Hillsboro Council Discusses Use Of Public Property During Pandemic

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Six Hillsboro area citizens spoke during the Public Comment segment of the city council meeting held on Tuesday, March 23; one, Dr. Patty Whitworth, was present with council members Don Downs and Daniel Robbins in council chambers; the others, Zach Wygal, Dave Strowmatt, Becky (Moler) Billo, John Gibb, and Kayla Crawford, joined the meeting by using Zoom. Acting Mayor Katie Duncan and council member Mike Murphy also used the Zoom platform.

The topics ranged from the advisability of holding gatherings on city property in the future to lake erosion. Dr. Whitworth was the first to speak as she asked the council to reconsider their decision of March 9 to not block the streets immediately south of the courthouse for the upcoming Montgomery County Bicentennial Celebration to be held on Saturday, April 10.

Because she was denied a place on the agenda, she chose to speak in the Public Comment slot (the council couldn’t legally take action on her request because she wasn’t on the agenda). The council had denied the committee’s request because of perceived liability concerns about holding an event on city property during the pandemic; Dr. Whitworth stated the request’s purpose was to provide space for participants to properly distance themselves to limit potential for the spread of the virus.

She asserted the event will be held as scheduled on the historic courthouse lawn, which is county property, not subject to city regulations. Councilman Murphy and City Attorney Kit Hantla took the lead in defending the council’s action; Murphy said that as Public Safety Commissioner, it is his responsibility to protect taxpayers’ interests. His feeling is if the street is closed, it means the city has given consent for the gathering; that in turn means anyone who becomes ill because of attending the event could sue the city. “Attorneys would line up at the doors to prosecute,” he said. He also said neither he nor the other council members want to be a wet blanket on activities, but he and they feel the city needs to follow the guidelines set down by medical experts and scientists.

Hantla commented that although Hillsboro would love to host the celebration, the city can’t give permission for that type of activity under the current circumstances. He also said the circumstances are fluid, that if the experts say herd immunity is reached, other events can be scheduled after that time.

Next to speak was Wygal, the organizer of the Summer Concert Series which couldn’t happen last year and is not a certainty for this summer. Wygal told the council he only needed a week’s advance notice to pull a concert together. He said he’d talked to Hugh Satterlee, executive officer of the county’s Health Department, who said he wouldn’t advise downtown concerts because the buildings tend to channel winds. “Though I recognize we’re in a holding pattern, please notify me when options open; we need music,” he closed.

Strowmatt, head of the Veterans’ Area Commission, expressed concerns about the erosion occurring on Lake Glenn Shoals, especially around the mouth of the creek at Irving Cove. Strowmatt kayaks on the lake and noticed the bank erosion growing worse this spring. Robbins, the Commissioner of Parks and Public Properties, and Downs, who has concerns about the lakes as the city’s water source, said rip-rap can be obtained by homeowners; Downs said he and Tim Ferguson had visited Otter Lake in Macoupin County to see how they handled erosion. He said a person there had a barge he would rent to move rip-rap. Ferguson said he would help in any way he could to maintain water quality in the lakes.

Next to call was Becky Billo, who said one cause of the erosion was “...from tubers doing figure eights near the shore line.” During Commissioner Reports, Downs mentioned continued problems with the lift station pump on City Lake Road (reported later in this article); Billo said one of the properties feeding that pump is hers, but her household isn’t flushing the materials causing the problem.

She suspects the wipes are coming from the housing. Sewage backup into their house was a problem as far back as 1972, but it stopped when the trailer park became empty. Now that housing has built structures there, the problem is back. The city in ‘72 had an agreement with her father to fix the sewers in exchange for road construction he did, but the city never followed up and now the problem is back.

Her insurance company says the damages are the city’s responsibility; Hantla said claims had been submitted to the city’s insurance company, but he has yet to hear from them. He hopes the two companies may be working it out between themselves, but the city can’t respond until word comes from their company.

John Gibb, a neighbor of Eric Bradley on Summer Street when they approached the council in 2020 about sewer lines in their properties without easements, zoomed in to ask what progress if any had been made to solve their dilemma. Bradley has since moved, but the problem seems to be escalating as Gibb had ground next to a pillar supporting his sun porch sink when he stepped on it last weekend. He assumes one of the lines has broken, allowing the sinkage, but he hadn’t had a chance to notify town hall till Tuesday evening.

Downs said Gibb’s appearance on Zoom was the first time he’d heard of the new development; he said he and members of the Sewer Department would have a camera there to check the situation as soon as possible. Gibb said he will miss work to be there too.

Crawford was to speak about a request to use the pickleball courts for a late July tournament, but she delayed presentation because she had a spot on the agenda.

The council began the action items (needing motion, second, and vote) part of the meeting by okaying an ordinance vacating a 20-foot sewer easement behind the Allen Spelbring residence in Westwood. At an earlier meeting the council had agreed to vacate the easement, so the acceptance of the ordinance was a formality. The required Public Hearing was held prior to this council meeting; Spelbring was the only member of the public to attend.

Next the council voted unanimously to approve spending MFT funds in the following manner: $19,000 to Hurst-Rosche for bid preparation; $50,000 on sidewalks from East Wood to Oak Street; $55,000 on Tremont sidewalks; and $30,000 on Mechanic Street sidewalks. Streets Commissioner Robbins assured the council that adequate MFT funds remained for the usual oil and chipping work.

Perhaps in honor of those who requested or were about to request use of city facilities for gatherings, acting Mayor Duncan made a motion to reopen city assets, including city hall, on June 8, the date of the first city council meeting in June, up in the agenda order. Commissioner Murphy made an impassioned plea for restraint, citing a CNN television report presenting opinions of Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who spoke of concerns she has of another surge of COVID-19 if “...mitigation measures-such as mask-wearing, physical distancing, and avoiding crowds and travel are not followed.” Her concerns are largely based on the unpredictability of variants of the disease. Murphy said he has a personal stake in protecting citizens (his grandmother just passed), and he said twice, “It is immoral to take risks.”

Downs, while acknowledging that Litchfield is opening their city hall on April 1, doesn’t want to risk normal activities in Hillsboro; Duncan suggested the council not set a time frame, but instead wait to see what develops. Robbins suggested approving upcoming events with the understanding that the approval could be withdrawn if the pandemic spikes locally.

Hantla said, “We can approve now and pull the rug from under events later, or we can say no now; those are the council’s choices.” The council chose the first option by a 4-0 vote, and that seemed to govern the next votes.

Holly Leetham was present to ask for approval for two events. The first is to be a kayak race on Glenn Shoals Lake scheduled for May 8 at the North Marina; it’s to showcase the kayak launch installed there. The second was approval for an Aqua Run to be held July 24 on Glenn Shoals. The vote for each was four yes, if....

Crawford’s request was considered next; she presented it by phone on behalf of the Montgomery County Pickleball Club, who want to host a tournament from July 23 through July 25 using the courts at Central Park and the sports complex. She said it would be a chance to show off our best-in-the-area facilities and to draw participants to town. Her request too was granted 4-0, but the yes votes came with If clauses.

In business matters, the council approved an agreement with Locis that will allow consumers to pay bills online. A reference to paying to use a cloud for storage was separated from the motion by amendment (it can be considered later if the online portion works well) before the motion was passed 4-0. City Clerk Cory Davidson said eliminating the charges caused by consumer credit card payments was a key consideration. A one-time fee of $500 plus a membership fee of $8 per month (to be paid by the city) is required.

The city’s manlift has dry rot on all four tires; replacing them will cost $1,248 if purchased from and installed by Route 66 Repair in Schram City. The money will come from Business District funds. Also, the city’s line of credit with Bank of Hillsboro was renewed on a 4-0 vote. The line of credit has not been used for several years.

In action directly affecting citizens, the council set city clean-up dates for both Spring (May 4 through May 8) and Fall (November 2 through November 6). More information will be in The Journal-News as those dates approach. An ad will soon be published seeking young people to do work this summer in the Parks, Streets, and Police Departments.

Rather than hiring campground hosts for this summer when the pandemic makes revenue less certain, the council agreed to Robbins’ motion to sign a worker/camper agreement with Mark and Cindy Sams. In return for their help, the Sams will receive a free campsite with full hookup, 30 or 50 amp electrical service, and use of a golf cart. The campground season begins April 1.

The city hopes to sell real property near Turkey Lane on Glenn Shoals Lake. Access to the lot is by water only; ads will be published soon. In other real estate news, the council approved allowing the firm Work Force Housing’s (WFH)  request to survey two or three lots (at their expense) at the former Girl Scout’s Camp for possible home construction. The WFH homes would be 1,255 square feet, with two baths and three bedrooms and a selling price between $175,000 to $200,000.

The council also approved  a flex policy allowing exempt (from the Fair Labor Standards Act) employees to recover time spent on the city’s behalf after regular working hours by taking that time off during regular working hours.

A motion to approve repairs on an East Wood Street sidewalk was amended to allow surveying that area in case the sidewalk and two unused alleys are vacated. The area is between 317 and 411 East Wood.

The council, upon administrator’s motion, agreed to release closed session notes pertaining to West Summer Street sewers issues from an executive session on Nov. 24, 2020. (See separate article)

During the Commissioner and Mayor’s reports which began the meeting, Robbins referenced the campground site selection process held on March 20. A handful of sites remain available. Water was turned on, with one leak needing repair. The city’s patrol boat was taken to Bob’s Marine for motor work; and barrels, a runaway dock, and decoys were retrieved from the dam overflow area after the three-inch rain.

The Street Department cleaned storm drains, culverts, and ditches; cut limbs on Wedgewood Drive; blacktopped; repaired a water main leak on Grant Street; and repaired fire hydrants.

Murphy said Patrolman Adam Fath and the city’s new canine officer will complete their all-purpose training this Friday, March 26. He also reported that a traveler complimented Hillsboro for being the cleanest town in the county, and he asks the citizens to keep up the good work. He also said Code Enforcer Mike Lee is “...doing a bang-up job.”

As Finance Commissioner, Duncan asked the commissioners to prioritize what each wants to accomplish in the next fiscal year.

Utility Commissioner Downs said the heavy rain caused unforeseen problems. Crews installed a manhole on Jefferson Street, but sewage still backed up, causing problems in the basements of five houses. Ground water infiltrated the lift station on Oak Street. When a camera was used to find the issues, it pictured tree roots, probably from sweet gum trees, which have to be cut from the main.

Another problem is the size of the main buried there; the 10 or 12 inch pipe isn’t big enough for the volume the rain brought, so a crew is coming to help replace it.

Yet another lift station pump was clogged with wipes and burned up on Lake City Road. Crews found it clogged with baby wipes and rags; the pumps cost $2,000 each. He said he and Ferguson went door to door asking residents to not flush wipes, but it still happens. (A later call, the one from Becky Billo mentioned earlier in this article, suggested sources).

City Planner Jonathan Weyer’s written report said the Future Land Use Committee met last week to develop a plan to attack their work. The Tourism Committee (Weyer with Chamber of Commerce input) plans to improve the city’s social media presence, and the Economic Development Plan is progressing.

The council next meets in hybrid form on Tuesday, April 6.

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