As aldermen expressed different views about reopening Vandalia’s small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the mayor and legal counsel said the city’s stance is unchanged.
That stance is neither telling businesses that it’s OK to reopen or should not reopen at this time.
“I support the businesses and I told them our opinion,” Mayor Rick Gottman said.
“And I just don’t know what other direction to turn to other than I turn to our attorney,” he said. “And he says, keep on the path you’re going – you’re not saying ‘yea’ (about opening small businesses), you’re not saying ‘nay,’ you’re taking your own risk based on the governor.
“I can’t control what the governor of this state does or any of the legislature or any of that. It’s my opinion that we stay on our pace, as the attorney recommended,” Gottman said.
City Attorney Ryan Connor drafted late last week a document that puts that opinion in writing.
In that document, Connor said that the Back to Business plan drafted by Illinois Republicans and approved by the Fayette County Board last week “has prompted questions from government officials and residents of Vandalia.”
He said that legal challenges to Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive orders as to the coronavirus pandemic have been “initiated in at least three state-level trial courts,” and believes those will be “litigated over the coming months, perhaps in the U.S. District Court.”
Connor states that he had spoken with a representative from the city’s insurance provider. “I wish to take this opportunity to advise you that I believe your insurance company is unlikely to defend any action inconsistent with the executive orders resulting from COVID-19-related claims, and that coverage will also not be extended.”
“It is therefore my recommendation that you continue with your prior course of action, which is to encourage your constituents to follow the Governor’s Orders and to refrain from taking any official action not consistent with those orders,” Connor states in the document.
“This would include leaving the campground and marina areas as they have been until executive orders allow their opening,” he said.
“The best way to not incur liability is the best way to protect yourself, which is to continue to exist in that environment,” Connor told aldermen on Monday night.
He understands that some are in favor of opening the marina and campground. “I know you want to open your camping areas, and I want you to be able to, but, unfortunately, you’ve been left in a position with the governor’s orders that could endanger you for taking a contrary position,” Connor said.
Alderman Steve Barker asked about opening the marina for such things as boat license and fuel sales, due to the high use of the lake during Memorial Day weekend, and Connor initially said that that’s “the easier question” due to it would not have people gathered in one place.
Then, Alderman Russ Stunkel, chairman of the lake committee, said there are a number of issues about opening the marina and campground for Memorial Day, even if it were allowed at this point.
Stunkel said that there’s not much time for Public Works Director Marlin Filer and lake Manager Rob Schukar to get the grounds ready, that employees would be needed to clean the campground bathrooms and sell licenses and fuel, that there are no supplies available for sale at the lake and that the city would need to have lake patrol on duty.
To that, Connor said that doing all of those things increases the possibility of people gathering in one location, in violation of the executive orders.
Alderman Andy Lester spoke on the possibility of the state moving into Phase III of recovery by the end of the month.
“Things are changing every day, as you’re saying,” Lester said. “If something would happen, mayor, the next five or six days, all of a sudden we could open that up, we would move towards that, correct?”
“Oh, I’d be jumping for joy,” Gottman said, adding that he would do everything possible to let aldermen and city residents know of the change.
Alderman Ken Hubler said small businesses need to be reopened.
“This is my thought, mayor – if we don’t get something going within weeks, not months, all we’re going to have left here is Walmart,” Hubler said.
Lester agreed. “I still see no reason why some of the downtown shops can’t operate in the same way Rural King or Walmart, people coming and going with safety measures as is taking place in those other places,” he said.
Gottman said that those who don’t agree with the governor’s executive orders need to call him to express their displeasure.
Barker and Hubler asked for his phone number, and Gottman said he provided that several weeks ago.
Alderman Dorothy Crawford became the first person to agree with the governor’s decisions on shutting down the state.
“I’ve kept my mouth shut, for the last six weeks and I’m kind of done with it,” Crawford said.
“I’d like to remind everyone that the reasons they’re part of the state is and has been and remains a low risk area is because of the stay at home orders that were put in place that stopped the traffic on 57 and across seven days right through here.
“Because, until that was put in place, you could fit on the DPH website and literally watch it travel down the interstate. We got locked down before it got here,” Crawford said.
“I would much rather look back at this and have it appear that we overreacted because no one got it. Then be sitting here, as we thought we were going to do in March.
“Looking back on 2 percent of our city population that (have contracted the disease), we can rebuild businesses. We can’t give people back their parents and their spouses and their children,” she said.
“And the fact that we don’t have to put us in probably the best position we could possibly be in. If you pay attention to what’s happening around the country in Florida in Texas places that have opened, people that have decided to stay at home orders and gathered in large groups, 10-14 days later, you see such massive spikes that 14 days after Texas opens. They saw the single largest daily death toll they’ve had yet,” Crawford said.
“This is not over. I know the businesses are hurting, believe me, we’re all hurting. I know that we have people in this town that cannot pay their rent. I know we have people in this town that can barely afford food. We have people that are about to be kicked out of their homes, I get that. I understand that, but they’re alive.
Without what we’ve had in place from the governor since March 20, a large percentage of them wouldn’t be. And I just wanted to get some perspective on that, because I’ve lost people to this thing all over the country,” Crawford said.
“And I couldn’t stand to watch people that live in this town go the same way my friends have. I mean, the two people that we lost who bad enough; the fact that we’re not missing 150 right now is pretty damn impressive,” she said.
Also at the meeting:
• The council approved the hiring of Andy Vaughan as the city’s building and zoning official.
Vaughan succeeds Dan Barenfanger, who will be retiring.
Vaughan will be paid a salary of $20.50 for the part-time position. He will work up to 1,000 hours annually.
• The council voted 7-1 to move Danielle Payne, an employee in the city clerk’s office, from part-time status to full-time, with Alderman Mike Hobler casting the dissenting vote.
Hobler said that he didn’t feel it was a good idea, based on what’s going on with the pandemic, to add more expenses, including salary and benefits.
City Clerk Peggy Bowen said that Payne has been working in her office for about three years and has gained valuable experience during that time.
Aldermen Russ Stunkel and Steve Barker gave the same argument in agreeing with Bowen.
• The council approved the hiring of Jeff Storey as a water plant operator.
• The council voted to approved the request to extend the city’s Tax Increment Financing agreement with Witness Distillery owners Rick and Cindy Radliff until Sept. 2.
The Radliffs cited delays such as the delivery and installation of a range exhaust hood for Blind Society and a delay in workers being able to come in to install an elevator lift.
• The council voted to accept ownership of the Greater Fayette County Chamber of Commerce’s electronic signboard on the Tourist Information Center property.
Alderman Bret Brosman asked who would have the responsibility of programming the messages on the signboard, and Gottman said that it will City Administrator LaTisha Paslay and Tourism Director Jessica Hampton, and that the city is working on a fee structure for messages.
• The council accepted the bids totaling $23,029 from Clay Chandler for sidewalk improvements at Edwards and Seventh streets, Tower and Eighth streets (north and south), and St. Louis Avenue and Fifth Street.
• The council approved the transfer of Vandalia Lake lot No. 23 from Tim and Sherry Dunahee of Vandalia to Dorcas Thompson of Brighton.