Rod Copas (1-1-14)

Iroquois County Board Chairman Rod Copas was in the news about as much as any public official in 2014.

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Controversy surrounding the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department started in January with protest over the agency’s plan to provide home-health care in Indiana, and it continued through December with the demise of the bi-county agency. More than 40 front-page stories about the situation made it an easy choice for the Paxton Record’s top story of 2013. Our top 10 follows:

(1) Public health department fiasco

The Paxton Record, along with the nonprofit Edgar County Watchdogs group, filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests over the course of several months to try to discover as many facts as possible about the much-maligned operation of the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department.

Iroquois County Board Chairman Rod Copas also did his share of information gathering, starting first with getting an opinion on the legality of the agency’s controversial plan to provide home-health care services in two neighboring Indiana counties.

Much to our surprise, however, the Ford County Board did not show the same energy and enthusiasm for finding out the facts. Instead, Ford County Board members turned a blind eye to the documented information that had been uncovered, saying repeatedly that they had seen no facts to warrant any action against Public Health Administrator Doug Corbett or anyone else working for the agency.

The Paxton Record tried to keep Ford County Board Chairman Rick Bowen abreast of the information, as we emailed him dozens of documents as they were acquired. We also tried to get the Ford County Board to ask questions that Corbett had refused to answer, particularly about Corbett’s awarding of a $123,000 contract to the husband of one of his employees for the installation of solar panels on the agency’s offices. We never publicly disclosed this until recently, but we emailed every board member a list of about a dozen questions to ask Corbett about the solar-panel scandal in advance of his appearance at a May meeting. But, of course, the board avoided asking almost any of those tough questions. And, again, continued to say they had seen no facts of wrongdoing.

The fact that the Ford County Board and Iroquois County Board were so split on the removal of Corbett came down to who had the facts and who didn’t. We continue to wonder why the Ford County Board felt so uninterested.

The Iroquois County Board made its dissatisfaction with Ford County Board members clear in October, making that the main reason to vote to dissolve the health department. The Ford County Board also ended up voting to dissolve the agency, but it never publicly addressed the Iroquois County Board’s frustrations.

Here’s one fact the Ford County Board will acknowledge: The feuding between the two boards led to the end of the bi-county agency as we know it.

(2) Two murder cases in three months in one county

A murder is a rare occurrence in Ford County — but two murders in a single year, let alone three months, is almost unheard of.  Such was the case in 2013, when two men were charged with second-degree murder.

In August, Ryan A. Nibbe, 34, of Gibson City, was charged in connection with the death of Timothy Robertson, 44, of Gibson City. Nibbe is accused of punching Mr. Robertson in the head outside an apartment building in Gibson City, causing his death. His trial is expected to start Jan. 21, 2014.

"I don’t even understand why I’m here. This guy broke into my house," Nibbe told Judge Steve Pacey during an August court hearing.

In October, Sean F. Kelley, 33, of Paxton, was charged in the stabbing death of Jeffrey D. Potts, 49, of Paxton, outside a downtown bar.  His attorney has indicated he will argue self-defense at Kelley’s trial, set for April 2014.

"He was mumbling statements at the scene — something to the effect of, ‘I was protecting myself,’" Paxton police officer Robert Yates testified at a court hearing in November.

Kelley was released from the Ford County Jail on Nov. 5 after suporters pooled their resources to pay his $25,000 bail. His bond had been reduced from $1 million to $250,000.

(3) Dog park opens at Coady Park on Paxton’s east side

The long-anticipated opening of Paxton’s dog park at Coady Park in October was made possible by a community fundraising effort that generated more than $17,000 for the facility’s fencing. The Paxton Dog Park Committee started raising the funds a year earlier.

"Hopefully, it becomes a nice destination for a lot of people," Paxton Park District Recreation Director Neal McKenry said.

McKenry said the dog park is "a space where your dog can run freely and meet and socialize with other dogs." Its purpose is two-fold, however.

"Dog owners — and I’m one of them — are their own special breed of people, too, so it gives owners a chance to meet new people," McKenry said.

The dog park is open daily, year-round, from dawn to dusk.

(4) Judge Pacey retires after 17 years on bench

Ford County Circuit Judge Steve Pacey retired on Dec. 31, ending a 17 1/2-year career as judge. His resignation opened up a contest between three attorneys in the March 18, 2014, primary election. Seeking Pacey’s seat are Ford County State’s Attorney Matt Fitton and Paxton attorneys Ellen Lee and Ross Sorensen.

Pacey was first appointed as circuit judge in July 1996, then was elected to the position in 1998 and retained in 2004 and 2010 for six-year terms.

Pacey said he decided to resign because "it’s time," adding that he has "plenty of honey-do projects to work on, as well as my own." Pacey said he will continue to be active in the community.

"It has been my honor and priviledge to have been entrusted with the duties of resident circuit judge for Ford County for more than 17 years," Pacey said. "I have tried to fulfill my promise to the public to be a firm and fair judge. I have kept my promise to be a public servant by having made more than 4,600 appearances at various school, community, church and other public functions during my tenure as judge — and that doesn’t include the stops that I make each morning at the coffee shops and the nursing home when I’m out running."

(5) Historic sheriff’s residence/jail sold to nonprofit foundation

Sitting vacant and deteriorating for years, the historic former Ford County sheriff’s residence and jail on the courthouse square is expected to finally be restored and put to use, now that it has a new owner invested in seeing the 19th Century structure saved.

"It’s good to get it passed on to somebody that hopefully will find a good use for it," Ford County Board Chairman Rick Bowen said after the board voted 9-2 on April 8 to sell the aging complex to the nonprofit Paxton Foundation.

"We wish the foundation the best with finding the funds and the energy to make it beautiful again," Bowen said.

Paxton Foundation President Royce Baier said in April work would begin soon to restore the 1871 Italianate-style brick sheriff’s residence and its attached stone jail — one of the few remaining jails in Illinois built from athens marble.

"We’re excited, and we’re ready to get started on it," Baier said.

The foundation presented a check for $10 — the total sale price — to the county following the board’s vote.

The contract between the foundation and county allows the complex to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

(6) Assisted-living facility moves forward in Gibson City

Steps were taken last summer to make way for a proposed Villas of Holly Brook assisted-living facility in Gibson City — and a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in September.

Local and state approval of the 12-year extension of Gibson City’s second tax increment financing district gave the developers of the facility the incentive they needed to proceed. The TIF 2 area includes the Brady-owned Railside Estates subdivision along with Falcon Pointe subdivision, all GCMS school buildings, the city’s North and West Parks, and Jordan Industrial Park.

The assisted-living facility — Ford County’s first — will bring 30 to 40 jobs to Gibson City while also providing alternative housing for senior citizens.

The facility would be on 8 acres of land in the Railside Estates subdivision on Gibson City’s north side.

Preliminary plans call for a 50-unit assisted-living facility. Future possibilities include a 25-unit memory-care unit on the east side and independent-living condominiums on a cul-de-sac on the west side.

Survey results showed that of 153 responses, 97 expressed interest in an assisted living facility. Of those, 67 said they would prefer a one-bedroom unit.

(7) Tornadoes strike Gifford, just miss Ford County towns

The tornados of Nov. 17 would have been at the very top of our Top 10 list for 2013 if they would have been about 10 miles farther north. Other than some fallen tree limbs, downed power lines and a couple of sheds that were blown over, Ford County avoided the kind of destruction that was caused by tornadoes in the northern Champaign County village of Gifford.

"We were very fortunate," said Randy Swan, superintendent of Paxton’s streets and alleys department.

"I had two of my guys that were out by Illinois 115 that actually saw the funnels to the south," Paxton Emergency Response Service Director Ed Hanson said. "It just basically skirted us. We were darn lucky. If it just would have been a little more to the north, it would have been a different story."

Hanson said his agency did not activate the tornado sirens in Paxton because the funnels were "so far south and with the direction they were moving wouldn’t affect us. All we do is keep an eye on them when they’re that way, because they can change course. But this storm, it stayed on its own path."

(8) Charter bus service uses Ford County court to sue UI student passengers

University of Illinois students were in an uproar in the spring after Suburban Express Inc., a Champaign charter bus service, filed 126 small-claims cases against passengers — the majority UI students — for violating the company’s "terms and conditions"

One issue raised by UI students was that because the cases were filed in Ford County, rather than Champaign County, the many students named as defendants were not eligible to receive free representation from the UI’s Student Legal Services.

Suburban Express said it filed the cases in Ford County — even though none of the defendants live there or bought a Suburban Express bus ticket there — "because of the wide open court calendar, easy parking and service with a smile."

Amid the backlash from students, the company withdrew most of its lawsuits.

(9) PBL High School Principal Trent Eshleman steps down

Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School Principal Trent Eshleman announced his resignation in November, setting into motion a search for a replacement.

Eshleman decided to resign, effective Dec. 31, in order to become owner and operator of Denny’s Sporting Goods in Onarga.

Eshleman had been employed by the district — first as principal of Clara Peterson Elementary School — for 12 years.

"I’m happy and delighted for Trent that he’s going to start a new phase of his life, his career," Superintendent Cliff McClure said. "It’s something that I definitely can tell you he’s passionate about. We’re happy for him, and when I say ‘we,’ I’m speaking for myself and the board.

(10 Second wind farm near Paxton gains county approval

The two companies jointly developing the proposed Dogtown Wind Farm east of Paxton were not entirely surprised by the lack of public comments at la public hearing in April, which lasted just 30 minutes.

"It happens," said Matt Kauffman, president of Stewardship Energy LLC, when asked if he had ever seen a shorter, less-eventful hearing for a wind farm’s special-use permit application.

"It depends on the location and the project. I think our generous setbacks, in particular, and some of the design criteria we used, makes (our wind farm) more neighborly friendly."

The proposed wind farm would feature up to 49 turbines and comprise 6,136 acres of farmland. The wind farm would be immediately south of the Pioneer Trail Wind Farm.

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