URBANA — A Republican candidate for mayor is upset that he and an attorney were kept out of a meeting on Wednesday between city officials and residents of the Ellis subdivision, and both sides are making claims that the other is only interested in politics.
Republican Rex Bradfield said he planned to present to city engineers and public works officials what he saw as a solution to the residents' expensive sanitary sewer issues — and the residents were eager to have him do so — before receiving a call from Mayor Laurel Prussing's chief of staff on Tuesday.
During that phone call, Bradfield said, he was informed that he and attorney Bob Auler would not be allowed to attend.
Prussing, a Democrat, said on Wednesday that Bradfield is using the Ellis neighborhood issue for political gain as an April 9 election nears.
"We offered to meet with him and his attorney separately because they have a different agenda than the neighborhood," Prussing said.
Those residents have been lobbying city council members for relief on expensive sanitary sewer repairs. They are upset that they are required to pay for maintenance on their sanitary sewer laterals, even where those laterals are located on public property.
"I think they (the city) should fix the problem," said King James Underwood, who lives in the Ellis subdivision in northwest Urbana. "It's their responsibility. I think they should stand up and take responsibility for their work."
The situation is not unique to the Ellis neighborhood. City officials maintain a policy throughout the city that, regardless of where the pipes are located, property owners are responsible for maintenance on sanitary sewer laterals that connect their homes to the main line.
Bradfield, a self-employed land surveyor and licensed engineer who has been practicing for 40 years, said he believes he has found rules in the city code that forbid the city from passing the responsibility entirely to homeowners.
He had planned to explain to officials on Wednesday morning his belief that residents should be required to pay only for maintenance on their sanitary sewer laterals up to the property line. The city should use its own workers to fix those lines on public property, he said.
But Bradfield said he was "astonished" to learn on Tuesday evening that he would not be allowed to do that in a meeting with the residents and city officials.
"I've been doing this for 40 years, and I've never been to a meeting where they denied you doing stuff like this," Bradfield said.
An attorney, Auler, was also kept from that meeting, he said. Auler represented Bradfield and a Green Party candidate in the 2009 mayoral election when the candidates sued the city because Prussing was awarded the top ballot position without a lottery.
In the end, a lottery was held and Bradfield won top position.
Bradfield said another legal challenge may be imminent during the 2013 election, but this time it would not be about election code. Instead, he thinks city code is not being applied properly to sanitary sewer repairs.
"I think Bob Auler was considering some kind of legal action based on equal enforcement of the codes," Bradfield said.
Wednesday morning's meeting did convene — but Bradfield and Auler were not in attendance, and the meeting did not last very long.
Carol Ammons, who likely will replace Ward 3 Alderman Robert Lewis this spring, as Lewis is not seeking re-election, attended the meeting and said Bradfield was supposed to be the person who presented the technical details.
"Most of these are elderly people, retired people," Ammons said. "They don't know a lot about city sewers. It's very technical, and they didn't feel comfortable trying to present engineering and other documents to city staff."
Mike Monson, Prussing's chief of staff, said on Wednesday that Prussing wanted city officials to be able to meet with neighborhood residents "and not have a candidate for mayor dominate the meeting."
"We just didn't see the need for a candidate for mayor and an attorney to be in the meeting," Monson said.
City officials offered to meet with Bradfield and Auler on Wednesday afternoon instead of during the morning meeting. Bradfield said he declined the offer because it was against the wishes of neighborhood residents.
"We were offered that, but the neighborhood told us not to do it, and they were defiant," Bradfield said.
The Rev. Evelyn Underwood, who lives in the Ellis neighborhood, said residents will try to schedule another meeting off city property where officials would not be able to keep Bradfield and Auler from attending.
Wednesday's brief meeting also means there was no progress on how to deal with expensive sewer repairs in the Ellis neighborhood, but Prussing said she is working on some solutions.
Right now, the city shares 50 percent up to a maximum $3,000 of the "extraordinary" cost of fixing sewer laterals, like tearing up and replacing streets. Prussing said she might propose that the maximum be raised to $4,500 and possibly more assistance for low-income residents if that amount is not sufficient.
"Plus the staff is already working how to publicize the program," Prussing said. City officials believe that one of the key issues is that residents were not aware of the reimbursement program.
The Ellis neighborhood sanitary sewers have become a recurring city council topic as residents say maintenance has become too expensive and they have few options.
"I think we'll study these possibilities and take input from the public," Prussing said.
Voters will decide in a Feb. 26 primary whether Prussing or another candidate, Les Stratton, will be the Democratic nominee for mayor. The Feb. 26 winner will face Republican Bradfield in the April 9 election.