Heather Hill residents press on after bid for drainage district board falls short

Heather Hill residents press on after bid for drainage district board falls short

ST. JOSEPH — Residents in the Heather Hills neighborhood north of St. Joseph are already focusing on another attempt to gain representation on the Upper Salt Fork Drainage District commission after failing to get one of their own elected on Tuesday.

The campaign to get Heather Hills resident Nick Josefik elected began in earnest just two weeks ago. But the root of the issue stretches back to early July, when residents of the neighborhood that borders the Salt Fork just north of St. Joseph discovered that a contractor hired by the commission cleared trees on their properties adjacent to the waterway.

Trees and other vegetation were cleared — down to exposed soil — in a roughly 30-foot-wide, mile-long swath along one bank, which crosses the properties of at least a dozen residents whose land borders the river.

Large piles of debris — mostly removed trees — were left in various spots along the river. Trees and vegetation on the other side of the waterway were not touched.

Most of the residents were upset by the clearing, and none of them were notified of the work ahead of time, which drainage district officials said they're not required to do.

The drainage district has an easement along the river — 100 feet in each direction from the center of the waterway — allowing it to do regular maintenance to keep the waterway clear. That, in turn, helps keep water drained off farm fields and other land throughout the district.

Drainage districts are authorized by state law to levy an assessment on all landowners within their borders to cover the cost of maintaining and improving drainage, which in the Upper Salt Fork includes about 21 miles of waterway, stretching from Rantoul to about 3 miles south of St. Joseph, where it empties into the Salt Fork.

Typically, seats on drainage district commissions are filled by property owners who are farmers. Commissioners in some districts are appointed by their county boards, but in the Upper Salt Fork, the three commissioners are elected to three-year terms by property owners in the drainage district.

The vote: 109-59

Josefik, who had maple trees that he taps for syrup cut down in the July clearing project, decided it was time that residents of the flood-prone area had a voice on the commission.

Through the Champaign County Circuit Court Office, Josefik got his name placed on the ballot in Tuesday's election. One of the three commissioners, Derek Harms, was up for re-election.

In the two weeks leading up to the election, he was joined by fellow Heather Hills residents Diane Wardrop and Alan Schuele in a door-to-door campaign.

It paid off in the form of 59 votes. But Harms collected 109.

Josefik was still encouraged by the turnout, which he said was the largest ever in a Champaign County drainage district election.

"Today was an amazing effort of our neighborhood coming together in a very short period of time," Josefik said in an email Tuesday to residents of the neighborhood. "Since we were only able to start campaigning two weekends ago, it was outstanding how many people rearranged their schedule to come out and vote.

"It shows how important this issue is to our neighborhood."

Records: $6,900 bill

During the last week of July, Heather Hills residents coordinated a meeting with the three commissioners. But only one, Mark Weckel, attended.

Residents had a lot of questions, including why the work was done and what would happen to the debris left behind. Residents worry that the soil will erode, and the large piles of debris will wash into the waterway, causing problems.

Weckel indicated at the meeting and in a later interview with The News-Gazette that the debris piles would be left to dry out and possibly burned or removed later. Weckel did not disclose whom the drainage district hired to do the work or how much it cost.

According to documents received by The News-Gazette via an open-records request, the work was done by Kocher Excavating and Farm Drainage in Penfield, and the total bill was $6,900 for 39 hours of "big hoe" work and seven hours of skid loader work at a rate of $150 an hour for both pieces of machinery.

The invoice stated it was for "ditch maintenance in St. Joe Township south of Heather Hills."

Josefik said residents were told at the meeting that the work was not put out for bid.

An inconvenient truth

Wardrop said some Heather Hills residents and property owners believe they deserve a spot on the Salt Fork Drainage District's three-person board.

It's in need of change, she argues, noting that the last edit to the official responsibilities of the district happened in 1955.

"Much has changed in the landscape since then," she said.

Tuesday's election was held from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Stanton Township Hall north of St. Joseph. Commissioners could have moved it to a more convenient time — like 6 p.m. — but chose not to, Wardrop said.

Josefik said people he talked with while going door to door indicated their jobs would keep them from being able to vote between 2 and 4 p.m. Tuesday. There was no option for absentee ballots, he added.

"That seems very detrimental to people who are being taxed," he said.