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Boone County Board up against some challenges in the new term

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Maria Gardner Lara
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Stellantis announced in December 2022 it was idling the Belvidere auto plant where it builds Jeep Cherokees.

Boone County Board Chairman Rodney Riley spoke with WNIJ about items on the board’s agenda in the new term. Riley has been on the board since 2020 and was elected to a two-year term to succeed Chairman Karl Johnson.

Automotive plant going ‘idle’

Last year Stellantis announced that it would pause production indefinitely at its Belvidere assembly plant by the end of this month.

The vehicle manufacturer employs over 1,000 people at this location and is an integral part of the economy of Boone County.

“We're hoping to keep the automotive assembly in as part of Boone County's history," said Riley. " It has been since 1965. And we hope it continues in the future.”

State lawmakers say talks continue with the auto manufacturer and the governor’s office to sway the company to repurpose the plant for hybrid or electric vehicle manufacturing from its current production of Jeep Cherokees. Legislators passed several incentives, including a closing fund of $400 million dollars. It gives the governor money to negotiate a deal to attract business to the state, but can also apply to Stellantis.

At a recent press conference in Rockford Gov. Pritzker said he’s hopeful, but also said it is in the hands of the private sector.

Solar and wind power business

“I am not an opponent of solar, but I think it needs to go in places that won't disrupt a, one farm row,” Riley said. “It's my biggest issue.”

He said the county has the best farmland in the state, land that’s ideal use is for growing corn and soybeans rather than covering with solar panels. During a board meeting in January, some board members questioned why developers weren’t seeking conservation or landfill properties to locate solar panels and ultimately voted down a proposal.

Proponents of alternative energy say some local governments create unnecessary obstacles for solar and wind companies to do business.

In response, Pritzker in January signed into law legislation creating statewide siting standards that county zoning and planning committees must follow. Those refer to the location, the size, the scale, and type of structure for a solar or wind project on a piece of land.

Supporters of the legislation, including the Illinois Environmental Council, and several unions, argue that county governments will still be able to review projects and have a final say on construction permits.

Boone County joined the Illinois Farm Bureau and a number of other counties, including Ogle and DeKalb, in opposition to the law.

“So, anytime the state takes away our ability to govern," Riley said, "that's a huge concern for [us] and not just for solar and solar panels, but, or for solar farms, but everything."

Rodeos

Another item the board will take on is the issue of rodeos and animal shows.

For over 25 years, several Mexican families host these sporting events that attract people throughout the Midwest. Freddie De La Trinidad, a former board members said the events bring tourism and dollars to the county.

Permitting the events has been controversial with some local leaders claim the process has been laced with racism against Latinos.

Riley refutes that position.

“The treatment of the animals that are there, the proper care to be given to them if they do get injured, and things like that," he said. "I think that's, that's the root of it.”

He plans on proposing an ad hoc committee, that will review the implementation of the policies and regulations surrounding rodeos. WNIJ Hola reported that last year’s committee found that rodeo owners did comply with regulations and the permitting process, but it still did not prevent the board from reducing the number of rodeos they can hold.

“We may add, we may reduce [the number of rodeos per operator],” Riley said. “I'm not exactly sure, we have to see again, what worked and what didn't work. “

He said the board will have to figure out how to balance a cultural practice with the care for the animals.

Makeup of the board

These ongoing issues will be tackled under an all Republican-led board, after Democrat Cherrie Bartlett resigned and fellow Democrat De La Trinidad lost a bid to keep his seat in the November election.

“The people elected us, the people are the ones that voted for [us],” Riley said. “So apparently this is the direction that they wanted to go in. I think conservatism is, is alive and well in Boone County,’ the chairman said.

Boone County also lost its only Latino representative with De La Trinidad’s defeat. According to the U.S. Census, Latinos make up nearly a quarter of the county's population. That’s a 15 percent increase from 2010. The White population declined by nearly 10 percent in the same time period.

Most of the Latino growth has occurred in Belvidere – home of the Stellantis plant -- where Hispanics make up more than a third of the population.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.