Aldermen met in pairs for briefings with mine officials

GEORGETOWN — Most of the three dozen audience members for the June 17 city council meeting were surprised to learn that the council was voting to sell up to a half million gallons of water a day to the proposed Sunrise Coal mine.

The item appeared on the agenda under "new business" as "considerations and actions of water to industrial customer."

The full council had not discussed the subject at any regular or special meetings, and the subject was not brought up at any committee meetings.

Mayor Kay Sanders said Friday that she was first contacted by Sunrise Coal officials about selling water to the mine in mid-May, but decided that the best way to bring it to council members would be at private meetings, two aldermen at a time, instead of at a committee or council meeting.

"If too many people are in the room, you just can't comprehend anything," Sanders said.

Sunrise Coal, which is based in Terre Haute, Ind., negotiated for months with the Homer Village Board to get the village to provide the proposed mine with treated water and with raw water for the mining process. After lengthy discussions and opposition from the Prairie Rivers Network and some area residents, Homer officials ultimately decided to supply the mine with up to 20,000 gallons of treated water a day and provide sewer services, but declined to supply the mine with production water to be used for washing the coal and for the mining process.

After representatives from Sunrise talked with her, Sanders said, she decided that the best way to bring the information to council members was in small meetings, "so that each alderman or alderwoman could have their questions answered."

Sanders said she arranged for the eight council members to meet in pairs with representatives from Sunrise, representatives from the city engineer, The Farnsworth Group of Champaign, and with city Streets and Alleys Superintendent Tony Ellis and city Water and Sewer Superintendent Dale Brooks.

Sanders said she was not present at the meetings.

There are eight voting members of the Georgetown City Council — two aldermen each from the city's four wards — and the mayor, who does not vote at meetings except to break a tie.

If three or more council members meet to discuss city business, the meeting is subject to the state's Open Meetings Act. Notice of the meeting must be provided in advance, an agenda of items to be discussed and actions up for consideration must be provided, and the discussions must — for the most part — be open to the public.

But because Sanders arranged meetings with only two council members present, the public was not notified of or allowed to attend the meetings.

"One-on-one meetings are better," Sanders said. "I can ask the questions I want to ask, and get the answers that I want to know."

Alderman Carl Lee Johnson said that Alderman Gerald McPhillips and City Attorney Charles Devens attended his meeting. Johnson said he asked a lot of questions at the meeting, and felt like he received good answers to them.

He said the smaller meetings were efficient.

"It can be tough to get all the council members together," Johnson said. "This was a good way to work around everyone's schedules."

Sanders pointed out that only a few questions were raised by audience members at the June 17 meeting, and that their questions seemed to be answered by council members and mining company representatives.

"I don't think there will be a big deal about this," Sanders said. "Georgetown has been around coal mines since its early days."

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rsp wrote on June 29, 2013 at 9:06 am

Sounds like they do this a lot! They said it's efficient, and just too hard to get everyone together to do it in public. But all that planning and secrecy to meet behind the public's backs was nothing. 

CSJ wrote on July 01, 2013 at 12:07 am

With the political climate at an all time low throughout the nation, one would think that working even harder to make sure the public and all aldermen were involved in this decision would have been a more prudent approach.  It appears that the mayor didn't want to be bothered with questions from the public. "One on one meetings are better" may be the case if you're talking about chatting over crumpets and tea, but when you are conducting city business with taxpayers money, it changes the landscape a bit. Everyone should have been allowed to hear the questions that were asked and the answers provided. I wouldn't label this a good start to a newly elected official. Hopefully, Georgetown residents will recognize this and become involved in making sure those in office are representing them appropriately.