Recap: Springfield City Council’s Retreat at Lake Springfield

The Springfield City Council held a retreat at the Lake Springfield Boathouse Thursday to address a variety of issues from the procedures of City Council and city operations to the Sunshine Law and discussion of Council priorities.

Below is a running record of items discussed in the meeting along with various comments made by Council members and staff. This is by no means exhaustive of every comment made in the 4-plus hour session, but it does cover the major topics and issues raised in the meetings.

CITY AND COUNCIL OPERATIONS

City Clerk Anita Cotter began the session by going over the City Charter and discussing the way everything in the city is based upon the charter. She spoke on Chapter 2 of the charter which discusses the Council and the obligations of those on the Council. Also the operations of Council, such as tabling or amending bills.

The Council operates normally under Robert’s Rules of Order unless they take specific action to use a different set of rules.

City Clerk Cotter addressing Council members

“A City Council meeting is ultimately a business meeting of the body,” City Clerk Cotter said. “All members should maintain proper decorum during the session. And that applies to everyone, the members of the Council and the public who are attending the meeting.”

She explained the difference between general ordinances and special ordinances; the general being something that can have wide range impact on the city while special ordinances are aimed at individual or very small items and have a limited impact.

Public Hearings versus First Reading bills are different because public hearings have a higher requirement for public notification via legal notice. City manager Jason Gage said that state law is the biggest guideline used to separate what needs a formal public hearing versus input via the open time in regular meetings for first reading bills.

Councilmen Ollis, Lear and Simpson brought up a desire to get more information from the public and community stakeholders during the council’s committee meetings rather than only getting the information before the main council meetings.

Councilman McGull said that whoever runs the council committee can invite people to come and speak to the council committees.

Councilman Hosmer said he’s had citizens tell him they have the impression certain groups in the city get a heads up about events before the general public or other groups are notified that things are taking place. He added that stakeholders need to provide input on changes to policy but that policy shouldn’t be changed before it reaches Council.

“It’s our job to establish policy,” Councilman Hosmer said.

City Manager Jason Gage said that staff has been trying to take all the input from all sides of an issue and bring the salient points to the Council members and provide them with a balance of the public’s opinions on issues. However, Gage said they can pull just the pure information and give it to Council without filter or staff recommendations if that is the desire of Council.

Councilman Schilling suggested that staff provide footnotes in information regarding the stakeholders who have given input on an issue.

Councilman Hosmer said he would like something from staff for what they say is the best recommendation for the city of Springfield but then go on to provide the information from citizens or neighborhoods or other interested parties about the topic.

“We have to do what’s best for the city,” Hosmer said. “Nine times out of ten it’s in line with most of the groups. Staff does an excellent job and the citizens need to know they do a great job.”

SUNSHINE LAW

City attorney Rhonda Louzader gave Council a grounding in the state’s Sunshine Law.

The council was told they can participate in meetings and hearings via a videoconference, however Mayor McClure noted he is not in favor of it in regular Council meetings. He said it’s been done in committee meetings or closed sessions. Louzader noted that it’s legal under state law for a Council member to use videoconferencing.

Councilman Ollis asked about sending out emails to Council on potential actions and whether or not that’s a discussion of public business that needs to be conducted in a public manner. Louzader said that if it’s just an email sent to members without response, it might not be a Sunshine Law issue, but if a member responds it likely becomes a discussion that would have to made available to the public.

Louzader admitted it’s a “grey issue” and she would be willing to do more research about that topic.

City Clerk Cotter noted that the email the Councilman sent would be included in a “media file” that the public would be able to access. She said any email that goes between more than two members of Council falls under the Sunshine Law and the staff would retain a copy of the email.

Louzader noted in her presentation when it came to the public requesting documents or information that the city does not have to create something that the public requests that does not previously exist; they are only legally required to provide what is already established at the time of the request.

The city can charge for Sunshine requests. Ten cents a page and for staff time.

Louzader noted that any action taken by the Council in violation of the Sunshine Law voids action taken in that meeting.

Citizens who feel they were denied access could go to court and if the city is guilty, could pay fines up to $1,000 for an unknowing violation and $5,000 for a willful violation.

Councilman Hosmer said that it might be helpful to have instructions from legal on how much Council members can discuss among themselves on issues via email and other media before they would be in violation of the Sunshine Law.

COUNCIL PRIORITIES

City Manager Gage beginning the brainstorming part of the Council Retreat

City Manager Jason Gage began by setting up a brainstorming session for Council and city staff leadership to go over four major sections of priorities: Legislative, Fiscal Responsibility, Economic Vitality, and Public Safety.

Councilman Simpson brought up talent attraction and retention, noting it might fit under Economic Vitality but that it should be considered as a fifth priority. Mayor McClure talked about the importance of workforce development along with that and seeking to fill the skills gap in the city. Councilman Lear said it might be a major subheading under Economic Vitality because the major headers “are so broad.”

The idea was also created of a category of “Quality of Place.”

“Do you want Springfield, Missouri elevated as high as it can be?” Gage asked. “The reason I ask is that sometimes we forget we’re in a competition. If we don’t know we’re in a competition, we’re not going to win that competition. So we need to figure out how aggressive we’re going to be in trying to win.”

“We have to figure out what we have to do to keep Springfield strong long term,” Gage added.

Mayor McClure mentioned Springfield being a “top tier mid-major city.”

Councilwoman Fisk said that she sees the city mentioned in best places to live and that “we need to appreciate what we have and expand upon them.”

Councilman Schilling said under quality of place that “we need to quiet this city down”, referring to loud vehicles in residential areas in the early hours of the morning, noting that was a “quality of place issue.”

Councilman Lear mentioned Greene County’s open-book management and their transparency portal. He said that the transparency in finances like on their website needs to be something they make a priority.

QUALITY OF PLACE

Gage asked the Council to define what “Quality of Place” means to them.

Councilman Simpson said that talent attraction and retention would fit under Quality and also under Economic Vitality.

Multiple members brought up public transportation and walkability. Councilman Ollis mentioned a community group that is working on a vision for Springfield and perhaps “instead of reinventing the wheel” to examine the document the group created to integrate it in some way.

Ollis said it involved items such as a convention center, completion of Jordan Valley Park, walkability and more.

Councilman Schilling talked about beautification of the city and investing in projects that plant trees in the city and similar actions, especially near major entryways to the city.

Councilman Ollis said that a neighborhood aspect needs to be included when talking about the beautification of the city and maintaining a quality living environment. He cited the removal of nuisance buildings and properties. Councilman Hosmer said that the citizens of Springfield need to be a part of it and be willing to take care of their properties.

“A lot of these issues, we need to have citizens living the way they’re supposed to live in a civilized society,” Hosmer said.

“How do we instill pride in the city?” Councilman Lear then asked.

Hosmer said they have to find ways to motivate citizens to say they’re going to take care of their properties and neighborhood.

Councilman Ollis noted that it has to start with the city and making sure all city properties are in the kind of shape they’d like to see in the other parts of the city.

Councilwoman Fisk said that the city needs to look for ways to be a good partner for citizens and find ways to empower the citizens to make a difference in this area.

LEGISLATIVE ENGAGEMENT

The staff’s definition includes “the deliberate formation of a positive relationship with the city’s local and regional legislative delegation.”

Mayor McClure asked Gage if there was a way to do this “differently or better” to get the results the Council would like to see take place.

“It’s always a challenge,” McClure said.

Gage said that appearances by the actual Council members to testify before committees in the state House or Senate makes a difference because it doesn’t often take place.

“They’re used to hearing from lobbyists,” Gage said. “The next level is staff but they’re also used to us. It does get attention when a city manager comes up because it’s not usually happening but we’re still hired staff speaking on behalf of others.”

Councilman McGull talked about how the city can partner with local groups and organizations on the issues that really matter, like coming together in a coalition with Missouri State, OTC and other educational facilities to testify on issues related to education funding.

“It feels like we’re playing defense more than we’re playing offence,” Councilman Ollis said. “If we could find one or two issues that we could laser focus on it could make a difference.”

Councilman Hosmer said that in the past our local elected officials in Jefferson City had advocated for us.

“I don’t get the feeling our current elected representatives are really advocating for us,” Hosmer said. “There is something to be said for the legislative priorities for the citizens of Springfield. I don’t think [Springfield area representatives] are taking it seriously.”

Hosmer mentioned how it can sometimes be more effective to get a representative from St. Louis or Kansas City who’s familiar with Springfield to advocate for the city.

Councilman Simpson said it feels like the Council always has to go to the local reps to talk about issues instead of them coming to the city on issues that impact the city.

FISCAL SUSTAINABILITY

One of the issues discussed is the pension tax. Gage discussed the possibility of taking the funding from the pension tax, once the obligation is funded, and using that tax for capital improvements. He noted it would require a vote of the citizens, but that it could be proposed to the citizens to keep the current tax or lower it slightly to add to the current capital improvement tax pool.

Gage noted that roads was a major priority in surveys of citizens.

Staff also noted that it was under a specific ordinance and it sunsets in five years or when the pension is 100% funded and the funds can’t be transferred by Council. It would have to only be by a vote of the people.

Councilman Lear repeated his call for more transparency in the budgeting and financial transactions of the city.

Councilman McGull mentioned a federal program that allows cash awards to employees who can find ways for departments to significantly save on the way they conduct their operations while improving the service to the citizens. He suggested perhaps finding a way to incentivize city employees to bring creative new ways to serve the public.

Councilman Ollis talked about the city not always focusing on growing the revenue in the areas where we are currently receiving revenue.

ECONOMIC VITALITY

Gage is highlighting things have been done already to help jump start economic development, such as projects on Kearney Street.

“Economic vitality can mean a lot of things to a lot of people,” Gage noted. “I anticipate the possibility when we’re done, when we say what you want to do, it can cause us to really refine our focus on what we really do.”

Councilman Simpson immediately said addressing the problem with the skills gap in the region is key to economic vitality.

The council is talking about annexation of land and the process of developments. City Manager Gage notes that it’s easier to work with undeveloped areas because you’re working with a developer only on zoning and related issues, versus having to deal with lot by lot after the land has been developed when bringing it in to the city.

Councilman Ollis talked about improvements of infrastructure.

“Sometimes we wait,” he said. “We’re behind private development. We need to be alongside or out front of private development. We need to provide more planning and maybe spur development in areas we want to see developed or redeveloped by being proactive in this area.”

Councilman Hosmer brought up the high cost of utilities and how to bring them in line with development in the city. He cited an example of low income housing which would be virtually useless if the utilities rates are too high for people to afford to live there.

“We need to do things that are not only helpful to [the citizen’s] bottom line but also the city’s,” Hosmer said. “We need to remember that economic vitality is not just the city but also all of the citizens that make up the city.”

He said that we should make sure developers are helping the overall goals of the city, such as public safety, when making developments or redevelopments in the city.

Hosmer also noted that the city doesn’t need to bend over backwards for developers in all situations. He noted that places that are building apartments are likely going to build them regardless of city incentives because they know they can rent those properties. He said they need to focus on the businesses that will create jobs and other economic development.

“We don’t grow economic development by building more apartments,” Hosmer said. “Apartments don’t pay sales tax. We need to focus on businesses that will increase our revenues.”

Several members mentioned the Idea Commons as a great example of a partnership that benefits the city in bringing in higher paying jobs to the community and impacts the Council’s desire to draw and attract top talent to the city. Mayor McClure called it a “model example.”

Councilman Schilling mentioned alternative energy that can be demanded by businesses who might be interested in coming to the region. Mayor McClure mentioned that City Utilities is always open to affordable manners of alternative energy and they will be meeting with them next week on a variety of issues.

Mayor McClure then brought up tourism.

“I think sometimes we take it for granted and we should not,” McClure said, following by mentioning tourist attractions like the Wonders of Wildlife and Route 66.

“We need to enhance our capabilities as a regional tourism destination,” Councilman Lear said.

Hosmer added how sports are a great tourism tool because it can pull in families to the region, not just for Springfield but Branson and surrounding communities.

The Council also discussed the importance of neighborhood revitalization and how the citizens of various neighborhoods can enhance the city’s economic position by opening up spaces for small business and by patronizing small businesses in their neighborhoods.

After a break because they thought they were done discussing economic vitality, Councilman Schilling said that they forgot to mention arts & culture as major economic factor in the Springfield community.

Mayor McClure said that while it does impact our economic vitality, it’s a better fit under Quality of Place.

“It’s the sizzle,” City Manager Jason Gage said. “In the steak that is the city, our arts and crafts are the sizzle.”

PUBLIC SAFETY

Gage noted the increase in staffing over the last 10 years because that has been an ongoing Council priority in this area.

Gage noted significant improvement in the 9-1-1 service in growing by 21 telecommunicators and retaining the staff above the national average.

He also cited the increased training over the last few years that was a Council priority.

Mayor McClure and Councilman Ollis talked about the condition of neighborhoods and if they’re kept clean and in repair, people take a sense of pride and it reduces overall crime.

Councilman Simpson said that mental healthcare needs to be a priority in helping public safety. He said that greater access needs to be provided to the public.

“Many are medicating themselves with the wrong things,” Councilman Schilling said.

Hosmer says there need to be more surveillance cameras around the city. He said that it helps prosecutors and police if they can catch criminals directly on video.

“Let’s make technology work for us,” Hosmer said while also acknowledging there is a cost to get that done.

Hosmer also said there needs to be city-initiated code enforcement on nuisance properties instead of waiting for complaints to take action.

Police Chief Williams gave the Council information about neighborhood watch programs. Hosmer asked if people like bus drivers are being trained and Williams said most of them have had some kind of “see something, say something” training when it came to potential issues related to public safety.

Mayor McClure asked if Council could do more to promote neighborhood watches. Chief Williams said that the Council could promote the program and encourage neighborhoods to be a part of it. The Chief said he can provide Council with information on neighborhood associations that have a neighborhood watch and data connected to those groups.

Councilman Hosmer said that something needs to be done regarding the municipal court. Mayor McClure noted the city’s hands are tied in many ways by “bad state regulations.”

“We’re dealt a bad hand, I agree,” Hosmer said. “But there’s a problem and we’ve got to find a solution.”

Hosmer noted the city can’t afford to jail everyone who commits an offense but that something like a work program or other alternative could be brought in.

Staff noted that right now there is a lot of alternative sentencing taking place in the municipal courts. Hosmer said there needs to be more visible things “like people out in their orange outfits picking trash.”

Staff noted that those situations are up to the judge.

Councilman Simpson asked the police and fire chief if the city is in a good position to attract quality talent and retain them. Fire Chief Pennington said that the fire department is getting some of the best applicants they’ve received, many veterans with experience.

Police Chief Williams said the PD has “bucked the trend” of losing personnel in the last few years and this last class of cadets was full because of the condition of the department.

“We’re doing better than most, almost all, departments around the country,” the Chief said in response to rates of attrition and retention of staff.

The Council asked the fire chief about ISO, the rating that impacts insurance rates in the community, and for the city to go from ISO-2 to ISO-1 there would need to be a significant financial investment in personnel and facilities.

Police Chief Williams talked about outstanding warrants and how he would like to clean up the system in a similar manner to the way the Greene County Sheriff has done.

“We want to get people with warrants before the judge and have justice be done,” Chief Williams said.

Hosmer asked about retired officers coming back and the Chief said there’s really no incentive for them to come back to the department because they won’t regain the seniority and rank they had before retiring from the department.

The Chief was asked about not sending officers to non-injury accidents and having citizens filling out a report. He said that in most cases officers do not need to go to the scene and the number of reports filed by citizens in non-injury accidents rose from 1,000 to 2,000 since the policy change.

The Chief did note times they received complaints from citizens about whether an officer should have been sent to the scene and he said changes have been made to the overall policy.

Council asked about part-time employees. The Fire Chief said the union would “fight tooth and nail” against what they would see as a “volunteer force.” The Police chief said they contract with some employees for research.

City Manager Gage said that it would be good part time work for former officers and firefighters as code enforcement officers or park rangers and the two Chiefs agreed that something like that could work.

“There are plenty of things they can do that don’t involve being in a black and white,” Chief Williams said.

Councilman Lear brought up fighting domestic violence and it led to a discussion of the Sexual Assault Task Force and the Family Justice Center, and the need for the city to be proactive in educational and awareness of issues related to domestic and sexual violence.

Councilman Schilling brought up “people going 60 miles an hour on National” and Chief Williams said the “runway number one complaint from citizens I get is people speeding through neighborhoods.”

Chief Williams said that when he meets with neighborhoods and they complain about people speeding and running red lights, they put an officer in the neighborhood who starts ticketing the people living in that neighborhood and then the police department is asked to stop the extra enforcement.

The meeting concluded with Mayor McClure thanking City Manager Gage, City Clerk Cotter and other staff for putting the retreat together. City Manager Gage said he would take the raw information brought up in today’s session and collect it for presentation to the Council.