By Sterling McGinn

The village of Newberry will soon be represented by four council trustees and a council president following a move to eliminate two seats.

The council approved the reduction at its regular monthly meeting, amending Ordinance 53A to reduce the council from four trustees to two.

It comes after years of difficulty keeping council seats filled.

Reducing council size has been a hot topic for some time. The idea was presented to the public previously, and a prior vote to shrink the council failed in February. Law prohibited the council from returning to the vote for several months.

The renewed topic was discussed in great length, first in a public hearing held before the regular council session began on Tuesday, September 20.

Five members of the public attended both the hearing and the regular meeting, and all members of the council were present.

The hearing opened with public comments heard from residents Charles “Buzz” Medelis, Jack Olson, Neil Morey, and Terese Schummer, all expressing their concerns in the lack of representation if the vote was approved.

“I want you to know there is one person who is for board representation,” said Jack Olson, who had applied to serve previously, but was not approved to fill the vacancy.

“I disagree with going from six trustees to four. I think diversity is a good thing,” said Charles Medelis. “I commend Dennis Hendrickson for voting no the last time.”

In February, Hendrickson cast the sole vote against reducing the council size.

Citing his concern over lack of representation, Hendrickson’s sole “no”, combined with the two council seats that were vacant at the time, caused the ordinance amendment to fail. A two-thirds majority vote was needed, which would have required all five existing council members to vote in favor.

Vote tallies are based on seven regardless of how many people fill the seats; vacant seats count as “no” votes.

Hendrickson has since changed his mind due to a lack of interest in people wanting to fill the vacant chairs.

“I hate to see the numbers go down,” said Neil Morey. “I think it’s bad for democracy and bad for representation, but if you don’t have anyone stepping up, what are you going to do.”

Clerk Terese Schummer also echoed the others in her concern of reducing council numbers. “I like to see the numbers, but I know we have a hard time getting them in,” she said.

Historically, the council has consisted of six trustees chaired by a president, making the council a seven-member governing board. One of the vacant trustee seats has been empty for about two years and the other vacant seat was not filled until Jeff Puckett was appointed earlier in the year.

One of the main reasons for the interest in reducing council seats is the majority vote needed to pass special items.

“With the village council, the majority is always four…your two-thirds majority is always five regardless of the amount of people on the board,” explained Village Manager Allison Watkins, who gave a presentation at the hearing.

“Over the last several years in particular, where we had situations where we had four members of council, the majority in passing bills and things like that has been a challenge,” she said.

Though the council just approved the reduction, it won’t be in effect prior to the November 8 general election.

There are five trustee seats listed on November’s general election ballot, and only three people running for the five positions. If any other citizens were interested in a position, they will need to run as a write-in candidate.

If there are more than five people on council after the election, then the board will remain at seven until the seats became vacant and not filled.

If no one else runs, the three names on the ballot would join Kip Cameron, who fills a seat that was not up for reelection.

During the regular session, the council voted to move forward with adopting ordinance 53A, with trustee Jeff Puckett voting against the motion.

The ordinance will take effect 45 days after the date of its adoption. If the public objects, a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the village can be filed with the village clerk within the 45 days.

If a petition is filed, the ordinance would take effect upon its approval at the next general village or special election held on the question of whether the ordinance should be approved.

Under terms of the amended ordinance, the council president will be elected for a two-year term at the general election in November and every second year. At this year’s election, and every fourth year, two trustees will be elected for a term of two years. At the following general election, and every fourth year, two trustees will be elected for a term of four years.

In other news, Watkins informed the council that the village was approved for phase 1 of the sewer replacement project. This includes relining of up to 15 blocks of the village sewer system.

The village was offered a $840,000 grant that would cover 50 percent of the $1.6 million, which the village had asked for. In addition, the village was also offered a 30-year loan for $840,000 from the state revolving fund.

“This is unexpected—I thought at most we would see a loan,” said Watkins. “The grant money we are receiving is all from the American Recovery Act that came in through the federal government.”

The Village of Newberry was number 40 on the project priority list. Watkins noted that accepting the funds will require an eventual increase of village sewer rates.

After discussion, the council voted to accept the funds, but not the increase at this time.

Watkins said that she will announce a future rate increase and hold a public hearing where the matter would be voted on in October or November. The proposed sewer increase would be an additional $3 per month.