Next week, on March 17th, Champaign County and the rest of the State of Illinois will have their primary election. Though the Presidential election is obviously important to focus on, it’s equally pressing to consider our options at the local level. If you’re not one that pays attention to politics in general, you probably have a tendency to overlook these races until there are a bunch of names on a ballot, some of which you might recognize from yard signs. I was once this person. We don’t want you to be that person, so we’ll spend the next couple of weeks highlighting a few of the races that you should be paying attention to. Smile Politely does not do endorsements, so it’s up to you to sort out who you feel should represent you in these county level offices.
Democract Cynthia Fears is running against Jennifer Straub for County Board District 9.
Smile Politely: For readers who have no concept of what the county board is responsible for, can you give me a quick rundown, in your words? What do voters need to know?
Cynthia Fears: Voters should know that the county board has both mandatory functions and discretionary functions. The county board has the mandatory duty to maintain and provide finances for a suitable courthouse, jail, and other necessary county buildings (i.e., the offices of the circuit clerk, sheriff, probation/court services, state's attorney, public defender, coroner) including appropriate offices and furnishings. The county board has the authority and ultimate responsibility for the monies appropriated for use by each elected county official’s office. By statute, the county board determines the number of assistant state's attorneys and the number of sheriff deputies and court security officers. It also provides and maintains, necessary equipment for county offices, maintains county roads, bridges, lighting, culverts, etc. The board adopts an annual budget that appropriates funds to cover expenditures for the various county offices and functions and prepares an annual financial report. The board governs Champaign County's unincorporated areas and oversees land use, planning, and zoning. The board prosecutes or defends lawsuits brought by or against the county. I want readers to know that this is not an exclusive list of the board's responsibilities. For more information, readers may visit the county's website.
SP: Why did you decide to run for re-election?
Fears: There are 11 districts in Champaign County. Each district has two county board members. After former board member, Pranjal Vachaspati, a U of I Ph.D. student, vacated his seat in District 9, my opponent, Jennifer Straub and I were both considered to replace him. As I am the most qualified, County Board Chair Giraldo Rosales appointed me and the County Board voted to approve the appointment. I am currently running to keep my seat in District 9. Although I generally kept up with issues before my appointment, I now delve into the issues more deeply. Many of the issues before the board are both challenging and interesting, However, the jail consolidation issue really got my attention. Given my 16 years of experience with courts, prisons, jails, and issues related to pre-trial detainees and prisoners, I felt compelled and knew I had to use my experience to benefit the county to help move the jail consolidation issue to resolution.
SP: What do you feel are the top 2-3 issues facing the county board right now?
Fears: The most challenging and pressing issue is the jail consolidation. The county has been struggling with this issue for over a decade. The Champaign County downtown jail is in serious disrepair and has been cited as unsafe and dangerous for officers and the detainees. After inspections by consultants and state officials, the inspectors have criticized the conditions in the downtown jail and called for renovations or a closure. Some of items cited by the inspectors were a lack of maintenance, structural deficiencies, and the lack of separation available for special populations in the jail, such as for women and those with mental illnesses and serious medical issues. Further, the jail is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Due to the state of disrepair, unsafe and dangerous conditions, much of the space in the downtown jail cannot be used. Because of required renovations, county officials have discussed either closing and tearing the downtown jail and replacing it with a new facility next to the satellite jail or renovating the downtown jail to make it more suitable for housing inmates. Either way, funds would be hard to find. Besides the funding issues, many local activist groups are opposed to a new facility and are promoting implementing programs instead of consolidating the jails.
Currently, the jail issue is before the County Board’s Facilities Committee, Once the committee prepares a report that will include the design of the jail and costs, it will be submitted to the entire county board for consideration, discussion and a vote. Then the board must determine a funding source. It can consider a bond which will be difficult to obtain because the county does not have enough collateral, as it is still paying for the bond given for the county nursing home. The board can also consider a levy, or raise sales taxes, or property taxes or a combination tax. Ultimately, the voters will decide whether or not to approve the funding source and the amount of funding. However, if this issue is not resolved within the very near future, that decision may be made by federal and state agencies.
Another issue is the county’s plan to appeal the circuit court’s recent decision that determined the Carle health system was entitled to charitable property-tax exemptions. Carle’s lawsuit against local and state taxing authorities has been in litigation for 13 years. Champaign County Judge Randy Rosenbaum found Carle was entitled to partial charitable exemptions on four Urbana properties, among them Carle Foundation Hospital’s main campus, for tax years 2005-11.
SP: The current primary races have been contentious, to say the least, and there’s a history of tension and infighting within the board. If you receive the nomination, and are elected to the board, what steps will you take to mitigate the current tensions while working to advance your vision?
Fears: I am sure that tension can arise within the board, but since I have been attending the board meetings and the committee meetings, I have yet to witness any tension or conflict that has been disruptive. Having said that, I appreciate the benefits of working through differences to a satisfactory conclusion. I recognize that just because people disagree doesn't mean their disagreement is negative. It is usually just a difference of opinion. Tension can be good, bad or neutral, and can sometimes be good ways to make creative progress. Therefore, to not create harmful tension, I will prepare for each meeting beforehand and be mindful that others should be given an opportunity to express their opinion, disagree, make statements and ask questions, so any tension among board members can be resolved and the discussion can move forward. I will be mindful of and appreciate board members sharing their expertise and perspectives. My main goal at each board meeting will be to keep an open mind, listen, speak when I wish but always with respect, and always focus my attention on addressing the needs of the community.
SP: What makes you most qualified to be the Democratic nominee?
Fears: First, I meet the basic requirements to be a county board member. I am at least 18 years of age, a U.S. citizen, a resident of Champaign County, and a registered voter in the county board district that I am seeking the seat. Champaign County is home to me, my children and grandchildren. I am a 25-year resident who moved here to attend the U of I College of Law. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Illinois College of Law.
My experience includes 16 years employment as a staff attorney for thirteen judges with the United States District Court, CDIL. During that time, I fulfilled my vision to establish a law clinic to represent pro se plaintiffs proceeding in civil rights lawsuits in federal court. I, along with judges and professors of the U of I College of Law, established the University of Illinois College of Law Federal Civil Rights Clinic. Law students represent pro se litigants proceeding in federal civil rights litigation in the USDC CDIL. As to pro se civil rights litigation proceedings, I developed procedures to reduce costs and time taken from day to day operations of employees from government agencies, including jails and prisons. Rather than spending several hours transporting detainees, inmates, employees, and witnesses, from all over the State of Illinois and other states, they appeared before the court and juries, via audio or video conference for trials and hearings. I headed a team to develop the Prisoner's E-Filing Project that has been adopted by courts, prisons, and jails across the United States. My team and I were awarded the Director's Award for Excellence in Court Operations for this project. Through my professional experiences I developed relationships and worked with many judges, government attorneys, and officials and staff members of various government agencies, jails, prisons and the College of law.
My experiences and skills have sharpened my ability to find consensus with parties who have different perspectives and engage in a civil discussion of conflicting ideas. My experiences and skills are transferable to the county board and show that I am an effective negotiator, am capable of working with others and can collaborate with other governmental agencies and officials to accomplish goals that are good for the county as a whole. I am the best candidate to move the county’s most challenging issue forward — the jail consolidation.
Top photo from Cynthia Fears for County Board District 9 Facebook page. Headshot photo provided by Cynthia Fears.