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Gillespie Council authorizes lawsuit against water infrastructure contractor

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Gillespie City Attorney Rick Verticchio administers the oath of office to newly elected and re-elected city aldermen (from left) Dave Link, Wendy Rolando, Dona Rauzi and Billy Hayes.

Members of the Gillespie City Council on Monday night voted unanimously to authorize City Attorney Rick Verticchio to send a notice of the city’s intention to sue to Haier Plumbing and Heating, Okawville, the general contractor for the city’s $10 million water infrastructure improvement project completed nearly two years ago.

The action followed a 15-minute executive session to discuss legal issues.

The potential lawsuit stems from the company’s alleged failure to pay more than $32,700 in property damage claims stemming from Haier’s work in Gillespie. Verticchio told the BenGil Post that Haier’s insurer paid three or four claims totaling about $3,000, but stopped making payments when claims apparently exceeded expectations. Six pending claims remain unpaid. 

The largest of the pending claims amounts to about $22,000 filed by Adam Kilduff whose home was extensively damaged when his basement was flooded with raw sewage. Kilduff appeared before the council early during Monday night’s council meeting to complain about the delay in obtaining reimbursement for his claim. 

Kilduff said his home sustained extensive damage when a work crew severed a sewer line, causing raw sewage to flood his finished basement. He said he has photographs of himself, Mike Ranger and a Ranger employee wearing hip boots and standing in two feet of raw sewage that flooded his basement. While the sewer line was repaired and sewage was removed from the basement, repairs to the finished basement remain undone pending a settlement.

“I just want to get this straightened out,” he said. “Here I am up here almost three years later with the same problem.”

He said his claim was $15,000 when he first filed but has ballooned to $22,000 because of recent increases in lumber prices.

Verticchio told Kilduff the council planned to address the issue later in executive session to determine “how much, if any, they are willing to pay.” Initial claims were paid by the city and later reimbursed by Haier. 

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Notifying Haier of the city’s intent to sue is a first step toward actually filing a lawsuit against the company. The city’s contention is that Haier is obligated by contract to pay the damage claims. If the issue progresses to a lawsuit, the suit presumably will seek a judgment sufficient to pay the pending claims.

ALDERPERSONS SWORN IN

Before addressing agenda items, newly elected and re-elected council members were sworn in and seated, including newly elected Ward 2 Ald. Dave Link. Verticchio administered the oath of office, using his mother’s Bible for the ceremony, to Link, and re-elected council members Ald. Wendy Rolando, Ald. Dona Rauzi and Ald. Billy Hayes.

Adam Kilduff addresses the Gillespie City Council regarding a claim he filed for damage caused  to his property nearly three years ago during the city’s water infrastructure improvement project

Link, who defeated challenger Bryan Waggoner 76-53 in the Consolidated Election last month, steps into a seat vacated by Rick Fulton who chose to not seek re-election.

Hayes was re-elected to represent Ward 3 and Rolando was elected to represent Ward 4, both without opposition, while Rauzi defeated challenger Jared Link, 108-53, to represent Ward 1.

NEW POLICE OFFICER HIRED

On the recommendation of Police Chief Jared DePoppe, the council voted unanimously to hire Elijah Dannebrink, Staunton, as a full-time police officer. The council previously voted to pay for Dannebrink’s Police Academy training, which DePoppe said the candidate completed on Monday.

Earlier in the meeting, as alderpersons reviewed the monthly police report, Chief DePoppe noted an increase in overtime expenditures due in part to having only two full-time officers on the roster. Dannebrink’s hiring brings the number of full-time officers to three.

NUISANCE PROPERTIES

Council members voted unanimously to declare three properties located at 606 East Chestnut Street, 301 Spruce Street and 1200 South Macoupin Street as public nuisances. The action authorizes City Attorney Verticchio to send notices to the property owners demanding they abate the nuisances within a specified period of time.

Ald. Razzi praised Verdicchio for his work in helping the city clean up derelict properties over the past year since becoming the City Attorney.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do,” Rauzi said. She said five derelict houses have been torn down or are in the process of being torn down. The city has acquired three properties as a result of condemnation proceedings.

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“People are paying attention now,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve made a lot of progress. This has all been since Rick came on as City Attorney and I can’t thank him enough.”

FOOD TRUCK ORDINANCE

With two dissenting votes, the council approved an amendment to a recently implemented ordinance governing food truck operations in the city. The amendment clarifies the fee structured to denote that food truck vendors must pay an initial fee of $100 which covers four days of operation, plus $25 for each additional day in excess of four.

Food truck operator Grace VanDoren makes her case to the Gillespie City Council, arguing that current fees for food truck vendors are excessive and act as a deterrent to businesses like her own.

Ald. Rolando and Ald. Landon Pettit voted against the amendment, ostensibly over objections to the fee structure.

Earlier in the meeting, food truck operator Grace VanDoren approached the council with an objection to the fee structure. She indicated she would like to set up in Gillespie more often but has found the fee exorbitant. Carlinville, she said, charges no fee whatsoever, while other surrounding communities charge fees that are more lenient.

“It’s deterring businesses like mine,” she said.

Ald. Pettit seemed to agree with VanDoren’s objections.

“I did some math here,” he told the council. “If she set up five days a week, 52 weeks a year, she’d be paying us $6,500. That’s ridiculous.”

“If you want to reassess, you’d have to go back and rescind the ordinance,” Mayor John Hicks told the council, “which can be done.”

SURPLUS PROPERTY BIDS

With one dissenting vote and two aldermen voting “present,” the council agreed to accept a high bid of $2,000 from Mike Bellovich for a city-owned lot located behind the Superbowl bowling alley. Superbowl owner, Harold Besserman, had asked the city to sell the property with the intention of using it to erect a solar panel field to provide some of the electrical power for his business. Bellovich, however, bested Besserman’s bid of $100 for the parcel.

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There was a moment of confusion when newly seated Ald. Link moved to accept Besserman’s bid.

“You realize you’re selling to the substantially lower bidder?” Verticchio questioned. 

Link then clarified that he intended to make his motion to sell to the higher bidder.

Brought to a vote, the motion passed with Ald. Rolando voting “no,” and Ald Pettit and Ald. Frank Barrett both voting “present.”

In a somewhat related matter, Rolando reported she is compiling a list of surplus equipment that potentially could be offered for sale via sealed bids. She asked city department heads to review equipment currently owned by the city to document which pieces of equipment are no longer being used.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE SWING

Before the meeting adjourned, the council unanimously approved Ald. Rolando’s motion authorizing the Mayor to sign a check to pay for a concrete slab to install a donated wheelchair-accessible swing in the playground at Big Brick Park.

Early in the meeting, Tyler Link, representing HEIDI (Helping Every Individual Develop Independence), addressed the council about the status of the swing the organization donated to the city two years ago. Link said he had checked several times about plans to install the swing but had gotten a “run around” from city officials.

Tyler Link, representing HEIDI, regards city council members with skepticism as they explain why a wheelchair-accessible swing donated by the organization two years agohas not yet been installed. 

“I’m going to be blunt,” Link said. “This was two years ago and it’s still in the shed. Can we have it back? We have other municipalities that would be glad to take it.”

Mayor Hicks said the city had delayed installation as the city considered a larger renovation project for the park which would include the swing. Ald. Rolando said there also had been issues with finding money in the budget to cover the $2,000 estimated cost of installing a concrete pad for the equipment. At one point, money set aside for the swing was diverted to a sewer project, she noted.

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More recently, however, a Darts for Kids event raised money for the project. While that money has not yet come to the city, according to Rolando, it will be enough to pay for the installation.

Link accepted Rolando’s commitment to get the swing installed when the Darts for Kids donation comes to the city.

FIBER OPTIC ISSUES

While taking no formal action, the council discussed at length issues arising from the installation of fiber optic cable in Gillespie, and issues with disconnected water customers restoring connection on their own.

Ald. Bob Fritz said the company installing the cable has been causing problems in the city, including property damage and other problems. Street Department Supervisor Dale Demke said there are areas where the company has installed the cable over the top of city water lines. In some places, the line has been installed between the shut-off valves for fire hydrants, some of which are slated to be relocated as part of the upcoming Streetscape project.

Ald. Rauzi said she was able to track down the head of the company, who agreed communication has been an issue with the installation in Gillespie. She asked aldermen to give her a list of problem areas which she can then convey to the company. Rauzi said the representative she spoke to claimed to have provided the city with a contract but no one has apparently seen the contract. As of Monday night, Rauzi said, she had not received a copy of the contract that was promised to her.

The cable installation is part of a federal project to expand broadband services to rural areas, meaning the city cannot collect franchise fees on the service. Despite the federal involvement, however, the city should be in a position to assign easements and otherwise ensure the installation does not result in property damage nor interfere with city services.

Ald. Fritz also noted a problem with disconnected water customers reconnecting their services without authorization. Tampering with a water meter, he noted, is prohibited by city ordinance and can result in a $300 fine. He urged more diligence in pursuing legal action against persons who reconnect water services that have been disconnected.

“Plus they are stealing water,” Verticchio added, noting that violators could be referred to the States Attorney’s office for criminal charges.

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Water Plant Operator Dave Pickett said city workers could put a lock on meters when services are disconnected, but he cautioned against removing the meter.

“I don’t want to start yanking meters,” Pickett told the council. “Some of these people are ‘frequent flyers,’ if you know what I mean.” Repeatedly removing and reinstalling meters could lead to mechanical malfunctions down the road.

Mayor Hicks reported that the former Street Department shed has been razed but the former Police Department building remains standing and could be salvaged.

“I believe it’s worth saving,” Hicks said.

The building had a shared wall with the city shed, which would need to be replaced to make the building weather tight and a short retaining wall would need to be replaced. Following the meeting, several council members went to the site to look at the building and assess its potential for salvage.

In other action, the council voted to donate $500 to the Black Diamond Days Committee to help pay for bands to perform during the festival, set for the first weekend of June at Gillespie Lake.

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Gillespie Council eyes fiber optic for ESDA internet connection

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Alderman Landon Pettit discusses the fiber optic connection

Members of the Gillespie Council discussed the possibility of using Madison Communications fiber optic system to provide internet services for the city’s Emergency Services and Disaster Administration apparatus during the council’s regular monthly meeting Monday night. Ultimately, however, the council tabled any action on the plan until next month, citing a need for more information, including the city’s cost to participate.

Ald. Bob Fritz said the plan was discussed during a recent committee meeting with representatives of the Community Unit 7 Fire Protection District, now headquartered in East Gillespie. Fritz said the Fire District would be connected to the fiber optic cable service, and the Fire District’s headquarters would become the back-up hub for emergency services administration in the event of a natural or man-made disaster. The ESDA umbrella basically includes all first-responders, such as police, fire protection and ambulance services.

Fritz said the Fire District would be on a double loop, meaning internet services would continue even if the line was severed on one side or the other.  The city, police and fire protection district currently has internet service from Royell Communications, which runs from a tower and overland cable. That system, Fritz and Ald. Landon Pettit noted, is vulnerable to weather events, earthquakes or other disasters.

“The internet the city uses is vulnerable,” Pettit said. “The double loop means the only way to cut services would be to cut the fiber optic cable on both sides,” Pettit said. “If we had an event that caused something like that, we wouldn’t be worried about the internet.”

Pettit said the Gillespie Police Chief expressed interest in using the system as a back-up for police communications. In the event the police station were destroyed isolated as a result of a disaster, the Fire Protection District would become the back-up communications hub. To further enhance communication between the Fire Protection District and local police, Fritz said, the police department is hoping to acquire new radios compatible with those used by firefighters.

Fritz said the estimated cost to the city would be about $165.

“I think it’s worth looking into if we can find out the cost,” Ald. Wendy Rolando commented. City Attorney Rick Verticchio said the council could table the issue until next month or approve a motion authorizing participation and capping the cost at no more than $175 per month.

City Treasurer Dan Fisher suggested the council take its time in considering the proposal.

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“What we run into on these things is we end up doing things piece-meal,” Fisher said. “This is something that was talked about in committee, and when the council finds out about it, you’re talking about paying for internet coming into a building outside the City of Gillespie.”

Council members informally agreed to table the issue with the expectation the Public Safety Committee will return next month with more detailed information, including the total cost to the city.

In a related matter, Mayor John Hicks directed the Public Safety Committee to have an emergency siren at City Hall repaired, and to finalize a proposal to revamp the city-wide siren system. 

“We’ve had a lot of storms,” Ald. Dave Link said. “I think we need to have someone go out and check them. It’s time to get this fixed.”

Ald. Fritz said a siren located at City Hall is the only one in the system that’s not functioning. He said he was working with vendors to get pricing for updating and replacing the system. The committee’s goal, Fritz said, is to install an integrated system of sirens that can be heard citywide in the event of an emergency. His contacts, however, are becoming frustrated because of the city’s failure to move forward.

“When you call a guy 15 or 16 times and nothing happens, they get to where they don’t take your calls,” Ald. Pettit commented.

“Get somebody else, then,” Hicks directed.

While the final resolution was unclear, Fritz apparently will continue trying to put together pricing and a proposal for replacing sirens citywide. In the meantime, the city will repair the silenced siren at City Hall. Reportedly, the central siren needs to have three-phase electrical service run to it to replace the current two-phase wiring.

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LIMITS APPROVED ON NUMBER OF GAMBLING ESTABLISHMENT LIQUOR LICENSES

On the mayor’s recommendation, the council narrowly approved an ordinance limiting the number of liquor licenses for establishments offering gambling to nine—the current number of gambling facilities currently in Gillespie. Last month, the council voted to lift the restriction on the number of liquor licenses available for taverns, restaurants or package liquor stores—giving the mayor authority to issue such licenses at his discretion.

State regulations require businesses offering gambling machines to also serve liquor, or at least beer and wine, for patrons. When the council lifted the restriction on the number of liquor licenses available, Hicks voiced concerns about businesses that are strictly gambling establishments depleting the number of liquor licenses the city approves.

“I think we have plenty of gambling places,” Hicks said. “They’ll sell you a beer to drink while you’re gambling away your money, sell you smokes or sell you synthetic (CDB products). I don’t want any more of them in the city.”

The measure to limit the number of licenses available for gambling establishments passed 5-3 with Ald. Fritz, Pettit and Janet Odell-Mueller voting “no.” Link, who has gambling devices on premises at his downtown business, voted “present.”

LAKE LOT ISSUES

On the recommendation of the City Attorney, the council voted to draft an ordinance authorizing the city to void lease agreements when the leasee fails to pay. The proposed ordinance, which will be finalized next month, requires lease-holders to pay the annual lease by May 1. Those who fail to pay by the deadline will receive a letter demanding payment, plus a $100 late fee, within 30 days. Non-payment after 30 days will result in the city voiding the lease.

The council, however, tabled action on a second proposal to amend the lake lot lease ordinance by clarifying the terms “resident” and “non-resident.” Ald. Frank Barrett said some lease holders are confused because “resident” can mean someone who lives in the City of Gillespie or someone who lives full-time at the lake, depending upon where the term appears in the ordinance.

“We had people from town saying they were being called ‘non-residents’ when they’ve lived in Gillespie all their lives,” Verticchio said. Persons who are citizens of the city are eligible to a discount when leasing lake lots, but the ordinance identifies them as “non-residents” because they don’t live at the lake full-time. Verticchio is expected to amend the ordinance to eliminate the confusion.

After further discussion, the council debated what was meant by “resident” when the ordinance refers to persons who live in the city. Some aldermen questioned whether the term “resident” applies to persons living within the city limits are those who live in the 62033 zip code.

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“I think you guys need to kick this around and come back with an itemized list of what you want in the ordinance,” City Treasurer Fisher advised.

In related matters, the council took under advisement a request from two lake lot lease holders who were previously banned from the lake. Tim Swan and Matt Hancock both asked the city to lift the ban so they can return to the lake.

Hancock said he was banned following a verbal altercation with Lake Supervisor Gary Thornhill last summer.

“I take full responsibility,” Hancock said. “I made a bad decision that night.”

“The thing we have to tell you is that the council places great trust and responsibility in Gary (Thornhill),” Verticchio told Hancock. “When Gary tells us something, we rely on him. He’s probably the person you need to apologize to.”

Hancock apologized to Thornhill, who attended the meeting, saying, “It was nobody’s fault but my own.”

Likewise, Swan apologized to Thornhill and the council for an incident that resulted in him being banned from the lake. Swan’s grandmother reportedly left the lot to Swan, but the lease had not been transferred when Thornhill caught several of Swan’s friends having a raucous party on the lot. 

“I sincerely apologize to the City of Gillespie and, in particular to the Lake Supervisor, who unfortunately had to come out at night,” Swan said. “You’re a respectful man and I hate to disappoint you. It’s a shame for me.”

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Verticchio said Swan’s situation is further complicated by the fact the lease has not been paid for the past three years. Additionally, it’s been discovered that more than $1,000 in real estate taxes are delinquent and the county is preparing to auction the parcel for back taxes.

Verticchio advised Swan to consult an attorney to redeem the taxes. Additionally, he said Swan should tender a check to the city for the delinquent lease payments before the council can consider lifting the ban.

Later in the meeting, the council approved Ald. Pettit’s motion to refer Hancock’s request to the Lake Committee with the power to act.

EXCESSIVE WATER BILL

The council approved Pettit’s motion to waive $548.50 in sewer charges incurred by Elizabeth Shafer for a residence located in the 400 block of West Henrietta Street. Shafer said the house is empty since her sister died last year and Shafer lives out of town. In February, according to Shafer, she received a water bill for $1,091.89, which she paid.

“I wasn’t aware at that time that that was just the tip of the iceberg,” Shafer said, noting that she later received a bill for more than $1,900.

Ald. Pettit said Assistant City Clerk Krystal Norville noticed the excessive usage on Feb. 20 as she was preparing bills for mailing. She attempted to call the responsible party without realizing the number on file belonged to Shafer’s late sister. Norville then mailed a letter to Shafer on Feb. 23 to advise her of the problem. Shafer received the letter on Feb. 27 at which time she called the city and asked that the water be turned off. In the meantime, however, another billing cycle had occurred and Shafer received a bill for an additional 223,800 gallons of usage.

“Krystal did what she was supposed to do, and this lady did what she was supposed to do,” Pettit said.

Mayor Hicks said the city could not legally negotiate to reduce the bill, but it could waive the sewer charge since that water from the leak did not go through the sewer system. 

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UTV PURCHASE

Mayor John Hicks cast a deciding vote after the council tied on whether or not to purchase a utility vehicle from Gillespie resident Charlie Conley for $5,500. Ald. Bob Fritz told the council the city has spent about $3,000 to lease the vehicle for several months for the Street Department’s use. He said Conlee is willing to sell the unit at this point for $5,500. Buying a new UTV, Fritz, said would cost the city $10,000 to $20,000.

Hicks voted to approve the purchase after the council deadlocked on the issue. Ald. Fritz, Ald. Frank Barrett, Ald. Landon Pettit and Ald. Bill Hayes all voted to approve the expenditure, while Ald. Dona Rauzi, Ald. Wendy Rolando, Ald. Dave Link and Ald. Janet Odell-Mueller voted “no.”

BICYCLE ORDINANCE

Council members voted unanimously to draft an ordinance banning the operation of bicycles, scooters and skateboards on portions of Macoupin Street included in the business district after Ald. Dona Rauzi pointed out that no such ordinance currently exists. Rauzi said the city has street signs saying such vehicles cannot be operated on the sidewalk during business hours, but there is no ordinance to back up the signage.

“Krystal (Norville) checked, I checked and the police chief checked, and we couldn’t find anything,” Rauzi said. “We have signs but we have no ordinance.”

The City Attorney is expected to prepare a draft ordinance for action during the next regular meeting of the council. The proposed ordinance will ban skateboards, bicycles and scooters on Macoupin Street sidewalks at all times, and establish a fine of $25 to $75 for ordinance violations.

HOUSING INSPECTION ORDINANCE

The council voted 7-1 to approve an ordinance requiring annual housing inspections for all rental housing in the city. Previously, inspections were required when a tenant moved out and a second tenant moved in. The council previously decided to standardize the inspection schedule after passing an ordinance dealing with short-term rentals, otherwise known as Airbnbs.

Three other ordinances were tabled, and either referred back to committee or to Verticchio for further revisions.

The council referred a proposed ordinance dealing with temporary use and parking of mobile homes and modular homes. Council members discussed the issue last month, concluding there should be restrictions to ensure residents do not park RVs or camping units on the street or boulevard, and away from sidewalks. The amendments were also supposed to include exclusions for residents to use a camper or RV as a temporary shelter in the event of a fire or other damage to their home.

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“I don’t think we should act on this tonight” Ald. Rolando said. “There’s a lot of things in here that we haven’t discussed.”

The council also tabled action on a proposed ordinance dealing with locating dumpsters for construction debris or clean-up projects. The proposed ordinance also restricts the amount of time such dumpsters can be left in place. Aldermen said the proposed ordinance needed to be corrected in order for it to apply only to dumpsters in excess of three yards in size. 

Council members tabled a proposed ordinance regarding setback requirements for permanent structures on residential properties. The proposed ordinance would have set the setback at 15 feet on all sides of the lot.

“If you have a standard 50-by-100-foot lot, that only leaves 20 feet,” Ald. Rauzi noted. “You couldn’t build a 24-foot garage.”

Rolando said a 15-foot setback might be appropriate at the front of the lot but five feet should be enough for the sides and back.

In a somewhat related matter, the council voted 7-1 with Ald. Link voting “no,” to dismiss a lawsuit against Tim Loveless, who owns rental properties in the city. Loveless had appeared before the council to say he would not comply with the city’s new ordinance regulating short-term rental units. Mayor Hicks said Loveless has since paid the inspection fee and had his short-term rental unit inspected.

ABSENTEE VOTING

Council members voted unanimously to approve a resolution allowing aldermen to electronically participate in meetings and cast votes without being physically present. The resolution makes permanent a provision that was temporarily allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

NUISANCE PROPERTIES

On a motion by Ald. Link, seconded by Ald. Rauzi, the council voted unanimously to declare property at 301 East Spruce Street a public nuisance and serve a 30-day notice to abate the nuisance.

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Council members also voted unanimously to declare 704 East Walnut Street a public nuisance due to excessive police calls at the residence.

OTHER ACTION

In other action, the council:

  • Agreed to enter into a 60-month lease for a new copier/scanner/fax machine for the Gillespie Police Department at a cost of $71 per month. 
  • Agreed to purchase a pallet jack for use at the Water Treatment Plant at a cost of $399 from Harbor Freight.
  • Agreed to enter into a contract to provide air fresheners for restrooms at the Street Department, Water Department, Police Department and Gillespie Lake.
  • Agreed to spend $600 for a new gate for the bicycle trail from Hawkeye Steel.

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Black Diamond Days is a ‘no-go’ for 2024

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Black Diamond Days parade (archived photo/TheBenGilPost.com)

There will be no Black Diamond Days street festival in Gillespie this summer, according event organizers.

The Black Diamond Days Committee had planned to return the festival to Downtown Gillespie this year after several years of trying to revive the festival at the Old Gillespie Lake. Committee Chair Landon Pettit said the committee was able to get permission from the Illinois Department of Transportation to temporarily close a portion of Illinois Route 4 to accommodate the event, but that permission came too late for the committee to contract with a carnival to provide rides and games.

The city council voted last fall to petition IDOT for permission to close the street but Pettit said IDOT did not approve the request until March. At that point, the committee was unable to find a suitable carnival for the event.

Rather than operate the festival without a carnival, the committee opted to cancel the 2024 event. For 2025, Pettit said, the committee hopes to contract with a “good show” to provide rides and games for festival-goers. Other aspects of the festival will likely be similar to what residents remember from when the event was held downtown, including a beer tent, nightly bands and locally-sponsored food vendors in the area near City Hall.

Black Diamond Days began as an annual summertime street festival more than 40 years ago. It was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A group of volunteers attempted to revive the festival in 2021 by moving it to the lake. Pettit said the committee had been told that once the festival left Macoupin Street, it could never return because IDOT would not grandfather to city’s petition to close the street for the event.

Last year, the committee learned the city actually could seek a temporary closure for Route 4 and started making plans to return the festival to the business district, where it had been for nearly four decades. Because of the amount of time the state took to approve the closure, Pettit said the committee was unable to contract with a carnival.

The festival was located at the lake for 2021, 2022 and last year. A last-minute cancellation forced the festival to open without a carnival for 2023. Organizers brought in inflatable “bounce houses” to entertain younger festival-goers as an alternative to traditional carnival rides, and festival attendance flagged.

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School board approves elementary school principal’s retirement, accepts resignation of high school teacher/coach

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FFA members headed to state competitions next month. Kayla Wills is at right, back row.

Long-serving BenGil Elementary School principal will retire in two years following the Community Unit School District 7’s Board of Education’s approval during Tuesday night’s regular monthly meeting of the board. On a motion by Kellie Vesper, seconded by Amanda Ross, the board voted unanimously to accept “with regret” the retirement of Elementary Principal Angela Sandretto, effective at the end of the 2026-27 school year.

At the time of her retirement, Sandretto will have been a district employee for 31 years, including 21 years as an administrator. Sandretto’s tenure predates the construction and collapse due to mine subsidence of the former Benld Elementary School. She started her career when the old Benld High School served as the district’s elementary school. She was principal when the new Benld school was built and when the seven-year-old building was destroyed by mine subsidence in 2009. She continued to serve as principal during the transition from the damaged school to the new BenGil Elementary School in Gillespie.

In other action, the board accepted without comment the resignation of Dalton Barnes as a physical education/social studies teacher, and as Gillespie High School head football coach. The resignation, accepted unanimously, appears to be related to recent controversy over alleged abusive behavior toward students.

Gillespie Police Chief Jared DePoppe and School Resource Officer Wayne Hendricks both attended the meeting, and left soon after the board completed actions related to personnel. Supt. Shane Owsley told the BenGil Post the police presence was a precaution due to concerns that “accusations and rumors on social media could spill over” into Tuesday’s meeting. An attorney from the law firm representing the school district accompanied the board into a one-hour executive session early in the evening to discuss personnel issues and other items.

Elementary Principal Angela Sandretto will retire at the end of the 2026-27 school year.

Accusations on social media in recent weeks alleged Barnes and an assistant coach engaged in verbal and physical abuse of students. With a goal of 1,000 signers, an online petition urging the termination of employment for Barnes and the assistant coach has garnered 639 electronic signatures. The petition accuses the two men of “child abuse,” citing alleged “verbal abuse, physical abuse, influencing and coercing student athletes to act against other student athletes that have spoken out against the abuse, and attempting to limit the First Amendment rights of student athletes with threats and manipulation.” The petition alleges there have been numerous instances of abuse and that the abuse has been allowed to continue despite “multiple red flags and complaints.”

No members of the public appeared before the board to address the complaints. Several teachers and teachers union officials attended the meeting but, likewise, made no public comments.

ADDITIONAL PERSONNEL ISSUES

In other personnel action, the board:

  • Voted unanimously to accept “with regret” the resignation for purposes of retirement of GHS/GMS guidance counselor Jill Strole at the conclusion of the current school year, and to post the position as vacant.
  • Hired Aubrey Morgan as a first-year, non-tenured teacher tentatively assigned as the BenGil Elementary School music teacher for the 2024-25 school year, pending verification of certification requirements and a background check. Morgan is expected to receive her bachelor’s degree in music education this spring from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.
  • Voted to appoint Nikki Brawner as the GHS head women’s basketball coach for the 2024-25 school year. Additionally, the board accepted Brawner’s resignation as an assistant GHS women’s basketball coach and posted that position as vacant.
  • Voted, in separate actions, to hire Alex Jasper and James Bryant as GMS paraprofessionals, pending verification of certification requirements and a background check. Additionally, the board voted to appoint Bryant as the GMS eighth-grade boys basketball coach for the 2024-25 school year.
  • Voted to employ Alexis Lupkey as GHS head cheerleading coach for the 2024-25 school year.
  • Voted, in separate actions, to hire Nikki Hunter and Rebecca Leitschuh-Birdsell as full-route bus drivers for the 2024-25 school year, pending verification of certification and background checks.

On a motion by Ross, seconded by Peyton Bernot, the board voted to employ Jennifer Parker, Nancy Schmidt, Amy Price, Marci Johnson, Karissa Smith and Vanessa Barrett as teachers for the 2024 elementary school summer school program.

In separate actions, the board hired Shanna Connor as a math teacher, Casey Edgerton as a science teacher, and Jessica Kelly as an English/language arts teacher for the Gillespie Middle School summer school program.

The board hired Ashlee Gibbs as a high school summer school math teacher, contingent upon student enrollment, and hired Jennifer Brown as the high school summer school driver’s education teacher. Penny Feeley and Janice Hammann were hired unanimously as summer school food service workers.

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SAFETY GRANT PROJECTS

The board accepted without comment the resignation of Dalton Barnes as a physical education/social studies teacher, and as Gillespie High School head football coach.

The board authorized Supt. Owsley to seek bids for several capital improvement projects related to student safety for which plans are still being developed. In January, Owsley reported to the board the district was successful in its application for a $466,365 state-funded Safety Grant. Matching the grant money with $155,000 in local funds, gave the district more than $600,000 in funding for capital improvements related to safety.

Owsley said architects are continuing to develop plans and bidding specifications for several projects, including installation of a new fire alarm system, installation of a new intercom system, installation of bullet-proof glass in the office area, and application of a bullet-resistant film on exterior windows. The Superintendent said he would advertise for bids as specifications become available.

FISCAL 2025 BUDGET

On a motion by Weye Schmidt, seconded by Bill Carter, the board voted to direct Supt. Owsley to prepare a tentative budget for fiscal year 2025, which will run from July 1 this year through June 30, 2025. The new budget typically is presented to the board in August with final approval coming in September.

In a related action, the board approved expenditures from fiscal 2025 funds to cover operating costs from July 1, when the new fiscal year begins, until the new budget is adopted.

Though not a given, the board could amend the fiscal 2024 budget in June in the event actual revenue and expenditures for the current fiscal year differ significantly from projections made in the budget approved last summer.

INTERGOVERNMENTAL AGREEMENT

Board members approved an intergovernmental agreement between CUSD 7 and Lewis and Clark Community College to offer dual credit courses at Gillespie High School. Under the agreement, Gillespie students can take college-level courses that will count as credit toward an LCCC associate’s degree. Teachers offering dual credit courses at GHS must hold a master’s degree and offer a curriculum approved by the college.

DISTRICT FOCUS

In a District Focus segment, the board was introduced to several High School FFA members who have excelled this year in competitions.

“These kids are doing some amazing things,” said High School Principal Jill Rosentreter. “They are going to competitions and bringing home trophies right and left.”

Payton Bertolis reading a statement thanking the board, adminstration, Wills and FFA members for the opportunity to participate in FFA and FFA competitions.

FFA sponsor Kayla Wills said she has led the program for six years. “This is the most outstanding group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” she said.

Wills introduced two teams––the Parliamentary Procedure team and the Ag Mechanics team––that have ascended to state competition set for May 2.  Team member Emily Hauser explained the areas of expertise on which the Parliamentary Procedure team will be judged. Caleb Oberfall spoke about the Ag Mechanics team.

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The Ag Mechanics team includes a carpenter, a welder, a surveyor, an electrician and a mechanic, according to Wills.

“These kids have worked really hard and put in a lot of time,” Wills said. “I am very proud of them.”

FOOD SERVICES ISSUE

A former district cook and current substitute cook, who identified herself as Mandy, addressed the board on behalf of district cooks regarding the possibility of contracting with Opaa! Food Management, Inc. to provide meals in the local district. Opaa! representatives offered a detailed sales presentation to the board last month.

“I worked for Opaa! at Staunton,” she said. “You need to look into them. They’re not what they say they are.”

She alleged the “homemade meals” are not homemade, and are, in fact, the same quality as any other food provider.

“I’ve been in food services for a long time and I know what food should look like,” she said. “It shouldn’t look like dogfood.”

The fact the company offers choices, she said, is a good thing but is a double-edged sword. If a child doesn’t care for the main selection on a particular day, they can have a peanut butter sandwich or salad instead.

“But if little Johnny doesn’t like peanut butter or salad, he doesn’t eat that day,” she said.

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Having worked in the local district, she said she could attest that the food services staff cares about students.

In a related matter, Union Secretary Jennifer Parker read a statement from the food services staff thanking the board and Supt. Owsley “for the opportunity to continue to pursue options to bring more choices to the food program.”

OTHER ACTION

In other action, the board:

  • Voted to renew membership in the Illinois Elementary Schools Association (IESA).
  • Approved a finalized calendar for the 2024-25 school year. Owsley said the calendar is unchanged from a tentative calendar presented to the board earlier, except “snow days” have been designated as “emergency days.”
  • Approved a fee schedule for the 2024-25 school day. Owsley said the new fee schedule is nearly identical to the fee schedule used this year except that the cost for adult breakfasts and lunches is increased by 10 cents. In addition, the district will now offer free breakfast and lunch to students in all grade levels thanks to a federal reimbursement grant for districts with high numbers of students from low income households. In the past, free breakfast and lunch was available only to kindergarten, elementary, and middle school students. This year, Owsley said, the high school also qualified for reimbursement. According to Owsley, the reimbursement program is locked in for four years, after which the district may again apply. “Hopefully, this will help our parents and students,” Owsley said.

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