An Effective City Council?

Tuesday night the Batavia City Council did something amazing: they listened to the people, they asked questions, they thought for themselves, they pushed back against Staff (and the Mayor), and they did good. They did their jobs representing the citizens of Batavia.

Now, it shouldn’t be amazing that an elected council does its job, and really it isn’t for this current council. They make good decisions the vast majority of the time, but most of their decisions are mundane, ordinary, nuts-and-bolts decisions. Tuesday was different.

The first topic of interest they shined on was the school and park districts’ requests for increased impact fees on developers. The districts gave no justification for the large increases. Mr. John Pitz, longtime resident of Batavia, developer, and former school board member (first elected 37 yrs ago), submitted a list of 11 questions that should be answered before any increases are made, along with a letter (starts p. 20) explaining the history and purpose of Batavia’s impact fees. Says Mr. Pitz:

It would be prudent for the City to request that the School District and Park District provide:

  1. an audit as to how the Ordinance dollars, collected from year 2000 to present, were spent by the School District and the Park District
  2. how future Ordinance dollars will be spent by the Districts
  3. the anticipated residential construction over the next 5 years
  4. enrollment figures, for elementary, middle, and high schools, for the last 6 years
  5. the school population number that would trigger the construction of a new grade school, a new middle school, or a new high school
  6. the location of where the school(s) would be constructed
  7. the time line for deciding a new school is required
  8. time to develop plans for a new school
  9. time to construct a new school
  10. how the construction would be financed
  11. why the Ordinance is required

This information would assist in evaluating the effectiveness of the Ordinance and in determining whether the Ordinance is required.

John Pitz was there to give his comments at the start of the discussion. He said those fees were meant to buy land to build schools, but now with Batavia land-locked, there is little room left for the number of houses that would require new school buildings, especially at the acreage increases the schools requested (80 acres for a high school!).

Mayor Schielke vehemently disagreed, more upset than I’d ever seen him.

Aldermen asked what happens to the money they collect. Staff reported it goes into a separate fund in City accounts and checks are written from there to the appropriate districts. They used to ask for receipts for work done, but not any more. Aldermen didn’t like that. The request by Pitz was enacted by the Council and the matter was sent back to the Boards for answers.

THEN they got to Houston St. City Administrator Bill McGrath and Staff gave a history of the different proposals for the Houston St. Streetscape Project. They said a plan had never been agreed upon. Alderman Susan Stark questioned that assertion. They insisted there was no decision. Alderman Marty Callahan then proceeded to read from the Oct. 8 City Council minutes, including the roll call vote to accept Houston St. Option 1. *slam*

Calm, reasoned discussion followed. In the end, they stuck with the approved plan, Option 1, a sensible plan with separate bike and walking paths, with a strip of concrete between them, but with the addition of some islands for greenery/trees in the strip, between the lampposts. No funky swooshes or obstacles or mixing of bikes and pedestrians.

–A good, and long, evening

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Houston St. Streetscape Goes Psychedelic

Just when you thought the River Street arch monstrosity was one-of-a-kind, I’ve got news for you: if the City Administrator has his way, Houston St. will be….well,….I can’t really describe it……you just have to see it. Go to the 1/20/15 Committee of the Whole (COW) agenda item #4 Houston Street Update: http://www.cityofbatavia.net/content/articlefiles/13448-15-01-15%20Houston%20Street%20Design%20Status.pdf

Don’t bother reading it at first. Just scroll down to the drawings. No, those blue markings are not there as indicators. Yes, they (City Administrator Bill McGrath and “Staff”) would like to put some sort of blue coating in some psychedelic patterns on the ground. And yes, they purposely want to put obstacles in people’s paths as they try to walk down what should be a sidewalk.

The final design that was approved months ago by the City Council was a practical, slight redesign of the street and adjacent space, adding trees along Houston St. and a bike path next to a sidewalk from Island St. up the hill to Rt. 31 (right now the sidewalk ends suddenly in the middle of the hill). They shot down the architect’s poorly thought out elements like a depressed bike path with curbs on both sides (a nightmare especially for children on bikes, or maybe a new water feature during heavy storms!) and going from diagonal to parallel parking (it would have eliminated some of those already too few parking spots). Here’s the original plan that was approved with some modifications as mentioned above: http://www.cityofbatavia.net/content/articlefiles/9674-Houston%20St%20Concept%20Plan%20and%20Section%204%2020%202012%20Final.pdf

The design they had approved was reasonable, as the street itself needs major work with resurfacing and what lies beneath the street. Adding some trees, better lighting, and a pedestrian connection to Rt. 31 while the street is ripped up anyway is OK. Though I personally would prefer to keep the right turn lane at Houston and 31 instead of replacing it with a new sidewalk (there’s a sidewalk on the south side of the street people can use), I’m not going to argue about it.

Then in December the fireworks started. Bill McGrath wanted to bring the architect back in at a cost of $15,000 to supposedly work out some details with the engineer. Several aldermen got very upset. They had gone over the plans for months and months and had settled on a design. Former alderman Steve Vasilion was adamant that he had asked McGrath when the plan was approved if the city’s engineers could handle the modifications, and that McGrath had said yes. Alderman Susan Stark firmly verified what Vasilion said. So why did they need to bring back the architect?

McGrath insisted there were details that required an architect and that the aldermen were not architects and therefore were not capable of making good decisions regarding Houston St.  McGrath pretty much told the aldermen that they were stupid. Now maybe the aldermen don’t use their best judgment when they trust Bill McGrath, but that doesn’t make them stupid. And there WAS an architect on the City Council–Steve Vasilion. Now, less than a month later, Vasilion has been forced to resign, specifically because he is an architect with his own business. Suddenly someone perceived a conflict of interest between Vasilion’s job and serving on the City Council (it should be noted that Vasilion always recused himself on votes where he had any interest).

So the aldermen asserted that this architectural firm, Altamanu (I’ll comment on this name later), would be contracted only to give aid to the city engineers in carrying out their approved plan. You’ll be able to see in the minutes from the COW meetings after they’re approved Tuesday how the battle played out. It was made very clear to Bill McGrath that the City Council did not want a new rendering of a plan. But McGrath disobeyed Council orders and commissioned the drawing of this blue nightmare that’s on the agenda.

But wait! There’s more! “How much will all this cost?”, you’re probably asking. If you now go back and read the top part of the document, McGrath says, “The estimate of probable cost cannot take place until a concept is arrived at.” In other words, “You have to pass it so you can find out what’s in it.”

Please, if you care about preserving the historical appearance of Batavia and especially how your tax dollars will be spent, contact your aldermen. Each ward has 2 aldermen (except for the Vasilion vacancy). Ward maps and email addresses can be found here:
http://www.cityofbatavia.net/Content/templates/?a=692 . Before you hit Send, take a deep breath and remember that the aldermen didn’t come up with this idea, Bill McGrath and Altamanu did.

Now back to Altamanu. The first thing that popped into my head from 4 years of high school Latin when I heard that name was “other hand”, as in “the one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing”. Manus = “hand”; alter = “other” (as in alter ego). But alter isn’t technically correct, as it keeps the “r” as it declines. The proper word that fits here is altus = “high”, as in altitude. The endings even agree in the ablative case:  alta manu = “high hand”, or more loosely, “upper hand”. While the name of the company was actually derived by combining parts of 2 last names, I can’t help but think Altamanu got the “upper hand” on the Batavia City Council (and us taxpayers) twice now–the first time when they designed River Street, and now when they got thousands of dollars for a new design the Council did not want.

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A Ray of Hope

An exciting 3-person team will be on the ballot April 7, 2015 for election to the Batavia School Board:  William “Bill” Gabriel, Ron Rechenmacher, and Michelle Olache. Three seats are up on a board of 7. Eight candidates have filed.

This team was recruited by Batavians for Responsible Government, and became official when Ron Rechenmacher, who had filed as a candidate for both School Board and City Council Ward 6, withdrew from the aldermanic race today.

Even if all 3 of the team were to be elected, that would still not be a majority of the school board, so there is no guarantee the 3 could accomplish any reforms. But there would be a chance for real change in the way the school board/district operates if they could draw just one of the sitting board members to their side on important votes. And it would set up a positive situation for 2017 when the other 4 seats would be up for election.

Below is the press release issued by Mr. Rechenmacher:

December 31, 2014

Rechenmacher to focus on school board; withdraws from city race

Batavia, IL—Batavia resident Ron Rechenmacher has filed papers to withdraw from Batavia’s Ward 6 aldermanic race, leaving his name on the April 2015 ballot as a candidate for the Batavia Board of Education.

On December 15th, Rechenmacher had filed for two ballot positions, knowing he would have to withdraw from one or risk being taken off of both.

“I wanted to be certain that my ward would be adequately represented in the City Council,” said Rechenmacher. “With the empty seat in Ward 6, that was my primary concern. Seeing that another candidate had filed and having met with him, I feel comfortable that I can now turn all my attention to the school board.”

Rechenmacher was recruited by Batavians for Responsible Government to form a team with candidates Michelle Olache and Bill Gabriel to run for the three available school board seats.

“Mr. Rechenmacher was initially interested in a position on the City Council,” says BRG spokesperson Sylvia Keppel, “but since he has been made aware of problems at the school district, he has jumped in with both feet, attending school board meetings and researching documents. While each of the team’s candidates can stand on their own, their individual strengths complement each other to form a phenomenal team. One of Ron’s strengths is his understanding of procedure and structure. He clearly understands the function of the board and knows the way to effect change is through policy.”

The team approach to running for school board is a novel one in Batavia. The team’s members share a common platform of lower taxes, more transparency, respect, and effective education. Rechenmacher thinks that the current school board doesn’t listen to the people.

“Parents have concerns about the quality of their children’s education. Teachers have concerns about their working environment. The community has concerns about how tax dollars are being spent on education. There needs to be dialogue. That’s not happening now,” Rechenmacher said. “I hope to change that if the people of Batavia do me the honor of electing me to the school board.”

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Taxpayers Speak, Referendum Fails

The $15 million school district referendum for artificial turf went down in flames. Nearly 74% of voters, over 8500 taxpayers, voted “No” to a plan that was sure to raise taxes further.

Last December, the school board ignored the pleas of 125 citizens who said their taxes were too high and asked to be given a break in the tax levy. Let’s see if they will listen to 8500. The taxpayers have spoken.

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In Response

Lately the refrain of individuals and groups supporting the $15 million Batavia school district referendum has been, “not a tax referendum” or “no tax increase”. In response:

$15 mil humor

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Deja Vu

We’re hearing it again, “It won’t raise taxes”. The Batavia School Board said the same in 2007 when it promised the $75 million bonds referendum for the Batavia Fine Arts Center, the fieldhouse, and other assorted smaller projects would not raise taxes. They shuffled money between funds to pay the debt service until they had no money left and–guess what?–they raised our taxes 11% to pay for the bonds.

Now the School Board (different members, same groupthink) is promising the $15 million in bonds they want for 2 artificial turf fields and other assorted smaller projects will not raise taxes. This time they’re coming right out and saying they intend to shuffle money between funds to pay for the $17 million in capital projects through 2024 not covered under the $15 million bonds (cost of capital projects for the last 10 yrs of the bonds is unknown).

“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

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$15 Million Referendum

On Nov. 4, 2014, residents of the Batavia School District will have the chance to vote on a referendum to issue $15 million in alternate revenue bonds for capital projects, including the Athletic Fields Redevelopment Plan. In plain language, they want roughly $24 million of your tax dollars ($15 million plus interest) to pay for just about all of their athletic fields “vision” plus a number of necessary items like roofs and boilers thrown in to make it look good.

No matter what they say, it IS a referendum on the athletics fields. Their sample list of projects contains all of the Athletic Fields Plan, except for the monument signs and the 2nd artificial turf field. After yesterday’s (8/26/14) noon Finance Committee Meeting, the 2nd artificial turf field can’t be ruled out. And, to leave room for more projects, they’re going to take the maintenance building off of the list (which was never labeled properly as “athletic fields” even though it was part of the Plan, to give the illusion that only half of the $15 million was for the athletic fields).

The maintenance building hasn’t gone away; they’re just going to pay for it out of other sources right now, and that $144,000/yr lease will come out of, well, um, they never said. Don’t worry, they’ll find the money somewhere.

More information can be found at the website of Batavians for Responsible Government.

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