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updated: 12/30/2010 10:47 AM

Fox Valley's top stories of 2010

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  • McHenry County State's Attorney Lou Bianchi was indicted on charges of using county resources to run his political campaign.

       McHenry County State's Attorney Lou Bianchi was indicted on charges of using county resources to run his political campaign.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Kane County Coroner Chuck West

      Kane County Coroner Chuck West

  • Kane County Circuit Court Clerk Deb Seyller

      Kane County Circuit Court Clerk Deb Seyller

  • Grafton Township Supervisor Linda Moore

      Grafton Township Supervisor Linda Moore

  • The area just west of Switzer and south of Route 20 was the epicenter of a 3.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked the region.

       The area just west of Switzer and south of Route 20 was the epicenter of a 3.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked the region.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Three St. Charles High School North students sparked outrage and debate in November by wearing "Straight Pride" T-shirts to school on the first day of Ally Week.

       Three St. Charles High School North students sparked outrage and debate in November by wearing "Straight Pride" T-shirts to school on the first day of Ally Week.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 

From a pair of top officials in McHenry and Kane counties facing criminal charges, to financial woes in our school districts that led to massive layoffs, to contentious referendums and an earthquake that became the talk of the town, 2010 was packed with highs, low and many surprises.

Here is a rundown of the stories that captured our attention this year.

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Bianchi indicted

A difficult 2009 became an even worse 2010 for McHenry County State's Attorney Louis Bianchi.

The year opened with him under investigation by a special prosecutor and went downhill from there, starting in early January when Nichole Owens -- one of Bianchi's first hires and a trusted top lieutenant -- announced she was leaving to take a prosecutor's job downstate.

Just three months later, Special Prosecutor Henry Tonigan III confirmed he would be empaneling a grand jury to examine allegations Bianchi used county employees and resources to help run his political campaign.

The grand jury reached its decision Sept. 11, and it was even worse than many of Bianchi's harshest critics expected: a 21-count indictment accusing the county's top law enforcement official of conspiring repeatedly to misuse county resources to further his political ambitions, and even trying to coerce one of his high-ranking assistants to not cooperate with the grand jury probe.

His personal secretary, Joyce Synek, was also indicted and, more recently, two of his top investigators, his office manager and the chairwoman of his campaign committee were named as unindicted co-conspirators.

Bianchi has steadfastly denied the allegations and refused calls to step down from office, saying he has been the victim of a political witch hunt organized by political rivals and defense lawyers unhappy with the way he prosecutes cases.

As hard to believe as it may seem, 2011 could bring even more bad news for the state's attorney. Besides a looming trial and specter of felony convictions and time behind bars, reports indicate the grand jury that indicted Bianchi is still at work, looking into claims he improperly dismissed a minor disorderly conduct case against a member of a prominent Crystal Lake family that had supported him -- both politically and financially -- in the past.

Chuck West fights charges

Kane County Coroner Chuck West plans to fight five felony counts of misconduct leveled against him last May for allegedly taking a television from a deceased Carpentersville man in 2007 while acting in his official role as coroner.

West is due in court Feb. 3 for a hearing to dismiss the charges against him, which he says are politically motivated. West plans to serve the rest of this term, which runs through 2012. Kane County Board members have urged him to step down.

U-46 budget cuts, funding fix

The state's budget crisis affected schools, and Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second-largest district, was no exception.

Facing unpaid bills from the state and a structural deficit of about $40 million, U-46 slashed its 2010-11 budget by $29 million. Among the cuts were pink slips for 732 teachers -- more than one-fourth of the teachers in the district -- and more than 300 other employees.

Although 300 to 400 teachers were eventually rehired, the layoffs led to larger class sizes across the district and more students in multi-grade classrooms.

To hold down costs, the district froze salaries for most teachers, as well as administrators and nonunion staff.

Meanwhile, state legislators representing U-46 lobbied for a fix for an issue stemming from U-46's location in three counties. District officials said the issue had cost the district millions in lost state aid.

The funding fix passed both houses before it was stopped by Gov. Pat Quinn's surprise veto in July.

But Elgin lawmakers Sen. Michael Noland and Rep. Keith Farnham ultimately prevailed in overriding Quinn's veto during veto session in November.

Passage of the bill was met by measured celebration, though, as U-46 officials say they will have to make further cuts in coming years to eliminate the structural deficit.

Dist. 26 makes due

In November, Cary voters approved $15 million in bonds for local schools, capping a dramatic year during which Cary schools faced the real possibility of a state takeover.

To avoid that, school board members in Cary Elementary District 26 took a hard line against the district's persistent deficit, cutting $6.6 million by eliminating art, music and physical education and laying off 71 full-time teachers.

The district also closed Maplewood School at the end of the 2009-10 school year, although district leaders said that move was prompted by declining enrollment.

One of the most dramatic moments of the district's budget struggles came late in the year when a group of parents calling themselves the Soar to Higher Heights Foundation offered to restore programs and jobs with a $4.3 million grant.

The offer briefly raised the hopes of teachers and parents in the community, but those hopes were quickly dashed when the foundation withdrew its offer after admitting it did not actually have the promised funds in hand.

Deb Seyller vs. Kane Co.

Kane County Circuit Court Clerk Deb Seyller took her disagreement with the county board about budget and staffing requirements for her office to court in 2010.

Seyller hired new staff and replaced others who had left, despite a countywide hiring freeze, without asking the county board for permission. The county board sets Seyller's budget. But, as an elected official, Seyller has control over the operations in her office.

The ongoing battle will cost county residents taxpayer dollars on both sides as outside attorneys are needed to settle the matter. However, the outcome may benefit county residents.

Attempts to settle the matter out of court failed. That means a judge must eventually make a ruling at the issue lying at the center of the power struggle. Does Seyller have a right to run and staff her office to meet the legal functions of her office and keep the courts running at all cost? Or does the power the county board has to set Seyller's budget take precedent?

Residents reject Batavia referendum

At the beginning of 2010, Batavia officials unveiled a proposal for an ambitious project for a major intersection in the downtown: a block-sized complex involving a parking garage, stores, a new McDonald's restaurant and a park district recreation center.

A private developer had proposed the project, but most of the financing (excluding McDonald's) would have come from a tax-based city downtown improvement fund and from the park district.

District residents put the brakes on the plan, however, first by forcing a November referendum on the question of whether the district should borrow $20 million for the center. Then 57 percent of the voters voted "no."

'Straight Pride' causes a stir in St. Charles

In November, three students at St. Charles North High School sparked outrage and debate over freedom of expression by wearing "Straight Pride" T-shirts to school on the first day of Ally Week, an anti-bullying observance.

While the organizer of Ally Week said it was to address all bullying, that particular day focused on suicides by gay teenagers and the bullying gay, transgender and bisexual teenagers undergo. School officials told the students their T-shirts, which also displayed Bible verses that advocate for the death of homosexuals, were disruptive; the students blacked out the Bible verses.

Two other students wore "Straight Pride" T-shirts, but without the verses, the next day, and there was a Facebook campaign that called for students who did not agree with homosexuality to wear black the last day of the week.

Drama continues in Grafton Township

The soap opera that is Grafton Township politics continued to entertain and frustrate throughout 2010.

The township has been internally divided since the 2009 elections, when Linda Moore became supervisor. Since then, she has clashed with the four-member township board over major issues -- like the building of a new township hall -- and minor ones -- like preparing meeting agendas.

The building issue was mostly settled in April when residents voted at an annual meeting to return the property that would have housed the new offices. Voters overwhelmingly defeated a November ballot measure that asked whether the township should borrow money to build a new headquarters.

Many of the points of dispute between Moore and the trustees were wrapped up in a pair of competing lawsuits filed in McHenry County in 2010. Resolution finally came with a December ruling that said trustees had, in some cases, overstepped their legal authority and affirmed Moore's right to fire township staff and legal counsel.

Trustees also claimed victory because the ruling said Moore had to return financial records to the township and pay the township's bills.

Stearns Road Bridge corridor opens

It was 25 years in the making, but all commuters gained a new path across the Fox River in 2010. The Stearns Road Bridge project pumped more than $146 million of effort into easing traffic congestion in Kane County while creating dozens of temporary construction jobs at a time when unemployment in the industry was at crisis levels.

The new corridor is also expected to increase traffic through key commercial areas, particularly in South Elgin, while aiding the future development of Randall Road. The project also incorporates a pedestrian path and connects more of the regional trails systems for walkers, joggers and bicyclists.

Indeed, the preservation of much of the natural area around the corridor and at the bridge itself was hailed as a key victory in the project, wedding progress with environmental stewardship.

The 4.6-mile corridor and new bridge create an east-west commuter route connecting Route 59 on the east with Randall Road on the west. The opening of the bridge in December marked completion of the largest infrastructure project in Kane County history.

Earthquake!

A minor earthquake that rocked the Fox Valley in February proved to be more of a conversation starter than an actual disaster.

To some, it sounded like a train derailing, a snowplow taking out a car, a plane crash or a sonic boom. But the U.S. Geological Survey said what woke people was a mild, 3.8-magnitude earthquake, the epicenter of which was about three miles beneath a farm field near Route 20 and Switzer Road in western Kane County.

Geologists said the quake was caused by a previously unknown fault line that has not generated any shocks since they started keeping track 150 years ago.

The quake didn't cause any serious damage beyond items shaken off shelves.

By comparison, the earthquake that hit Haiti Jan. 12 registered 7.0 on the Richter scale, releasing about 30,000 times as much energy as the local quake.


• Daily Herald staff writers James Fuller, Harry Hitzeman, Charles Keeshan, Jameel Naqvi and Susan Sarkauskas contributed to this story.

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