TRRT’s top 10 local news stories of 2003

As 2003 draws to a close, The Rock River Times (TRRT) looks back at the following top 10 local news stories of the year:

10. Nursing home under fire: In April, TRRT published a series of articles on Winnebago County’s troubled River Bluff Nursing Home. The series examined the facility’s financial issues, management and staff morale. Six months later, River Bluff employees were part of a county-wide strike that shut down many county offices for a week. River Bluff employees walked away from the strike with improved wages and benefits.

9. Classified ad pays off: A free classified ad placed in TRRT resulted in a total stranger donating his kidney to a 5-year-old Rockford girl. On Jan. 3, 2003, Angela Rushford received a kidney from David Harper, an unemployed welder from Mount Morris, after he responded to a free classified ad placed in TRRT. The story gained national media attention, on the AP Wire services, the CBS Evening News and several features on NBC’s Today show.

The Today show visited Rockford for a “live” announcement (via satellite) of the Angela Rushford Children’s Organ Donation Fund in the Rockford City Council Chambers.

8. Controversial commencement: Rockford College received national media attention after Chris Hedges, a reporter for The New York Times, delivered an anti-war speech that didn’t acknowledge the graduates or their efforts. As a result, some graduates and audience members turned their backs on Hedges, shouted at him, and disconnected his microphone.

The Rock River Times’ Editor & Publisher Frank Schier was invited to appear on FOX News, where he shared his research that the extent of the number of protesters was overblown in media reports. He also pointed out that Nobel Prize Winner Jane Addams was the college’s most famous alumna and that the student body was not as conservative as reported. Many commencement attendees were silent in their disapproval of the disruption of the commencement. FOX News’ coverage of the story dissipated after Schier’s appearance.

7. Amerock blocked: Milwaukee developer Tim Dixon withdrew his plans to convert the downtown Amerock building into mostly low-income housing after River District members and public officials voiced opposition to Dixon’s plan.

6. City gets new garbage contract: The City of Rockford renegotiated its garbage contract in April after TRRT’s October 2002 article exposed the unfairness of the city’s contract with Winnebago Reclamation Service, Inc., a subsidiary of William Charles, Ltd. The city’s old contract heavily favored Winnebago Reclamation, which would have cost taxpayers millions of dollars during the 10-year length of the contract.

5. Harlem School District sued: Harlem School District was sued in federal court in late September for charging indigent families for school programs and fees without advising parents/guardians of their right to have the fees waived. The lawsuit may have a significant financial impact on a district that is already on the state’s financial warning list.

4. RVC’s leadership questioned: Rock Valley College (RVC) President Roland Chapdelaine received no confidence votes from all three RVC employee groups, which totaled 204-28. TRRT extensively examined RVC’s leadership in numerous articles. RVC’s expenditures outpaced its revenues by about $7.3 million since fiscal year 2000. The college also borrowed $61.8 million without a voter-approved referendum and ran up at least $9.6 million in construction cost overruns.

3. Jail plan draws heat: The proposed $97-$130 million, 988- to 1,500-bed county jail drew plenty of attention during 2003. On the recommendation of one crime “expert” and a federal jail overcrowding lawsuit, local politicians and business leaders persuaded voters that they needed to pay for a new jail in November 2002.

As a result, architectural firms, construction companies and other interested parties lined up for lucrative contracts. The selection of the construction management team and jail design process was engulfed in controversy from campaign plane trips for Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn to minimizing public input about the jail’s design.

2. Rockford area blown down, gets back up: The Rockford area was devastated by an early morning July 5 storm, which knocked out power to more than 60,000 people. Some went without power for a week or more. The area was hit by a violent microburst storm where winds up to 120 miles per hour toppled trees and power lines. Clean up lasted weeks and cost Rockford residents $1,150,149. About 475 streets were blocked primarily by fallen trees.

1. FBI probes Rockford schools: TRRT learned in late October that a federal investigation led by the FBI may be aimed at specific school administrators involving unauthorized conduct concerning district computer servers and personal computers.

E-Blaster or spyware, a remote monitoring system, was allegedly used to enter computers not associated with the school district. The target’s e-mail was allegedly monitored to track their activity. Also, servers or laptops may have been used to conduct and host commercial businesses.

Sources allege lower-grade computers may have been purchased with the district being charged for higher-grade computers. Sources also allege that laptops were given to some to ensure their cooperation in possible illegal activity.

School district supplies, some funded partially by federal funds, may also have been sold to commercial establishments. A handful of district employees have either been suspended with pay or resigned their positions as a result of the probe. End results of the investigation are pending.

Other notable news:

• Winnebago County workers went on strike in October for one week and received improved wages and benefits;

• Hononegah High School teachers went on strike in October for three weeks for preserving one of their planning periods;

• The Springfield Avenue extension sank again in July;

• The Rockford airport landed limited passenger service after an 18-month absence, and may have flights to and from Budapest, Hungary;

• Century-old Rockford manufacturer Ingersoll closed its doors and re-opened under new owners;

• In addition to a federal funding crisis, the Rockford Housing Authority commissioners were found to have no real authority in decisions concerning low-income housing complex Concord Commons, which is owned by the Rockford Housing Development Corporation.

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