”

Further, she said that both high schools are over capacity, “with continued growth on the horizon. At the elementary school level, capacity issues have been largely addressed by bringing a 12th elementary school on-line, the International Prep Academy (at the original Carrie Busey School).

“While Centennial is the newer of the two high schools, it is still a 50-year-old facility that half of our district’s students will attend as they matriculate through our system. Centennial is in need of interior renovation, expansion, and updated safety and mechanical systems. Undertaking a project of that size, even for a renovation, is a costly endeavor. 

“That being said, the district and board understand that there are facility needs at Dr. Howard and plans to address them. Board members explored including a new Dr. Howard K-8 facility as part of the November referendum, but agreed that adding a $30 million project would have been too much to ask of taxpayers. The district has been meeting with Principal Jill Trentz to discuss more short-term solutions to Dr. Howard’s facility needs until funding will be available through the 1 percent sales tax in 2025. At that time, the project could be funded through an existing funding stream instead of placing additional tax burden on homeowners.”

One final note: Dr. Howard is believed to be the oldest school still operating in Champaign County. It was built in 1910. 

Technically, a small part of Urbana’s Martin Luther King Elementary School — built in 1908 as the J.W. Hays School — is older. But the original section is very small and is not used as a classroom. So I’m calling centenarian Dr. Howard the county’s champ.

Clinton landfill permits

“Hi, Tom. When and how was the landfill at Clinton sited and given its first permit(s)? Why was it given a green light back then?”

An Illinois EPA fact sheet says that Clinton Landfill 3 was approved by the agency’s Bureau of Land in March 2007. That was for a facility that would accept municipal solid waste and non-hazardous special waste.

In January 2010 the agency issued a permit for a redesign of the facility that would permit 22.5 acres to be used as a chemical waste unit. The January 2010 permit gave preliminary approval for the disposal of wastes including manufactured gas plant (MGP) waste exceeding toxicity characteristics leaching procedure thresholds and also PCBs, although the latter also would require the approval of the U.S. EPA under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act. That federal approval has not yet been granted. 

Waste disposal in the chemical waste unit, including MGP waste from an old coal gasification plant in north Champaign, began in April 2011.

As for the PCBs, the U.S. EPA wrote in 2009 that “(p)reliminary geological investigation by EPA staff indicates the (PCB disposal cell) will meet technical requirements contained in federal law for proper disposal of PCBs. EPA geologists also believe a 150-foot thick layer of clay protects the (Mahomet Aquifer, the water source for about 750,000 central Illinoisans) from surface contamination.”

The federal EPA also noted: “EPA officials point out federal law requires the health and safety of drinking water supplies to be the top priority of regulators considering hazardous waste permits. But EPA also recognizes the importance of disposing of and containing hazardous waste such as PCBs in a safe location where they can no longer harm people and wildlife. The landfill already accepts other kinds of regulated solid waste that have been successfully contained with no danger to the public or the aquifer.”

OK, but here’s my point: There’s no way to absolutely guarantee that the hazardous wastes sitting over the vitally important Mahomet Aquifer will be contained into perpetuity. Why take the chance? Surely there are other, more appropriate, less risky places to dispose of toxic chemicals.

Williamson a lobbyist?

“(Republican Illinois House candidate) Kristin Williamson lists on her bio that she is public relations director for BPC (Benefit Planning Consultants), essentially their in-house lobbyist. Do you think her career as a lobbyist for a politically connected insurance company would hurt her chances? Has she committed to stop being a lobbyist if she wins? Are you aware of any politicians going from being a lobbyist to being elected, isn’t it usually the other way around?”

Williamson said she is not a lobbyist, and I checked with the Illinois secretary of state’s index division and she isn’t registered as a lobbyist in Illinois. 

She responds:

“My role as the Director of Public Relations at BPC entails working with the media and our clients to communicate information related to our industry in additional to directing the company’s marketing and community relations programs. Part of the information that I communicate to media and clients is related to federal government regulations imposed on our industry.

“I am not a registered lobbyist nor have I lobbied elected officials or agencies on behalf of BPC. A lobbyist must be registered at both the state and federal level. A simple search of these databases will show I have never registered.  I am also very much in favor of ending the revolving door where legislators leave the General Assembly and immediately take a lobbying position leading to many back room deals and corruption that has plagued this state.

“Additionally, BPC is not an insurance company. BPC consults businesses and organizations on the design and administration of their Pension, 401(k), Cafeteria and COBRA plans.”

African-American members of local chamber

“With the news of the chamber of commerce supporting Kristin Williamson, I was curious. How many African-Americans are members of the Chamber of Commerce? How many African-Americans are on their political committee board who made this decision?”

Jim Goss, who chairs the PAC that made the endorsement, said it’s estimated there are 33 minority-owned and 122 female-owned members of the chamber of commerce, but that there are no African-American members of the PAC board.

His full response:

“First and foremost, it is important to note that the Champaign County Business Empowered PAC is a separate entity from the chamber. It is operated by a separate board of directors. Our primary source of funding does come through chamber member businesses as strictly voluntary donations. However, we are not restricted to donations only from chamber member businesses. Business owners or residents who have a strong interest in helping to get business friendly candidates elected to office can contribute to the PAC as well.

“As for the make-up of the PAC board, currently, we do not have any African-American participation on the board. The board is comprised of five men and four women business leaders. Like all organizations that operate with a voluntary board of directors, we are always seeking qualified individuals to serve. We need more people to step up and be interested in how the political environment affects the business environment. Specifically, the board selects political candidates we perceive will be fiscally responsible with taxpayers’ money; respect the rights of business owners to run their businesses and govern in a way that helps local businesses to be successful. Any business owner who shares this interest and wants to help identify these candidates as part of our process should contact me for future consideration of a board position. 

“As for the number of minority-owned businesses in the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, I had to check with Laura Weis at the chamber. She said, ‘We can only estimate the number of minority-owned businesses who are members of the chamber. Membership is voluntary. We cannot require members to give us information. We do ask new members to self-identify whether they are minority or woman-owned. We are also planning to add veteran-owned as an option to the application form as well. Our database tells us that 33 members have identified themselves as minority-owned and 122 have identified themselves as female owned. There could be crossover in those numbers and there are certainly members that we are aware of who are minority- or

female-owned and they did not chose to answer that question on the application.”

“She continued, ‘We recognize that this is a very diverse community. Our business community should reflect that as well. It is actually one of our goals to increase minority participation in chamber membership. At the end of the day, all business owners have one thing in common; they want their business to succeed. Our purpose at the chamber is to help all businesses succeed.”

Gerard and campaign contributions

“Taking a look at campaign finance records I see that Don Gerard’s biggest donors are all the area TIF pimps. Isn’t it just a little corrupt for individuals who are getting direct financial support from the city to be propping up the mayor who is responsible for delivering it to them? How is this not a conflict of interest for the mayor to be soliciting funds in one hand while delivering TIF support in the other?”

Wow, there are a lot of errors to correct in that loaded question. First, the downtown tax increment finance district was created in 1981 when the mayor was about 16 years old, and renewed in 2004, seven years before Gerard’s election. Second the mayor of Champaign is, as I’m fond of saying, only one of the nine votes on the city council anyway. And third, TIF awards are made not on a whim but by established rules and criteria. 

Since becoming a candidate for mayor about four years ago, Gerard has received $36,785 in itemized campaign contributions.

And since he became mayor I don’t believe any of his campaign contributors have received money from the TIF redevelopment incentive program, except for Carlo Nieto, who through CMT Ventures gave $1,000 to Gerard’s campaign fund in 2012. Nieto’s Aroma Cafe received $469 from the redevelopment incentive program, after a private investment of $469. The funds went to pay for a new awning.

Gerard’s biggest benefactor has been Doug Larson, who gave the mayor $250 as an individual and $15,000 as one of the owners of Joe’s Brewery in Campustown. Joe’s Brewery isn’t in any of the city’s TIF districts.

Bambenek for mayor?

“What do you make of the persistent rumors that controversial school board member and perennial candidate John Bambanek is gearing up to run for mayor of Champaign?”

Sounds like a rumor you invented. Here’s Bambenek’s response: “I have no plans and am not considering running for mayor in 2015.”

Bambenek remarks about teacher certification

“Many parents were concerned how far-right Republican John Bambeneck would cause damage as a (Champaign) school board member. Last week we got a glimpse to some of his dangerous idea when he suggested on Facebook (in a post conveniently now taken down) that certifying and licensing teachers was unnecessary and even that college degrees in their field of teaching shouldn’t be required. This kind of thinking would set us back (particularly the minority community) decades. Shouldn’t we parents be concerned, especially minorities and middle-class families, that a school board member would openly advocate for unqualified teachers?”

At first Bambenek said he didn’t want to comment on the exchange but then he did, acknowledging that it was between himself, school board president Laurie Bonnett, and a number of other people.

It was prompted by discussions in the Chicago Tribune and the Capitol Fax web site about teacher certification. He said someone noted that private schools don’t have to license their teachers.

“My comment was, ‘Yeah, and public schools should be a lot more lax on their standards, too, at least in terms of mindless piece of paper that don’t matter.’ Who care if you have a bachelor’s degree in whatever, as long as you can teach the course? I care about competence, I don’t care about check marks. But it doesn’t matter because Illinois law is what it is,” Bambenek said. “And that turned into, ‘Oh, you want unqualified teachers because that’s just what the black community needs.’ When did this become a race issue?”

His point, he said, “was that we should minimize the amount of bureaucratic hurdles unconnected to someone’s ability to teach, as obstacles to them getting into the classroom. Ultimately it prices out people on the lower end of the economic spectrum from being able to contribute (as teachers).”

Williamson/Ammons contributions

“Yesterday I noticed the Chamber of Commerce gave a whopping $5,000 contribution to Kristin Williamson, their largest every contribution. Meanwhile Carol Ammons’ contributions have been stagnant. Is her controversial public positions finally going to give the Republicans a shot in the 103rd? Has either side released any polling?”

Actually, since July 1 Ammons has outraised Williamson — in itemized contributions reported to the State Board of Elections — although it’s a modest difference — $7,000 versus $6,233. It’s likely both sides have raised considerably more.

And don’t be overly influenced by the campaign finance factor in this race. As Ammons proved in the primary — where she was outspent $127,636 to $45,281 by Sam Rosenberg but won fairly easily — money alone won’t win this race. The race is Ammons’ to lose. No polling has been released by either side.

More about voter registration tiff

“On 8/8/14 you wrote about the fact that the Champaign County Young Democrats and the Champaign County Young Republicans participated together in a bipartisan effort to register high school students. According to your article, the local Republicans admitted that they took part in this bipartisan effort to register young people: “... (Champaign County Republican Party chairman Kyle) Harrison said, there was a Republican representative at the Central registration on Thursday...”

“But on 8/13/14 a News-Gazette editorial stated about the same event, ‘There was no Republican table present, raising suggestions of partisanship the school district wants to avoid.’

“How did the editorial writer get the facts so wrong?”

Editorial writer Jim Dey responds: “Republicans were present, as the question states.

“Central Principal Joe Williams said because of communication issues, a Democratic Party table complete with promotional posters touting a party congressional candidate was present at Central High School for the second day of registration. He said a table set up by Republicans but lacking signs made a scrambled late appearance after the GOP was informed Democrats would be present. The sight of Democrats, but no Republicans, raised questions in the minds of some parents about inappropriate politicking at the school. In an email announcing the voter registration, Williams said that “the Young Democrats will be available ... tomorrow to register any students or their family members who are eligible to vote...” He subsequently announced that future voter registration will be conducted on a non-partisan basis.

“The question of who was invited on a timely basis and who was not kicked off a dispute that will continue in some form or another at least until Election Day.”

Enough dirty politics?

“On Facebook this weekend, a local Champaign County Young Democrats officer and public relations volunteer for Don Gerard, accused local Republicans of trying to stop Dem volunteers from registering voters at West Side Park during the Taste of CU.  He followed this up by saying that park district staff and the Champaign Police were doing the Republican’s dirty work.  Is there any chance you can help us sort the details of this latest Young Dem conspiracy theory?”


“Recently Matt Duco of the Don Gerard campaign took to social media to smear the Rodney Davis campaign saying the entire field staff was fired. This is demonstrably untrue. Now that Gerard’s campaign has moved on to slander, does that represent a move upward or downward from his usual standby of stalking and domestic abuse?”

I asked Duco to respond and he did, sort of. 

He did a nice job of dodging the question, but he also asks a question that I hope future mailbag contributors will ask themselves before hitting the “send” button. His response touches on a lot of the nastiness embedded in many of the political-related questions in this week’s mailbag, and in many past editions. And the nastiness, as you can see from some of the questions above, comes from both sides.

“I have drafted interesting answers to the two questions, however, I can’t get over the fact that I am a private citizen who is being attacked in my hometown’s newspaper for the sin of volunteering for a candidate that local Republicans do not support and for posting about politics on my personal Facebook page. It is a disturbing sign of the level of partisanship in our local politics that people see nothing wrong with such anonymous attacks. 

“Ironically, as you know, this comes as I have been working over the past two months to organize a charity softball game between local Democrats and Republicans to raise money for the United Way of Champaign County’s Emerging Community Leaders program. I think we need to spend more time working together toward common goals and less time trying to destroy each other. The issue at West Side Park was resolved and hashing out the details of how I responded to a complaint I received as the nonpartisan chairman of the Champaign County NAACP voter empowerment committee about local Republicans trying to stop an African-American teenager from registering voters in a public park will only feed the partisan flames your questioners are trying to stoke. 

“Perhaps if either question had any modicum of integrity or seriousness I’d feel more comfortable answering, but they are clearly partisan attacks over personal disputes with me. I enjoy your column and don’t want it to become a forum for private citizens to air grievances they have with another private citizen’s Facebook posts about politics. That seems silly. 

“Also, I am involved in an organization that is dedicated to helping get young people involved in political action and it will be harder for me to do that in the future knowing that just by being young and politically engaged you can quickly become the target of partisans for the simple reason that they disagree with your political beliefs and you are part of an effective organization. I have the greatest amount of respect for anyone, Republican or Democrat, who is willing to put their name on the ballot knowing how that opens you up to nasty partisan attacks - but now the same is true for those who even just help out their friends who are running for office? I can’t encourage or contribute to that. 

“This level of partisanship and it is only August. I have a feeling this is going to be getting much worst before it gets better, and feel bad, Tom, that you have to be the umpire of, not only a fun charity softball game, but of personal disputes between private citizens who don’t agree about politics on Facebook. That’s one game I would never want to call.”

Favorite local restaurants, plus a great Jim Capel story

“Elite Diner”

“Well, I can’t really say they were my favorite eateries of all times, but they were memorable, namely Doc J’s for hot dogs and Deluxe Billiards for fish sandwiches.

“The Doc J’s I frequented was in the building that burnt down near Springfield and Oak last fall. It had subsequently become PieFull Delight. They had great Chicago dogs, first steamed, and then spirally sliced and grilled for a minute or two before being put on the bun with all the fixins, especially that neon green-colored relish.

“Deluxe Billards, or just ‘Deluxe’ since it was known most for its fish sandwiches and less for its billiards was were Legends is now on campus. Its fish sandwiches were mostly big hunks of fish and tremendous amounts of breading with slices of onions and dill pickles on a big honkin’ bun.  The phrase ‘very greasy’ is an understatement for the final deep-fried product. Probably not the most refined sandwich, but legendary and in great demand at Friday lunchtimes.

“For me, these two places were a couple of the best, not because of the food, but because I spent many lunches there with my attorney and mentor, James “Jim” L. Capel Jr. and the other attorneys of our law firm.  One particularly memorable day, on the way out of Deluxe after a Friday fish sandwich and a beer or two (yes, on our way back to work) someone challenged Jim to a game of pool. Unbeknownst to me, Jim had a successful history of playing pool on a bet, and I found out he had not lost his touch that day. After about a 5-minute game where Jim cleaned the table and walked away with the bet, we returned to work to provide solid legal advice to our clients.

“Miss you Jim. Think about you frequently.”



Thanks for the many questions, folks, and we’ll try to answer next week those questions that we couldn’t get to this week. Enjoy our belated first heat wave of the summer.

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@bigdebbieshouse wrote on August 22, 2014 at 8:08 pm

I am calling on the Champaign County GOP to step up and take responsibility for the voter registration complaints that happened at West Side Park. Kyle Harrison's comments in the previous Tom's Mailbag helped create an atmosphere where people are scared of a little black girl registering voters on public property. There are laws in place to prevent a racist election authority from being the only person who can register voters. The lengths the local GOP will go to prevent people from registering to vote is mind-boggling to me.

ericbussell wrote on August 23, 2014 at 5:08 am

Matt Duco claiming that others are trying to stoke the partisan flames is like watching a serial arsonist point fingers at others while holding an empty can of gasoline.  

Westsider wrote on August 23, 2014 at 7:08 am

Ha. Methinks Mr. Bussell doth protest too much.

At least Mr Duco appears to have pride in his party. And I suppose most conservatives would find registering minorities, women, and Young people to vote as partisan since they have no idea how to attract those voters.