By Carol Stiffler
After extensive research and an advertised public hearing, a shortage of trustees on the Newberry Village Council led to a failed council vote aimed at reducing the number of trustees by two.
The council met on Tuesday, February 15, first in a public hearing to gather the public’s reaction to the idea. One member of the public attended. At the regular council meeting that followed, a two-thirds majority vote was required to pass the resolution to decrease the number of seats on the council. With only five residents currently on the council, it would have taken a unanimous vote.
But long-time trustee Dennis Hendrickson doesn’t like the idea of losing representation on the council, and voted against it. His sole vote in opposition caused a 4-1 tally, and the measure failed.
“I understand that the number of people in the village has declined considerably,” Hendrickson said later. “But I’m still not willing to give up representation. I think it’s just so important to our democracy.”
Law prevents the village from voting on the matter again for a specified period of time, and the result is that there will now be six council positions on the November 2022 ballot. That’s because two seats are vacant, two others are filled with appointed trustees who are required to run for election at the nearest opportunity, and two more have occupants who are at the end of their term.
“I am concerned about the election in November, but my most pressing concern is current vacancies and how this impacts the council’s ability to legislate until November,” said Village Manager Allison Watkins.
Watkins prepared and presented research at the public hearing that showed one of the Newberry village council seats had been filled only 25% of the time in the last eight years. Only one seat – continuously held by Hendrickson – has been filled nonstop during those eight years.
At the November 2020 election, there were five village council seats on the ballot, and only three people ran for office. Two seats were left unfilled, though they were later filled by appointment.
“I am strongly in favor of the reduction in numbers,” Watkins said. “Most municipalities of our size have a five-person governing board.”
Watkins also points to Newberry’s population, which has dropped by about 50% since 1960, she said.
“With a smaller population and cultural shifts in the last decades it has become harder for folks to have time for boards and councils,” Watkins said. “There has been a large shift from decades ago when there were predominantly households where only one parent worked, to now having many more households where couples are both working one or more jobs. Add to that folks juggling extracurricular activities for their kids, and they just don’t have the same time as previous generations did. There just aren’t the same number of individuals available to commit to boards and committees.”
Village President Catherine Freese, also in favor of reducing the number of council seats to five, noted that the Luce County Commission oversees all of Luce County with just five commissioners.
Freese acknowledged that the council has dealt with some hot-button situations in recent years. Audiences at regular meetings sometimes filled to capacity, with tempers flaring. It’s been calmer lately, Freese said, with council members keeping meetings civil, respectful, and productive. The audience has been minimal, and she’s not certain if that’s due to general apathy or satisfaction with the current leadership.
Freese would like to see a steady group of citizens take seats on the board to tackle the major infrastructure projects the village must complete within a number of years. That includes finishing water line replacements, replacing the iconic Newberry water tower, and evaluating and mapping out every utility pole in the village.
“We don’t get paid a lot,” Freese said. “But we get paid more than some.”
Serving on the council will require between four and 10 hours of time per month, Freese said. To serve, a person must be both a Newberry resident and eligible to vote, though not necessarily registered to vote. Those interested in being appointed for the remainder of an existing term are asked to submit a letter of interest.
Hendrickson knows that if more people don’t step forward to serve, it will soon be time to reduce the number of seats on the council. His recent vote against the move was difficult.
“I felt a real weight on my shoulders,” Hendrickson said. “We needed everyone to say yes in order to change it to five. And I couldn’t do it. But I realize everybody else supported it, and I didn’t.”