Columbia may cut committees

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The first full meeting of the newest Columbia City Council focused on adjusting to change.

Two items of lengthy discussion Monday night involved the extension of outdoor dining in Columbia and updates to the council’s committee structure.

Columbia City Administrator Doug Brimm notified the council that the “temporary authority” that allowed restaurants to have outdoor dining had lapsed as a result of the state moving into a “Bridge to Phase 5” as part of the Restore Illinois COVID-19 mitigation effort.

Since the resolution allowing outdoor dining in the city was written to expire at the end of Phase 4, the bridge phase nullifies action taken by the council last year, Brimm explained. 

During discussion, Ward IV Alderman Mary Ellen Niemietz noted that “things  seem very transitional now” and uncertainty about future restrictions were a concern.

Ward I Aldermen Doug Garmer and Jay Riddle also spoke in favor of allowing businesses flexibility to maintain operations should new restrictions arise.

Brimm and Columbia Director of Community Development Scott Dunakey proposed three options to extend outdoor dining that could be explored at a future meeting, and the council voted to extend the existing variance for restaurants 60 days.

Another item of discussion involved a desire to “clean up the code” and reorganize the council’s committee structure. 

Brimm said he wanted to “abolish” existing committees with the exception of the Committee of the Whole. He noted that the 15 committees created in 1990 were reduced to eight in 2017 and he believed those committees had outlived their usefulness.

Brimm continued by pointing out the mayor can “appoint special committees as needed,” giving upcoming consideration of Public Safety Complex updates as a potential example of when that caveat would be applicable.

Niemietz wondered if getting rid of the committees would give aldermen enough time to explore items before taking action on them at meetings.

Brimm responded by pointing out the current method of introducing items as “new business” gives everyone at least two weeks to consider an item before a vote and has “slowed the legislative process intentionally.” 

Further, he said the Committee of the Whole has served as a “work session” for items that need more discussion, such as the recent budget approval, and that items on the consent agenda are “of a routine nature.”

Dunakey said the Committee of the Whole structure saved time and was more productive as it allowed everyone to hear explanations at once and also promoted further discussion. 

Brimm also noted that the council would still have the expertise of aldermen even if the committees no longer existed. For example, Ward II Aldeman Mark Roessler, a certified public accountant, would still be available for consultation even if he were not head of a finance committee.

Another change necessitated by COVID restrictions is a further delay of the Creekside Park Project. 

Columbia City Engineer Chris Smith reported that the city would be withdrawing from an Illinois Department of Natural Resources grant to fund the park since the grant did not allow for a “reduced scope,” but the city would not be penalized for withdrawing and is eligible for the next round of grants.

“It’s unfortunate, but we had a lot of things stacked against us in October” when the project was being planned, Smith said.

Smith also reported that he, Columbia Mayor Bob Hill and Brimm attended a virtual meeting of the Illinois Transportation Planning Committee where it was learned Phase II of the Ghent Road improvement project was recommended for funding in the amount of $552,000.

The council also approved a special event permit for the July 4th Celebration to be held in the American Legion Memorial Park this summer. The event was cancelled last year due to COVID restrictions. The July 4th Committee announced that some aspects, such as the “kid’s games and contact events had to be eliminated this year,” but there will be food and drink, a washers tournament, music, kid’s BBQ competition and a fireworks display at dusk.

At the beginning of the meeting, two retiring city employees were recognized for their contributions to the city.

Steve Miller worked with the Columbia Department of Public Works for 37 years and Jackie Hausmann worked with the city’s administrative department for 15 years.       

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