Abby sees large ‘turnout’ at call-in meeting
Even with a light agenda and social distancing restrictions in place, Abbotsford’s city council saw larger-than-normal citizen participation at its monthly meeting on Monday.
The meeting was the first time the city used the GoToMeeting computer program to allow council members and members of the public to participate remotely by calling in to a designated line.
A total of 16 people took advantage of that option, including Alds. Lori Huther and Brent Faber and 14 other callers who listened in on the proceedings. In addition, three members of one Abbotsford family also attended in person.
In normal times, an in-person turnout of 17 residents would be considered nearly a “packed house” compared to most council meetings.
The issue that seemed to be drawing the most attention was not even on the agenda — the proposed rezoning of five lots on Abbotsford’s north side to make way for two new apartment buildings.
After a March 30 public hearing was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns, opposition to the proposal has surged online and in the neighborhood directly adjacent to the five existing Northside Apartments. “Say NO to REZONING” signs have popped up in the yards of the Sportsmens Estates and elsewhere.
Although the city’s planning commission has not yet decided whether to reschedule the rezoning hearing, city offi cials are trying to prepare for the possibility of a large turnout that may be difficult to host with GoToMeeting.
Ald. Huther, speaking by phone, said she was having difficulty hearing everyone clearly at Monday’s meeting.
“You guys are going to have to come up with a better way for us to hear, because we cannot hear the conversation back and forth,” she said. “It’s going to be very difficult for us to engage in the discussion.”
City administrator Dan Grady said if the planning commission decides to reschedule the rezoning hearing, the city would have to publish advanced notice in the newspaper two weeks in a row before the hearing is held.
When asked if it would be possible to hold a hearing in the larger Public Learning Center at city hall, Grady said that would eliminate the GoToMeeting option because the needed phone connection is in the council chambers.
Grady said the city has tried other technologies for remote participation, but static has been an issue.
Questions and concerns about the city’s public meetings process were also raised at Monday’s meeting.
Darla Viegut, a Sportsmens resident who attended Monday’s meeting with her husband and daughter, questioned city officials about a March 16 planning commission meeting in which the two main agenda items were discussed in closed session. The agenda cited an open meetings exemption for “competitive and bargaining reasons,” and the subject of both items was listed as simply “TIF property” with no further details.
In contrast, a March 4 planning commission meeting featured an open session discussion with a local business owner looking to construct a showroom in the city’s new industrial park.
“The minutes from March 4 look wonderful, just what anyone would expect — due diligence — in any type of process,” Viegut said.
Viegut wanted to know who decides when a discussion should be in closed session and who makes sure the city is following the open meetings law.
Mayor Lori Voss said those decisions are made by herself and Grady, usually in consultation with the city’s attorney.
Ald. Dennis Kramer, who is also a Sportsmen resident, questioned a newly added restriction for public comments that limits topics to those on the agenda. In the past, he said people could come to a meeting and talk to the council about whatever was bothering them.
Kramer acknowledged that this kind of open-ended public comment period opens city officials up to “gotcha” questions, but he thinks loosening the restrictions is worth considering at this point.
“I understand why we do it, but boy, we’re really dissuading people from having anything to say,” he said.
Grady said he would add Kramer’s suggestion to the next agenda for further discussion, but he said citizens already have the option of bringing their concerns to their representatives on the council.
“That’s what you’re elected for; people should come to you with their problems — and they have been — and then you bring it to the council,” he said.
_ Mayor Voss said the state-mandated reorganizational meeting will be held April 21, along with the council’s monthly committee of the whole meeting.
_ Grady said the city’s financial advisors, Ehlers and Associates, are looking into refinancing two of the city’s loans in hopes of bringing down interest rates.
_ The council approved three motions related to the annual First City Days scheduled for August. Ald. Frankie Soto voted against a temporary beer license and an alcohol operator’s license for Dean Wiese, but a street use permit was approved unanimously.
_ The council approved the purchase of a Pro Turn 252 lawnmower from Klingbeil Lumber Co., at a cost of $6,473 after trading in the city’s Ex Mark mower with a value of $2,800. DPW Craig Stuttgen said the Pro Turn has all of city’s desired features and comes with a five-year, 1,250-hour warranty.
“This one will have the least cost of ownership over the life of the mower, and it’ll have better trade-in (value),” he said.
Ald. Kramer wondered why the city was already trading in its current mower after only three years, when most people buy one for a “lifetime.” Stuttgen said it makes more financial sense for the city to trade in its mowers sooner, based on how much use they get.
“It would be a lifetime mower for a homeowner,” he said. “Our lawn guy mows 40 hours a week instead of two hours a week.”
_ The council voted to seek bids for appraising services after Grady told council members that the city’s current appraiser is raising its rate by $2,000, from $9,200 to $11,200. However, he noted that the rate has been the same since 2003.
Grady also pointed out that a newly hired appraising firm may want to do a full reassessment of all the city’s properties, which could result in some residents having to pay more in taxes.