This past January, WNIJ started a weekly feature called “The Friday Forum.” The idea was rooted in a survey of our listeners, who indicated they wanted more in-depth state and regional news.
So the Friday Forum was born, featuring the WNIJ area's most important issues, decision-makers, and the people are affected by them.
Today we review the Friday Forums of 2017, with highlights from each month.
The 115th Congress and a new president were installed at the U.S. Capitol. For our first Friday Forum, we went to two members of Congress from northern Illinois to talk about their hopes for the coming year: Democrat Cheri Bustos and Republican Adam Kinzinger.
Bustos said she planned to fight to save the Affordable Care Act, while Kinzinger said he couldn’t wait to work on a replacement. And how about working with President Trump? Bustos said she would try, but was losing hope, even before the inauguration, that he would “act presidential.”
“First and foremost, we are public servants,” Bustos said, “And I’m not sure if Donald Trump understands that at this point.”
Kinzinger said he would keep Trump accountable, as he did with President Obama -- especially when it came to relations with Russia. “I’m excited to work with the President-elect,” he said, “I will work with him when I can and oppose him when I must.”
There was a primary election for municipal offices at the end of February. One surprisingly hot race took place in Freeport Township ... for township assessor. The race was between two highly qualified candidates.
Brad Hartog, chairman of the Stephenson County property assessment appeal board of review, wanted the township to collaborate with the county assessor.
“I think when we work together we can be more efficient, provide greater transparency, better customer service, and great accuracy,” Hartog said in an interview before the election.
Meta Ridgway was the township’s chief deputy assessor. She said she wanted people to feel welcome in the office, because there are always so many questions and concerns about property values. “Educating the public is huge so that they have that understanding,” Ridgway added. She won by six votes.
In March, we got ready for the April municipal election. We introduced you to the four mayoral candidates in both Rockford and DeKalb. Rockford mayor Larry Morrissey, an independent, decided not to run. Democrat Tom McNamara beat Republican Brian Leggero and Independents Rudy Valdez and Ronnie Mains.
McNamara said his city’s battles with crime and neglected neighborhoods inspired him to run for mayor. “We need bold, new, inclusionary, and collaborative leadership to lead us out of this,” McNamara said during a candidate forum in Rockford.
In DeKalb, Jerry Smith campaigned as a unifier, especially when it came to his city’s relationship with Northern Illinois University. “We, as a city, and I, as its mayor, [would] have a regular seat on an ongoing basis with the university and with the Board of Trustees."
Smith defeated incumbent mayor John Rey, Misty Haji-Sheikh, and Michael Embrey in the non-partisan race.
Of course, the state’s budget crisis was an underlying factor in nearly every news story again this year.
In April, as the state’s bond rating teetered on the verge of junk status, we spoke with Ted Hampton, a senior credit officer with Moody’s.
He said Illinois has been their lowest-rated state since 2012 -- and there were a number of reasons the rating was still falling, such as “… pension funding, the tendency not to have a balanced budget, and the tendency to rely on techniques like deferring payment on bills in lieu of a balanced budget.”
Illinois avoided junk bond status when a state budget finally passed in July, ending a two-year impasse.
WNIJ took time to look at President Trump’s first 100 days in office. We spoke with Paul Stoddard, who chaired the Democratic Party in DeKalb County, and Winnebago County’s Republican Party chair Jim Thompson. While they differ on nearly every issue, they agreed wholeheartedly on one thing.
“His election has really sparked a lot of activity at the grassroots level,” said Stoddard.
“Increased numbers at our meetings,” said Thompson. “We've had increased people who want to be precinct committeemen or other volunteers.”
In June, it seemed time to revisit the city of Dixon to see how its governmental overhaul was going in the years since city comptroller Rita Crundwell embezzled more than $53 million. She had managed to set up her financial system so the checks and balances just weren’t there.
Now the city has moved to a council/manager form of government, which Mayor Liandro Arellano says adds more layers of protection. “Auditing all of the financials are a joint responsibility, as opposed to having silos," he said. "It means there’s more eyes on oversight.”
We took another look into local government structure. Voters in McHenry and Winnebago counties will get the chance next year to decide if they want to combine their county clerk and recorder offices.
Northern Illinois University Public Administration department chair Kurt Thurmaier says it’s an opportunity for local governments to be more effective.
“We absolutely don’t want to give up accountability,” Thurmaier said, “but that accountability now is available in a different form, which is transparent electronic transactions, which, as we know, even the Russians can know what they are, right?
Northern Illinois University President Doug Baker resigned in the Spring after a state report said he had mismanaged the university through some of his hiring procedures. In August, we caught up with acting NIU president Lisa Freeman. She said she planned to accomplish a lot in her temporary position, especially now that the state finally had a budget.
“And so now that we know what we are getting this fiscal year, as we look at the backlog and our priorities, we have some reconciliation work to do and then we need to move forward as quickly as possible with a raise for our faculty and staff,” she said.
In September, we noticed that a lot of state lawmakers had announced they were hanging it up. Political science professor Chris Mooney, of the University of Illinois – Springfield, said it really wasn’t that much more turnover than usual. But one thing was clear: It’s not a fun time to be in the Illinois legislature.
Mooney said, “I mean, basically, all the job of the General Assembly for the foreseeable future is to do extremely hard things, and those are cut spending, so people don’t like that, and raise taxes, and people don’t like that, either.”
We tackled several social issues on the Friday Forum, including food deserts and how the state budget crisis nearly crushed social services in Illinois. We also took a deep look into the causes and help for people involved in human trafficking.
“Reach out to seek assistance, because it’s there now,” Rockford Police Lieut. Eric Bruno said. “It may not have been there 10 years ago, but it’s there now.”
Bruno leads the department’s undercover team that tackles issues like sex trafficking.
WNIJ joined a collaboration with the Northern Star and the Northern Television Center to facilitate a discussion with NIU students about race, culture, and identity. Laura Vivaldo Cholula said it’s not easy trying to live in a “color-blind society.”
"Once we leave this room, we can’t deny that if you’re black and you drive, you’re more likely to be pulled over and racially profiled by a cop,” Vivaldo Cholula said. “Black and Latino men are more likely to be incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. We can’t just deny that, once we leave this room, we won’t be treated equally."
To wrap up our whirlwind tour of the Friday Forum's first year, we went back to the state of education in Illinois. We know there’s been a growing teacher shortage, and that’s made it even more difficult to find qualified substitute teachers.
Lee-Ogle-Whiteside Regional Superintendent Robert Sondgeroth said it’s hurting education in even more ways than you think.
“Districts were hesitant to give their teachers release time to come for our professional development activities, even if we would pay for the substitute,” he said, “because we couldn’t get the substitute.”
And that’s our look back at 2017.
What’s ahead for the Friday Forum in 2018? Within the next few weeks, we’ll look into home rule, educational opportunities for older students, and sexual harassment. Not to mention some big political contests in the new year -- including the race for Illinois governor.
- Thanks to Jenna Dooley, Katie Finlon, Jessie Schlacks, Guy Stephens, Dana Vollmer, and Victor Yehling for their contributions to this report.