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Governing at a distance: How will Racine move forward with no meetings?

Governing at a distance: How will Racine move forward with no meetings?

RACINE — How do you govern during a pandemic?

This is the first test in living memory of how to keep society functioning — to the extent that it can — while practicing social distancing to reduce the risk of a contagion spreading, including in the City of Racine.

“The city is in the challenging place of making sure we provide needed services while keeping the best interest of the public’s and our employees’ health front and center,” city spokesperson Shannon Powell stated in an email.

The City of Racine had been scheduled to hold its regular City Council meeting on Tuesday, albeit with COVID-19 precautions: the desks of aldermen were to be spread apart and the plan was to get through the agenda as quickly as possible. On Monday, Gov. Tony Evers recommended gatherings of 50 people or more be cancelled.

“While government buildings were exempt from these restrictions, City administration immediately began to re-evaluate the necessity of holding the Common Council meeting (Tuesday),” Powell stated. “After the Governor’s announcement, the administration learned several Alders had said they would not be in attendance for the meeting, and we had conversations with other Alders who both expressed concerns about contracts and other business not getting done but also felt it was best to cancel the meeting in the name of staff and public safety.”

Before the decision to cancel, Alderman Sandy Weidner of the 6th District accused the administration of prioritizing one particular agenda item, a resolution in support of Racine Unified School District’s referendum, over the health and well-being of aldermen and city staff. Powell said that was not the case.

“(T)he meeting was not just being held to pass a resolution in support of the RUSD referendum,” Powell stated. “On the one hand, we have grants, contracts, licenses, and other City business that we wanted to move forward, that if delayed could impact the progress of major projects. On the other hand, we care deeply about the safety of our employees, elected officials, and the general public who may attend the meeting.”

The agenda also included an emergency declaration that was to be presented to the council, which provided Mason some emergency authority to conduct city business without needing to call the City Council. Mason declared a state of emergency in the City of Racine last week, though the exact parameters of what he can and cannot do unilaterally are not yet clear.

“In conjunction with the City Attorney (Scott Letteney), and keeping up communication with Alders, we will look to see if that authority will allow us to move forward on agenda items that were on Tuesday’s Council calendar,” Powell stated. “It is our hope that many of those items, including the Horlick Field project and forfeitures for the RENTS ordinance, would not be delayed.”

City Council and committee meetings are scheduled to resume on April 20.

RENTS forfeitures

One agenda item was the bond schedule, which is the initial forfeiture amount listed on a citation, for violations of the ordinances passed as part of the RENTS initiative submitted my Municipal Judge Robert Weber for approval.

RENTS, which stands for Rental Empowerment and Neighborhood Tenant Services program, is a multidepartment program intended to address issues in Racine’s rental market and was approved alongside the 2020 budget in November.

The forfeiture ranges were set by the RENTS ordinances and Weber set the bond schedule. Nhu Arn from the City Attorney’s office said Weber typically set the amounts around the middle of the forfeiture range.

“His reasoning at the time is if the person is issued a ticket they could pay it, if they contest it the judge could deviate to the lower or higher end of that range,” Arn told the Public Safety and Licensing Committee last week.

The committee recommended, 3-2, that the City Council approve the bond schedule. Aldermen Jeff Coe, Melissa Lemke and Maurice Horton voted in favor; Aldermen Sandy Weidner and Carrie Glenn, who have previously voiced concerns about the RENTS program, voted in opposition.

The RENTS violations include:

Eviction or retaliation against a tenant for reporting a code violation: forfeiture ranges from $100 to $2,000; bond is $1,321.

Harassment of tenants to pay rent or accepting rent that is supposed to be submitted to an escrow account that will be reimbursed to landlords once their unit is up to code: forfeiture ranges from $100 to $500; bond is $439.

Failure to register property, pay the $10 per unit registration fee or provide false information on registration form: forfeiture ranges from $100 to $500; bond is $439.

Failure of a lender to register a foreclosed property: forfeiture ranges from $500 to $2,000; bond is $1,006.

Failure of a lender to inspect foreclosed property: forfeiture ranges from $250 to $1,000; bond is $691.

Failure of a lender to notify city regarding an abandoned property: forfeiture ranges from $500 to $2,000; bond is $1,006.

Failure of a lender to secure and maintain and abandoned property: forfeiture range is $850 to $2,500; bond is $1,951.

Failure of a lender to post signage and maintain property records: forfeiture range is $100 to $500; bond is $439.

Owning a chronic nuisance premises, either due to the number of police calls to the property (exceptions are made for situations involving abusive partners and sexual assault) or repeat code violations.

  • First offense in one year: forfeiture no less than $500; bond is $817.
  • Second offense in one year: forfeiture no less than $750; bond is $1,132.
  • Third offense in one year: forfeiture no less than $1,000; bond is $1,321.

Horlick on hold?

One of the agenda items was approval of bids for installing artificial turf on the football field at Horlick Field, as well as the final paving work at the baseball diamond, which came in higher than expected.

The Public Works and Services Committee, at its March 10 meeting, recommended the City Council approve the lower bid, submitted by Buteyn-Peterson Construction Company in Sheboygan for $1,494,656.50: $1,199,406.50 for installing the artificial turf and $295,250 for the remaining pavement improvements for the baseball diamond.

The estimated cost for the project was $1.3 million.

About $1 million of the cost is budgeted to come from the Racine Unified School District’s community service levy. The community service levy does not have a state-imposed revenue limit, unlike the overall tax levy, but the projects funded by the community service levy must serve the community beyond Racine Unified.

The remaining $494,656.50 would come out of the Park Department’s land improvements budget. In January, Parks Director Tom Molbeck requested the council redirect $253,000 from the department’s Capital Improvement Projects budget to cover the department’s share.

As of Thursday, Mason had not made a decision on whether he would — or could — act on the motion without calling a meeting of the City Council.

“We don’t want to hold those things up so I am certain they will be reviewed in a timely manner,” Powell wrote. “When a decision is made we will communicate that to the Alders and publicly.”

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Christina Lieffring covers the City of Racine and the City of Burlington and is a not-bad photographer. In her spare time she tries to keep her plants and guinea pigs alive and happy.

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