URBANA — Saying that James R. Burgess was “even-handed” as a prosecutor and “a man of integrity,” supporters asked on Monday night that the city council support renaming the federal courthouse in his honor.
Council members delayed a vote on the issue last week and were not scheduled to discuss it Monday, but a number of prominent Baptist pastors made their appeal a week after one council member said he had not been hearing active support from the black community. “I personally found him to be even-handed, a man of integrity,” said Canaan Baptist Church Pastor B.J. Tatum. “And it seems to me that these are the kinds of people that we want to hold up in our community.” Burgess, who died in 1997, was the first African-American to be elected to a countywide office in Champaign County. He was elected state’s attorney in 1972 and was appointed a U.S. attorney in 1977. He also was a commander of the World War II tank battalion that was the first African-American armor unit to see combat in Europe. “He worked very hard and overcame tremendous odds,” Tatum said. The city council is scheduled for another discussion on the topic when it meets next week. The city itself cannot name the federal courthouse — a bill must be introduced in Congress to start the process — but it may express its support and hope the area’s legislators take notice. A number of council members have expressed support for the resolution, but it is not clear yet whether it will have a majority of the votes. Alderman Charlie Smyth, D-Ward 1, encouraged the pastors to send a letter of support to U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson and U.S. Sens. Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin. Willie T. Summerville said he hopes the community does not “forget all the good that Jim Burgess did for our county.” “I’m passionate about this,” Summerville said. “And I’m not ashamed to be passionate about this because when people have affected your lives, you shouldn’t forget them.” In other business, the council approved a change to the city’s zoning ordinance that would allow extended stays in special hotel rooms. In 1999, city officials approved a 30-day limit on stays in hotels or motels to battle what was then a trend of apartments essentially being rented as hotel units, according to city documents. Apartments or hotel rooms that are not properly equipped with kitchens and enough electrical outlets for long stays create significant fire hazards, city officials said. The side-effect of that rule was that it banned extended stays in properly equipped hotel roomsd. Hotel managers said it was cutting out business from construction workers or university researchers, for example, who often stay in such rooms in Urbana. “Even though it’s a small part of their business, it’s really a vital part,” city planning manager Robert Myers said. With Monday’s city council approval, the 30-day limit will be lifted only for hotel rooms that meet residential building and fire codes. Some already do, Myers said. “This is doable,” he said. “We think that hotels and motels that want to provide this service can do so reasonably.”