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Local
Turning off city committee meetings?

KANKAKEE — Kankakee Mayor Chris Curtis was recently homebound due to being just the latest victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While at home recovering he, of course, turned into public access Channel 4 and the City of Kankakee website to watch Kankakee City Council meetings, as well as its committee meetings.

He didn’t like what he saw. He said he hasn’t enjoyed what he’s experienced in the council chamber either.

In the opinion of the Republican mayor, the committee meetings — since they have been broadcasted due to the pandemic — have turned into meetings where little work is being accomplished due to people either being inhibited by the camera or playing to the camera.

Curtis said he is so concerned by this matter that he is set to pull the plug on broadcasting committee meetings in an effort to get council members back to somewhat more informal setting where more productive conversations can take place.

The Kankakee City Council is not the only governmental body locally to broadcast its meetings, at least on its website, but they are the only one known to be pulling back.

“I’m torn on the issue. I was able to watch things happen when I was homebound,” he said. But for whatever reason, he said he doesn’t believe council members are expressing themselves as they previously did.

“We’re missing that good old fashion negotiations. I think these meetings feel very formal, very rigid. I’d like us to get back to small room, which brings us closer so we can get back to work,” he said.

“I just don’t feel we are getting much done at the committee level right now,” he said.

WILL OPEN GOVERNMENT SUFFER?

The trick, however, is closing easy access for the public. Instead of driving to the Donald Green Public Safety Center, where the council room is located and where smaller meeting rooms are also located, the public can simply sit at their kitchen table and watch and listen.

It has been that way for nearly two years. In effect, the city would be turning back the clock, and that is never easy.

“I’ve notice some time where council members appear to be playing to the [viewing] crowd,” Curtis added. “We’ve almost become actors. I’ve been thinking about this for some time.”

Curtis said the committee cameras could be turned off before the end of the year.

Don Craven, with the Illinois Press Association, said he believes “turning back clock” would be a mistake. He noted, however, that such action would not be a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

“There are no requirements they be broadcasted,” he explained regarding committee or full council meetings. “Do we want to continue to have these meetings available or do we want to go back to the pre-COVID days?”

‘STEP BACKWARD’

Craven said if council member are acting out or withdrawing because of the camera, then that is their issue to overcome.

“With all due respect, you can have a civil conversation in a formal settling as opposed to a smaller setting,” he said. “This seems to me to be much ado about nothing. This is absolutely a step back to more open government. It’s a step back without much justification.”

Jason Han, executive director of the Citizens Advisory Center, an organization which works to build democracy, described such a move as a “step backward” by removing access so people can see how their representatives work.

“Every public body needs to decide what is open government. Our organization always takes the position that whatever law is in place, that should be the floor, not the ceiling.

“Allowing the public to see the discussion, that is open government. ... The more transparency the better it is. There is more public engagement when the cameras are on. Public engagement does go up when people can see how it all came about.”

While those outside the city council have an opinion on the matter and believe the council is headed in the wrong direction, many council members are in support of this, but not all.

Lance Marczak, R-4, a recent addition to the council, has only been an alderman with all meetings being broadcast to the public. He said he would like it to remain that way.

“I don’t see how making these meeting available is affecting council members’ ability to debate. I don’t know, I could be completely wrong,” he said. “This system gives the ability for the average citizen to sit at home and be involved in the process. I just believe it opens up city government to a wider audience.”

FEELING OF BEING ‘ON STAGE’

Alderman Carl Brown, D-7, currently the longest-serving city council member, like Marczak, said he doesn’t believe debate has been stifled, nor does he believe members are making a mockery of the political process.

“I don’t see people holding back their thoughts because of the broadcast,” said Brown, who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee. “If the mayor wants to do this, that’s OK. I just don’t see people being inhibited. I haven’t seen the evidence of that.”

Brown said he wonders if the city is taking a step backward.

“I don’t see the need to go back, but if we do, I’m OK with it,” he noted.

Alderman Mike O’Brien, D-1, chairman of the council’s Budget Committee, said he believes the switch is a good idea. He stressed the public will still have the ability to attend in person.

“This idea of returning to the previous format is appropriate. ... You do feel like you are on stage and that can’t be good for dialogue,” he said.

What the public’s reaction might be, O’Brien could not answer.

“As long as the public has the ability to participate is what’s important. Some might think it’s better this [current] way, but I believe the sooner we can get to our former format, the better.”

Alderman David Crawford, R-3, who chairs the Ordinance Committee, said he’s OK with either format. He said he does believe, at times, some council members have been hesitant and that stalls good conversation.

Crawford noted that unfortunately committee meetings are rarely well attended, with or without broadcasting.

“There are still plenty of opportunities to talk to council members and let your feelings known,” he said.

Alderwoman Kelly Johnson, D-6, one of the newest council members, said she also favors smaller meeting rooms away from the camera.

“I’ve had some people tell me they are able to watch a committee meeting while making supper and that is nice,” Johnson said. “But being able to get things done [as a council] is important.”

Johnson was elected after the council began broadcasting its meetings, so that is the only world in which she has lived an a alderwoman.

Even so, she said she sees the benefits of returning to the city’s past practice.

“I think it’s a good idea. The meetings are not as productive as they should be. I think being more productive outweighs the negative.”


Coronavirus-local
IDPH assistant director answers vaccine questions at KCC

Dispelling misinformation has been nearly as difficult for health officials as quelling the COVID-19 virus itself.

To that end, Amaal Tokars, assistant director at the Illinois Department of Public Health, took part in a COVID-19 vaccination “myths and facts” online discussion Thursday at Kankakee Community College.

Tokars took on the role of “Myth Buster.”

Tokars spoke on the ongoing high rates of coronavirus transmission in the United States, the contentious nature of discussing vaccinations and our interconnectedness as people.

Questions addressed included pre-submitted queries from college and community members, as well as questions typed into the Zoom session.

Should we be for or against hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin being used to treat COVID-19?

“Neither of these medications, at this time, are fully accepted or approved for human COVID-19 treatment,” Tokars said. “However, that does not mean that they will not have a future use for COVID-19 treatment. Both of these are continuing to be studied.”

Tokars warned individuals to be careful about creating dichotomies where something is “all good” or “all bad.”

“In fact, it’s very important for us to learn more about both these kinds of medications,” she said.

What evidence is there on the safety of getting vaccinated during pregnancy?

The clinical trials of the vaccines included pregnant people, but did not specifically study them as a group, Tokars said, so it’s difficult to be definitive.

“There are many persons that have been expecting and have taken these vaccines safely,” she said. “Still, any individuals that are concerned about these vaccines should go ahead and consult their primary care physician.”

Tokars added that because the vaccine has been widely available for several months now, individuals can take COVID vaccination options into account during the family planning process.

Why should people who have had COVID get vaccinated?

Tokars said that the scientific community currently agrees natural immunity lasts for around 90 days based on research, and some people recovering may choose to wait that long before getting vaccinated.

“For diseases that are dangerous to you, you don’t want to contract the sickness so that you can gain immunity, especially when that immunity is very temporary,” she said.. “So a longer term immunity, a longer term protection can be provided from the vaccine and your getting the vaccine is a much safer experience than getting the illness.”

Why do some vaccines last a lifetime and others don’t?

Some vaccines are made using a live virus and give very potent protection, Tokars said, including some common childhood vaccines.

“But this vaccine for COVID-19 is not a live vaccine. And so the protection is very potent, but it is not considered necessarily to be for a lifetime,” she said. “We actually don’t know what the answer is to how long this vaccine is going to last and whether or not we will need annual boosters, so there’s more to learn.”

What is the risk for hospitalization for vaccinated versus unvaccinated people?

“It is much higher for persons that are unvaccinated. There are individuals that have had breakthrough infection,” Tokars said. “Breakthrough means you’re vaccinated, and you can still get the infection. Know that vaccination provides enormous protection for us, but not perfect protection. And we still have to be careful.”

Who of the vaccinated population are we seeing breakthrough infections in most commonly?

“Individuals that were not protecting themselves in other ways, individuals that are immunocompromised and many of our elders who are also going to have weakened immunity, but not just elders,” Tokars said.

She noted that the elderly have been the most affected by the virus and also the most active at taking protection against it.

“It’s really important that we see the example of elders and know that getting vaccinated is not just about us, it’s about living in a connected collective society,” she said. “We are all connected. That is how the pandemic happened.”


News
More Riverside employees added to restraining order

KANKAKEE — The number of Riverside Healthcare employees seeking to continue working for the organization without becoming vaccinated against COVID-19 increased to 57 on Friday.

In an emergency hearing Friday, Riverside did not object to 53 employees being added to the temporary restraining order issued earlier in the week by Kankakee County Circuit Court Associate Judge Nancy Nicholson.

That restraining order originally covered five nurses who were set to either be fired or suspended by Riverside after Sunday for not gaining the vaccination.

The restraining order maintains the employees’ work status until Jan. 11.

Other workers facing the vaccination requirement, who have been determined by Riverside as unwilling to be vaccinated, will be suspended as of this weekend. That circumstance is likely driving people to be part of the temporary restraining order.

Riverside employees required to become vaccinated must move in that direction now to maintain their employment, according to Riverside’s vaccination plan, which it announced to employees on Aug. 27.

Unvaccinated employees who have not gained a hospital vaccine exemption have until Sunday to get that accomplished. If not, the employees will be placed on a two-week unpaid suspension, according to Riverside’s policy. Following that, they will then be fired.

There were 56 employees who wished to be added.

Riverside’s attorney, Michael Phillips, requested three of the 56 employees be dismissed from the law suit.

Phillips said two of the three would not face termination or suspension. He told Nicholson he could not disclose the reasons.

The third one works for a company that Riverside has contracted with to supply employees.

One of the original plaintiffs — Carmen Wymore — was voluntarily dismissed from the complaint. She has found alternate employment and has resigned from Riverside effective Oct. 31, according to documents.

The fate of the temporary restraining order will likely be determined on Jan. 11, 2022, when Nicholson will hold a hearing on the employees’’ motion for a preliminary injunction to extend protection for the employees.

“This is another great outcome in court today,” Liberty Justice Center managing attorney Daniel Suhr said.

Liberty Justice represents the 57 Riverside employees.

“For these 57 employees, they will be able to show up for their job (Monday) and not be compromised. There is still a substantial number of people who will be out of a job come Monday.

“My hope is that Riverside Healthcare comes to its senses and allows them to continue serving patients.”

Riverside Healthcare said in a statement:

“We continue to be committed to the belief that requiring our employees to be vaccinated will allow us to provide the safest environment for our patients and staff. The criteria we are using to guide our decisions on exemptions is fair, justified and clearly focused on protecting the health and safety of our patients and workforce.

“While we are disappointed some employees have chosen not to comply with our vaccine policy, we understand and respect their viewpoint and we will, of course, comply with the court’s ruling.

“We are encouraged that with the Illinois legislature’s approval of the amendment to the Healthcare Right of Conscious Act we will ultimately have a decision that aligns with our desire to make patient safety the top priority.”

During the Illinois Legislature’s veto session this week, legislators approved an amendment to the Health Care Right of Conscience Act that allows an employer to fire a worker for noncompliance with COVID-19 vaccine or test requirements.

The change was requested by Governor J.B. Pritzker and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. It now awaits Pritzker’s signature.

The HCRC Act currently prohibits discrimination against anyone for their “conscientious refusal to receive, obtain, accept, perform, assist, counsel, suggest, recommend, refer or participate in any way in any particular form of health care services contrary to his or her conscience.”

The bill passed Thursday adds language stating that it is not a violation of the law for an employer “to take any measures or impose any requirements …intended to prevent contraction or transmission of COVID-19.”


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