Heated verbal exchanges didn’t take place early on in the Citizens to be Heard portion of last week’s City of Vandalia Board of Alderman meeting, as patron and city employee Mike Smith, referenced two recent editions of “The Vandalia Leader” regarding letters to the editor submitted by Alderman Doug Bontz. Smith first talked about Bontz’s editorial referencing the time lapse of needing a police chief hired as well as the loss of officers leaving the department. He noted his concerns that Alderman Bontz might want to start Vandalia officers at $32,000 a year as the alderman referenced what the City of Mexico’s officers make in the nearby town.
He said he’s been in the city for 22 years and he doesn’t make that.
“But you don’t risk your life either,” Alderman Bontz responded.
“I beg to differ, I do,” Smith replied.
Smith said in his job he handles chlorine gas and 30 parts per million will kill you and one can get that amount in just four seconds. He also talked of a time he flagged traffic and was hit three times.
“There’s risk to all of our jobs,” he said.
Alderman Bontz said he wasn’t asking for $32,000 but was asking for officers to get a “decent” salary. Smith also pointed out salary references for some city positions like City Administrator in a Bontz letter to the editor and that some of those amounts were as high as they were due to those in the positions being there for a long period of time. Alderman Bontz said he understood that point of view but added he’s working on a study and doesn’t think the high salary positions are needed in the community because it’s “too small.”
Chief Water Plant Operator Darren Berry asked Alderman Bontz if he was considering to replace department heads.
“If they don’t want to progress…,” he said as Berry cut him off.The discussion now began to get more heated.
Alderman Bontz asked if Berry if he had a five year plan and the alderman was talking over Berry as he tried to answer.
“I’m answering your question, let me talk,” Berry said very loudly. “We upgraded our water plant so that it would be good for the next 15 years. I have a lagoon permit that we will not meet right now. I will be meeting with our engineers and working with a plan that will meet that from now and for many years in the future. So don’t tell me how we’re going to plan in the future.”
Alderman Bontz asked if Berry had a five year plan geared towards expansion.
“Why can’t we replace our old infrastructure, why do we always have to expand into something that may or may not get used,” said Utilities Superintendent Aaron Rentfro. “I’ve listened in this board meeting for a long time about how everybody’s comparing us to Mexico and Bowling Green. Why don’t you hop in your car and move there?…”
As the conversation went on, Berry told Mayor Ralph Kuda that Alderman Bontz was “causing trouble.”
“He’s going to get this town in trouble,” Berry added. “…You’re not going to have any employees in this town. You all have created a hostile environment. I cannot go anywhere and talk to any of the employees in this town without telling me they are looking for another job because they don’t know what’s going to be here. Because somebody sitting on the board, who ran unopposed, think they know more about running this city than anybody else. Give me a break.”
Alderman Bob Dunn started to talk about working in a private industry when Berry said “this is not a private industry.”
“It still operates on the same principles,” Dunn added. Berry responded “no it doesn’t.”
“We have some great employees in the City of Vandalia, I’m proud of every one of you,” Mayor Kuda said.
Alderman Gabe Jennings then said perhaps a two year plan and not a five year plan could be sought.
“I mean if we were doing something wrong; if we were stealing, if we were lying, if we were doing things that were wrong, yes,” Berry said. “But just because we show up and do our job day in and day out and dedicated our lives to this city for 10+ years, you want to start replacing people for no other reason than that? As an alderman, why don’t you get out here and find jobs. You’re a policy maker.”
Alderman Dunn said people need to start looking at the positive side of things.
Berry then said articles shouldn’t be given to the newspaper degrading everyone.
Mayor Kuda noted that it is a freedom of speech and is a constitutional right whether folks agree with the article or not.
An unidentified patron then hurled a negative remark to Berry when Mayor Kuda put a stop to the conversation.
Smith had one more item to ask for a clarification.
He noted how Bontz’s letter said “anybody who supported the previous administration needed to be replaced.”
Alderman Bontz talked about “centralized” government and how things went through City Hall and was controlled there.
“What I’d like to see is a decentralized government where you have more power as department heads, you may not want it,” he said. “But I’d like to see you all have more power, the board have more power, the people have more power than everything that comes through the administration…Everything shouldn’t go through City Hall.”
Alderman John Weiser said as alderman they have to go to the people who do the job. For example, alderman are not going to go out and repair a street, they need to go to City Hall.
New City Administrator Chase Waggoner then noted that his job is to be the one between the board and the employees.
“Obviously that relationship is very fractured right now,” he said. “I’m hoping my job is to mend fences and to act how I feel is best as possible…In my version of a perfect world in Vandalia that the citizens need to regard the city administrator’s office as approachable and either feel like my office is some place they can come in and not with me personally but anybody in City Hall that if they got a problem they can address it with us, they can approach us, and we’ll take care of them. Because ultimately we may work for the board but we work for the citizens as a whole…”
Smith then noted, that from an employee’s point of view, he hopes Waggoner can be the go-to guy as employees to represent them to the board.
He added that its his hope that he’s able to build a similar rapport with him as he did with previous administrators. Smith also said he hopes other employees show loyalty to the administrator as they had in the past.
City Administrator Waggoner then addressed the board and said he would like to be someone employees could come to in addressing concerns with the board and serve in a dual role and work with the board as well on policies.
Also during Citizens to be Heard, resident Brittany Dieckmann talked about previously sharing her concerns on her basement being flooded with City of Vandalia’s sewer water.
She said she filed an insurance complaint.
She met with the street department and has also talked to three different plumbers. Discussion went towards a check valve but she said it only puts things back on her.
Dieckmann said sewer water has hit her partially finished basement three times. Sickness has also hit her home due to the smell of sewer throughout out her whole house.
Dieckmann noted she’s paying $15 a month for sewer and it’s in her basement.
Former City Administrator Alan Winders attended the meeting and reminded the board and staff that he will be accessible as Audrain County’s new Eastern District Commissioner.
Winders said he appreciated the support from the Vandalia community and the vote came in 2:1 in his favor.
He said he will be an advocate for cities in his new role as commissioner.
“As a newly elected official, I want you to know that I will not be demeaning or disrespectful to the county staff that we have,” he said. “I am always embarrassed, saddened, and sickened when I see this on the part of authority officials.” Winders also said he was thankful for his team who helped during the election.
Online City Code discussion
Alderman Bontz said he would like to see the codes on the website.
City Administrator Waggoner said he would like to see it but noted the cost accompanied to making it happen.
Waggoner suggested he would like to see copies as a .pdf could be put up on the website.
Alderman Weiser noted only about 10 people sought information from the code book as discussed in the last meeting. Alderman Jennings agreed and said the money could be used for somewhere else.
Alderman Bontz made a motion to put ordinances on the city website to be accessed by citizens. The motion died for a lack of second.
Demolition and Cleanup Program Plan
Mayor Kuda said the details were laid out during the last meeting.
City Clerk Karen Shaw worked on a sheet so folks could apply for it.
Sheets could be put out at City Hall. City Council will determine how many will be done each year. The credit is $2,000 and there will have to be proof shown for clean-up, etc.
Alderman Weiser said there was grant money for it and now money budgeted money put towards it over the last few years.
He did say there was not the money available every year to spend towards the program.
Alderman Weiser suggested to try the program for one year.
City Administrator Waggoner said questions needing answered is will the program be strictly volunteer?
Will it need approval from the city?
What is percentage of demolition cost per building? How much of annual dollars to be spent on the program? Structure of the committee and time to be served on it? Procedure on receipts being received?
Alderman Dunn brought up the issue of tax liens that are on some homes in Vandalia.
City Administrator Waggoner said it’s possible to tear down homes with tax liens on them but the process is much more complicated. He said he can write up a one year program plan if it is the will of the board.
He noted a need for a cap per structure and percentage of how much program can meet in minimal of one year.
Tax Levy Hearing and Meeting
The Tax Levy Hearing and Meeting was set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, August 24.
Berry said three bids were received for an inspection of inside the 100,000 gallon water tower, which does not include cleaning.
Bids came from Liquid Engineering for $1,000, Pittsburg Tank and Tower for $1,250, and Inland Potable Services for $2,845. Berry said Liquid Engineering did the inspection of the Million Gallon Tank. Aldermen motioned and unanimously accepted the big with Liquid Engineering.
Ordinance on vacating portion of a public street
Aldermen approved a bill/ordinance to vacate the unopened Vine St., north of W. St. John to 6th St., giving ownership of the street to the owners of properties abutting on the property vacated. It is 16-1161.
The July 12 meeting minutes and the July Accounts Payable report was approved.
City Administrator Waggoner said a new item has been added to the structure of the meeting agenda called “New Business and Future Agenda Items.”
He said it, if something needs to be added in the future, gives a chance for something to be discussed. He said that it allows alderman to place something to be discussed on a future agenda.
He also noted that there are some positions not filled but was hoping to have some filled by the next board meeting.
Some changes were also made to the hiring process in the board and alderman meeting with the final candidate only.
City Administrator Waggoner said he’s working on cleaning up old and outdated ordinances and references to obsolete technologies.
He’s also wanting to clean up errors in text as well.
He’s also having staff members compile a capital assets list with a dollar value placed to it.
One example would be if the fire department needs a fire truck a few years from now, the city could start planning for that replacement.
Semi-annual updates to rates will be announced soon.
Marketing and development things are also expected to be done for the CSI building. His goal is to fill the vacant buildings and bring more business into town.
Alderman Weiser said he thinks the city employees did a tremendous job on the renovations of City Hall.
Alderman Dunn mentioned a MoDOT issue and also noted the area of the cement plant, which he was told has since been cleaned up.
Alderman Bontz requested an Open House for a meet and greet with the City Administrator and other departments.
City Administrator Waggoner noted that in discussion with staff, it was noted a meet and greet at City Hall was a good idea but there were legal issues involving with other city buildings.
Alderman Bontz said perhaps the board could go down and tour some of the other department buildings.
Alderman Bontz asked about possibly moving the board meeting from Tuesday as “The Vandalia Leader” is going against deadline on Tuesday nights. It was noted that the meeting date is set by ordinance. He also talked about the former Casey’s building on Highway 54 and has talked with that business’ representative. He was told if a need was given for using the building for the police department, Casey’s would give the city the building.
City Administrator Waggoner said in December, minimum salary dollars have changes hit in December. It was noted some positions may have to be converted from salary to hourly.
Also, zoning and planning commission may be met with to discuss buildings labeled as a garage or shop.
Surplus pieces of property were also discussed and how an ordinance for nearby owners could allow them to take over mowing and eventually take over the property.