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We’ve probably all had our fill of national politics.  I know I have, so I thought I’d turn to something that is hopefully a little less absurd – local politics, as in the city council, school board and park district.  All three have a greater impact on our lives than anyone in the White House does, assuming that person in the White House doesn’t blow up the world.  I can’t give any guarantees, considering one of the candidates.

Just little hints are beginning to surface on how the local races will present themselves.  For the city council, the seats of Jerry Dawson, Chris Funk, and Pat McDaniel are up for election in 2017.  The mayor’s seat is also up for election, currently held by appointed mayor Julie Moore-Wolf, who took the seat after the death of Mayor McElroy.  Dawson is the only one that has indicated that he will not seek reelection.

As far as who the challengers will be for those seats, there’s not much to go on just yet.  Chris Riley, who is currently an elected commissioner serving the park district, is the first to publicly throw his hat in.  If he wins then his seat with the park district will be open, assuming his term is about up.  I believe it is.

The school board is kind of a mess at the moment.  After the fiasco of not renewing the contract of a superintendent most people felt was doing a good job, not many people are pleased.  Admittedly, I’ve never followed the school board that well.  It’s enough to try to keep up with the city council and park district but I know there’s a lot of discontentment out there with the school board.  I’m not sure who will seek reelection and who the challengers will be.  I think everybody is ducking for cover at the moment.

If social media comments, and just my personal conversations with Decaturites means anything, there’s quite a few people not terribly impressed with the city council.  Several increased taxes, some decisions that didn’t sit well with much of the electorate, and a very unpopular city manager hasn’t made this bunch the most beloved council of all time.  I’m not just hearing dissatisfaction among the usual naysayers but of people who usually are much more positive, so it’s different this time.  The only council member that is getting any love at all is Bill Faber.

Since I have been writing this blog for so long, I’ve been through quite a few elections and I’ve learned the type of candidate that usually wins and those that don’t. Without serious name recognition in the community, it is very hard to win.  I’ve seen candidates pour a lot of money into yard signs,  billboards, and commercials and still lose big time.  Labor candidates have a hard time because there’s not many union-affiliated folks out there anymore.  Minority candidates generally have it tough too.  Not many people come out to vote for municipal elections but those that do generally are well-informed.  They follow city politics religiously. So, if you don’t know the issues well, you’ll be found out.  That’s the number one reason why many candidates have failed.

I still remember one interview on the radio in which a candidate’s answer for everything was getting rid of parking meters downtown.  High unemployment?  Parking meters.  Neighborhood woes?  Parking meters.  Cancer?  Parking meters.  It was too painful to listen to.  There’s been some horrendous candidates in the past and unfortunately some won!  And there’s been some that I think deserved more serious consideration and went away wounded.  One thing is certain – it’s always interesting.

 

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Tonight the city council will likely make a decision on the rezoning request for the new owners of Northgate Mall.  U-Haul purchased the property several months ago and is seeking to turn it into a a major rental center.  This requires rezoning to M-1 Intense Commercial/Light Industrial District.  The planning commission has recommended the proposed changes, while city staff is recommending denial.  City staff feels that the location is ideal for retail development due to its location and the U-Haul center would completely change the character and vision for a high-traffic commercial corner.

The plan as I understand it from reading the council agenda is that the former K’s Merchandise building would be a climate controlled storage center and the former Hollywood video store would be the retail front for U-Haul.  Rental trucks and cars would be parked in front of the old video rental store along Water Street and possibly the lot to the north.  I’m not clear on that one.

I’m reserving judgement until I hear more at the meeting.  Pershing Road has seen significant development and redevelopment in just the past 5 years and new things are coming.  If my sources are right, northsiders should be happy with what is coming to the former Maverick Steak House lot.

A vacant motel was recently torn down directly across from Northgate Mall on Pershing and is generating interest by new retailers.  Now if we can just get rid of that old car wash but that’s another story…

Other changes have occurred on Pershing in the past few years.  New development has occurred in front of the former WSOY radio station where several new buildings have been constructed.  The lot on the corner of Jasper and Pershing Road, which formerly had a car wash is also seeking rezoning in tonight’s meeting and new retail will likely be locating there soon.   So, a lot of development has recently happened or soon will be happening on Pershing Road.  Now, the city council has to decide if U-Haul’s request is a good decision for the continued redevelopment of the area.

I think if the rezoning request came a couple years ago, the decision probably wouldn’t be so difficult but since Decatur is seeing significant new interest in this part of town, it’s not so easy.  I’m leaning towards supporting the approval of the zoning change but it depends upon what impact it will have upon the desirability of other large vacant spaces in the mall.  If the lot is going to be full of U-Haul trucks, rental cars, trailers and so forth, how does that jibe with other types of retail?  That’s my concern.  If some type of landscaping changes could be made separating the U-Haul parking lot from whatever might come to the rest of the shopping center, I’d be in favor.  I think the impact would be minimal with some attractive, clever traffic flow changes making each area distinct.  As the lot looks now, I think it would look odd.

Below:  How it looks now.

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And the proposed changes: (click on image for larger view), courtesy of the agenda packet:

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UPDATE:  Okay, I watched most of the discussion last night regarding the development and I think I would have approved the rezoning.  I realize it’s a prime commercial retail location but I don’t think this would have jeopardized future development elsewhere in Northgate Mall, or along Pershing Road.  Another issue is now that U-Haul owns the property, what are they going to do with it now that they can’t operate the type of business they would like to?  Are they going to sit on it for years like the previous owners did?  That issue wasn’t addressed last night.  I hope it works out but I think the council made a hasty decision.  I feel something could have been worked out to the benefit of all.

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Haines & Essick’s Closing

I was bummed when I learned that Haines & Essick’s was closing in Decatur.  It’s really the only store I regularly shopped at downtown.  It was always a nice escape during a busy week.  You just don’t get the same feeling shopping in a Walmart.  Walmart could be more entertaining but shopping in downtown was therapy, especially after shopping at Walmart.  Mostly, I enjoyed taking my kids there because it was a unique Decatur experience.  The old building, the squeaky floors, the musty basement smell filled the senses with time and history.  I hope another retailer or a few smaller retailers, assuming it will likely be divided up into smaller units, will fill the space.  I’d hate to think that I’ll never be able to step foot in that building again.  So much of old Decatur is gone and I don’t want to lose what little is left.

Decatur, You’re Killing Me!

Speaking of losing what little is left, I feel like my heart is being stabbed with a dull butter knife every time I drive through the intersection of Pershing and MacArthur.  Recently, two corner lots were rezoned for commercial purposes and that means dozens of old oaks are going to be cut down.  I actually wrote city council members about preserving those trees a few years ago because I knew, sooner or later, it would be targeted by a developer.  I tried to save them.  I can’t stand seeing them go.

Decatur Needs a Roadmap

Something that has become very apparent to me over the past year is that Decatur lacks a clear plan for development because some residents are left wondering if their neighborhood is safe from future changes.  The intersection of 51 and Ash Avenue comes to mind.

Residents were opposed to commercial development in their neighborhood, and a plan to develop in that area was shot down but it’s likely new fights will come.  In fact, our mayor said so.  What would be helpful would be a clearly communicated plan for future development and redevelopment.  It would avoid a lot of bad feelings and potentially derailing development that would be good for the city.

I think we should sit down with a map of Decatur and go through every single part of the city and state what our future objectives are.  The entire community should be involved.  Areas that we want to develop, get them ready for development.  Areas that we want to preserve, preserve them.  Areas that we want to redevelop, get a plan in place to do so.  Nobody should be left wondering what may become of their neighborhood.  I think it would be helpful for prospective new businesses too.  They would know they aren’t going to be up against a fight to locate in an area specifically designated for commercial development.  Yeah, we have zoning regulations that kinda does that but as we know, areas can be rezoned and that process can be very ugly and leave a lot of people disgusted with the city.

Most of all, I would like to see a plan in place that is going to ensure that those areas of the city that are stable and attractive to residents remain that way.  I want to ensure that those areas that need improvement are going to get it.  We’ve had too many examples of disrupting areas that are functioning well, especially on the north side of town.  I sure as heck don’t want our northside to become a congested commercial area, similar to Springfield’s west side.  It’s downright scary to drive over there and it looks terrible too.  Zero character.

We clearly need a plan for our northside that preserves what is good and develops in areas that make more sense.  For instance, getting a bridge over 72 on MLK would open up that area to development, and I don’t think many people would be opposed to it.  I know councilman Dawson has been pushing for a bridge for several years.  I’d like to see it happen too, rather than taking out a desirable neighborhood.  I think the neighborhood presents to outsiders what’s good about Decatur.  It’s welcoming.

Anyway, I think I’ve written enough for now and I need to get back to my ichthyology paper but it was so nice to write about Decatur again.  My months spent away from blogging about Decatur were downright miserable.

 

 

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I just realized I had maintenance mode enabled on my blog for the past couple months.  Whoops!  Well, I haven’t had time to write anyway but I didn’t intend to fall off the face of the earth.  As usual, I’ve been busy with school.  I’m taking a full class load at Oregon State this quarter and I figured I’d be stretched then and stressed out of my head, and I was right!  It’s been crazy.  I’ll be busy this summer again too but I’ll only be taking three classes instead of five, so hopefully I’ll be able to come up for air more often.  I’ll be graduating this time next year and, boy, I can’t wait!  It’s been such a long, challenging journey.  If I knew it was going to be such a sacrifice, I’m not sure I would have gone back to college.

Anyway, there’s been some things going on in Decatur that I haven’t addressed.  There’s still a lot more things I’d like to write about over the summer, and I should be able to get to them.

Residency Requirements

The city council has brought up the issue of residency requirements for city employees.  In fact, I believe they went ahead and either passed or are going to pass requirements for new non-union employees to live in the city.  When contract talks come up, I’m sure it will be discussed with city employees represented by unions, and I bet that will go over well!

First of all, the numbers are quite dismal of city workers living in Decatur.  I believe the number is right around 50 percent.  What does that say about Decatur?  Well, it’s not really a unique situation for a city the size of Decatur, surrounded by several bedroom communities, offering newer homes and schools with better ratings.  However, I think Decatur can be competitive with the right kind of strategy.

Over a year ago, I suggested the city plan new ideas for our older neighborhoods.  It included capitalizing on renewable energy and sustainable housing.  So, I was happy to learn that the city is investing in some new homes near Oakwood that will act as models for what could be for that area.  I think it’s a great idea and hopefully home buyers will show some serious interest, and persuade private home builders to get in on the act.  Across the country, in many cities, there is a return to city living.  Yes, people want nice homes with modern floorplans but they also want to be able walk to entertainment, safe parks, natural areas, schools, restaurants, etc.  In other words, they want to feel like they are a part of a community, can contribute to their community, and be good stewards of the earth, all at the same time.  Urban sprawl is akin to using asbestos in our homes.  We know both are dumb ideas.

So, do I think there should be a residency requirement for city workers?  Yes, and I’ll explain why.  The most important reason to me is that you care most about the city you live in.  A city worker, who lives elsewhere isn’t going to have the same concern or passion for Decatur as I do.  They don’t have they same level of commitment.

Sure, they can care about the city but it’s a bit like dating versus being married.  If you’re dating someone, you’ll care when their dog gets sick.  You’ll probably show genuine compassion and hope the dog pulls through.  But if you’re married to that person and it’s now your dog too, and you’re helping pay the vet bills and cleaning up the puke at 3 am, then you’ve entered a whole other level of commitment and caring.  The two situations are totally different because the point of view is totally different.

It’s like when I lived at home and my parents paid all the bills, cooked my food, and made sure everything was safe and sound.  I reaped the benefits of that situation.  It was great!  I didn’t know how great until I moved out and had to pay my own bills, wash dishes I had dirtied, and walked around the house with a baseball bat at night when I thought I heard someone outside my window.  Getting paid by city tax dollars and living it up somewhere else is a bit like visiting your parents house, eating their food, messing up their kitchen, and then going back home to watch Netflix.

So, yes I believe city workers should live in Decatur, especially anyone in a management role.  I think there should be special exceptions, and those can be ironed out, but I think if you’re going to serve a city, you should be part of that city.  As a public servant you are more than an employee.

The only city workers I would have an absolute requirement to live in Decatur are those in management positions.  I’d rather use financial incentives for other workers than strict requirements.

In a country where politicians make our skin crawl, we can at least demand better of ourselves.  It should be an honor to serve the public, not a chore.  It should be an honor to live in the city you represent, not a punishment.  But yes, the city has work to do to make the city a more attractive place to live.  I understand that but city workers can be part of that solution.

 

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The city of Decatur has submitted a motion to dismiss the claims by former police chief Brad Sweeney, who was terminated by City Manager Tim Gleason.

First, a little background information is helpful here.  Sweeney claims that he was fired for refusing to support the motor fuel tax recently approved by the city council and for calling Gleason out on having a police officer drive him to the St. Louis airport in a police squad car for a personal trip, which is a misuse of city resources and a violation of municipal laws. Sweeney allegedly confronted Gleason after the event and told him that such a misuse would not be tolerated again and after the confrontation their professional relationship became contentious.  At least that’s what I got out of all the allegations.

So, Sweeney filed a lawsuit against Gleason and the City of Decatur for wrongful termination, citing, amongst other things, the Whistle Blower Act.

The city’s motion to dismiss isn’t a denial or admittance of wrongdoing on Gleason’s part but rather an argument that Sweeney doesn’t qualify as a whistle blower legally because he didn’t start blowing the whistle until after he was fired, essentially.

The motion claims that Sweeney committed a Class 3 felony “since he failed to arrest or cause to be arrested all persons who are found violating any municipal ordinance or any criminal law of the state.”

The motion tries to paint Sweeney as a public servant failing to carry out his duties but in the process paints the city manager as equally as guilty of the same offense, in my opinion.  It reminds me of one of my high school friends who reported to a police officer that another car that had passed him on Brush College Road had to be going over 100 mph because he was going 85 himself when the car passed him in 40 mph zone.  Whoops!  Did I say that?  The motion doesn’t admit wrongdoing on Gleason’s part but by arguing that Sweeney committed a felony by not enforcing municipal laws that the current city manager broke, isn’t the city manager also admitting guilt in a roundabout way?  If so, shouldn’t the city manager be terminated from employment as well?  And if the city manager did misuse city resources then why is the city council so eager to stand in his corner?

This all comes across as a big steaming pile of poo no matter how it is presented.  It’s not good for the city’s image. The city council needs to seriously consider whether it is in the city’s best interest to continue with Gleason’s employment as city manager.

I don’t think it is in the city’s best interest to keep Gleason, and not because of the recent tax increases, which none of us like, but because of the level of trust that is gone.

Here is a link to the full motion:  http://www.nowdecatur.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2016/02/complaint-city.pdf

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