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Local
Kankakee City Council rejects call for investigation into mayor's campaign finances

KANKAKEE — There will be not be an independent investigation into campaign donations for Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong.

At Wednesday’s special Kankakee City Council meeting, the 14-member council voted by a 8-6 margin to deny five provisions on the meeting agenda dealing with the need for an independent investigation. The measure came after the mayor’s Democratic Party primary election opponent, Angela Shea, alleged violations of the city’s municipal ethics codes regarding political donations from individuals and businesses which have contracts with the city.

Voting against the investigation were Carl Brown and Fred Tetter, D-7; Mike Cobb, D-6; Carmen Lewis, D-5; Danita Grant Swanson, R-4; Stacy Gall, D-2; and Cherry Malone-Marshall and Mike Prude, D-1.

Voting in favor of the investigation were Chris Curtis, R-6; Tyler Tall Sr., D-5; Jim Faford, R-4; Larry Osenga and David Crawford, R-3; and Mike O’Brien, D-2.

Only moments after the council was set to begin its discussion on the motions which could have resulted in an investigation, appointment of a special counsel and other legal issues, there was a move to go into closed session.

By an 8-7 vote, with Wells-Armstrong casting the deciding vote, the council when into executive session. When the approximate hour-long, closed session ended, city counsel Burt Odelson explained the city ordinance dealing with campaign contributions no longer existed.

He said the city’s existing law had been rewritten in 2003 by the Illinois General Assembly, which basically meant the law — per Kankakee’s municipal code — no longer existed.

ELECTION DAY LOOMS

The issue came at a unique point in time. The primary election is set for Tuesday. The winner of the Democratic Party primary between Wells-Armstrong and Angela Shea will face the winner of the Republican primary between Curtis and J.J. Hollis in the April 6 municipal election.

After the meeting, Wells-Armstrong said the matter likely benefited her re-election campaign as it mobilized her base.

“It exposes the challenges I’ve had to deal with as the first black mayor of Kankakee,” she said.

Shea did not back away from her claim. She also did not back away from her charge that the mayor should not be taking money from those engaging in city contracts.

“This is not about being political. It’s about right and wrong,” she said.

‘UNCONSTITUTIONAL, OUTDATED’

In a four-page memorandum distributed to the council members only minutes before the 5:30 p.m. meeting began, Odelson wrote the city’s ordinance, as it exists, is “unconstitutional, outdated, rescinded by its own terms, and grossly ambiguous on its face.”

Odelson said the old law may have been put in place with good intentions, but the courts believed otherwise.

“There is absolutely no doubt the ordinance is unconstitutional,” he said.

Following Odelson’s summary, Councilman Brown motioned to deny the agenda items seeking to look into the campaign funding issues. Councilman Tetter seconded the motion.

After the meeting, Odelson said simply put, the law, made part of the city’s ordinances in June 1999, should have been off of the city’s books in 2003.

The law he was referencing dealt with allowable limits of campaign contributions to those seeking city office.

‘FOLLOW OUR DUTY’

At the conclusion of the meeting, as is customary, council members are asked if they have any comments.

Each council member took advantage of the opportunity.

Basically, those voting against the investigation attacked those who support it. They charged the allegation into mayoral wrongdoing was simply a political maneuver to damage the mayor’s re-election campaign.

The six who voted in favor of moving forward with an investigation said they were simply attempting to determine if things were being done according to the law.

O’Brien said he would like to have an independent, outside law firm review this issue to verify Odelson’s assessment.

Others took a different approach.

“This is not a witch hunt,” said Osenga. “We have a duty, and we follow our duty.”

Tetter stated many people have not gotten over the fact that a black woman is mayor.

“This is a political stunt. This had no merit from its very origin,” he said.


Local
Bourbonnais teachers rally: 'fair contract, fair pay'

BOURBONNAIS — Dozens of Bourbonnais teachers and supporters gathered to demand “fair contract, fair pay” for teachers Wednesday afternoon ahead of a scheduled bargaining meeting.

Bearing temperatures around 16 degrees, demonstrators met in a parking lot nearby the Bourbonnais Elementary School District 53 administration building holding signs and many wearing red to show unity with the Bourbonnais Education Association.

Teachers can legally go on strike as soon as Friday, though union leaders said they are eyeing March 4 as the date to strike if an agreement is not met.

The next bargaining meeting is scheduled for Feb. 25.

BEA President Lauren Lundmark addressed those gathered at the rally Wednesday and emphasized that teachers “do not want to strike.”

“We want to be with our students in our classrooms every day,” she said. “Whether that classroom is a physical classroom or a virtual one, we want to be with our students. However, we realize that creating a culture where we not only attract quality teachers but keep them is critical to our students’ learning.”

Negotiations for the contract set to begin at the start of the 2020-21 school year have been ongoing since March 2020. A mediator has been present at the meetings since late November.

Lindsey Boros, parent of a fourth-grader at Liberty Intermediate and a sixth-grader at Levasseur Elementary, addressed the rally and expressed gratitude for teachers’ dedication during the pandemic.

“This year has been unbelievably hard for us all, but unimaginably hard for the teachers of this district to navigate without a contract,” she said. “Yet, here they all are fighting to continue to serve our community with their undeniable expertise.”

Boros is an English teacher at Momence High School, and her husband is an Olivet Nazarene University professor.

“The BESD53 district has lived up to and beyond our expectations as parents and as educators,” she said. “Our girls are thriving here. They benefit from their teachers’ knowledge, love and compassion.”

Boros said that when her family moved from Michigan to Illinois, she was upset that her taxes would be considerably higher — until her kids got into school.

“These teachers in BESD53 are worth more than comparable wages and benefits,” she said. “From my perspective, they are worth every ounce of gratitude that we can afford them.”

Bourbonnais teacher Ann O’Gorman asked for the district and board to “value new, high-quality teachers as well as veteran professionals.” She said the contract should recognize the work teachers put in to earn higher degrees.

“This is not a hobby — this is our livelihood, our purpose, and we take it seriously,” O’Gorman said.

The BEA is asking for a “traditional” step-and-lane salary structure in which raises are based on education and experience, as well as raises that union leaders say would put Bourbonnais teachers on par with what neighboring districts make.

According to Illinois State Report Card data, Bourbonnais teachers earned an average salary of $50,269 in 2020. In comparison, Bradley Elementary teachers earned an average of $51,265; Kankakee teachers earned an average of $56,673, and Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School teachers earned an average of $62,933.

While the parties have found common ground on some points, such as common plan time and retirement benefits, they are still in disagreement about specifics.

Additionally, the board presented its offer as a package deal, so the union would have to accept the entire offer in order to accept individual benefits.

In an offer posted to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board website for public viewing, the Bourbonnais School Board proposed raises of $1,300 the first year, $1,100 the second year and $1,100 the third year, plus bonuses, over a three-year contract. For a teacher earning a $50,000 per year salary, the raises amount to increases of 2.6 percent, 2.1 percent and 2.1 percent.

The BEA’s offer posted to the IELRB website proposed raises of 5.3 percent the first year, 2.7 percent the second year and 4 percent the third year.

Bourbonnais parent Ashley Ryan spoke during the rally as well and expressed gratitude for teachers, especially for the work they put in navigating the pandemic.

“I grew up going to Bourbonnais elementary schools, as well as I chose this district to raise my children,” she said. “I am proud of this district.”

“I understand there is a budget,” Ryan continued. “I respect a budget, but I know there is money in this budget to pay these teachers competitively.”


Illinois
Gasoline prices increase sharply

If the snow and frigid temperatures weren’t enough for area residents, gas prices at the pump soared up 15 to 30 cents per gallon this week.

Prices went from around $2.45 per gallon to as high as $2.75 per gallon on Wednesday. The lowest price at the pump on Wednesday in Kankakee was $2.55 per gallon at Gas Depot at 601 S. Indiana Ave. Most others were around $2.69 per gallon, some as high at $2.75, according to gasbuddy.com.

In Bradley and Bourbonnais, prices ranged from $2.69 to $2.75 per gallon, according to GasBuddy.

It’s the frigid temperatures that have gripped much of the nation from Texas to Maine that caused the recent jump in pump prices.

Nearly 20 percent of refining capacity is offline due to the extreme weather in the South. According to GasBuddy’s analysis, 11 refineries in Texas and one in Kansas have at least partially shut down due to the cold weather.

Those refineries are exposed to the elements, and unlike facilities in the northern U.S. which are prepared for cold weather, few refineries in the South have protection from these low temperatures.

Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, said in a news release that the quicker the affected refineries are able to come back online, the better, and perhaps less painful for motorists than if they remain out of service for even longer.

“Oil prices have continued to rally as global oil demand recovers from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the extreme cold weather shutting refineries down, us motorists just can’t seem to catch a break,” De Haan said. “We probably won’t see much, if any relief, anytime soon.”

With the electric generating problems refineries are experiencing in Texas, it’s making it difficult for them to turn the crude oil into gasoline, according to a story on oilprice.com.

Motorists were starting to travel a little bit more as prices had remained steady the past month and a half, and while some COVID mitigations eased. Now they’ll have to contend with the higher prices.

On Tuesday, the average price of gasoline in the U.S. was $2.52 per gallon, and GasBuddy projects that could rise to $2.65 to $2.75 per gallon as a result of the refinery shutdowns. The average price in Illinois is even higher.

“The average price today for a regular gallon of gas is $2.75, a month ago it was $2.51,” said Molly Hart, spokeswoman for AAA the Auto Club Group. “Yesterday’s price was $2.71. This is for Illinois, which is among the nation’s top 10 largest monthly increases.”

De Haan said the high prices will continue as long as OPEC continues to restrain its production.

“The rise in gas prices continues to be driven by improving demand in the United States, and has nothing to do with who sits in the White House, but rather how many motorists are filing their tanks on a daily basis, and from that data, it’s no guess, but prices will continue to trend higher,” De Haan said in the news release.

Hart said that since late November there’s been a $5 per barrel increase in crude oil prices, the highest price since 2016. Hart said AAA expects crude prices to continue to increase.

“In order to see a major spike [at the pump], a return to higher driving levels and higher prices for crude will be required,” Hart said.

Could the pump prices reach $3 per gallon?

It’s possible. Typically, prices rise 25 to 65 cents per gallon from late winter to Memorial Day. Crude prices and demand would also play a role.

“In terms of $3 a gallon, this simply provides more momentum for us to get there,” De Haan said. “... We’re right on the doorstep.”


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