Rep. Jakobsson, Ammons hold town hall meeting

By Josh Winters

Outgoing Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-103, and her successor, Carol Ammons, held a transition town hall meeting Thursday night to discuss the legislative process in Springfield and pressing issues facing the community.

Around 50 community members attended the event at the Champaign Public Library. They voiced their opinions and concerns on a wide range of issues, including the recently passed “eavesdropping” bill, the University’s falling enrollment rate for African-American students and an increase in the minimum wage.

Jakobsson addressed the crowd first, describing the process in which a bill becomes law and discussing her various achievements during her time in office. She mentioned her endorsement of legislation that would grant immunity to alcohol poisoning victims or those seeking help for such victims when the people in question are under the age of 21, though the bill failed to pass in the House.

“All good ideas are not easy to do right away, but I believe something can be done,” Jakobsson said. “It’s a good example of a bill that takes a long time to get support for.”

Following Jakobsson’s remarks, Ammons addressed the audience. She discussed her plans to maintain the same constituent office on campus and emphasized her commitment to maintaining an open dialogue with members of the Champaign-Urbana community during her first term.

“In those areas of your expertise, I’m really going to call upon you,” Ammons said. “We won’t know every single bill, that’s why we need more people.”

She said she plans to host more town hall meetings with constituents in the future.

Ammons fielded comments from the audience on SB 1342, or the “eavesdropping” bill, which passed the Illinois Senate earlier this month after already passing the House. Many in attendance were concerned that the bill would too easily result in felony charges for recording a person without their permission.

“My first democratic caucus meeting, this issue came up…I did raise issue (with the bill),” Ammons said. “I called (Gov. Pat Quinn) because I thought that there needed to be some tweaking on this.”

As the evening progressed, the town hall’s participants introduced the subject of the University’s declining enrollment rate for black students, and many expressed dissatisfaction with the University administration.

Jakobsson said she has had many meetings with the administration to discuss this issue. But she added that the University is not the sole cause of the problem, stating that “the culture” and “after school habits” of potential students is also an issue.

“If you’re studying math and science after school, you’re likely to get in,” Jakobsson said, resulting from scoffs and vocal objections from the crowd.

Imani Bazzell, director of local women’s health group SisterNet, said the University does not do enough to help potential black students enroll; there are students who meet the University’s academic standards but cannot afford the rising cost of tuition.

“I don’t want to hear any of this mess about, ‘It’s not just the University.’ This is a land-grant institution, we’re citizens,” Bazzell said. “You want to cross over University Avenue and see how many African-Americans actually from Champaign-Urbana from your district are actually getting in? It’s a crying shame.”

Ammons responded one of her top priorities as she enters her new office is to work with state legislators and incoming University President Timothy Killeen to make the University more accessible for black students.

“Part of our process is that we illustrate to them what we are interested in doing in support of the University and what we want the University to do in support of us,” Ammons said. “Right here in our backyard, we have (only) 12 students that went to U of I in 2013.”

After the meeting, Ammons said she planned on working with Governor-elect Bruce Rauner and Sen. Dick Durbin to lower the cost of higher education in Illinois.

The discussion moved to the subject of increasing the minimum wage, a measure both Jakobsson and Ammons support. In the midterm election, 63.7 percent of Illinois voters approved an advisory question on the ballot that asked whether they would support raising the state minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $10.

“We will work on a bill, I will make sure that the minimum wage is not off the table,” Ammons said. “I will continue to bring it up, I will continue to work on it.”

When the town hall ended after two hours, Ammons expressed her satisfaction with the exchange with her future constituents.

“I thought it went very well,” Ammons said. “People have a lot of issues they’re concerned about, and this is just one way to express those issues.”

Josh can be reached at [email protected]