The phrase “you could cut the tension with a knife” is the best way to describe the atmosphere for this past Monday’s Special Board Meeting in the City of Vandalia.
Alderman Doug Bontz and Alderman Bob Dunn requested the special meeting and it didn’t take long for the discussion to be held on the process in which it was established.
Interim City Administrator Debbie Hopke said she met with Alderman Bontz on Monday the week before to get some insight on what he wanted on the agenda.
She said he made it clear that he didn’t want staff involved with the process.
“But he made it clear to me that he didn’t want interference from staff nor myself and we should only speak when we are spoken to or are requested to speak,” Hopke said.
In previously talking with City Attorney Amy Rost, Hopke noted that special meetings are recommended to be called for emergencies, emergencies with a matter, or a single item that needs to be discussed. This effort helps to maintain transparency with city residents so they know when there are meetings.
“I just want it on record that I object to the way this meeting is approached…because we don’t run things like that,” Hopke added as she noted the importance of professionalism.
Alderman John Weiser asked why a special meeting was called given it not fitting the criteria typically used to call one.
“Typically, I’ve noticed that everything’s decided before the meetings even begin in a regular session,” Alderman Bontz responded. “There’s hardly any discussion whatsoever. You seldom ask a question about any of the agenda items. So ‘A’ (on this agenda) is all about trying to reorganize our city. Grant it we have good employees, we have honest employees, hardworking employees but we also have our constituents to answer to and you’re not doing your job.”
Alderman Weiser then asked for a show of hands of councilmen who are having discussions prior to the meeting to make decisions and asked for how many are not participating in the discussions.
Weiser was noting that Bontz said the decisions were being made before the meeting.
Former Alderman Ron Stallcup challenged Bontz’s assertion as he asked him “you are telling me that I met with a few board members and decided what/how we were going to vote?…Don’t you accuse me of doing something like that…”
“I apologize on the misstatement, but what I mean is everything’s decided by the administration it seems to me before it’s even discussed,” Alderman Bontz clarified.
Stallcup said the administrative does a good job of vetting the problems and that he was never told by administration on how to vote.
“I knew exactly what they were; I could read,” Stallcup said to Alderman Bontz’s question on how informed Stallcup was on the issues before a meeting.
Alderman Bontz noted that 30-minute meetings are not enough time for “discussions.”
Alderman Weiser said he said that the city administrator wants the council to come to them with questions before the meetings to get concerns answered.
“To me that does not give the city the opportunity to hear discussion about the issues,” Alderman Bontz added. “Everything is filtered through the city administrator and that’s what the people are upset about. Everything’s filtered through the administration. There’s no representation of the people…”
Vandalia Fire Chief Rusty Strother responded that if you want to “leave the city out in the cold” you do it by posting a meeting on Thursday night to be held Monday morning with not many people in attendance. He noted that it doesn’t give time for the local newspapers to post the meeting in the paper.
Alderman Bontz responded by saying he requested the meeting last week.
“They had plenty of time to contact Ron (Schott, of the The Vandalia Leader) to put it in the paper,” he said. “She (Hopke) wanted me to meet with her so she could feel me out about with what the agenda was about…I gave them plenty of time to have a chance to get this in the paper. That was administration problem, not mine.”
Hopke responded that she sought information so she could tell staff and aldermen what to expect in the meeting. She said she wanted to discuss things with the City Attorney to make sure things were on the “up-and-up.”
The two talked Tuesday night, Hopke got back to Alderman Bontz on Wednesday, and Alderman Bontz got back to Hopke on Thursday before the meeting notice was officially posted.
After 11 minutes of the meeting, discussion went back to the potential of changing the organization of the government.
Within the board packet was information on forms of government for Missouri municipalities.
Vandalia operates as a Third Class municipality like 134 others in the state as it features a city administrator.
“My constituents have never had a thing positive to say about the city administrator’s position in our community,” Alderman Bontz said. “I talked to a number of people and not no one at any point liked the city administration. It’s all centralized and controlled by one person…”
Alderman Dunn noted there was a 10-year plan done 10 years ago and the graph shows the city going in the opposite direction of the projection.
Alderman Dunn noted the population was about 2,000 without counting the prison population.
Alderman Bontz asked how many cities have the position the size of Vandalia, which is shown in the board’s packet.
Mayor Kuda then talked about department heads and decisions they are being paid to make.
Chief Water Plant Operator Darren Berry said the department heads are not micromanaged by the city administration and City Hall.
He said if something is needed, they make the decision to do it, assess it with city administrator, get bids out, inform the council what’s being done, they say what can or can’t do, and the department heads work hard to not leave anybody out.
If a problem comes up, Berry said he can’t wait on the aldermen, who may be at work, to make a decision.
An example was an emergency with the lagoon as Berry said he couldn’t get anyone from council to go to the reservoir on that day to see what was going on. Mayor Kuda said he went out there but not that day.
Mayor Kuda said it is important that he and the council were informed on situations like that so they can give answers to constituents.
He noted about the CSI windows recently being broken out and he didn’t know about it until two days later.
“Everybody should be kept into the loop when it happens,” Mayor Kuda said.
Alderman Dunn then talked about how he would like to see the City of Vandalia run like the City of Bowling Green.
Utilities Superintendent Aaron Rentfro quickly responded as he noted how his father-in-law lives there and all of the concerns with what is going on in Bowling Green with paved streets with holes, cutting of police department staff, etc.
“It’s not the cherry the mayor says down there,” Rentfro noted.
Berry said to Alderman Dunn that the trend is all the jobs are moving to the bigger cities. He said the trend is that many little downtowns are empty and not what they were years ago.
He said that’s not the city administration’s fault.
Alderman Dunn said he heard from several different people that folks didn’t want the ethanol plant in the past due to smell. Rentfro asked him if he knew that for a fact or if was something he just heard.
“You question and take the blame off the city but the system sucks;…the present system we have,” Alderman Bontz said.
Berry said to ask the employees who are there every day how the system works and they will tell the council something different.
“Don’t you think it’s time to change it?,” Alderman Bontz said.
“No, it works,” Berry said.
“It doesn’t look like it works to me,” Bontz responded.
“You haven’t even been an alderman for 30 days yet,” Berry responded back as he quickly apologized as it wasn’t his plan to talk much in the meeting. “…But this is ridiculous. You have no experience with being an alderman in this town and yet you want to come in here and change everything. There is a good system going on…You sit here and say that we are run by the city administrator as department heads…you’re wrong because you haven’t talked to us yet.”
Alderman Bontz said there is an ordinance in the book that the council is not suppose to interfere with employees.
“You can’t come and talk to us?,” Berry said.
Berry asked Alderman Dunn and Mayor Kuda, haven’t they came down to talk to him in his office?
Mayor Kuda re-focused the meeting and said this is just a discussion, which is the purpose of the meeting.
Alderman Bontz says something needs to be changed in the community as all of those he’s talked to are not happy with the city.
Street Superintendent Dave Hamby said he’s lived in several small towns and he said folks in small towns will down play the police department and the city government as they do it on the state and federal level as well.
He noted that folks don’t see the whole picture.
Alderman Bontz said it’s the city government’s fault. He said the city needs to do a better job of getting news releases to the newspaper to benefit all of the city.
“I don’t think you have a real grasp on the entire situation,” Hamby said. “With all due respect, you don’t know what you don’t know.”
“But I’m trying,” Alderman Bontz said.
Hamby said one person can’t come into office and say they have all the answers.
“I have ideas, not answers,” Alderman Bontz responded. “That’s the problem with the board we need to discuss, we need to have these conversations with department heads, we need to talk. We’ve got to talk about things. They don’t do that. You are great department heads, there’s no doubt. But ask the citizens what you did last year. They don’t have a clue.”
Alderman Bontz then said it doesn’t look like folks are doing some work, noting a pot hole not being fixed in front of his mom’s house for two years.
“There’s not a pot hole in this town that’s been there for two years…that’s absolutely not true,” Hamby responded.
Hamby said he wasn’t going to deny the streets need to be improved on but reminded the council that the infrastructure under the streets is 100 years old.
He said it takes money to fix the infrastructure, like doing work every time there is a water leak.
Alderman Bontz said this was a brainstorming item to discuss possibly having a finance/budget manager to do grant writing or to get a person specializing in communications as a program specialist/public relations.
No more discussion was held.
Property Demolition Program
Mayor Kuda said he counted about 44 places in Vandalia a few weeks ago that could be labeled as “1” needing to be torn down on homes like Pershing, Limit, etc. (many of the ‘brick plant’ houses).
He said he would like to get a person from each Ward on a committee to see what houses need to be addressed in each Ward.
An example noted if there is $50,000, if house is torn down, taxes and debts are paid, perhaps an incentive could be given for tearing down the home.
Discussion was then held on the process of the city’s role in how currently homes are being torn down.
City Attorney Rost said there is sometimes a special tax bill put on the property that needs to be paid but then no one wants to buy it due to a tax lien.
It was noted that some of the problems with the run-down homes/properties is they don’t have clear chains of title, as pointed out by City Attorney Rost.
“There should be some procedure for the city to go in and demolish those houses,” Alderman Dunn said.
City Attorney Rost noted there are a lot of constitutional issues on taking somebody’s property.
“How are you ever going to clean the city up?” Alderman Dunn said. “It just keeps deteriorating.”
Alderman Weiser referenced a memorandum sheet provided to the board last year to discuss the information. He asked City Attorney Rost to provide the memorandum to the new board members.
Mayor Kuda said perhaps a focus can be made on properties with a clear title.
“There has to be some fair system in that we can develop a program,” Alderman Dunn said as some folks feel they are being picked on by the police department with abatements.
It was noted that grass over eight inches tall warrants an abatement issue being noticed.
Lighting on Walking Track
Alderman Dunn noted concerns about the west end of the track at Tri-County Park and the need for lighting.
He said former Alderman Jim Jungers said it was agreed to put lighting on the track many years by the city.
Alderman Dempsey Dixon said he remembers that lights were suppose to be out there for the walk.
Staff said they will investigate that past decision.
Alderman Dunn said it is a safety issue and citizens should feel safe on the track.
Rentfro was asked to look into the issue to find out what lights could be purchased for the track. He did note that the money will have to come from somewhere to pay for the lights.
Adding a second meeting every month
Alderman Bontz said he thought a second meeting a month would be good for brainstorming and coming up with ideas.
Mayor Kuda talked about the importance of Ward residents going to their councilperson to share their concerns on issues so they can be brought up at meetings.
Mayor Kuda said the council could try the extra meeting for a couple of months if the council chose to do so.
“We’re just trying to make Vandalia a better place,” he added.
He also said he doesn’t tell any of the council members how to vote.
The item is now going to be put on next week’s agenda for further discussion.
“Including the department heads,” Alderman Bontz noted. “I like hearing from them even though I don’t agree with them.”
Before the meeting closed, employee Mike Smith said he first worked for the city in 1980 and was on five years under that government structure.
After coming back to the City of Vandalia, he’s worked under the current Third Class system with a city administrator.
“I hope you all carefully consider keeping an administrator position for the city because I do not wish to return to the five year thing that I did the first time I was with the city,” Smith said.
“…That was awful conditions to work for and it’s been much better under the city administrator than it ever was when I worked here the first time.”
After the meeting ended, the council went in to Executive Session to discuss the search for City Administrator and Chief of Police.
No decisions were reported at press time.