Aaron Ammons, about two and a half months into his new job as Champaign County clerk, said the start hasn't been smooth but that citizens shouldn't be concerned about this spring's municipal elections or the preparation of property tax bills.
"We're not worrying, we're preparing. That's our motto," said the first Democrat elected county clerk in more than 75 years.
Soon after he took over Dec. 1, the county clerk's office was down six employees. Ammons said it was a foregone conclusion that his Republican opponent, Matt Grandone, would leave the office, as would former clerk Gordy Hulten and Hulten's Chief Deputy Jeremy Cirks.
But he said he was unprepared for the loss of three other employees almost immediately, plus a fourth who left within a couple of months. He said it was "disheartening" that two of the former employees gave two days' notice and another gave no notice at all.
"If they thought they were hurting me, I think they missed the fact that they were hurting the taxpayers and maybe some of their teammates who have had to pick up the slack," he said. "We want to stay focused and positive, but I think it's important the taxpayers know this from a professional standpoint."
The employees who remained, Ammons said, have been "absolutely amazing. Their expertise and commitment has been unquestionable."
Slowly, he said, he's filling positions. He's hired an information technology specialist, expects to have a deputy county clerk within a week and is close to hiring a chief of staff. By May he thinks all the positions in the office will be filled.
Ammons noted that his IT specialist and his chief of staff will be female, an issue he stressed in his campaign.
"The income gap (in the office) will be closed if not leveled completely. And there will be more diversity in the office," he said.
Although he'll be shorthanded, Ammons said he doesn't expect problems with the April 2 election or with the on-time distribution of property tax bills around May 1.
"It's been a learning curve but everybody has stepped up and said that we're not going to let this office fall behind. We don't foresee that being a problem," he said. "People are aware of the transition and the loss of experience and the pride of Champaign County getting those taxes out on time," he said. "We might stumble but we're not going to fail."
Both Ammons and newly elected County Treasurer Laurel Prussing acknowledged that a new county computer system is taking time to learn but that they don't believe it will delay the distribution of tax bills.
And Ammons said preparations for the election are on schedule. Ballots are being prepared — 259 different styles for all the municipalities and other districts in the county — and will be proofed and tested before they're sent to overseas addresses this week.
He's recruiting election judges and scheduling training courses. Early voting sites are set up with minor changes — Mahomet's will be at the Elks Pavilion at Lake of the Woods Park and the University of Illinois space will be on the first floor of the Illini Union. Early voting will begin at the Brookens Administrative Center in Urbana on Feb. 21 and at the remote sites on March 27.
He's making plans for the 2020 and 2022 elections, Ammons said, including the appointment of an oversight group that he pledged to make in his election campaign.
"I guess I could have done a better job of messaging that through the campaign because it seems to have been misconstrued that I wanted an election commission or an election board to replace the clerk," he said. "What I'm talking about is I want people to see how this process works, an extra set of eyes on the process, especially when I'm on the ballot, to put voters at ease. If it's two Dems, two Republicans and three independents who are in the office, watching and learning the process and how it works from A to Z, just to send the message to the voters that there's nothing going on to give me an edge."
More on Green Book
I received a lot of feedback on last week's column on "The Green Book" and the history of racial segregation in East Central Illinois. In particular, I got a tip from Robert Hinton of the Danville Public Library about a brief mention in jazz trumpeter Clark Terry's autobiography ("Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry") about the Just A Mere Hotel in Danville. There was some confusion about the business since it was called a hotel in the Green Book although Danville city directories listed it as a tavern.
In a two-sentence reference, Terry recalls a 1941 stop at the Just A Mere (when he was on tour at the age of 21). He noted that it had just one bathroom per floor and that it had 10 to 15 rooms but that it was "pretty clean."
— James "Jimmy John" Liautaud of Champaign, founder of the Jimmy John's sandwich chain, swore off making campaign contributions several years ago. But his wife, Leslie, has continued to do so. She recently gave $10,000 to the campaign of Chicago mayoral candidate Bill Daley. In the past the Liautauds have given more than $45,000 to the campaigns of outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
— Speaking of mayoral candidates, Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen reported $3,564 in her campaign fund on Dec. 31. Her only itemized contribution was $1,500 from Karen Miller of Urbana. Feinen's opponent in the April 2 mayoral election, Azark Cobbs, does not have a campaign fund.
— Champaign County Executive Darlene Kloeppel has scheduled a series of "Community Conversation" lunches open to the public. The first will be March 6 at Crane Alley, 115 W. Main St., Urbana. To reserve a seat at the table — you're on your own for lunch — contact Tammy Asplund at 384-3776 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. More lunches are planned for every Wednesday through July 3 at locations in Champaign, Rantoul, Mahomet, St. Joseph, Tolono and Savoy. The full schedule is at co.champaign.il.us/AdministrativeServices/CountyExecNewsReleases.php.
— In honor of Abraham Lincoln's birthday on Tuesday, we present the results from his 1846 election to Congress in Illinois' 7th District. Lincoln ran as a member of the Whig Party, defeating Democrat Peter Cartwright and Liberty Party member Elihu Walcott, with 55.5 percent of the vote. Lincoln ran in a compact congressional district that did not include any counties of East Central Illinois. It covered the following counties: Cass, Mason, Morgan, Scott, Logan, Menard, Sangamon and Tazewell. A total of 11,418 votes were cast. Compare that with the 270,981 votes cast in 14 counties in the 13th Congressional District race last November.
Tom Kacich's column appears Sundays in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.